Wednesday, January 14, 2009

God's Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal and the Dream of Discovery

Douglas Hunter - God's Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal and the Dream of Discovery (Anchor Canada, 2008) {416pp.: maps.}

The talented writer, Douglas Hunter, is not only an author of many books on sport, business, and the environment, but he is also a trained visual artist and graphic designer with a passion for sailing and yacht design. As a reader I wondered why he ventured into the area of early Canadian history and exploration, and concluded that it must have been another true interest. He spent three years working on the book and ended up with enough material for two more. He has produced, with editorial grace, a wonderfully readable, suspenseful and dramatic work of historical investigation and synthesis. By employing various narrative techniques, and by placing all source notes and bibliographic information at the end of the book, he has crafted an historical narrative which flows along with a storyteller's artistry.

In the first half of the book, the author brings to the foredeck, Henry Hudson. We find Hudson working for the Dutch in an effort to discover the North-East Passage, but instead he finds his way to North America and the eventual discovery of the Hudson River. Already we sense a bit of a rogue individualist. In returning to Europe, he just makes landfall on the English coast and later finagles his way into a Captaincy of the English vessel, The Discovery, with the goal to discover the North-West Passage--that mythic short-cut to the silks and spices of the Orient--a goal that had drawn English explorers on a quest for over thirty years. Douglas Hunter fleshes out the characters of the crew and we get a good sense of the intrigue and uncertainty that could develop. It is a story of Hudson's obsession with finding the passage, an idealist's vision versus the more limited views of the crew whose discontent, discomfort, hunger, sickness, fear and shifting allegiances, ultimately lead to mutiny after wintering over in James Bay--the bay of god's mercies. The author weaves in stories of previous mutinies such as the one against Edward Maria Wingfield in Jamestown in 1602, and against Captain George Waymooth in 1607, and how these stories would have been known to Hudson's crew, providing context and structure in how they should proceed with theirs.

Hudson's obsession is driven by fragmentary knowledge, conjecture and the misreading in a translation of a text by Samuel de Champlain. It is a story of the influence of exploration narratives and the charts and maps of cartographers. Hudson believed in the 1599 navigational chart by Edward Wright which had a vast Lake Tadouac, a lake which he hoped would lead out to the far east:

"His perspective was burdened by the arcana of the efforts of earlier explorers, these figures and their accomplishments a mix of real and imagined, and by almost hallucinatory visions of cosmographers and cartographers of the shape and nature of northern lands and seas." [p. 94]

After setting Hudson, his son and other crew members adrift in the summer of 1611, we follow the mutineers and their pathetic way back to England, and Douglas Hunter fills in the story of the voyages to find Hudson, and then the legal ramifications for the remnant mutinous crew members--all with detail and great interest.

The second half of the book follows Samuel de Champlain and his particular vision of discovering the passage to the far east. Nicolas de Vignau, one of Champlain's men, had spent a year with the Algonquins and had learnt of a story of an English survivor from the far north held by the Nebicerini, held as a gift for Champlain. With this story we find ourselves in a narrative that is filled with anticipation and suspense. The author provides us with the backcloth of Champlain's extraordinary career to date, his writings, his struggles with the fickle nature of politics, financial backers, Royal Monopolies and regional competitors such as the mariners of St. Malo and the Basques, and of course his diplomatic relations with the native tribes.

Drawn by the possibility of an English survivor of a northern expedition who could hold important information as to a salt water passage to the orient, Samuel de Champlain held the broader vision rather than the more immediate view of the profits from the fur trade. We learn of Champlain's relations with the various tribes on his arduous trek up the Ottawa River to the Algonquins and the difficulties in his search for the English survivor--and ultimately, his discovery of truths and lies.

Addendum: Douglas Hunter has completed a new book on Henry Hudson to be published in the fall of 2009 by Bloomsbury.

No comments: