Robert C. Lee The Canada Company and the Huron Tract 1826-1853: Personalities, Profits and Politics, Toronto, Dundurn, 2004, 304 p.
Thomas Carlyle is supposed to have said “Show me the man you honour, and I will know what kind of man you are.” In this spirit, I read this book not out of any over-riding interest in the Canada Company per se, but because its first director, John Galt, was a close friend of Judge Willis’ in Canada. It would seem that both men considered the other an honorable man. They socialized in York together and they supported each other, so I was interested to see what sort of man John Galt was.
Lee’s description of John Galt is as follows:
A man of many talents, he was a well-travelled, big-picture visionary who was at once restless, energetic, scholarly, absent-minded, combative, disorganized, opiniated and well-connected in high places… (p.45)
John Galt was born in Scotland in 1779, the son of a ship’s captain and an eccentric mother. Even though he was extremely tall, he suffered from ill-health throughout his life and was educated at home. His literary bent was established in childhood, and he become well known for his book A Statistical Account of Upper Canada (1807) which he cobbled together without setting foot in the place, largely from the observations of his cousin who worked as a captain on the Great Lakes. He commenced studying law, but after a breakdown in his health, he travelled to Greece and Malta, hung out with Byron, and organized the shipping of the Elgin Marbles.
He published a number of literary works including novels, plays and fictionalized autobiographies. He supplemented his literary career with work as a parliamentary lobbyist, first for the backers of canal building in Scotland, then for Loyalists along the Niagara frontier seeking redress for their losses in the 1812 War . He became lobbyist and later operations manager for the Canada Company, which had a plan to purchase lands in Upper Canada that had been set aside for government and church purposes, survey and package them up for sale to British emigrants. When the Anglican Church in Upper Canada resisted losing their land, the Canada Company was offered instead a huge, unsurveyed expanse of First Nation land called the Huron Tract. In the final settlement in 1826, the company purchased 1.3 million acres of crown reserves throughout Upper Canada, the Huron Tract, and a million other scattered acres for the uniform price of 3s.6d per acre.
It is sobering to remember that, despite its blustering proclamations of policy, the Colonial Office was often making things up as it went along, especially in the early 19th century. In the early 1820s the empire stretched across the globe and was still growing, but Britain itself was squeezed by the post-Napoleonic War slump. There simply wasn’t the money to pour into infrastructure for the immigration that Britain was encouraging as a solution to domestic unemployment. There were demands for compensation and rewards for soldiers who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars, loyalist settlers who had fought in the War of 1812 in America, or schemes for resource development and convict labour in New South Wales and Van Diemens Land. And that’s where private enterprise came in.
In what seemed like a win-win situation, charters were given to private companies of London-based stockholders to purchase huge tracts of land at a fixed price, with the expectation that the company would take over responsibility for infrastructure and settlement schemes. There may well be others, but I’m aware of the Canada Company, the Australian Agricultural Company formed in 1824 and the Van Diemens Land Company in May the same year. The two Australian companies were formed with a view to establishing a pastoral industry to provide wool for Britain’s industrial sector using convict labour, while the Canada Company was established to encourage agricultural settlement by British settlers to counter the American influence from the south.
It was a huge outsourcing of colonialism, and within twenty years the Colonial Office was backtracking, realizing that perhaps they could have asked more for the land given so liberally. My only real awareness of these companies was that there was a sense of disquiet over the sheer size of the holdings appropriated and privatized in this way, and the linking of the Van Diemen’s Land company with the Cape Grim massacre. I was surprised to learn that these three companies were so long-lived. The Canada Company was dissolved in 1954 with its final licence cancelled in 1961; the Australian Agricultural Company (now known as AACo )is the largest cattle producer in Australia holding 7 million hectares of land across Queensland and the Northern Territory, and the Van Diemen’s Land Company still exists.
And as for John Galt and John Walpole Willis? Well, they were kindred spirits in personality, and their fortunes rose and fluctuated in Upper Canada along a similar trajectory. They both clashed with members of the elite in York, and fell out with the Governor. When Willis was removed, he put his family affairs into Galt’s hands, but Galt was removed by the board of the company back in London some six months later.
The emphasis in this book was on the Canada Company, and Galt played a role only in the opening chapters. If I want to find out more about him, I’m going to have to look elsewhere, and I’m tempted to dip into some of his writing instead (especially his autobiography). But quite apart from John Galt himself, the book provided an insight into the tension between a board of directors back in London, and “localitis” -i.e. the tendency of their operations managers sent out to Canada to become too embroiled in local politics, too generous in public works, and too squeamish to enforce the company’s interests at all costs. It’s a sobering thought in these days of multinationals and state-based foreign enterprises.