Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"Skin for a Skin"

The Hudson Bay Company was a prominent player in the settling of St. Vincent and Pembina. Its presence was felt during the latter 18th and early 19th centuries here.

I recently requested all extent records for the HBC posts that were in or around Pembina/St. Vincent from the Hudson Bay Archives in Winnipeg. I wasn't sure they'd even allow the records to be interlibrary loaned, but to my delight, they did. Thus began hours of scrolling through microfilm, of dimly-lit faint 19th century handwriting (to me, there's no better way to spend a Saturday morning...) Until I have time to go through my copious notes from that adventure, here is some interesting trivia about 'the Company'...

The Latin motto on the HBC coat of arms is Pro Pelle Cutem, which translates roughly as "a skin for a skin". There are several interpretations of this phrase, none of which can be proven irrefutably. One suggests that it is meant to indicate that the HBC traders risked their own skins to procure furs. This interpretation derives from the Book of Job Chapter 2, verse 4: " And Satan answered the Lord and said: Skin for skin; yea all that a man hath, will he give for his life."

Historian E.E. Rich proposed a somewhat different interpretation: "The Company wanted the pelt so as to get the wool from it; it wanted the skin, cutem, for the sake of the fleece, pro pelle. Such an explanation of the motto does not exclude literary and Biblical derivations, nor the possibility that the risks of a fur-trading life were in mind." This is the more plausible interpretation. Beaver fur in the 17th century was used in its natural state, or "in the pelt". Its primary value was as a source of fibres for felt-making and to that end, the more valuable part of the fur was the short, close "wool" which lay under the long silky guard hairs.

Source: Hudson Bay Archives