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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 3. Across the Stormy Sea

Oh dreadful war! It is not only in the deadly horror of battle, and in the pain and anguish of men strong and hearty, done to death by human hands. It is not only in the rotting heap of horses and men, torn to pieces by bullets and shell, and thrust together within huge pits in one red burial blent. It is not only in the helpless widow and her brood of dazed and desolate children weeping over the news that comes from the battlefield, that war become so hideous. It is always, as it was in the time of the Europe-shadowing Napoleon when for twenty years the wheels of industry in Britain were stopped. It is always the derangement of business, the increased price of food for the poor, the decay of trade, the cutting off of supplies, and the stopping of works of improvement that brings conditions which make poverty so terrible. Rags! A bed of straw; a crust of bread; the shattered roof; the naked floor; a deal table; a broken chair! A writer whose boyhood saw the terror, and want, and despair of the last decade of the Napoleonic War, puts into the mouth of the victim of poverty this terrible wail:

"But why do I talk of death?
That phantom of grizzly bone;
I hardly fear his terrible shape
It seems so like my own;
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh God, that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!"

To the philanthropist or the benevolent sympathiser like Lord Selkirk, who aims at benefiting suffering humanity, it is not the trouble, the self-sacrifice, or the spending of money in relief that is the worry, but it is the bitterness, the suspicion, the unworkableness, and the selfishness of the poverty-stricken themselves that disturbs and distresses the benefactor's heart. It is often too the heartlessness and prejudice of those who oppose the benefactor's plans that causes the generous man anxiety and even at times despair. Poverty in its worst form is a gaunt and ravenous beast, that bites the hand of friend or foe that is stretched out toward it. So Lord Selkirk found it, when he undertook to help the poverty-stricken Celts of the Scottish Highlands and of the West of Ireland. He had the sympathising heart; he had the true vision; and he had as few others of his time had, the power to plan, the invention to suggest, and the skill and pluck to overcome difficulties, but the carrying out of his intent brought him infinite trouble and sorrow. His prospectus, offering the means to the poverty-stricken people of reaching what he believed to be a home of ultimate plenty on the banks of the Red River, was an entirely worthy document. His first point is, that his Colonists will be freemen. No religious tenet will be considered in their selection. This was even freer that was that of Lord Baltimore's much-vaunted Colony, on the Atlantic Coast, for Baltimore required that every Colonist should believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Then, the offer was to the landless and the penniless men. Employment was to be supplied; work in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company, or free grants of land to actual settlers, or even a sale in fee simple of land for a mere nominal sum; free passages for the poor, reduced passages for those who had small means, food provided on the voyage, and the prospect of new world advantages to all.

But the poor are timid, and they love even their straw-thatched cottages, and it needs active and decided men to press upon them the advantages which are offered them. The Emigration Agent is a necessity.

The fur traders' country was at this time well known to many of the partners. It was by employing or consulting with some of these fur traders that Lord Selkirk obtained a knowledge of the Western land which he was to acquire. Years before the Colony began Lord Selkirk had been in correspondence with an officer who belonged to a well known Catholic family of Highlanders, the Macdonells, who had gone to the Mohawk district in the United States before the American Revolution, and had afterwards come to Canada as U.E. Loyalists. One of these, a man of standing and of executive ability was Miles Macdonell. He had been an officer of the King's Royal Regiment of New York, and held the rank of Captain of the Canadian Militia. This officer had a brother in the North-West Fur Company, John Macdonell, who, more than ten years before, had been in the service of his Company on Red River and whose Journal had no doubt fallen into the hands of his brother Miles. He had written: "From the Forks of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers the plains are quite near the banks, and so extensive that a man may travel to the Rocky Mountains without passing a wood, a mile long. The soil on the Red River and the Assiniboine is generally a good soil, susceptible of culture, and capable of bearing rich crops."

He goes on to state, "that the buffalo comes to the fords of the Assinboil, besides in these rivers are plenty of sturgeon, catfish, goldeyes, pike and whitefish—the latter so common that men have been seen to catch thirty or forty a piece while they smoked their pipes." To reach this land of plenty, which his brother knew so well, Miles Macdonell became the leader of Lord Selkirk's Colonists. He arrived in Great Britain in the year for the starting of the Colony, and immediately as being a Roman Catholic in religion went to the West of Ireland to recommend the Emigration scheme, obtain subscriptions of stock, and to engage workmen as Colonists. Glasgow was then, as now, the centre of Scottish industry, and it is to Glasgow that the penniless Highlanders flock in large numbers for work and residence. Here was a suitable field for the Emigration Agent, and accordingly one of their countrymen, Captain Roderick McDonald, was sent thither. The way to Canada was long, the country unknown, and it required all his persuasion and the power of the Gaelic tongue—an open Sesame to an Highlander's heart—to persuade many to join the Colonists' bank. It required more. The Highlander is a bargainer, as the Tourist in the Scottish Highlands knows to this day. Captain Roderick McDonald was compelled to promise larger wages to clerks and laborers to induce them to join. He secured less than half an hundred men at Stornoway—the trysting place—and the promises he had made of higher wages were a bone of contention through the whole voyage.

