Monthly Archives: March 2021

Matonabbee and Mr Dobbs: How an Irishman Accidentally Helped Create Canada

Arthur Dobbs exercised his influence on Canada without every setting foot here.  His relentless campaigning in London against the Hudson’s Bay Company eventually forced it to sponsor explorations not just of Hudson Bay but of the vast interior that lay to the north and west, terra incognita to Europeans. 

Dobbs’ campaign against the HBC also inadvertently created one of the most successful exploration partnerships in history, that between the great Chipewyan Chief and explorer Matonabbee and the Englishman Samuel Hearne. By inadvertently bringing these two together, Dobbs also unknowingly created a partnership that forged indigenous and western knowledge as a means of exploration and critically mapping.  This set the template for the exploration of the vast interior that lay beyond what was then considered Canada, the hunk of the east coast and the course of the St Lawrence known to Europeans. 

Dobbs himself was the personification of the imperialist and mercantile mind-set, holding to the beliefs of white and European superiority that dominated European thinking in the 18th century.  He would have been askance that someone like Matonabbee could possibly be considered one of the most significance men of his generation and one of the greatest explorers of the 18th century.

As Stephen R. Bown records in new history of the HBC, The Company, The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay’s Empire,[1]  Dobbs was keen to end the Company’s monopoly.  He was obsessed with the discovery of what he believed to be the Northwest Passage from Hudson’s Bay to Asia.  He was convinced that the Company was either indifferent to, or at worst concealing its existence, the better to preserve their exclusive domain and their trade monopoly. For Dobbs, the only way to open up exploration was to end the Company’s monopoly and encourage the prospects of trade that could finance exploration.  Dobbs would prove to be a relentless and formidable opponent, forcing the HBC on the defensive.

Dobbs hailed from an illustrious family in County Antrim. As an engineer and Surveyor-General of Ireland, he oversaw the construction of public buildings including the Irish Parliament in Dublin (during the golden age of Dublin before the catastrophe of the Act of Union in 1800).  High Sheriff of Antrim, MP for Carrickfergus (1727-60), an amateur scientist, sometime soldier, and a friend of Jonathan Swift, Dobbs represented the energy, confidence, imperialism, entitlement, and boundless ambition of the 18th century gentleman.[2] 

Dobbs was very much a man of his age in his obsession to find the Northwest Passage, the conviction that there existed in its eponymous direction a route from Europe to Asia.  This dream had spurred Europe’s great Age of Discovery (discovery at least for Europeans), including the voyages of Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus.  The source of most global economic activity and therefore wealth was Asia and its great arterial supply line, the famed Silk Road.  Western Europe, something of a global backwater, was desperate to get direct access to that trade.[3]

The Hudson Bay Company had been founded in 1670 by a Charter granted by Charles II to his family, friends and powerful figures in England during the Restoration, including Prince Rupert, the king’s cousin. [4] Its vast domain encompassed the rivers draining into Hudson Bay. The Charter therefore granted exclusive trading rights over an incomprehensibly large territory (later discovered to be four million square kilometres, about 40% of modern Canada[5], containing possibly ten million beavers).  That it was known as Prince Rupert’s Land says something of the presumption behind the enterprise; as if it was a vacant and uninhabited lot there for the taking. 

Though it was a commercial rather than imperial project, the Charter also bid the company to find a route to Asia.  The Company largely ignored this minor obligation though it did in 1690 sponsor a young explorer, Henry Kelsey, to head west.[6]  Thereafter and for the next sixty years it lost interest in the vast lands to the west and north of Lake Superior.  The Company stayed huddled in its trading posts in Hudson Bay where the main rivers of the interior drained into the sea on their great east-west journey across what was to become Canada.  The Company felt had no need to go inland since First Nations hunters and traders brought the supply of beaver pelts to them in exchange for the goods shipped from England (those most valued by the First Nations and Inuit being metal pots and kettles, axes, guns, fish hooks, blankets, beads, tobacco, brandy, sugar and the like).  The HBC would remain in complete ignorance of the complex diplomatic, trading and logistical system that operated across the country to bring the beaver pelts to them.

