Within ten years after Captain Cook’s 1778 contact with Hawai‘i, the islands became a favorite port of call in the trade with China. The fur traders and merchant ships crossing the Pacific needed to replenish food supplies and water.
The maritime fur trade focused on acquiring furs of sea otters, seals and other animals from the Pacific Northwest Coast and Alaska. The furs were mostly sold in China in exchange for tea, silks, porcelain and other Chinese goods, which were then sold in Europe and the United States.
Needing supplies in their journey, the traders soon realized they could economically barter for provisions in Hawai‘i; for instance any type of iron, a common nail, chisel or knife, could fetch far more fresh fruit meat and water than a large sum of money would in other ports.
A triangular trade network emerged linking the Pacific Northwest coast, China and the Hawaiian Islands to Britain and the United States (especially New England).
After acquiring the “Louisiana Purchase” in 1803, under the directive of President Thomas Jefferson, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the “Corps of Discovery Expedition” (1804–1806), was the first transcontinental expedition to the Pacific coast undertaken by the United States.
Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was a fur trading company that started in Canada in 1670; its first century of operation found HBC firmly focused in a few forts and posts around the shores of James and Hudson Bays, Central Canada.
Fast forward 150-years and in 1821, HBC merged with North West Company, its competitor; the resulting enterprise now spanned the continent – all the way to the Pacific Northwest (modern-day Oregon, Washington and British Columbia) and the North (Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.)
Fur traders working for the HBC traveled an area of more than 700,000 square miles that stretched from Russian Alaska to Mexican California and from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Ships sailed from London around Cape Horn around South America and then to forts and posts along the Pacific Coast via the Hawaiian Islands. Trappers crossing overland faced a journey of 2,000 miles that took three months.
On January 21, 1829 the Hudson’s Bay Company schooner ‘Cadboro’ arrived at Honolulu from Fort Vancouver with a small shipment of poles and sawn lumber.
The Company was attracted to Hawaiʻi not for furs but as a potential market for the products of the Company’s posts in the Pacific Northwest. That first trip was intended to test the market for HBC’s primary products, salmon and lumber.
Another goal of the trip was to recruit Hawaiians for HBC operations on the Northwest Coast. As early as 1811, HBC had already hired twelve Hawaiians on three year contracts to work for them in the Pacific Northwest.
By 1824, HBC employed thirty-five Hawaiians west of the Rocky Mountains. It is estimated that by 1844 between 300 and 400 Hawaiians were in HBC service in the Pacific Northwest, both in vessels and at posts.
When the Hudson’s Bay Company entered the Hawaiian market in 1829, Honolulu had already become a significant Pacific port of call and major provisioning station for trans-Pacific travelers.
In addition to the sale of Northwest Coast products, the Company’s Honolulu Agency in the 1840s entered into the merchandising of English manufactured goods.
HBC was always considered a leading Honolulu merchant house, but what really distinguished it was its continuity. In those days Honolulu business firms other than HBC were either sole proprietorships or partnerships, which were easily formed and as readily dissolved. HBC was stable and strong and based outside of Hawaiʻi.
The Company’s Honolulu customers were both the whaling fleet and local businesses, and individuals, including the Hawaiian population – all of whom appreciated the high quality of the products the Company offered for sale.
The Company’s role in Honolulu’s merchant shipping forms a considerable chapter in Hawaiian maritime history; shipping was the lifeline of the Agency. Company cargo, with only a few exceptions, was transported in vessels owned or chartered by the Company.
Each year a Company vessel carrying trade goods and supplies was sent from England around Cape Horn to the Northwest Coast, usually stopping at Honolulu.
The earliest location of the HBC in Honolulu was on the north side of Nuʻuanu Street close to King Street, where it occupied a two-story, shingle-sided building. In 1846 HBC moved to a new site closer and more convenient to the waterfront at the corner of Fort and Queen Streets (the ‘Beaver Block,’ but that’s another story.)
As the year 1859 started, Pacific whaling entered its decline, the Agency’s competition in the importation of goods increased. Janion Green and Co. (forerunner of Theo H. Davies), Hackfeld and Co. (forerunner of Amfac,) C. Brewer, and Castle and Cooke (the beginnings of the Big Five) were established firms.
The Honolulu market was overstocked with goods, and trade was slow. In 1859, HBC decided to close its Hawaiʻi operations; a couple years later, they were gone.