Perhaps the most effective agent obtained by Lord Selkirk was a returned trader of the Montreal merchants named Colin Robertson. He had seen the whole western fur country, and the fact that he had a grievance made him very willing to join Lord Selkirk in his enterprise.

One of the Nor'-Westers in Saskatchewan a few years before the beginning of Lord Selkirk's Colony, was "Bras Croche," or crooked-arm McDonald. He was of gentle Scottish birth, but his own acquaintances declared that he was of a "quarrelsome and pugnacious disposition." In his district Colin Robertson was a "Bourgeois" in charge of a station. A quarrel between the two men resulted in Colin Robertson losing his position, and as we shall see he became one of the most active and serviceable men in the history of the Colony. Colin Robertson went among his countrymen in the Island of Lewis and elsewhere.

And now as the time draws nigh for gathering together at a common port, the Stromness (Orkney), the Glasgow, the Sligo and the Lewis contingents to face the stormy sea and seek a new untried home, a fierce storm breaks out upon the land. Evidence accumulates that the heat and opposition of the "Nor'-West" partners—Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Inglis and Ellice—shown at the general meeting of the Company, were to break out in numberless hidden and irritating efforts to stop and perhaps render impossible the whole Colonizing project.

Just as the active agents, Miles Macdonell, Capt. McDonald and Colin Robertson, had set the heather on fire on behalf of Lord Selkirk's project, so the aid of the press was used to throw doubt upon the enterprise. Inverness is the Capital of the Highlanders, and so the "Inverness Journal," containing an effusion signed by "Highlander," was spread broadcast through the Highlands, the Islands, and the Orkneys, picturing the dangers of their journey, the hardships of the country, the deceitfulness of the agents, and the mercenary aims of the noble promoter.

Before Miles Macdonell had cleared the coast of England, he wrote to Lord Selkirk: "Sir A. (Mackenzie) has pledged himself as so decidedly opposed to this project that he will try every means in his power to thwart it. Besides, I am convinced he was no friend to your Lordship before this came upon the carpet."

No doubt Miles Macdonell was correct, and the two Scottish antagonists were face to face in the conflict. We shall see the means supplied by which the expedition will be harassed. And now the enterprise is to be set on foot.

For nearly a century and a half the Hudson's Bay Company ships have sailed yearly from the Thames, and taken the goods of the London merchants to the posts and forts of Hudson Bay, carrying back rich returns of furs. Sometimes more than one a year has gone. In 1811 there was the Commodore's ship the "Prince of Wales," with cabin accommodation and such comforts as ships of that period supplied. A second ship, the "Eddystone," chartered for special service, accompanied her. These two were intended to carry out employees and men for the fur trade, as well as the goods.

It must not be forgotten that there was some want of confidence between the trading side of the Hudson's Bay Company and that which Lord Selkirk represented, in the Colonizing enterprise. Also at this time the laws in regard to the safety of vessels, the comfort of passengers, or precautions for health were very lax. While the records of emigration experiences of British settlers to Canada and the United States are being recited by men and women yet living in Canada, the want of resource and the neglect of life and property by Governments and officials up until half a century ago are heart-sickening. So the third ship of the fleet that was to carry the first human freight of Manitoba pioneers was the "Edward and Ann." She was a sorry craft, with old sails, ropes, etc., and very badly manned. She had as a crew only sixteen, including the captain, mates and three small boys. It was a surprise to Miles Macdonell that the Company would charter and send her out in such a state. The officers came down to Gravesend from London and joined their ships, and somewhere about the 25th of June, 1811, they set sail from Sheerness on their mission, which was to become historic—not so historic, perhaps, as the Mayflower—but still sufficiently important to deserve a centennial celebration.

The fleet was, however, to take up its passengers after it had passed Duncansby Head, on the north of Scotland. But the elements on the North Sea were unpropitious. Sheerness left behind, the trio of vessels had not passed the coast of Norfolk before they were driven into Yarmouth Harbor, and there for days they lay held in by adverse winds. On July 2nd they again started northward, when they were compelled to return to Yarmouth.

In company they succeeded in reaching Stromness, in the Orkney Isles, in about ten days. Here the "Prince of Wales" remained and her two companions sailed down to Stornoway on the 17th.