The indigenous were amused by the value that Europeans put on the beaver pelt and all the coveted goods they could get for them.  In fact, their own worn out coats of beaver skin were even more valuable since the rough outer hairs had been removed by use, exposing the soft interior fur.  It was this fur that made the best felt, in turn making and shaping hats that resisted rain.  Europe could simply not get enough felt to feed the fashion for hats, everything from tricorns to top hats. In fact, the trade in beaver pelt was the single most important factor is the creation of nation state of Canada.  And most of that was controlled by the HBC, albeit with some lesser competition from the French. So the history of the HBC is inextricably bound in the history of Canada’s foundation.[7]

Enter Arthur Dobbs, coming to London from Ireland with his obsessions and the manic energy and influence to pursue them. Bown writes:

“The biggest threat to the company’s monopoly in Hudson Bay emanated from the geographical musings and political agitations of a choleric Irishman named Arthur Dobbs.  The wealthy son of a prominent civil servant, Dobbs moved to London and became an intimate of the city’s prominent courtiers and financiers.  His favourite topics were free trade and the Northwest Passage, and the Company blocked the pathways leading to both of his dreams. An amateur hydrographer, he had analysed the tide levels in Hudson Bay and fixated upon the prevalence of whales that seemed never to exit into the Atlantic through the Hudson Strait.  Therefore, he concluded, the Northwest Passage must exist, in spite of the [failed] explorations a century earlier by Button, Foxe and James.”

As Bown recounts, Dobbs managed to convince the Royal Navy to fund a voyage of exploration which set off in 1741.  When it turned up nothing, Dobbs convinced the British Government to offer £20,000 to anyone who could find the Northwest Passage from Hudson Bay in 1745.  No one took up the offer so, ever relentless, Dobbs put together an expedition of two ships.  When that failed, Dobbs persuaded the Government to investigate the HBC in 1749 in a bid to break its monopoly.  Amidst wild claims and exaggerations, Dobbs lost credibility and returned for some years to Ireland.[8]

However, Dobbs’ hullabaloo about the HBC’s monopoly and the lack of any attempt to explore and exploit their enormous domain put them on the defensive.  To head off criticisms that they were failing to build Britain’s mercantile reach and protect their monopoly, the HBC was open now to opportunities to fund explorations. In 1754 the HBC sponsored an inland trip by Anthony Henday and his guide Attickasish. 

However, it was a report in 1767 from a Chipewyan chief and regular supplier to the HBC’s factories[9], the famed Matonabbee, of his travels deep into the interior that got the attention of Moses Norton, the commander of Prince of Wales fort in Hudson Bay.  Matonabbee was a natural born leader, diplomat, explorer, and multilinguist with a vast reservoir of indigenous knowledge that allowed him to traverse and survive the land’s unforgiving geography, tribal tensions, dangerous predators, and brutal climate (there were a lot of ways to die in Canada).  He reported to Norton that a river flowed into the sea out west. More than that, Matonabbee brought with him a hunk of copper.

The incentive to possibly find mineral wealth and just maybe the Northwest Passage finally stirred the company into action.  The sense of pressure and competition from French traders moving north and west added another rationale.[10] By 1770, Matonabbee was teamed up with Samuel Hearne, a hardy, intelligent, and experienced Royal Navy sailor trained in navigation and astronomy. On their epic trip of some eight thousand kilometres there and back, they reached the Arctic Ocean and concluded rightly that there was no Northwest Passage.

Shoalts: “Although Matonabbee and Hearne might not be anywhere near as famous as Lewis and Clarke, they ought to warrant serious consideration of as rival claimants to the title of the greatest exploring duo in North American history.”[11]

However, Bown makes an important distinction between their roles:  “The expedition was conceived by Moses Norton, financed by the Company and led by Matonabbee following his well-trodden commercial route.  Hearne was the map-maker and chronicler.”[12]

Yet what distinguishes travel from exploration is map-making and there was no doubt that their epic adventure succeeded as exploration because of the combination of the skills and knowledge of both men.  They established a template of cooperation that later explorers would follow, mixing indigenous and western knowledge to map and open the vast interior between the known east and the unknown lands between the Arctic Ocean to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Along with the technology of mass violence, perfected by Europeans, map-making is the key tool of empire, the means to control and exploitation.

As for Arthur Dobbs, having bought some 400,000 acres in North Carolina in 1745, he moved there in 1754 to take up the position of Governor and encourage Scots-Irish settlement.  He had further adventures dealing with the French and Indian War, the start of the American Revolution, making the first recorded observation of the Venus flytrap and, inevitably given his personality (what in Northern Ireland they call ‘thran’) , engaging in running battles with the State Assembly.

In 1762, at the age of 73, Dobbs married a fifteen year old and got a stroke some months later (no comment). Though in a wheelchair, he resolved to return finally to Ireland but died in 1765 before making the journey home. 

By this time Matonabbee was a seasoned traveller and trader across the vast interior but his epic adventure with Samuel Hearne lay in the future.  Dobbs died without knowing of his contributions, designed and unwitting alike, to a key chapter in the creation in modern Canada.

