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Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson's Bay Company

By James Raffan

Phyllis Bruce/HarperCollins,

484 pages, $34.95

Six years ago, after I published my first book about a northern explorer, author Peter C. Newman suggested I write a biography of George Simpson, the long-time governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. I said, "Simpson? But he's despicable." Newman said: "That doesn't matter. He'd make a great subject."

In Emperor of the North, James Raffan has proven Newman correct. That he achieved this, even while vindicating my own view of Simpson, demonstrates the impressive evenhandedness he brings to this work.

The subtitle points to his strategy: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson's Bay Company. By broadening his focus and treating Simpson within the context of the story of the HBC, Raffan has made a significant contribution to the ever-evolving saga of 19th-century North America.

One of the pleasures of reading multiple historical biographies that deal with roughly the same era is the way they enrich each other. Although I have written about HBC explorer John

Rae, I did not know that in the 1820s, when he was still a boy, George Simpson traded letters with his father about acquiring a travelling bagpipe player.

To cite just one more of many possible examples, Raffan sheds light on John Franklin's first overland expedition to the Arctic Coast of North America. Most readers will be familiar with Simpson's skeptical assessment of that naval officer, which he wrote months before Franklin lost 11 of his 20 men: "He must have three meals per diem, Tea is indispensable, and with the utmost exertion he cannot walk above Eight miles in one day, so that it does not follow if those Gentlemen are unsuccessful that the difficulties are insurmountable."

But few will have encountered the testy exchange between Simpson and George Back (who was on the expedition) that preceded this assessment. Back writes: "If you do not intend further assistance, you will oblige me by mentioning it in direct terms." Simpson responds that if Back would "refer to my former remarks on the subject, I think you will find ... that my observations have been directly to the point." From there, the exchange escalates - as Raffan shows.

Before going further (because I wish to offer yet more kudos), I should mention that three of my last four works have appeared with Phyllis Bruce Books /HarperCollins Canada, the publisher of Emperor of the North. With that disclosed, I can applaud Raffan for the range of his research, and for delivering so many surprises. Who knew that George Simpson had travelled overland across Siberia? And that, when he reached St. Petersburg, he discovered that the library contained a copy of an expeditionary report by Thomas Simpson, his young cousin? Who knew that Simpson became friendly with Baron von Wrangel, who would later help shape the quest for the North Pole?

The life of George Simpson provides the narrative spine of this book. Raffan makes a convincing case that, conventional wisdom to the contrary, Simpson was born out of wedlock not in the late 1780s, but around 1792. He was raised in Dingwall, Scotland, by his aunt and, at about 15, joined an uncle's sugar brokerage in London. By 1820, having mastered the intricacies (and internalized the attitudes) of the slavery-based sugar trade, Simpson was seconded to the Hudson's Bay Company - and, to his surprise, found himself en route to North America.

For two decades, the HBC had been embroiled in a fur-trade war with the Montreal-based North West Company. Simpson arrived with a mandate to end the profit-killing squabble. He proved shrewd enough to succeed. So began a new era: For the next 40 years, George Simpson controlled the Hudson's Bay Company with an iron fist - and that meant he ruled Rupert's Land, which comprised more than half the area of contemporary Canada.

Raffan details how Simpson crisscrossed this empire by canoe almost annually, often at record-breaking speed, while micromanaging the fur trade. Down through the decades, he has emerged as one of the great business leaders of the era.

But here we enter into the realm of the subjective. Almost despite himself, Raffan shows Simpson to be ruthless, devious, manipulative, misogynistic, mean-spirited and racist - a penny-pinching Scrooge who, to most HBC workers, must have been The Boss From Hell. He lived according to a double standard - one set of rules for Emperor George, another for everyone else. He referred to his native mistresses as his "articles" and "bits of brown," and after fathering children with at least eight of them, frequently disposed of the women in cavalier fashion.

Simpson made money for the HBC by stipulating outrageous profit margins and squeezing his underlings. He set canoe-travel records not by picking up a paddle, but by driving those who transported him to the limits of human endurance.

He became the author of a book by hiring ghostwriters, and he gained a knighthood thanks to his cousin Thomas Simpson, who conducted a remarkable journey of exploration along the Arctic Coast of North America.

Raffan shows restraint in laying out the evidence for all this, although occasionally a line escapes him, as when he reflects on Simpson's much younger wife: "What it might have been like to live with such a pompous little stump of a man we can only guess." In a chapter titled George Simpson, Murderer?, he does an excellent job of laying out the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of Thomas Simpson.

Emperor of the North is a complex book that forces us to make our own judgments. I, for one, continue to regard George Simpson as despicable - but, yes, he makes a great subject, and James Raffan has spun the fetid straw of his life into a golden book.

Last year, with Lady Franklin's Revenge, Ken McGoogan won the Pierre Berton Award for History and the UBC Medal for Canadian Biography. His book Fatal Passage is being turned into a TV docudrama for History Channel and the BBC.