I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods

James R. Gibson 

  • James R. Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992).  

Both James R. Gibson and Harold Innis illustrate in their works the startling power of consumer craze. In Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods and The Fur Trade in Canada, the fashionable demand for sea otter and beaver pelts, respectively, in distant lands drive the cultural and economic development of North America. In Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods, Gibson traces the development of the Pacific trade that revolved around the fur of the sea otter of the Northwest Coast of North AmericaThe Pacific trade was unique and immensely profitable because it involved four (or five if one includes Russia) cultures, coastal Native Americans, Hawaiians, Euroamericans, and the Chinese, and inherently included three possible ways in which to make money. Firstly, the Euroamerican traders could make money by bartering with the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast. Secondly, they could profit from the selling of these goods to individuals in Canton. And thirdly, they could profit from the selling of Chinese goods to the merchants in Boston. Gibson begins his narrative with a discussion of early Russian and Spanish involvement in the coastal fur trade, which was minor in comparison to the Euroamerican trade that developed after the Hudson Bay Company became interested in developing a way to directly market their beaver pelts to China. The Canadians monopolistic tendencies, of which Innis discussed in depth, however, did them a disservice in the early years of the Northwestern coastal trade because American traders and ship captains were able to overtake them due to their vested, personal, competitive interest and subsequent enthusiasm. Gibson goes into great detail about the different strategies used by both the Euroamericans and Native Americans, and the often strained relationship that developed between them. As the sea otter population was depleted and relations between the two groups deteriorated, the trade began to take new forms. The most significant part of this transformation was the addition of Hawaii to the Pacific trade network. 

One of the primary reasons that Gibson underwent this study of the Northwest Pacific coastal fur trade is that it had not yet been significantly studied. Gibson’s portrayal of this fur trade challenges the popular assumption, as popularized by Innis, that the Canadian fur trade’s epicenter was the Hudson Bay. Additionally, Gibson’s explication of this fur trade further undermines Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis by demonstrating that economic activity and a degree of settlement occurred before the final wave of frontiersmen reached the West Coast, and thus, settlement did not happen in a simple East to West fashion as he had claimed. However, according to Gibson, the true value of the Pacific Coast fur trade historically is that it involved four disparate regions, brought them into contact, and enforced major change on their societies. The most profound change can be seen in the cultures of the coastal Native Americans and the Hawaiians, Gibson contends, because the fur trade was largely their first experience with outside contact. For the coastal Native Americans, the fur trade had both positive and negative effects. Gibson argues that the coastal Indians, unlike those of the Great Plains whose cultures were revolutionized by the introduction of European goods such as horses and guns, were able to use both western goods and ideas to enhance their own culture, and that this enhancement may even have led to the cultural apex of their civilization. On a negative note, the Native Americans were deeply affected by disease and alcoholism, both introduced by the Europeans, as were the Hawaiians. The Hawaiians were unique, he writes, because they were fairly eager to facilitate the incorporation of European foreigners and agriculture into their society, a decision that led to the complete exploitation and degradation of their land and their culture and the drastic decline in their population due to warfare and disease. On the Asian coast, the fur trade, according to Gibson, helped to bring down the Chinese dynasty and bring the country out of isolation. Lastly, Gibson argues that the wealth that the goods from China brought to Boston and New England in general helped to create the capital that the region needed in order to climb the civilization ladder from agrarian to industrial society.  

Gibson’s treatment of the Native Americans in Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods is of particular interest. In The Fur Trade in CanadaInnis emphasizes the importance of Native Americans to the trade, predominantly in regards to their role as middlemen. However, Innis does not give a great deal of credit to the independent cultural and social organization of the Canadian aboriginals. Gibson, on the other hand, places a great deal of weight on the fact that the Native American coastal culture was highly developed even before the onslaught of the international fur trade. Having participated in the inter-tribal bartering of fur amongst themselves, the Native Americans, upon Euroamerican arrival, had to simply intensify an economic activity in which they had long been involved. Gibson’s Native Americans were also not unquestioning, obsessed consumers of western goods, as portrayed by earlier writers such as Parkman and Innis. For example, Gibson points out that Native Americans did not have an instant, insatiable appetite for booze and tobacco, but were rather the victims of Euroamerican peer pressure. The Native Americans participated in the substances, initially, to seal friendships and at the behest of pushy traders who wished to ingratiate them and weaken them by way of intoxication and addiction. Gibson’s discussion of the Native American slave trade and use of prostitution for barter was rather eye opening, as well. Gibson’s portrayal of Hawaiians and their willingness to welcome Euroamericans is slightly questionable, as Haunani-Kay Trask paints a very different picture of their arrival in the islands in the introduction of From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii.  

Feature Photo: Le Castor du Canada, La Loutre du Canada (Beaver of Canada, Otter of Canada). Credit: Library and Archives Canada / Bibilothèque et Archives Canada (R9266-2551) Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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