Matonabbee’s end was tragic.  In 1782, a French raiding party destroyed the two HBC trading posts of Prince of Wales and York, taking as prisoners Hearne and most of the HNC employees to England.  Bereft of his status as the key between the supply of beaver and the supply of western goods, convinced that he would never see his friends again, without a home or supplies for the winter, with six wives and four children to feed, he committed suicide, a very rare occurrence among the indigenous. 

Hearne returned to Hudson Bay to rebuild but his heart was no longer in it and he died in England before his account of his epic adventure was published, to lasting acclaim. Though Hearne was in effect a passenger of Matonabbee on the exploration, it was he who won fame because he was the European and he wrote it down.

As for the HBC and their French rivals in the fur trade (the Nor’Westers), the competition drove them inexorably to explore, map, trade and settle their way across the interior in their hunt for beaver pelts. The western frontier of Canada moved inexorably westward as the hunt for the beaver continued, fueled by the insatiable European demand for its pelt.

So if there is a central character in this, it is in fact not the hunter or trader that made Canada but their prize, the industrious beaver.  In 1975, the National Symbol of Canada Act gave the beaver official status as an emblem of the national sovereignty of Canada.



March 2021

[1] (Doubleday, Canada 2020), 105


[3] See Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, A New History of the World.

[4] See Mark Bourrie’s Bush Runner, The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, for an engaging biography of a remarkable man and a remarkable life: Radisson tried to sell the idea of trading from Hudson’s Bay for beaver pelts to the French who passed on it.

[5] Ibid, 42

[6] Ibid, 88-89: see also Adam Shoalts A History of Canada in Ten Maps (Penguin Canada, 2018), 125-6.  Kelsey’ trip lasted three years and took him as far as the plains.

[7] Harold Innis’ The Fur Trade in Canada, first published in 1930, represented a revolution in historical thinking, flipping the causal narrative from ‘great men’ to the beaver. See Charlotte Gray, The Promise of Canada, pp 104-123.

[8] Ibid, 155-8.

[9] Known as such because they were led by ‘factors’ or managers but they were simply trading posts.

[10] After the fall of New France, 1759, French competitors set up the North West Company and pushed exploration north and west.

[11] Shoalts, 178

[12] Op cit, 173



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The Fews, South Armagh (Féa, woods): A place name and a potted history of a legendary Area

I have an interest in The Fews of South Armagh for family and professional reasons.  My paternal grandfather, one of seven brothers, came from Newtownhamilton, and fought for the IRA during the War of Independence.  After partition, he came to Dublin and set up a successful business.  When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, security normalisation in South Armagh was a challenging part of my brief in Anglo-Irish Division.

“Fiod is one of the words meaning ‘wood’ and is Anglicized as fee or fi,” writes Flanagan (p.88). In the case of the Fews in South Armagh (and Waterford), it is the Irish plural féa with the English plural ‘s’ added. 

As Joyce notes, Ireland was covered in woods so there are a host of words in Irish to describe them.  He gives fiod as fidh, or in Old Irish fid.  So covered in woods was Ireland that he records that one of the Bardic names for Ireland was Inis-na-bhfiodhaid or woody island (vol I, p 491).  Feenish in Co Clare is another way of saying woody island.  Fiodhach means a wooded place, hence Feagh, Feeagh, Feenagh.

Fee can have white (bán), big (mór), small (beg) and high (ard) added to it: Feebane, Feemore, Feebeg, Fethard and Feeard.

The Fews of South Armagh was historically a dangerous place whose locals fought to preserve their independence from invaders and interlopers.  None were more famous than Redmond O’Hanlon, a 17th century Gaelic Chieftain and, perforce, an Irish outlaw who, in a manner of speaking, helped preserve order, admittedly at a price.  The protection money he received he paid back out to his supporters and informants. He was a rapparee or tóraidhe, an irregular; ironically tóraidhe mutated into Tory as a name for the British conservative party. O’Hanlon was of noble Gaelic stock whose family was displaced of land and status by the Elizabeth and Cromwellian conquests.  He was betrayed and assassinated in 1681 but his name lives on in legend.

The North is naturally cut off from the rest of Ireland by the Erne river system, a band of steep ovoid drumlins (left behind by melting glaciers after the ice age) and the Mourne Mountains. There is a gap in the mountains that allows passage into Ulster from the south.  For that reason, South Armagh has featured as the focal point of wars and power struggles from mythic to modern times (see blog on Slieve Gullion). 

