Hudson's Bay by R. M. Ballantyne
HAVING been asked to give some account of the
commencement of my literary career, I begin by
remarking that my first book was
not a tale or 'story-book,' but a free-and-easy
record of personal adventure
and every-day life in those wild
regions of North America
which are known, variously,
as Rupert's Land—The
Hudson's Bay Territory—The
West, and 'The
Great Lone Land.'
WHERE I WROTE MY FIRST BOOK
(A Sketch by the Author)
The record was
never meant to see
the light in the
form of a book. It
was written solely
for the eye of my
mother, but, as it
may be said that
it was the means
of leading me ultimately
into the path of my life-work, and was penned under
somewhat peculiar circumstances, it may not be out of place
to refer to it particularly here.
The circumstances were as follows:—
After having spent about six years in the wild Nor' West,
as a servant of the Hudson's Bay Fur Company, I found
myself, one summer—at the advanced age of twenty-two—in
charge of an outpost on the uninhabited northern shores of
the Gulf of St. Lawrence named Seven Islands. It was a
dreary, desolate spot; at that time far beyond the bounds of
civilisation. The gulf, just opposite the establishment, was
about fifty miles broad. The ships which passed up and
down it were invisible, not only on account of distance, but
because of seven islands at the mouth of the bay coming
between them and the outpost. My next neighbour, in
command of a similar post up the gulf, was about seventy
miles distant. The nearest house down the gulf was about
eighty miles off, and behind us lay the virgin forests, with
swamps, lakes, prairies, and mountains, stretching away without
break right across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.
The outpost—which, in virtue of a ship's carronade and
a flagstaff, was occasionally styled a 'fort'—consisted of
four wooden buildings. One of these—the largest, with a
verandah—was the Residency. There was an offshoot in
rear which served as a kitchen. The other houses were a
store for goods wherewith to carry on trade with the Indians,
a stable, and a workshop. The whole population of the
establishment—indeed of the surrounding district—consisted
of myself and one man—also a horse! The horse occupied
the stable, I dwelt in the Residency, the rest of the population
lived in the kitchen.
There were, indeed, five other men belonging to the
establishment, but these did not affect its desolation, for they
were away netting salmon at a river about twenty miles
distant at the time I write of.
My 'Friday'—who was a French-Canadian—being cook,
as well as man-of-all-works, found a little occupation in
attending to the duties of his office, but the unfortunate
Governor had nothing whatever to do except await the
arrival of Indians, who were not due at that time. The
horse was a bad one, without a saddle, and in possession of a
pronounced backbone. My 'Friday' was not sociable. I
had no books, no newspapers, no magazines or literature of
any kind, no game to shoot, no boat wherewith to prosecute
fishing in the bay, and no prospect of seeing anyone to speak
to for weeks, if not months, to come. But I had pen and ink,
and, by great good fortune, was in possession of a blank paper
book fully an inch thick.
These, then, were the circumstances in which I began my
When that book was finished, and, not long afterwards,
submitted to the—I need hardly say favourable—criticism of
my mother, I had not the most distant idea of taking to
authorship as a profession. Even when a printer-cousin,
seeing the MS., offered to print it, and the well-known
Blackwood of Edinburgh, seeing the book, offered to publish
it—and did publish it—my ambition was still so absolutely
asleep that I did not again put pen to paper in that way for
eight years thereafter, although I might have been encouraged
thereto by the fact that this first book—named 'Hudson's
Bay'—besides being a commercial success, received favourable
notice from the Press.
It was not until the year 1854 that my literary path was
opened up. At that time I was a partner in the late publishing
firm of Constable & Co., of Edinburgh. Happening one
day to meet with the late William Nelson, publisher, I was
asked by him how I should like the idea of taking to literature
as a profession. My answer I forget. It must have
been vague, for I had never thought of the subject before.
'Well,' said he, 'what would you think of trying to write
Somewhat amused, I replied that I did not know what to
think, but I would try if he wished me to do so.
