The Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers by Edward Beauclerk Maurice

Arctic explorers are more known for their brutal self-conviction than their modesty - Benedict Allen prefers a quieter sort of hero
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The Independent Culture

'By many paths and by many means mankind has endeavoured to penetrate this kingdom of death," wrote perhaps the greatest of all Arctic explorers, introducing the bleak Arctic to readers of Farthest North. Fridtjof Nansen was quick to seize the opportunity presented by the Arctic of his era: the Arctic and Antarctic were great stages on which your prowess (and that of your nation) might be displayed. His own bid for the North Pole was undertaken, ingeniously, after observing that a ship abandoned to the ice had been carried by the Arctic Ocean currents conveniently near the Pole; he might deliberately lock his own vessel, the Fram, into the ice and launch out from it by foot to gain the prize. However, Nansen also saw that making a success of the north was not about espousing your own world, notably Victorian virtues of duty and manliness; rather, you should look to the Natives, and like them bend to the local order of things. So Nansen's protégé Amundsen duly learnt from the Inuit, and became the first to succeed in travelling the North West Passage; later, he went on to beat Shackleton and Scott, both trapped in their own time and class, to the South Pole.

Nansen, then, would have approved of the shy and unassuming Edward Beauclerk Maurice, and appreciated the merits of his own, very different path to the Arctic "kingdom of death". Maurice was not a specialist, nor a professional, nor did he display the zeal, brutal self-conviction and vision that go to make an Arctic explorer, but he also understood how he must learn to see the Arctic as his home, not enemy.

By the age of 16, Maurice's future had been prescribed for him. With a father long since dead from a shooting accident, his family had fallen on hard times. He was to follow his mother and elder siblings to a farm in New Zealand. However, an archdeacon overseeing Canadian Arctic missionaries then chanced to give a talk at his school, and the ensuing tales of the midnight sun, walruses and Eskimos worked their magic on the schoolboy. The Arctic might not measure up to New Zealand as a land of opportunity, but it promised something greater - a chance for Maurice to determine his own path.

Maurice immediately signed up for the five-year stint with the Hudson Bay Trading Company - originally incorporated by Charles II in 1670 as the "Gentlemen Adventurers trading into Hudson's Bay". Next thing, he was embarking for the wastes of Baffin Island. So begins the story of the Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers, the author's deceptively simple account of how he grew to manhood, shaped on the one hand by the brutal elements of the Arctic, and on the other by the compassionate communities of Inuit who understood them. Re-supplied only once a year, and with no immediate communication with the outside world, life for the boy was tough even by Arctic fur trader standards. The Inuit, though, gradually took him under their wing, and he began to master dog teams, the "dos" and "don'ts" of igloo-building, and even how to outwit the crafty polar bear. In time he saw the far north as a "harsh but quiet and honest place", and, equipped with a knowledge of Inuit language, practice and myth, was sent to his own, even more isolated, outpost. There he found his chance to repay the Inuit, saving a community from starvation and disease.

This is a beautifully unadorned, home-spun tale, with a lack of self-consciousness rare in travel literature - and all the more so in the Arctic and Antarctic, forever the venues of high-jinks and triumph for the White Man. Here you'll find none of the naked ambition that drives adventurers back and back again for ever-greater sporting feats, nor the high literary stance of writers aspiring to capture the essence of the cold desert - Barry Lopez and his Arctic Dreams comes to mind. This is something lesser and greater. "The stories that follow have filled many happy times together," is the collective dedication by his family, and the book asks nothing more than that we share them.

This I found myself more than happy to do. Maurice recalls this faraway time without recourse to judgment of the alien world that embraced him, and no doubt his ease with, and openness to, the world were qualities that the Inuit were quick to discern in him as a young man some 70 years ago.

Sometimes I did wish for more context and perspective - the intellectual rigour of Hugh Brody's The Other Side of Eden, though perhaps reduced to footnotes. But an extra analytical layer would diminish the book's greatest asset, which is some kind of purity. I was charmed; I could almost see the author running a finger over his old sealskin boots as he told the tale of his Arctic youth once again, to enraptured grandchildren. The author died last year; this book will live on beyond the circle of his family, and deserves to.