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The Last Gentleman Adventurer

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When he was just sixteen years old, Edward Beauclerk Maurice signed up with the Hudson’s Bay Company and was sent from his native England to an isolated trading post in the Canadian arctic as one of the Company’s Gentleman Adventurers. A million miles from nowhere, there was no communication with the outside world (beyond the very occasional, very faint radio broadcast) and a ship arrived only once each year. Maurice’s job was to trade with the Inuit people who lived nearby, accepting the furs they brought to him and in turn providing them with the goods they came to want and need: medicine, boats, gasoline, tobacco and guns. Where many of the Gentleman Adventurers took advantage of their clientele, Maurice became enamored with the Inuit lifestyle and became like one of them. They taught him how to track and hunt, to build igloos and to depend on the land to provide. He learned their language and their culture, even taking an Inuit wife.

Like so many others, Maurice’s career was interrupted by the Second World War and he left the north to serve in the New Zealand Navy. When the war ended he settled into a small English village and became a bookseller. He never returned to the arctic. Though he wrote The Last Gentleman Adventurer decades ago it was consistently refused by publishers until just a few years ago. Sadly, Maurice died in 2003 just as the book was being readied for publication. It was his only book.

The Last Gentleman Adventurer is a fascinating account, not so much as a biography but for a light anthropological study of a stone age people as they are suddenly introduced to the industrialized powers. It is amazing to see just how quickly they become dependent on things they wouldn’t have been able to dream of just a few short years before. It is also amazing and even shocking to see the paternalism that was transparent to people in the early part of the last century but so clear to us today. Maurice goes to the arctic believing in the superiority of his culture and, though he comes to respect the Inuit, he always regards them almost as children dependent on his care. Whether the Inuit were better off before or after the arrival of the British is debatable.

A book that will not provide or demand opportunities to think deeply, The Last Gentleman Adventurer is, nevertheless, both fun and fascinating. It satisfies as entertaining biography and as enlightening anthropology. I’m glad I took the time to read it.

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