Stephen R. Bown
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About Stephen R. Bown
I have written ten books on the history of exploration, science, and ideas--including books on the medical mystery of scurvy, the Treaty or Tordesillas, the lives of Captain George Vancouver and of Roald Amundsen and a doomed Russian sea voyage. My books have been published in multiple English-speaking territories, translated into nine languages and shortlisted for many awards. I have won the BC Book Prize, the Alberta Book Award, the William Mills Prize for Polar Books.
I take a biographical and narrative approach to my writing, using the techniques of fiction writing - strong storytelling, creative language, emphasizing people, their decisions, actions and motivations - to tell factually and historically accurate stories. I believe that people and their behaviour never change, only the context is different. My lifelong interest in history is fueled by the lessons to be learned from studying the successes and failures of history's greatest thinkers, leaders and innovators, those who challenged conventional thinking and entrenched power structures to change their world. I am particularly interested in how the world we live in today was formed by individuals who were responding to the big challenges of their time, and in particular, how and why those individuals became pioneers.
"I have long been interested in the North American fur trade, particularly the early days during the first tentative meetings between peoples, when the world was a very different place socially, scientifically and technologically. For whatever reason it seems that this period is often misrepresented and misunderstood. While the data- statistics and numbers and facts-are obviously a fundamental background to understanding the history, it has always been the people who have fascinated me. People who were biologically the same as you and me-just as intelligent and motivated by the same basic urges-but who lived their lives and made their decisions within the boundaries of different cultural and geographical constraints."
I live in a small town in the Rocky Mountains with my family. When I'm not writing I'm usually reading, mountain biking, hiking and camping in the summer, and downhill and cross country skiing in the winter.
My website www.stephenrbown.net includes more information about my books including reviews and awards.
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Titles By Stephen R. Bown
The immense 18th-century scientific journey, variously known as the Second Kamchatka Expedition or the Great Northern Expedition, from St. Petersburg across Siberia to the coast of North America, involved over 3,000 people and cost Peter the Great over one-sixth of his empire's annual revenue. Until now recorded only in academic works, this 10-year venture, led by the legendary Danish captain Vitus Bering and including scientists, artists, mariners, soldiers, and laborers, discovered Alaska, opened the Pacific fur trade, and led to fame, shipwreck, and "one of the most tragic and ghastly trials of suffering in the annals of maritime and arctic history.
A thrilling new telling of the story of modern Canada's origins.
The story of the Hudson's Bay Company, dramatic and adventurous and complex, is the story of modern Canada's creation. And yet it hasn't been told in a book for over thirty years, and never in such depth and vivid detail as in Stephen R. Bown's exciting new telling.
The Company started out small in 1670, trading practical manufactured goods for furs with the Indigenous inhabitants of inland subarctic Canada. Controlled by a handful of English aristocrats, it expanded into a powerful political force that ruled the lives of many thousands of people--from the lowlands south and west of Hudson Bay, to the tundra, the great plains, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific northwest. It transformed the culture and economy of many Indigenous groups and ended up as the most important political and economic force in northern and western North America.
When the Company was faced with competition from French traders in the 1780s, the result was a bloody corporate battle, the coming of Governor George Simpson--one of the greatest villains in Canadian history--and the Company assuming political control and ruthless dominance. By the time its monopoly was rescinded after two hundred years, the Hudson's Bay Company had reworked the entire northern North American world.
Stephen R. Bown has a scholar's profound knowledge and understanding of the Company's history, but wears his learning lightly in a narrative as compelling, and rich in well-drawn characters, as a page-turning novel.
Commerce meets conquest in this swashbuckling story of the six merchant-adventurers who built the modern world
It was an era when monopoly trading companies were the unofficial agents of European expansion, controlling vast numbers of people and huge tracts of land, and taking on governmental and military functions. They managed their territories as business interests, treating their subjects as employees, customers, or competitors. The leaders of these trading enterprises exercised virtually unaccountable, dictatorial political power over millions of people.
The merchant kings of the Age of Heroic Commerce were a rogue's gallery of larger-than-life men who, for a couple hundred years, expanded their far-flung commercial enterprises over a sizable portion of the world. They include Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the violent and autocratic pioneer of the Dutch East India Company; Peter Stuyvesant, the one-legged governor of the Dutch West India Company, whose narrow-minded approach lost Manhattan to the British; Robert Clive, who rose from company clerk to become head of the British East India Company and one of the wealthiest men in Britain; Alexandr Baranov of the Russian American Company; Cecil Rhodes, founder of De Beers and Rhodesia; and George Simpson, the "Little Emperor" of the Hudson's Bay Company, who was chauffeured about his vast fur domain in a giant canoe, exhorting his voyageurs to paddle harder so he could set speed records.
