Fair Trade?

September 19, 2009

During Captain Cook’s third visit to the Pacific Northwest, he purchased twenty sea otter pelts from the Nootka natives. These he took to Canton with a desire to sell them for a profit as he was offered 300 Spanish dollars (or “pieces of eight”) for the lot, plus some silks. In turn he demanded $1,000 but eventually settled at $800.

Cook felt that he had done just fine by his endeavour, until that is he stopped in at Macao and learned that a single prime skin had sold there for 120 Spanish dollars and yet another for 300 Spanish dollars, the latter of which had been procured from the same natives in exchange for a broken belt buckle of all things.

It was soon revealed that skins were nearly double the value in Canton as they were in Kamchatka and that one sea otter pelt was worth then beaver pelts.

The modern economy of British Columbia, while based on exploitation of natural resources and was not always premised on harmonious relations. Thinking it a practical joke, Captain James Hanna of the 60-ton Sea Otter and his crew of 20 men, set a charge of gun powder under Chief Maquinna’s chair. In retaliation, one of the Indians stole a chisel. Matters turned from bad to worse at this point seeing 20 Indians killed during the ensuing confrontation. Regardless of the discontent, Hanna’s men collected 560 sea otter pelts and sold them for a fortune in China.

From these revelations arose the fur trade that put the Pacific Northwest on the commercial map.

Numerous companies were created to optimise the new industry. The Bengal Fur Company was formed in January of 1786 by a group of merchants headed by a J.H. Cox, supposedly with the approval of the East India Company and the Governor-General of India. There was the Richard Cadman Etches & Company as well.

At times it was difficult to tell what ship represented which country. In the case of the Mercury under the command of John Henry Cox, the ship was so named as it left Britain, but as it reached the Pacific, Cox changed the name to Gustavus III and hoisted the Swedish flag.

In time the captains looked further afield for riches that did not take the form of an animal pelt. Nathaniel Portlock was the first to describe coal outcrops near Port Graham, Alaska, in 1785.

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