- Lord Selkirk: A Life
In 1819, not long before his death from consumption, Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk, wrote his friend William Wilber force, commenting that in his settlement ventures in Red River he took on 'a task of too great magnitude for one individual.' It is an apt summation of the life and adventures of a man who plays a large part in Canadian settlement history and in Scottish emigration to the New World. Selkirk established settlements in Prince Edward Island (1803), Upper Canada (1804), and of course Red River (1811). In addition he played a significant role in British political life, sitting as an elected Scottish peer, and assumed a prominence as an advocate of agricultural reform, highland emigration, and other causes. He was a highly literate individual educated within the tradition of the Scottish enlightenment who penned innumerable publications ranging from writings in political economy to highly inflammatory attacks on his critics. The paradox is that Selkirk was a [End Page 574] man who did so much in his forty-nine- year life and yet is often regarded as a failure.
In taking on the biography of this complex figure, Jack Bumsted had no idea what it would mean. Indeed, he notes that he began work on the project in 1976. This means that the biography hung over the author through most of his long academic career! The result is a somewhat unusually defensive introduction. He not only explains the project's long gestation but attempts to pre-empt criticism by noting that limitation of sources made it difficult to assess Selkirk's personality. None of this defence is necessary. The author has published actively through his career and this latest work needs no apology. It is the definitive biography of Selkirk and one that compares well to any biography in Canadian historical writing.
That being said, it is easy to see why this book was difficult to write. Selkirk's personality is the main problem. As Bumsted emphasizes, Selkirk had an almost pathological inability to focus on one project for very long. He was a man of great schemes, highly intelligent and visionary. Yet he was also careless when it came to detail and frequently acted before understanding all the issues that confronted him. As Selkirk jumped from project to project or, as was often the case, occupied himself with many projects simultaneously, the biographer faces some difficult organizational challenges. Does one follow the author's frequent change of direction or impose an order that didn't exist in real life? Though there are points where the reader is forced to jump from one topic to another rather abruptly, Bumsted generally does well at creating a readable narrative from Selkirk's frenetic activities.
Overall, Bumsted sees Selkirk's personality as the tragic flaw that would ultimately lead to 'public rejection and virtual bankruptcy.' Had Selkirk focused, for example, on his Prince Edward Island project he might have made it a success. Instead he visited the Island for only a relatively short period of time in the summer of 1803, never to return. His mind was already turning to other and grander schemes.
The 'grander scheme' for which he is best known and the one that eventually destroyed him was, of course, the seemingly quixotic project to plant a colony at Red River, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement and directly in the path of the North West Company's trade routes. That project, occupying the last eight years of Selkirk's life, takes up almost half of the biography. It is a complex story that has been told before but is necessary to any biography of Selkirk. Nobody comes out of it looking very good. The governments in both Upper and Lower Canada seem to have responded partly out of confusion and partly as an agent of the North West Company. The North West Company clearly used violence to achieve its ends. The British government seemed most interested in avoiding the issue until it became unavoidable and [End Page 575] Selkirk's impetuous nature...