Journey into history

The Manitoba Museum, 190 Rupert Ave., is hosting special programming until the end of December which celebrates the tiny two-masted, eight-gun ketch which opened up the heart of a continent.

After many delays, members of a group of British businessmen and courtiers each invested small sums in the purchase and outfitting of the Nonsuch to see if it was possible to trade for furs in the Hudson Bay area.

It is all but certain that the Nonsuch was built as a merchant vessel at Wivenhoe, Essex, England in 1650. She had already had a romantic career — bought by the British Navy in 1654, captured by the Dutch in 1658, recaptured a year later and listed as a naval ship again in 1660.

 Naval records list her vital statistics: 37 feet long on the keel, which means her hull was about 50 feet long overall and 15 feet wide.  

In November 1667 she was sold out of the navy. The group who financed the expedition paid a merchant, Sir William Warren, £290 (in modern money, perhaps $15,000) for her in 1668.

The Nonsuch had a crew of 12 men in peace, 24 in wartime abroad. She usually carried six small cannons firing two-pound balls, but this number could be increased to eight. 

Because the Nonsuch was so small, she was probably intended for the coastal trade or short trips to the continent of Europe. However, her small size also resulted in her being chosen for an Arctic voyage — only a small ship could be hauled from the water in the fall for protection from the crushing winter ice.

The Nonsuch, in company with the Eaglet, which was soon forced to turn back, sailed from the Thames on June 3, 1668 under the command of Captain Zachariah Gillam of Boston, commander of the previous unsuccessful expedition. Captain Gillam was ordered to sail with Groseilliers of “Hudson Bay by the Northward or Westward according to your own discretion.” He was to take Groseilliers’ instructions as to where he anchored in the Bay, set up a fort on the land, trade with the local aboriginals, collect samples of minerals, and seek information about a route through from the Bay to the Pacific. 

Private trade was to be allowed, but only through the captain and not directly with natives. Groseilliers was to be treated with every courtesy as the “person Upon whose Credit we have Undertaken this Expedition.”

The Nonsuch sailed by the northern route and made a good crossing after 44 days from the Faroe Islands to Labrador where on August 1, 1668 landfall was made.

On board the Nonsuch, besides Captain Gillam and Groseilliers, there were two mates, a French surgeon, and a crew of seven or eight men. They ate the rough fare common among the poor people such as pigs half the size of modern animals, hard biscuits and bread, dried peas and oatmeal. 

For luxuries, the Nonsuch carried raisins and prunes, sugar and spice, malt, oil, vinegar, lemon juice, a large quantity of “small beer” (low alcohol) for the crew, and a quantity of brandy. The 17th- and 18th-century English sailor was compensated for a rough life with fantastic quantities of alcohol. As late as the 1700s, every seaman in the Royal Navy was issued eight pints of “small beer” — his normal drink because of the difficulty of preserving water — and a large quantity of spirits each day.

Four days after the landfall, the Nonsuch was off Resolution Island in the mouth of Hudson Strait. They traversed the strait on its south side and by August 30 were off the South Sleeper Islands which is far into Hudson Bay. 

The Nonsuch passed through the Belcher Islands and on to the south end of James Bay where it had difficulty navigating among the shoals and islands. Here, the crew made contact with the natives who showed them the way into Rupert River where the Nonsuch stopped for the winter. The crew hauled the ship from the water and built a wooden cabin in which they spent the winter living on beef and pork from the ship, as well as game they shot and fish.

By April 1669, the cold weather had nearly ended, and the crew began to receive visits from First Nations people who traded furs for goods and wampum, the white shells they used for currency. 

Relations with the First Nations people were excellent and gave rise to a “treaty” negotiated by Gillam and Groseilliers under which they “purchased” the land. In return for her trade goods, the Nonsuch loaded a good cargo of prize beaver pelts. 

With the coming of calm, hot weather in June, the crew began to prepare the ship for the return voyage. After 15 months of adventuring across the Atlantic and Hudson Bay, they returned to England. 

Gillam and his ship’s company were paid £700 in wages and disbursements, but they made more by way of private trade. “Even those who carried out no venture” had brought back beaver pelts worth £10 or £20 in the London market. Captain Gillam was particularly adept at this kind of private dealing.

The Nonsuch’s cargo was promptly sold for nearly £1,400, not a very large sum, not even enough to pay for the costs of the voyage and all that led up to it, but the great theory of Radisson and Groseilliers had been proven. Direct access by sea to the furs of the northern forest was a practical proposition.

On May, 2, 1670, the group of businessmen and courtiers who had supported the Hudson Bay voyage received their charter as the “Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay” with Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles II, as governor. The charter made the company “the true and absolute Lordes and Proprietors” of 1.4 million square miles of present day Canada. 

In 1967, the Hudson’s Bay Company announced plans to build a full-size replica of the Nonsuch in England to celebrate the tercentenary of the Company. 

Like her predecessor, the Nonsuch replica was made almost entirely of solid English oak. Her sails were hand sewn from quality navy flax canvas and miles of hemp rope were used for her rigging. She was caulked with oakum, an almost obsolete practice, and generously decorated with carvings, typical of a 17th-century vessel.

On August 26, 1968, the Nonsuch was launched under the command of Captain Adrian Small of Brixham, England. 

During her four years of operation, the replica delighted thousands of people at ports in England, France, Seattle, Washington, Chicago, Montreal and British Columbia. She sailed a total of 14,000 kilometres in salt and freshwater, exclusive of her piggyback passage to Canada and her epic overland journeys from Superior, Wisconsin to Seattle. Her last undignified overland journey brought her to Winnipeg in November 1973 where the Nonsuch was donated to Manitoba by the Hudson Bay Company and finally brought to rest in the Manitoba Museum.

In constructing a setting for the Nonsuch, the Manitoba Museum felt that the point of departure for the fist voyage to Hudson Bay was most appropriate — a British port facility on the River Thames. 

The ship is secured to a small quay in Deptford, the largest shipyard on the Thames. It is low tide and the Nonsuch rests on a sandy, gravel bed. This specially constructed, 90-foot-high galley allows visitors to view history from the inside. Rather than channeling past an exhibit, visitors are free to roam the docks and riverbed at their leisure.

— provided by the Manitoba