Murderer. Salesman. Pirate. Adventurer. Cannibal. Co-founder of the Hudson's Bay Company.
Known to some as the first European to explore the upper Mississippi, and widely as the namesake of ships and hotel chains, Pierre-Esprit Radisson is perhaps best described, writes Mark Bourrie, as “an eager hustler with no known scruples.” Kidnapped by Mohawk warriors at the age of fifteen, Radisson assimilated and was adopted by a powerful family, only to escape to New York City after less than a year. After being recaptured, he defected from a raiding party to the Dutch and crossed the Atlantic to Holland—thus beginning a lifetime of seized opportunities and frustrated ambitions.
A guest among First Nations communities, French fur traders, and royal courts; witness to London’s Great Plague and Great Fire; and unwitting agent of the Jesuits’ corporate espionage, Radisson double-crossed the English, French, Dutch, and his adoptive Mohawk family alike, found himself marooned by pirates in Spain, and lived through shipwreck on the reefs of Venezuela. His most lasting venture as an Artic fur trader led to the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which operates today, 350 years later, as North America’s oldest corporation.
I remember first hearing about Radisson and Groseilliers in about Grade 5, when I think they were called “explorers” or “fur traders.” I also recall my mother calling them Radishes and Gooseberries. Imagine my surprise to find that Groseilliers actually does mean gooseberries!
In many ways, Pierre-Esprit Radisson is a better and a worse man than you would expect from the few facts that I encountered in grade school. He seems to have been able to roll along with whatever situation he encountered, looking for an upside or an opportunity. He also seems to have had a natural aptitude for languages which stood him in good stead. On the poor side, he seemed to be motivated almost entirely by profit and was willing to abandon or double-cross his friends and business partners whenever it was convenient for him.
Why should we be interested in the man? As the author states in his introduction: He’s living with Indigenous people in North America. He’s with Charles II of England and his court of scoundrels, traitors, and ex-pirates. He’s in England during the Great Plague. He’s in London during the Great Fire. He’s set upon by spies. He’s in the Arctic. Then he’s with pirates in the Caribbean. After that, he’s at Versailles. And then the Arctic again. Along the way, he crosses paths with the most interesting people of his day. He’s the Forrest Gump of his time.
I can’t help but think that Radisson could have achieved a lot more if he hadn’t been quite so fixated on the fur trade. He could have lived a good life among the Iroquois or the Mohawk, but his restless nature wouldn’t let him settle. A bit of a conman, he couldn’t happily just live a normal life.