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The captain of the ship stood staring at the shore of Hudson Bay. It was a cool autumn day and on the shore was York Factory, one of the most important trading posts in North America.
The weather was clear as he sailed towards the coast from the north. A group of men had already left the ship to go ashore and scout out the fort. Soon, the fort would be his and France would have won another decisive battle in the Seven Years War.
In the distance, he saw the masts and sails of approaching ships. Staring into the distance, he believed that the rest of his squadron had arrived to help him take the fort.
Turning the ship to meet them, he suddenly realized that these were not French ships, but English.
Suddenly, a shot was fired across the bow of his ship.
Whether he was ready for it or not, Captain Pierre d’Ilberville and his ship, Le Pelican, was about to head into the largest naval battle in North American Arctic history.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
When we think of naval battles, our minds automatically go to great battles on the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, or perhaps in the Mediterranean. We tend not to think of the Arctic.
Most people may not even realize that the Arctic has seen battle, or that its largest battle came during what many call the first global conflict, the Nine Years’ War.
The war, which was fought between France and a coalition that included the Holy Roman Empire, Dutch Republic, England, Spain, Sweden and Portugal, began on Sept. 27, 1688.
The war was fought in Europe, the Americas, India and West Africa, making it arguable the first major war fought across the planet.
The war had begun when Louis XIV of France made the decision to cross the Rhine to extend his influence and pressure the Holy Roman Empire into accepting his territorial claims. Both the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, and the German princes, chose to resist, which began the war.
For the next nine years, the war raged and led to 680,000 military deaths by most estimates, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history to that point.
In North America, it was known as King William’s War and centred more on the growing tensions of control over the lucrative fur trade between the French and English. The French wanted to lay claim to the area of Hudson Bay, while the English wanted to take control of the region of the Mississippi controlled by the French.
In what would be Canada, various settlements were attacked in New France including Montreal and Quebec.
Most of the fighting was located on the east coast of North America, but it would eventually reach the very remote, but very important, location of Hudson Bay.
In the final month of the war, only a few weeks before it ended, the French decided to make ap lay for York Factory.
The fort had been established in 1684 by the Hudson Bay Company as one of its first fur trading forts. The Hudson’s Bay Company had formed in 1670, and the fort was established only 14 years later, where it became the central depot for the fur trading enterprise. Nearly all the furs that the company purchased throughout what was called Rupert’s Land, came through York Factory at one point or another.
Throughout King William’s War, or the Nine Years War, the French attempted to capture the forts located at Hudson Bay.
A force of 100 French soldiers were sent north and they succeeded in taking Moose Factory, Fort Charles and Fort Albany in James Bay. The only fort that remained in the Hudson’s Bay Company hands was York Factory.
Captain d’Iberville attempted to take the fort in 1690, but failed when an English warship showed up. He tried again in 1694 and this time actually captured it through a show of force against the Independent Company of Foot located there. These men were fur traders with limited military training. Upon capturing the fort, he called it Fort Bourbon. The following year, the English returned and retook it with three Royal Navy frigates.
The French were not about to lose this highly important trading post, and they returned once again, and for the last time, in 1697.
On Sept. 5, 1697, the French reached York Factory on the coast of Hudson Bay. They wanted to capture the fort, and with it, take over the lucrative fur trade that went through York Factory.
The English, were not about to let that happen.
The battle consisted of four ships fighting near York Factory for supremacy.
The Pelican was the main French ship that served as part of the squadron that was dispatched to fight for control of Hudson Bay. The Pelican consisted of 44 guns and 150 men on it. Prior to the battle, it had become separated from the rest of the French squadron due to heavy fog. As a result, the ship would go into battle against high odds in a spectacular battle.
As it sailed south into clear weather, The Pelican approached York Factory and soldiers went ashore to scout out the fort with the captain remaining on the Pelican. Soon after, those British ships that the captain mistook for his fellow French ships began to approach. The British ships soon opened fire on The Pelican.
On the British side, there were three frigates with the Hampshire serving as the main ship with 46 guns. There was also the HBC Royal Hudson’s Bay with 32 guns and the HBC Dering with 36 guns, both smaller merchant ships. The warship was under the command of John Fletcher,
To put it simply, the Pelican had 44 guns to the 114 guns of the British. They were not good odds.
What d’Ilberville did not know was that the three others ships he was waiting on, the Profound, Palmier and Wesp, had actually engaged in a short battle with the Hampshire several days earlier, and the Hampshire was approaching now from that battle.
Seeing that his shore party was out of reach, Captain d’Ilberville chose to head into battle with guns blazing. For the next two-and-a-half hours, the two sides engaged in a ferocious sea battle.
The Pelican was able to disable the mainsail of the Dering early in the battle, while the Royal Hudson’s Bay, which came to the aid of the Dering, was crippled by the Pelican through a volley of shots.
With those two ships out of contention in the battle, it was time to take on the more powerful Hampshire.
Both the Pelican and the Hampshire, the two biggest ships in the battle, then fought a vicious and brutal broad-side battle.
As the battle raged, it looked as though the French were about to lose due to the overwhelming odds of the British. Of course, Captain d’Ilberville was not about to surrender and the captain of the Hampshire actually respected this. He admired the bravery of Captain d’Ilberville and raised a glass of wine to toast him on his ship.
Then, everything changed.
A shot from the Pelican hit the powder magazine of the Hampshire. This ignited the powder, causing the ship to explode and quickly sink beneath the waves. The captain who raised his glass out of respect, went down with the ship.
I should point out that some sources say that the ship actually struck a shoal and sank, rather than exploded. I like the explosion story though, as it is more dramatic for an epic battle.
With the Hampshire out of the battle, the other captains of the two opposing ships knew there was no chance. Instead of going into battle, against the larger ship, the Hudson’s Bay struck her colours to the Pelican, a signal of her surrender. The Dering simply broke off from the battle and fled.
The Pelican was in bad shape. It was fatally damaged and much of it was below the waterline. Despite the fact that the Pelican had won the battle, the crew had to abandon ship. Captain d’Ilberville and his crew were able to make it to land before the ship sunk.
Now came the task of taking York Factory itself.
Since the ship was sinking, d’Iberville had it run aground and his men walked through neck-deep icy cold water to get to shore. They then spent the next several days hauling everything they could from the ship ashore, including its cannons. Unfortunately, it came at a cost as 18 of his men died from exposure.
Then, the missing French ships arrived a few days later. With his ships arriving, d’Iberville then coaxed a surrender out of the factor using his cannons from the Pelican as leverage.
On Sept. 13, Henry Baley, factor of York Factory, chose to surrender.
York Factory was now in French hands, and the French controlled from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to Hudson Bay.
For his success in taking the fort, d’Iberville was awarded the Cross of Saint Louis, the highest honour of France.
The Fort remained in the hands of the French until 1713, when a peace treaty transferred it back to British control.
The ships that sank beneath the waves have not been found, but expeditions have been sent to find the wrecks.
As for d’Iberville, he went on to found Biloxi, Mississippi and found the source of the Mississippi River. He was responsible for the creation of French settlements in Louisiana, and he died in Cuba on July 9, 1706 from Yellow Fever, only a week short of his 45th birthday.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, CBC Wikipedia, HistoryNet, Faraheim