Merchant Kings looks at the rise and fall of company rule in the centuries before colonialism, when nations belatedly assumed responsibility for their commercial enterprises. A blend of biography, corporate history, and colonial history, this book offers a panoramic, new perspective on the enormous cultural, political, and social legacies, good and bad, of this first period of unfettered globalization.
Scurvy took a terrible toll in the Age of Sail, killing more sailors than were lost in all sea battles combined. The threat of the disease kept ships close to home and doomed those vessels that ventured too far from port. The willful ignorance of the royal medical elite, who endorsed ludicrous medical theories based on speculative research while ignoring the life-saving properties of citrus fruit, cost tens of thousands of lives and altered the course of many battles at sea. The cure for scurvy ranks among the greatest of human accomplishments, yet its impact on history has, until now, been largely ignored.
From the earliest recorded appearance of the disease in the sixteenth century, to the eighteenth century, where a man had only half a chance of surviving the scourge, to the early nineteenth century, when the British conquered scurvy and successfully blockaded the French and defeated Napoleon, Scurvy is a medical detective story for the ages, the fascinating true story of how James Lind (the surgeon), James Cook (the mariner), and Gilbert Blane (the gentleman) worked separately to eliminate the dreaded affliction.
Scurvy is an evocative journey back to the era of wooden ships and sails, when the disease infiltrated every aspect of seafaring life: press gangs "recruit" mariners on the way home from a late night at the pub; a terrible voyage in search of riches ends with a hobbled fleet and half the crew heaved overboard; Cook majestically travels the South Seas but suffers an unimaginable fate. Brimming with tales of ships, sailors, and baffling bureaucracy, Scurvy is a rare mix of compelling history and classic adventure story.
Stephen R. Bown has unearthed archival material to give Amundsen's life the grim immediacy of Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World, the exciting detail of The Endurance, and the suspense of a Jon Krakauer tale. The Last Viking is both a thrilling literary biography and a cracking good story.
Traversing the historic trails of the Rockies today is done in much the same manner as it was two centuries ago—primarily on foot with heavy packs, with little better defence against mosquitoes or the elements. Although accurate maps are available, and modern technology such as global positioning systems stand as a bulwark to a complete wilderness experience, in many cases it is as difficult and challenging to cross these mountain passes, or even more so, than it was two centuries ago. Routes such as Athabasca Pass are far less travelled today than they were in the golden era of the fur trade. If our society has become so rich that we continually seek out physical and mental challenges in the wilderness—adventure and eco-travel—perhaps it would be a sign of respect to follow at least for a while in the footsteps of those who in many ways paved the way for gernerations to come. We began to form the idea of hiking all the significant historical trails to see what we could learn from the early pathfinders, about the difficulty of wilderness life and travel. What window would be opened to times past in a land where the terrain has remained essentially unchanged? —from the authors' introduction
"This is a starry love story, a tale of seething jealousies and subterfuge, a political imbroglio, and religious cruelties. It sounds like Shakespeare and it could have very well been the plot of one of his plays."
In 1494, award-winning author Stephen R. Bown tells the untold story of the explosive feud between monarchs, clergy, and explorers that split the globe between Spain and Portugal and made the world's oceans a battleground.
When Columbus triumphantly returned from America to Spain in 1493, his discoveries inflamed an already-smouldering conflict between Spain's renowned monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Portugal's João II. Which nation was to control the world's oceans? To quell the argument, Pope Alexander VI—the notorious Rodrigo Borgia—issued a proclamation laying the foundation for the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, an edict that created an imaginary line in the Atlantic Ocean dividing the entire known (and unknown) world between Spain and Portugal.
Just as the world's oceans were about to be opened by Columbus's epochal voyage, the treaty sought to limit the seas to these two favored Catholic nations. The edict was to have a profound influence on world history: it propelled Spain and Portugal to superpower status, steered many other European nations on a collision course, and became the central grievance in two centuries of international espionage, piracy, and warfare.
The treaty also began the fight for "the freedom of the seas"—the epic struggle to determine whether the world's oceans, and thus global commerce, would be controlled by the decree of an autocrat or be open to the ships of any nation—a distinctly modern notion, championed in the early seventeenth century by the Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius, whose arguments became the foundation of international law.
At the heart of one of the greatest international diplomatic and political agreements of the last five centuries were the strained relationships and passions of a handful of powerful individuals. They were linked by a shared history, mutual animosity, and personal obligations—quarrels, rivalries, and hatreds that dated back decades. Yet the struggle ultimately stemmed from a young woman's determination to defy tradition and the king, and to choose her own husband.
"On his death in 1902 at the age of sixty-eight, Major John Wesley Powell had his brain cut from his skull and submerged in a jar of preserving fluid. He had bequeathed the organ to a colleague to settle a bet regarding brain size, which was believed to be related to intelligence. The bet was probably made in good nature, or perhaps to further the study of the human body in a small way, but Powell was an ambitious and competitive man and he wanted to win." From Chapter Nine: John Wesley Powell.