THOMPSON, EDWARD, HBC surgeon; fl. c. 1725–49.
Before Edward Thompson joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1737 he had a varied career, serving seven years with a surgeon, four or five years as a journeyman (his trade is not known), and two in the navy as a mate. He spent three years in the company’s employ as a surgeon at Moose Factory (Ont.), during which time he seems to have acquired a reputation for garrulous indiscretion. In 1739 the factor, Richard Staunton, refused to let him see or sign the general letter to the London committee on the grounds that with him “every thing which is spoake or acted upon all affairs is tould in publick at the Stoves mouth. . . .” In 1740 Thompson was sent home at the expiry of his contract, and during the winter of 1740–41 decided to sail as surgeon with Christopher Middleton on the naval sloop Furnace, bound for Hudson Bay in search of the northwest passage. His appointment was approved by the admiralty, “notwithstanding his Qualification is only for a Surgeon’s Mate.”
The discovery expedition wintered at Churchill (Man.), where the death of ten crewmembers from scurvy and the illness of many others at the semi-derelict “old fort” say little for the professional capabilities and zeal of Thompson who, although he visited the men occasionally, spent most of his time five miles distant with the other officers at the newly built Prince of Wales Fort. Soon after the expedition’s return to England in the autumn of 1742 Thompson became one of the first to support Arthur Dobbs’ allegations that Middleton had deliberately concealed the existence of a northwest passage. He gave evidence to this effect in May 1743 before the admiralty, and on many occasions thereafter.
Middleton maintained that Dobbs’ main witnesses were bribed by money or the offer of posts on a forthcoming private discovery expedition. In 1746 and 1747 Thompson did serve as surgeon and member of council, despite his own poor health, on a venture organized by Dobbs which sailed for Hudson Bay under the command of William Moor. After that expedition’s failure he played a prominent part in the campaign to discredit the HBC. In an affidavit sworn before the attorney general and solicitor general in February 1747/48 he was the most loquacious of Dobbs’ witnesses, claiming that the company neglected exploration, expansion, and agriculture in the Hudson Bay area. His evidence in 1749 before the investigating parliamentary committee was equally critical of the company, and in the pamphlet literature that accompanied the campaign against the company he tried to keep alive hopes of a northwest passage by hinting that one lay through Chesterfield Inlet. In the controversies of these years Thompson figures as a vindictive, unscrupulous critic of his former commander, Middleton, and his former employer, the HBC; his reliability as a witness impresses even less than his skill as a doctor.
[Details of Thompson’s early years and his role in the attack on Middleton are given in Arthur Dobbs, Remarks upon Middleton’s defence. Further examples of the evidence Thompson gave against Middleton and the HBC are in: G.B., Parl., Report from the committee on Hudson’s Bay; House of Commons, Report relating to the finding a north-west passage ([London, 1745]); HBC Arch. E.18/1, ff.142–51; and in Reasons to shew, that there is a great probability of a navigable passage to the Western American Ocean, through Hudson’s Streights, and Chesterfield Inlet (London, 1749). A short biographical sketch of Thompson is in HBRS, XII (Rich and Johnson), 337–38, and the discovery voyages of the period are surveyed in Williams, British search for the northwest passage. g.w.]