'Do so,' said he, 'and go to work at once'—or words to
I went to work at once, and wrote my first story or work
of fiction. It was published in 1855 under the name of
'Snowflakes and Sunbeams; or, The Young Fur-traders.'
Afterwards the first part of the title was dropped, and the
book is now known as 'The Young Fur-traders.' From that
day to this I have lived by making story-books for young folk.
MR. BALLANTYNE'S HOUSE AT HARROW
From what I have said it will be seen that I have never
aimed at the achieving of this position, and I hope that it is
not presumptuous in me to think—and to derive much comfort
from the thought—that God led me into the particular path
along which I have walked for so many years.
The scene of my first story was naturally laid in those
backwoods with which I was familiar, and the story itself was
founded on the adventures and experiences of myself and my
companions. When a second book was required of me, I
stuck to the same regions, but changed the locality. When
casting about in my mind for a suitable subject, I happened
to meet with an old retired 'Nor'wester' who had spent an
adventurous life in Rupert's Land. Among other duties he
had been sent to establish an outpost of the Hudson's Bay
Company at Ungava Bay, one of the most dreary parts of a
desolate region. On hearing what I wanted he sat down and
wrote a long narrative of his proceedings there, which he
placed at my disposal, and thus furnished me with the
foundation of 'Ungava.'
But now I had reached the end of my tether, and when a
third story was wanted I was compelled to seek new fields of
adventure in the books of travellers. Regarding the Southern
seas as a most romantic part of the world—after the backwoods!—I
mentally and spiritually plunged into those warm
waters, and the dive resulted in the 'Coral Island.'
It now began to be borne in upon me that there was
something not quite satisfactory in describing, expatiating on,
and energising in, regions which one has never seen. For
one thing, it was needful to be always carefully on the watch
to avoid falling into mistakes—geographical, topographical,
natural-historical, and otherwise.
For instance, despite the utmost care of which I was
capable while studying up for the 'Coral Island,' I fell into a
blunder through ignorance in regard to a familiar fruit. I was
under the impression that cocoanuts grew on their trees in the
same form as that in which they are usually presented to us
in grocers' windows—namely, about the size of a large fist,
with three spots at one end. Learning from trustworthy
books that at a certain stage of development the nut contains
a delicious beverage like lemonade, I sent one of my heroes
up a tree for a nut, through the shell of which he bored a hole
with a penknife. It was not till long after the story was
TROPHIES FROM MR. BALLANTYNE'S TRAVELS
published that my own brother—who had voyaged in Southern
seas—wrote to draw my attention to the fact that the cocoanut
is nearly as large as a man's head, and its outer husk is
over an inch thick, so that no ordinary penknife could bore
to its interior! Of course I should have known this, and,
perhaps, should be ashamed of my ignorance, but, somehow
I admit that this was a slip, but such, and other slips,
hardly justify the remark that some people have not hesitated
to make—namely, that I have a tendency to draw the long
bow. I feel almost sensitive on this point, for I have always
laboured to be true to nature and to fact even in my wildest
flights of fancy.
This reminds me of the remark made to myself once by a
lady in reference to this same 'Coral Island.' 'There is one
thing, Mr. Ballantyne,' she said, 'which I really find it hard
to believe. You make one of your three boys dive into a
clear pool, go to the bottom, and then, turning on his back,
look up and wink and laugh at the other two.'
'No, no, not "laugh,"' said I, remonstratively.
'Well, then, you make him smile.'
'Ah! that is true, but there is a vast difference between
laughing and smiling under water. But is it not singular
that you should doubt the only incident in the story which I
personally verify? I happened to be in lodgings at the seaside
while writing that story, and, after penning the passage
you refer to, I went down to the shore, pulled off my clothes,
dived to the bottom, turned on my back, and, looking up, I
smiled and winked.'
