The Last Gentleman Adventurer: Coming of Age in the Arctic

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9780618773589: The Last Gentleman Adventurer: Coming of Age in the Arctic
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At sixteen, Edward Beauclerk Maurice impulsively signed up with the Hudson's Bay Company -- the company of Gentleman Adventurers -- and ended up at an isolated trading post in the Canadian Arctic, where there was no communication with the outside world and only one ship arrived each year. But he was not alone. The Inuit people who traded there taught him how to track polar bears, build igloos, and survive ferocious winter storms. He learned their language and became completely immersed in their culture, earning the name Issumatak, meaning “he who thinks.”

In The Last Gentleman Adventurer, Edward Beauclerk Maurice relates his story of coming of age in the Arctic and transports the reader to a time and a way of life now lost forever.

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About the Author:

EDWARD BEAUCLERK MAURICE, after serving in the New Zealand navy during World War II, became a bookseller in an English village and rarely traveled again. He died in 2003, as this book was being readied for publication.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

At ten o'clock in the morning of 2 June 1930 about forty young men gathered
round a noticeboard set up on Euston station, which bore the message 'Boat
Train, Duchess of Bedford Liverpool. Hudson's Bay Company Party'.
The other travellers hurrying to and fro across the concourse,
impelled to haste by the alarming pantings, snufflings and whistlings coming
from the impatient engines, hardly spared us a glance, despite the flavour of
distant adventure in that simple notice. For in those days, London was still
the centre of a great empire and it was commonplace for parties to be seen
gathering at railway stations, or at other places of departure, to begin their
long journeys to far-away places. Tea planters for India and Ceylon. Rubber
planters for Malaya. Mining engineers for South Africa. Administrators for the
Indian and other civil services. Policemen for the African colonies. Farm
workers to seek their fortunes in Australia, New Zealand or Canada. Traders
for the South Seas. Servicemen for all quarters of the globe and wanderers
just seeking sunshine or adventure.
We were to be apprenticed to the fur trade 'somewhere in
Canada'. In age we were between sixteen and twenty-three. In occupation
there were schoolboys, farm labourers, office workers, factory workers,
estate workers, forestry people and even two seamen.
We had been told of the wonderful opportunities that awaited us,
but what our informants had not known was that the worst depression the
world would experience for many years was fast developing. Already the
feverish post-war boom was collapsing. The sudden loss of confidence and
the general insecurity of the world markets was soon to undermine the fur
trade. Before some of us had finally reached our new homes, the whole
department responsible for our engagement had been disbanded, with its
members released to swell the ever growing ranks of the unemployed. Never
again would a party such as ours gather in London.
An oriental philosopher once wrote that no matter how near or far
the destination, every journey must somewhere have a starting point. My
journey began in the June of the halcyon summer of 1913, to which so many
thousands of women were to look back with aching nostalgia for all the rest
of their years.
The shadow fell across my mother's life sooner than it did for the
others. Six weeks before I was born, in the evening of a long midsummer's
day, my father was brought home spread-eagled over a broken gate, dead of
a terrible gunshot wound to the head.
Controversy, seemingly inseparable from the human state even in
such tragic circumstances, broke out at once. The vicar refused my
grandmother's request that her son's body should be brought into the parish
church to await burial, on the grounds that he might have committed suicide.
The coroner would have to give him earthly clearance from this suspicion
before the church could grant him asylum. The clergyman had mistakenly
supposed his parishioner, my grandmother, to be a meek and pious woman,
an error he was never to repeat. He was astonished by the ferocity with which
she defended her son's right to rest in the church, and reluctantly gave way.
So my father, poised as it were on the very threshold of eternity,
was brought for the last time into the cool, dim, silent shadow of the ancient
building, perhaps there to find the peace he had been seeking. The following
day the coroner decided that death had been due to misadventure, thus
calming the vicar's disquiet and giving at least some hope of an onward
journey to heaven. For those that were left on earth, and in particular for my
mother, the problems were just beginning.
Aged twenty-three, with three children already and a fourth
expected, her outlook was bleak indeed, for there was no provision at that
time for disasters such as this. No help could be expected from the state,
since there was no social security or child allowances. Those who fell by the
wayside, whether it was their own fault or not, had to pick themselves up or,
as a last desperate measure, appeal to the workhouse guardians for relief.
My grandmother then decided she was in need of a housekeeping
