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 few humps of ice at the North Pole, had brought reels of film with him and caught our interest and attention immediately when his operator put the first one in backwards. It was the run of a visit by some Hudson's Bay officials to a post above the Arctic Circle. A solitary white building crouched beneath towering black cliffs. A door flew suddenly open and two portly city executive types marched smartly out backwards, skilfully negotiated a short but steep slope then performed an incredibly agile backward leap into a motor boat waiting at the water's edge.
After this entertaining start, the film's chief interest centred on the activities of the Hudson's Bay Company. Incorporated by Charles II in 1670 as the 'Gentlemen Adventurers trading into Hudson's Bay' and led by Prince Rupert, they had been inspired by the thought of getting into Hudson's Bay and establishing trading posts ahead of the French. In this they had been successful, so they later extended their field of operation over the whole of Canada and later still to the islands north of the mainland. The remote Arctic establishments could only be supplied by sea and it was the voyage of the tough little Nascopie that the archdeacon had recorded on film. There were hunting scenes, trading scenes, pictures taken under the midnight sun, of polar bears and walrus, of far-away places and people, enough to titillate the imagination of any schoolboy. Moreover, from what our speaker said, it was fairly obvious that this great company employed young people who did not have any special qualifications. I summoned up my courage to confront the authorities and request further details. An interview was arranged with the archdeacon himself. It was to take place in the headmaster's study on the Monday morning.
The missionary was looking out of the window at the boys scuttling about in the quad on that wet and windy February morning when I crept into the holy of holies. I thought that he looked rather surprised when he saw me. He said:
'You wanted to see me I believe?'
'Yes sir,' I replied, not knowing quite how to develop the conversation.
'How can I help you?'
'I wanted to ask about the Hudson's Bay Company and what age the apprentices have to be,' I blurted out. The archdeacon looked at me in silence for what seemed to be a very long time. It was fairly obvious that he did not consider me to be the stuff of which 'Gentlemen Adventurers' are made. Then he said slowly:
Copyright © 1995-2004 by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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