The lady laughed, but I have never been quite sure, from
the tone of that laugh, whether it was a laugh of conviction or
of unbelief. It is not improbable that my fair friend's mental
constitution may have been somewhat similar to that of the old
woman who declined to believe her sailor-grandson when he
told her he had seen flying-fish, but at once recognised his
veracity when he said he had seen the remains of Pharaoh's
chariot wheels on the shores of the Red Sea.
Recognising, then, the difficulties of my position, I formed
the resolution to visit—when possible—the scenes in which
my stories were laid; converse with the people who, under
modification, were to form the dramatis personæ of the tales,
and, generally, to obtain information in each case, as far as lay
in my power, from the fountain-head.
Thus, when about to begin 'The Lifeboat,' I went to
Ramsgate, and, for some time, was hand and glove with
Jarman, the heroic coxswain of the Ramsgate boat, a lion-like
as well as a lion-hearted man, who rescued hundreds of lives
from the fatal Goodwin Sands during his career. In like
manner, when getting up information for 'The Lighthouse,'
I obtained permission from the Commissioners of Northern
Lights to visit the Bell Rock Lighthouse, where I hobnobbed
with the three keepers of that celebrated pillar-in-the-sea for
three weeks, and read Stevenson's graphic account of the
building of the structure in the library, or visitors' room, just
under the lantern. I was absolutely a prisoner there during
those three weeks, for no boats ever came near us, and it need
scarcely be said that ships kept well out of our way. By good
fortune there came on a pretty stiff gale at the time, and
Stevenson's thrilling narrative was read to the tune of whistling
winds and roaring seas, many of which latter sent the
spray right up to the lantern and caused the building, more
than once, to quiver to its foundation.
In order to do justice to 'Fighting the Flames' I careered
through the streets of London on fire-engines, clad in a pea-jacket
and a black leather helmet of the Salvage Corps. This
to enable me to pass the cordon of police without question—though
not without recognition, as was made apparent to me
on one occasion at a fire by a fireman whispering confidentially,
'I know what you are, sir, you're a hamitoor!'
'Right you are,' said I, and moved away in order to
change the subject.
It was a glorious experience, by the way, this galloping on
fire-engines through the crowded streets. It had in it much
of the excitement of the chase—possibly that of war—with
the noble end in view of saving instead of destroying life!
Such tearing along at headlong speed; such wild roaring of
the firemen to clear the way; such frantic dashing aside of
cabs, carts, 'buses, and pedestrians; such reckless courage on
the part of the men, and volcanic spoutings on the part of the
fires! But I must not linger. The memory of it is too
enticing. 'Deep Down' took me to Cornwall, where, over
two hundred fathoms beneath the green turf, and more than
half a mile out under the bed of the sea, I saw the sturdy
miners at work winning copper and tin from the solid rock,
and acquired some knowledge of their life, sufferings, and toils.
In the land of the Vikings I shot ptarmigan, caught salmon,
and gathered material for 'Erling the Bold.' A winter in
Algiers made me familiar with the 'Pirate City.' I enjoyed
a fortnight with the hearty inhabitants of the Gull Lightship
off the Goodwin Sands; and went to the Cape of Good Hope
MR. R. M. BALLANTYNE
and up into the interior of the Colony, to spy out the land and
hold intercourse with 'The Settler and the Savage'—although
I am bound to confess that, with regard to the latter, I talked
to him only with mine eyes. I also went afloat for a short
time with the fishermen of the North Sea in order to be able
to do justice to 'The Young Trawler.'
To arrive still closer at the truth, and to avoid errors, I
have always endeavoured to submit my proof sheets, when
possible, to experts and men who knew the subjects well.
Thus, Captain Shaw, late chief of the London Fire Brigade,
kindly read the proofs of 'Fighting the Flames,' and prevented
my getting off the rails in matters of detail, and Sir Arthur
Blackwood, financial secretary to the General Post Office,
obligingly did me the same favour in regard to 'Post Haste.'
One other word in conclusion. Always, while writing—whatever
might be the subject of my story—I have been
influenced by an undercurrent of effort and desire to direct the
minds and affections of my readers towards the higher life.