- Enlightened Zeal: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Scientific Networks, 1670–1870 by Ted Binnema
“Science is never just about science”—thus opens this thoroughly researched account of the interrelationship between science and one of the most long-lived and politically nimble of the British chartered companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), over the course of two centuries (1670–1870). This pithy remark sums up much of the tenor of the recent historiography of the history of science with its emphasis on placing science [End Page 448] in the wider context of the society that promotes and supports it and, in particular, the links between science and power, whether economic or political. Persuasively, the work makes the case for this being a pioneering study as one of the first works to focus intensively on the scientific contribution of a chartered company. Such companies, with their monopoly rights and quasi-state powers (which the HBC lost in 1870), have often had few admirers among historians, including historians of science. One of the aims of this book is to show how such chartered companies, in particular, the HBC, could act as scientific sponsors—particularly if science is defined in a more expansive way than it often is to include exploration and the forms of knowledge to which such exploration gave rise, such as cartography.
The cultivation of science provided HBC employees with innocent amusement and a form of currency in both specimens and information to trade with metropolitan colleagues and patrons. For the HBC more generally, science could provide the valuable coin of governmental goodwill. As the author points out, other activities of the HBC, such as aid to missionaries, may have bought it even more public support, but science was a relatively cheap contribution to the public good that often accorded with the goals of the company itself. This partnership of mutual advantage between the HBC and state-supported science was slow to develop, with the current work viewing the period from 1768 to 1774 as the critical watershed. This was in part because of the Royal Society’s enlistment of the HBC in the global network of observation that accompanied the transit of Venus of 1769. In a work such as this, the focus is naturally on the internal workings of the company, and perhaps more could have been made of the transformations occurring in the wider British scientific estate that made the company’s involvement more congenial to government. The Royal Society and science in general were becoming of increasing importance to government, with bodies such as the Board of Longitude illustrating the national benefits to be gained from the cultivation of scientific knowledge. The generous royal patronage of British observation of both the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus indicated the change in mentality, as did the long rule of that effective courtier and statesman of science, Joseph Banks, as president of the Royal Society from 1778 to 1820. This alliance between British science and the company gained further momentum over the course of the nineteenth century with, the book argues, the years between 1855 and 1868 marking a particular high-water mark. It was probably no accident that they overlapped with the renewal of the company’s charter in 1859.
This is a book, then, that, in the manner of the HBC’s surveyors, charts new territory with promising possibilities. To the pioneer falls the task of clearing away much of the debris in the way of larger vistas, and this is reflected in the very detailed character of much of the exposition. The [End Page 449] introduction certainly makes it apparent that the author is well aware of the fertile approaches offered by the literature on the relation between colonial and metropolitan science, but more could have been done to develop such perspectives more programmatically in the body of the text. The work, however, provides a sturdily erected platform on which others can build in exploring the larger dynamics of the interplay between science and empire.