Voyage of the Nonsuch: A Turning Point in the Fur Trade | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Voyage of the Nonsuch: A Turning Point in the Fur Trade

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

At some point in the 1650s, two adventurers from New France embarked on a journey that eventually revolutionized the fur trade and changed the course of Canadian history.

Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, and his brother-in-law Pierre Esprit Radisson traveled inland beyond lake Superior, possibly as far as James Bay. Des Groseilliers' daring had already led him to explorations that were crucial for French territorial claims in North America. His intelligence enabled him to see quickly that the easiest route to the richest fur region of the continent was not by the arduous canoe highway through the Great Lakes and Lake of the Woods waterway, but across Hudson Bay in ships carrying large cargoes to the very heart of the continent.

His partner Radisson, according to his biographer Grace Lee Nute, "seems to have been one of those fortunate people endowed with an unquenchable zest for life and a capacity for adaptation not too greatly hampered by religious, moral, or patriotic scruples. He stands for all that is rich and colourful in an age of adventure and intrigue, brutality and imagination."

Even though the discoveries of the two brothers-in-law likely saved the colony from economic ruin, Governor d'Argenson seized the explorers' furs, fined them, and threw Des Groseilliers into jail. Infuriated, the men turned for help from New France's enemies, the English. It was a crucial moment. A decision in ownership of much of the continent was in the making. King Charles II found the idea of outflanking the French colony so intriguing that he introduced the men to his cousin Prince Rupert.

On March 30 1668 Rupert and some financial backers purchased a small square-rigged ketch (a two-masted ship carrying square sails) called the Nonsuch. The little ship had already had a storied career, being captured by the Dutch in 1658 and recaptured by the English a year later. Only 15 metres long, she was tiny by our reckoning but not particularly small for a deep-sea merchant ship of the time. She carried eight cannon, for as historian George Clark wrote, in those days "armed aggression was the heart of commerce."

On June 3, 1668 the Nonsuch raised anchor at Gravesend with Des Groseilliers on board. Radisson was on a second ship, the Eaglet , but it was forced home after encountering a severe storm off Ireland.

In 1968 a replica of the Nonsuch was built in England to honour the 300th anniversary of the voyage. It now resides in the Manitoba Museum.

Rupert had given the resourceful Captain of the Nonsuch, Zachariah Gillam, a set of elaborate instructions. Gillam was ordered to sail "to such place as Mr Gooseberry and Mr Radisson shall ordr to trade with the Indyans there." He was reminded that if the crew were to slay any whales or "se horses" the proceeds belonged to the investors.

The Nonsuch sailed by a northerly route past the Orkney Islands to the Atlantic, sighting the north coast of Labrador on August 1. Four days later, it entered Hudson Strait and on September 29, 118 days after it had left Gravesend, the Nonsuch dropped anchor at the southern end of James Bay, at the mouth of a river that Gillam named Rupert. The crew built a small wooden cabin on shore with a cellar to store their beer.

After a long, chilling winter, the Cree found the Nonsuch and came to trade. Delayed by ice, the ship could not leave the bay until August. It arrived in Dover Strait October 11, 1669. The London Gazette reported that "they returned with a considerable quantity of Beaver, which made them some recompense for their cold confinement."

The radical theory of Radisson and Des Groseilliers had proved correct. Encouraged, Rupert and his investors approached King Charles for a charter to trade into the lands opened by the voyage of the Nonsuch. The charter was granted on May 2, 1670 for the company commonly called the Hudson's Bay Company. Thanks to two Canadian coureurs de bois, the English had gained a foothold in the fur trade and the struggle for the Northwest had begun.

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