While the Spanish trade was under the control of the King and the French lost interest in the Pacific Northwest, other powers began to consolidate their interests in North America and their trade with Asia into large companies. During the 18th century, the British Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the Canadian Northwest Company focused on the inland fur trade. Two British companies held monopolies over Pacific trade: the East India Company licensed all British trade with China, and the South Sea Company dominated trade with Spain’s South American colonies.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was formed in 1670 under the charter of English King Charles II. The HBC controlled trade in much of what was to become Canada by relying on local, primarily First Nations peoples to bring trade items to their outposts. Pelts would be exchanged for a standardized list of items such as English woolen cloth and blankets.
Montreal merchants in competition with the HBC officially formed the North West Company in 1783. They set up a branch in New York, which allowed them to avoid the East India Company monopoly when they shipped Canadian furs to the Chinese market. Alexander Mackenzie was a fur trader employed by the North West Company to explore a Northwest Passage and an overland route to the Pacific Ocean. In 1801, he wrote that “some account of the fur trade of Canada … will, I trust, prove interesting to a nation whose general policy is blended with and whose prosperity is supported by, the pursuits of commerce.”
The HBC merged with the North West Company in 1821 and erected trading forts along the Pacific coast, including Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island on the site where the Maritime Museum of British Columbia stands today. Britain’s monopoly over trade with China (through tariffs and the issue of a Royal Charter that gave license to the East India Company) dwindled. Half of this market was taken over by private merchants by the 1830s.
In 1785, the King George’s Sound Company was formed in London to capitalize on the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest. The vessels of their first voyage were licensed to the South Sea Company and the East India Company, and were commanded by members of Captain Cook’s third expedition, which had reached Nootka or “King George’s” Sound. In 1788-89, the Associated Merchants Trading to the Northwest Coast of America was formed as the result of a merger with the King George’s Sound Company and a partnership between British Merchant Navy Captain John Meares and James Colnett. With four vessels, they intended to trade between China and the Pacific Northwest by sea. These ships arrived in Nootka Sound under Portuguese flags in 1789. The Spanish seized their vessels, sparking the Nootka Crisis.