Early Science in Canada’s North and the Hudson’s Bay Company (1768-ca. 1810)
In 1768, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) began its collaboration with the Royal Society, a British learned society for science, to facilitate the observation of the Transit of Venus at Prince of Wales Fort in 1769. From this point until ca. 1810, the HBC played a key role in sponsoring scientific endeavours at its trading posts in northern Canada, especially in the fields of astronomy, meteorology, cartography, and natural history. Much of the cartographic and natural history data compiled by the HBC’s European employees drew from the work of Indigenous collectors who held substantial knowledge on the natural history of their territory and knew the interdependence of plants and animals. Scientific data compiled through the HBC fur trading posts in northern Canada was actively transmitted to the Royal Society and other scientific institutions, and was incorporated into the growing body of scientific knowledge about the earth’s Arctic and subarctic regions.
Early research in Canada’s north began in 1768, when the Royal Society sent two astronomers to the HBC’s Prince of Wales Fort in what is now Churchill, Manitoba, for the following year’s observation of the Transit of Venus. Their observations were used to calculate the distance of the sun from the earth within 1% of the current accepted value. This marked a significant milestone in the history of astronomy as well as in the history of Western scientific endeavour.
Meteorological records collected from the 1770s onward at northern posts constitute the most consistent and extensive weather record in the world. The HBC posts around Hudson Bay were one of the chief suppliers of North American natural history specimens to England, the study of which contributed to advancements in understanding animal behaviour and physiology, and to the identification of new species. Furthermore, HBC traders and surveyors produced accurate maps and charts, often incorporating Indigenous geographic knowledge, which were then shared with leading European cartographers of the day.
Although much of the credit for scientific achievements went to Royal Society scientists, Indigenous Peoples were vital to many of these scientific endeavours. Indigenous traders at the posts were major contributors of knowledge on natural history and geography, and brought to the posts specimens and information specifically intended for the collectors. The HBC’s patronage of northern science waned around 1810 due to a focus on inland expansion. However, the legacy of this work in northern science continues to today in the development and orientation of natural scientific institutions, in ongoing northern research, and in international scientific cooperation in the northern circumpolar region.