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 The Nonsuch

Nonsuch Returns to London, 1669 by Norman Wilkinson, ca. 1943

Nonsuch Returns to London, 1669 by Norman Wilkinson, ca. 1943

In 1666 an informal syndicate of businessmen and courtiers committed to exploring the feasibility of a northern fur trade route into Hudson Bay began to come together in London. Their intent was to underwrite a speculative voyage to North America and prove the economic viability of the idea first proposed by Radisson and des Groseilliers. In addition to the capital required for such a venture the group needed reliable transport: the transatlantic journey was not without considerable risk.

In 1667 prominent syndicate member Sir George Carteret, who was both Treasurer of the Royal Navy and Commissioner of the Board of Trade, personally undertook to procure a vessel on behalf of the group. He bought the ketch Discovery, which later proved entirely unsuitable for the task. The following entry from the first ledger of Hudson's Bay Company records the reimbursement to Carteret, in January 1668, of the purchase price and reveals that Discovery was subsequently sold at a loss:

By cash paid for the Discovery ketch (which was bought for the Company's use and Sold by their Order) more than she produced upon Sale £70.

By early 1668 alternate transport had been arranged. The Royal Navy ketch Eaglet was leased for a sum of £6 2s.6d. This arrangement was made with King Charles II and is directly attributable to the influence of his cousin, Prince Rupert, one of the voyage's backers. The second vessel, the Nonsuch, another ketch, had also seen service in the Royal Navy but had been acquired the previous autumn by timber merchant Sir William Warren. In March 1668 Warren sold the Nonsuch to the group for £290.

The replica Nonsuch, by Jim Flynn, 1970

The replica Nonsuch, by Jim Flynn, 1970

By May both ships had been outfitted for the journey and were full to bursting with foodstuffs, rope, clothing, guns, powder and shot, paper, quills and ink as well as a cargo of items for trade: kettles, metal tools, needles, beads, tobacco and blankets. On June 5, 1668, the two vessels made their way down the Thames from Gravesend en route to Hudson Bay. Ten days later they rounded the Orkney Islands to the Northeast of Scotland and headed west.

Eaglet was commanded by Captain William Stannard of the Royal Navy and carried Pierre-Esprit Radisson aboard. The master of the Nonsuch was Captain Zachariah Gillam; Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers sailed with him. Gillam was already known to both the Frenchmen: in 1663 Radisson and des Groseilliers had previously accompanied him on an abortive voyage from Boston as far as Hudson Strait, where they were turned back by ice. This trip would prove just as difficult. Some 1200 nautical miles west of Ireland the two ships encountered severe storms and heavy seas. Eaglet was forced to turn back and arrived back in Plymouth "with some losse" by August; Nonsuch carried on alone.

The sturdy little vessel anchored in James Bay off the mouth of the Rupert River on September 29, 1668 - the very same place where Henry Hudson had wintered more than half a century earlier. The crew set about to make their winter camp, clearing land and building a stockade and small house. Nonsuch was hauled up out of the water and careened on the riverbank. In the spring of 1669, after a long winter, almost 300 peaceful Cree arrived to trade prime beaver skins. Finally, on June 14, Nonsuch set sail for England, arriving back in London in October. The subsequent history of the ship is unknown, but it is likely she was sold. Later vessels used by HBC were much larger.

Entry in Hbc Grand Ledger for 30 March 1668 showing the purchase of the Nonsuch from Sir William Warren

Entry in HBC Grand Ledger for 30 March 1668 showing the purchase of the Nonsuch from Sir William Warren
HBCA A14.1 fo. 79

Both Nonsuch and Eaglet were ketches, a type of two-masted sailing vessel with the second, or mizzen, mast set behind the main mast and holding a small triangular sail. The ketch is still popular today among long distance cruisers as the additional sail allows for better balance. At 43 tons Nonsuch had a deck 53 feet in length, 37 feet along the keel. Her beam (breadth) was 15 feet , she had a draft of 6½ feet, and was designed to take a completment of 6-8 naval cannon. Built in Wivenhoe, Essex in 1650, she had begun life as a merchant ship, was bought by the British Navy, subsequently captured by the Dutch, and recaptured by the British before being sold to private interests. She is generally believed to have been named in honour of Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, one of King Charles II's favourite mistresses. The name, meaning "none such" or "without equal" was a nickname of hers.

To celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Company a replica of the Nonsuch was built by Messrs. J. Hinks and Sons of Appledore, Devon. She was launched in August 1968 and shipped to Canada in 1970. She sailed around Lake Ontario in 1970 and 1971 and through the Welland Canal into Lake Erie, and as far as Chicago. In 1972 she was transported to Seattle and after spending some time there sailed up to British Columbia making several ports of call along the coast. Today the Nonsuch replica has a permanent home in Winnipeg at the Manitoba Museum, where she is the star attraction of the Nonsuch Gallery, "moored" at a recreation of the 17th c. London docks.

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