companion and that her daughter-in-law could fill this position. There would
be no pay as such, but food for the young widow and her children would be
provided, sparingly as it turned out, and even more sparingly, clothes.
Children's garments could be made from oddments, sewn, knitted and
handed down. As for my mother, now that she was a widow and would wear
black for the rest of her life as Queen Victoria had done, she could inherit the
old lady's cast-offs, suitably trimmed to size and shape.
This was how my family came to live in a large, cold Victorian
house in a small township on the north Somersetshire coast. My mother
brought with her all that she possessed in the world. A few items of bedroom
furniture. A dressing table and a little jewellery, a few books and a Colt
revolver with six rounds of ammunition. What desperate resolve prompted her
to bring these last two items I do not know, nor did I ever inquire.
The year after our arrival, 1914, the Great War broke out. Perhaps
the atmosphere of emergency and the heavy emotional demands made upon
most of the young women of her generation helped my mother resign herself,
at least temporarily, to living the routine of her elderly mother-in-law.
As children we were happy enough, fitting ourselves, as children
do, into the circumstances that surrounded us, but mother had to suppress
much of her natural jollity, acting as a buffer between her often noisy children
at the top of the house and the solemn, easily disturbed downstairs of our
grandmother.
Grandmother did not believe in the classless society. Indeed, so
convinced was she of her own social superiority that there was not one single
person in that Somersetshire township who could justifiably be invited to take
tea with her. Ranged behind her in defence of her position were several dukes
and other aristocrats, closely followed by admirals, generals and the like,
some of whom gazed down at us from the walls of the stairways and
downstairs rooms. This meant that there was very little social life to enliven
the dull days for mother.
A room at the top of the house was set aside to be used as a
school, and armed with a selection of rather aged textbooks, the young
widow began the education of her children, my eldest brother being already
over four years old. The knowledge contained in these textbooks was
rigorously drummed into our heads, for mother was aware of the necessity of
obtaining an education of a higher standard than that offered by the free
schools, if one was to prosper, and the only way to do this would be by
gaining scholarships or similar awards.
One day a visitor called who had heard about a well-known
boarding school that had been established with the sole aim of educating
suitable children whose parents did not have the available funds. A great
number of good people contributed money to the school, and if their
contribution was sufficiently large, they were allowed to place an approved
child there. I think mother must have written to every single benefactor in
order to gain places for her children, and she eventually succeeded in
obtaining one for each of us, three boys at the boys' school and our sister at
the girls' establishment.
The schooling provided was sound, practical and aimed at
producing adaptable adults, able to use such common sense as they
possessed. Aware of the undoubted benefits of such an education, I would
like to be able to record that this was a happy period of my life. Alas, this
was not so. From the very start, the school was like some sort of prison. On
my second day I quite unwittingly broke some obscure rule, for which the
housemaster, no doubt a brilliant mathematician, but lacking in any
noticeably human attributes, accorded me a public beating. A suitably sour
start to a relationship which was to lack warmth for the next seven years.
As time went by, my mother began to think increasingly of
escape from the situation which had trapped her for so long. The atmosphere
in the old lady's house was not a happy one and my mother longed to go to
the other side of the world and start afresh. We had no money, but could
work hard and New Zealand sounded like a land of opportunity.
My brother blazed the trail by setting off just after the General
Strike of 1926, helping to stoke the boilers of an ancient coal burner as it
steamed across the Pacific Ocean. He was to work on farms in New
Zealand, and two years later my other brother followed him. The three of us
who were left at home were to wait until I had finished school, then set off
together.
As the time loomed near, however, my prospective life as a
farmworker lost its appeal for me. We wrote letters to everybody we could
think of to see if they could squeeze me in somewhere else, but the reply
was always the same – too young and no qualifications. Christmas 1929
came and went with the problem no nearer solution, but early in the New
Year, a chance happening at school provided a possible answer.
A week or two after the start of term, a visitor arrived to take up a
long-standing invitation to spend a weekend at the school as a guest of the
headmaster. He was the archdeacon in charge of the missionaries working in
the Canadian Arctic territories. The news that the clerical visitor was to give a
Saturday-night talk was received with some resignation by the boys, but the
archdeacon, whose diocese spread from the tree line right away up to the
last ...

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