And now, with the storms of the German Ocean left behind, began the opposition of the "Nor'-Westers." The "Prince of Wales" brought her contingent from the Orkneys, and on July 25th Miles Macdonell writes that after all the efforts put forth at all the points he had 125 Colonists and employees, and these were in a most unsettled state of mind.

Some dispute the wages offered them. One party from Galway had not arrived. Some are irritated at not being in the quarter of the ship which they desired, and some anxiety is evident on the part of Miles Macdonell because large advances of money have been given to a number and he fears that they may desert. The expenses of assembling the settlers have been very heavy, and now opposition appears. Sir Alexander's party are doing their work. Mr. Reed, Collector of Customs at Stornoway, was married to a niece of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and as collector he throws every obstacle in the way of Macdonell. He has also taken pains to stir up discontent in the minds of the Colonists and to advise them not to embark.

Further trouble was caused by a Captain Mackenzie—called "a mean fellow"—who proved to be a son-in-law of the Collector of Customs Reed, and who went on board the "Edward and Ann," recruited as soldiers some of the settlers, himself handing them the enlisting money and then seeking to compel them to leave the ship with him. Afterwards, Captain Mackenzie came on board the "Edward and Ann" and claimed the new recruits, as deserters from the army. The Customs officials also boarded the emigrant ship and most officiously proclaimed that if any emigrants were not satisfied, or were not going of their own free will then they might go ashore, and the scene as described by Miles Macdonell may be imagined. "Several said they were not willing, and many went over the ship's side into Captain Mackenzie's boat. One party ran away with the ship's boat, but were brought back. One man jumped into the sea, and swam for it until he was picked up by the recruiting boat." The Revenue Cutter's boat was likewise very active in taking men away, and the collector took some ashore in his boat with himself. A prominent employee of the promoters of the expedition, Mr. Moncrieff Blair, who posed as a gentleman, deserted on July 25th, the day before the sailing of the vessel.

No wonder that Miles Macdonell should write: "My Lord, this is a most unfortunate business * * * I condole with your Lordship on all these cross accidents."

Thus amid annoyance, opposition, and discouragement did the little fleet set sail, on July 26th, 1811.

But this time of Napoleonism in Europe affected even the high seas. French cruisers might seize the valuable cargoes being sent out to York Factory. Accordingly a man-of-war had been detailed to lead the way. This had caused a part of the delay on the East Coast of England, and when fairly away from the British Isles and some four hundred miles northwest of Ireland, the protecting ship turned back, but the sea was so wild that not even a letter could be handed to the Captain to carry in a message to the promoter.

The journey continued to be boisterous, but once within Hudson straits the weather turned mild, and the great walls of rock reminded the Highlanders of their Sutherlandshire West Coast.

They saw no living being as they went through the Strait. Their studies of human nature were among themselves. Miles Macdonell reports that exclusive of the officers and crews who embarked at Gravesend, there were of laborers and writers one hundred and five persons.

Of these there were fifty-three on the "Edward and Ann." Two men of especial note, representing the clerical and medical professions were on board the Emigrant Ship. Father Burke, a Roman Catholic priest, who had come away without the permission of his Bishop was one.

Miles Macdonell did not like him, but he seems to have been a hearty supporter of the Emigration Scheme and promised to do great things in Ireland on his return.

When he reached York Factory, Burke did not leave the shore to follow the Colonists to their homes on the banks of Red River. He married two Scotch Presbyterians, and while somewhat merry at times had amused the passengers on their dreary ocean journey. More useful, however, to the passengers was Mr. Edwards, the ship's doctor.

He had much opportunity for practising his art, both among the Colonists and the employees.

At times Miles Macdonell endeavored on shipboard to drill his future servants and settlers, but he found them a very awkward squad—not one had ever handled a gun or musket. The sea seemed generally too tempestuous in mood for their evolutions. As the ships approached York Factory the interest increased. The "Eddystone" was detailed to sail to "Fort Churchill," but was unable to reach it and found her way in the wake of the other vessels to York Factory. It seemed as if the sea-divinities all combined to fight against the Colonists, for they did not reach York Factory, the winter destination, until the 24th of September, having taken sixty-one days on the voyage from Stornoway, which was declared by the Hudson's Bay Company officers to be the longest and latest passage ever known on Hudson Bay. Then settlers and employees were all landed on the point, near York Factory, and were sheltered meantime in tents, and as they stood on the shore they saw on October 5th, the ships that had brought them safely across the stormy sea pass through a considerable amount of floating ice on their homeward journey to London.

For one season at least the settlers will face the rigor of this Northern Clime.

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