Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Ship Ruby

No history book of Haida Gwaii and the sea-otter fur trade would be complete without some mention of the little British ship "Ruby," which sailed from Bristol, England, on October 16th, 1794, and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River on May 22nd, 1795. The story of her voyage might have been lost to posterity also, had not her master, Captain Charles Bishop, kept a "log" which has been preserved. That the idea of a permanent settlement in the interest of trade was not far distant from the minds of the promoters of the "Ruby's" venture is shown by the instructions issued to her commander. He was to:--

Map IV. Bishop's voyages on the coast of North-west America.

". . . proceed to the Northward, touching in at and carefully examining every streight, sound, and river that appears navigable with safety to Nootka Sound . . . I recommend you to pay particular attention to this part of the coast as also to every port in the Charlotte Islands . . . it will be to your Interest and Honor to Examine the coast with care from one end to the other, and the utmost Activity in moving fom one port to another in your route to the Northward will be required. The moment your trade is done you must remove, making the natives sensible nearly the time you purpose to return, and give them every encouragement to keep their furs for you. You must keep your Orders, your route and instructions a profound secret, and if you are not in want of assistance, have no entercourse whatever . . . with any other ship; and you must not part with any of your articles of trade in Barter with other ships, not even for furs."

The explicitness of these instructions and the manner in which the plan is mapped out suggests the thoroughness of the great inland fur company, the Hudson's Bay, so soon to fall heir to the whole coastal trade. A good season's trade was estimated to be about 1,500 prime sea-otter skins, and the strictest account was to be kept of all transactions. All skins were to be packed with the greatest care, in cases, not casks, and no damp or damaged skins were to be placed among them. "Remember to put cedar shavings amongs them; it will keep them from being eaten by the moth."  As an inducement to trade, Bishop was offered a commission on the sale of the furs in China, over and above his regular salary as ship's master. However, no private adventuring in trade on the part of the men was to be allowed on board the Ruby--"should any person carry a private adventure he is to forfeit his whole Wages and Commission."

In spite of all this careful planning, Captain Bishop's voyage was not a great success. The weather was against the traders while they were in the environs of Haida Gwaii, and at one time they were in danger of losing their ship when she was grounded on a sunken reef. After visiting Nootka, which had now been evacuated by the Spaniards, Bishop spent part of the winter at Deception Bay at the mouth of the Columbia. Here the crew found that the potatoes in the little garden they had planted on their way north in the spring had flourished, though the "peas, beans, reddishes, cresses and sallery [celery]" had not grown. For the time they remained here, Bishop was on the best of terms with the famed Chief Concomally, from whom they recieved many gifts of food. On January 23rd, 1796, the "Ruby" passed successfully out to sea, though not without striking the dangerous Columbia River. Before the Sandwhich Islands were reahed, it was found that the vessel had sprung several leaks, probably the combined result of her two experiences on the rocks in the north and on the bar. She managed to reach Canton, where her disappointing cargo of about 1,000 sea-otter pelts had to be sold for under $10 a skin. The "Ruby" was finally sold there, and Captian Bishop, deciding not to return to England, took service in the British Navy. []