Faughart marks the southern end of the Gap of the North.  St Brigid was born here in 451, daughter of Dubhtach, a king of Leinster (we don’t know what he was doing there at the time of her birth). St Brigid is one of Ireland’s three patron saints, along with St Patrick and St Columcille. The shrine to her at Faughart is a popular attraction for pilgrims and tourists.

In Louth to the south, the land is flat and fertile, in contrast to South Amargh whose terrain was buckled by a volcano (now the famous Ring of Gullion).  Louth represented the northern reach of the Anglo-Norman Pale around Dublin. So the Fews of South Armagh were at the heart of a ferocious and prolonged struggle for control between the native Gaels, led by the O’Neills of the Fews, and the Anglo-Norman and later Elizabethan invaders. 

Mountjoy, Elizabeth I’s most successful soldier in Ireland, built Moyry Castle to hold the Gap of the North. As Toby Harnden points out in his book Bandit Country, The IRA and South Armagh, the castles built to control the area were the forerunners of the British Army Observation Towers erected during the Troubles.  

South Armagh became infamous as the redoubt of the local Provisional IRA, a ferocious and bloody conflict between local paramilitaries and the security forces. It was the scene too of sectarian atrocities.  There are both Protestant and Catholic McKees in Newtownhamilton.  James McKee (70) and Ronald McKee (40) were killed by a republican attack on Tullyvalen Orange Hall, along with two other civilians.

For the security forces, the fifteen Observation (surveillance) Towers and concrete sangers dotted around South Armagh were critical as far as the British Army and Northern Ireland police were concerned.  They would not or could not patrol without them. Troops moved and were resupplied by helicopter between them to avoid roadside ambushes.

For locals the Towers, and the constant helicopter traffic, were a serious imposition giving rise to all kinds of concerns about lack of privacy, noise, constant surveillance, possible health effects, and the fear that going about their daily lives meant they were at risk of being mistaken for paramilitaries.  I recall Séamus Mallon, SDLP Deputy Leader, MP and a modern day local chieftain (the peaceful variety), from nearby Markethill, saying that the Towers were the bane of his existence as a politician.

When I was a traveller in Anglo-Irish Division during the Troubles, there was always a sense of alertness as you entered the Gap of North, under the gaze of the Observation Tower on Camlough Mountain.  There was equally a sense of relief when you passed through it heading south.  Rosemary Nelson and I used to talk about this.  A human rights lawyer from Lurgan, Co. Armagh, Rosemary represented the Garvaghy Road residents during the Drumcree standoff.  Times were tense: contentious parades surged as new flashpoints in the conflict in the wake of the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires. Rosemary felt the relief acutely, either heading to Dublin or across the border for a holiday in Donegal.

The bitterest of all standoffs was between the Orange Order and the Garvaghy Residents of Portadown. I was the Government’s point-man on this and got to know Rosemary.  In 1994, the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time, Ray Burke, dispatched me north to meet the Residents the day after they were beaten off the Garvaghy Road to allow the Orange parade to pass. As I approached the Gap of the North, I could see trails of black smoke from burning tires spiral skyward across the north. The north had erupted into riots the previous evening. A burned-out bus lay athwart the Newry by-pass. When I reached the massive steel gates that separated the Garvaghy Road from Portadown centre, the RUC officers open the gates with barely a nod. They knew I was coming. As the tires crunched over broken glass, my first thought was that getting a puncture leaving Portadown was probably not a good idea wearing a suite and tie and driving a southern registered car. I was glad I had left my DFA ID on the desk.

The Orange Order itself was founded in County Armagh at the end of the 18th century where the balance between Catholic and Protestant populations ramped up sectarian tensions and inter-communal violence. After the Good Friday Agreement in 1995, the line was held on the Garvaghy Road by the security forces and over time the tensions around the parades issues were managed into de-escalation. Rosemary paid the price for her high profile role as a human rights defender and was assassinated by car bomb outside her home in 1999.  

After the Good Friday Agreement achieving security normalisation was part of my brief in DFA’s Anglo-Irish Division.  Progress on security normalisation in South Armagh was very challenging but the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and Prime Minister Blair kept working at it with the determination that marked all their effects to bring peace to Northern Ireland. 

That the Observation Towers were eventually demolished along with all the security architecture at the border crossing was an emphatic demonstration that peace in Northern Ireland, and indeed in the legendary Fews of South Armagh, was here to stay.  Today, it is hard to spot the border, save for a keen eye on the colour of the road markings.  The determination to preserve this gain, so essential to the Northern Ireland peace process, has been a driving force in the Government’s efforts to manage the challenge of Brexit to the progress we have made.


Ottawa, 7 March 2021

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