Sunday, March 05, 2006

One Man's Trash

With the approach of spring, a person's thoughts turn naturally to...Eskimos. Well, perhaps not everyone's, but the Inuit have been somewhat on my mind lately, partly because I recently watched Nanook of the North for the first time, and mostly because I've just finished Edward Beauchamp Maurice's posthumous memoir of a year spent with the Native peoples of Baffin Island, Last Gentleman Adventurer.

Maurice, who died in 2003, was the son of an impoverished middle-class English widow. In 1930 his family decided to move to New Zealand and try their luck as farm workers. Maurice, who was about to finish school, found the prospect of becoming a field hand unpleasant and jumped at an opportunity suggested by one of his teachers: becoming an employee of the 260-year-old Hudson's Bay Company. At the age of 17 Edward signed his work contract, became one of the "company of gentlemen venturing into Hudson's Bay" (in the words of the HBC charter), and took ship for Labrador, probably the most desolate place in the Western Hemisphere.

During his first year as an HBC employee, Maurice was stationed at an icebound post on Baffin Island (the second most desolate place), where he befriended the local Inuit. His memoir is chiefly useful as a source of ethnographic information on his Native American neighbors: their survival skills, hunting practices, family structures and eschatology. Some details have probably been left out or bowdlerized by the descendants who edited the memoir for publication; for instance, the book gives almost no space to the "country marriage" which Maurice contracted with at least one Inuit woman, Innuk. On other points, though, Maurice doesn't hesitate to shock. His description of how polar bears hunt seals, for instance, makes you realize just how intelligent and cruel these giant stuffed toys really are.

As someone interested in the fur trade, I was particularly struck by Maurice's details on the uneven dynamics of Anglo-Inuit commerce. In one passage, he talks about two Inuit women who have just had an extremely successful winter hunting fox and other animals, and how after selling the furs they have spent many months accumulating, they hope to have earned enough money to buy some fuel and cloth and a couple of rifles. On the other hand, he observes that the prize fur of the Arctic fur trade was that of the white fox, which Eskimos traditionally used to wipe their babies' bottoms. The British employees of the HBC were willing to pay $10 for each of these things. Presumably they didn't tell their European customers the whole story about the furs' origins and their other...applications.

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