Excerpt From Scoundrels, Dreamers & Second Sons
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Scoundrels_Harbour final_optPreface
There is a legend about the British remittance men—perhaps true, perhaps apocryphal. The setting is British Columbia’s Okanagan valley and the time is 1914. Across the valley’s dry golden hillsides, overlooking the pristine blue lakes of the valley floor and the green orchards of the surrounding bench lands, hundreds of young Britons had settled in rough cabins. Most were well educated, of aristocratic or upper-middle-class background, cultured, and supported by regular allowances sent to them by family back in Britain. It was the allowance that earned them the nickname of remittance men. That and the way they behaved. The remittance life was a carefree one. They worked seldom, usually only when the latest installment from home had been too quickly squandered. Leisure was their strong suit. They rode to the hounds, played polo and cricket, hunted, fished, lazed about in the taverns, danced at the town balls, charmed the community’s women, and provided a colourful backdrop against which the valley’s professedly more serious-minded, productive, and responsible residents went about their lives. Remittance man was meant to be a disparaging term. It reflected the fact that these young men had been sent to the colonies to spare their families continuing embarrassment or shame. At home they had been scoundrels, dreamers, and second sons without future prospects. Perhaps in Australia, or South Africa, or the Canadian west they would make something of themselves. If they didn’t, at least they would be far enough away that little disgrace would fall upon their families. The time of the remittance men was short: most were sent out from Britain during the years between 1880 and the opening shots of World War I. Wherever they settled, however, they left an indelible mark perpetuated by the stories and legends that sprung up around them. Growing up in the Okanagan, I heard many tales of the remittance men. Most stories were comic, laced with humorous anecdotes of young Britons with prim accents scheming to ensure continuation of a remittance, or pursuing some quixotic dream, or making fools of themselves by not listening to the wise counsel of a stolid Canadian. One tale was different. It told how the age of the remittance men ended. In the fall of 1914, the story goes, a ham radio operator named George Dunn was the first in the Okanagan to hear that Britain and the Commonwealth had declared war on Imperial Germany. The news was soon relayed to the remittance men. Although they shunned work in favour of living a life of ease and adventure, none shirked their duty. Within days they were ready to leave for war. There remained, however, their cabins and older animals, such as hunting dogs and horses, for which the valley residents had no practical use. Hundreds of the young men struck a pact. On the morning they rode to war, each left his cabin without looking back. Instead he rode to the cabin of his nearest neighbour, just as another remittance man rode toward his cabin. At his neighbour’s cabin he dismounted, took his rifle, and shot the aged animals. As the last shots echoed back from the surrounding hills he spilled kerosene across the cabin’s cracked floorboards and then set the building ablaze. Throughout the valley this scene was repeated until all the remittance men’s shacks were burned, all their animals killed. The decision to destroy all trace of their lives in Canada, say the story-tellers, reveals that the remittance men knew they rode away from their youth, toward either heroic death or a surviving hero’s reconciliation with family in Britain. Why else burn the shacks? Why else kill the animals? The curious thing about this legend is no evidence of its truth is to be found, yet it persists. No one telling the story ever puts a name to any of these young men. No one points out the charred remains of a cabin on an Okanagan hillside. Yet the story has a poignancy that lingers. I wondered who these men had been and how their lives were lived. I tired to attach faces to the shadowy images of young men burning cabins and killing treasured animals, then riding off into history’s misty shroud. Finally I decided to look past the legends and stories and seek out the truth of who these men were, where they came from, why they came to Canada, and what their lives here were really like. That search brought me no closer to confirming or dismissing the truth of the Okanagan legend. I’m glad of that. What matters is not whether it really happened but that it speaks many truths about remittance men; truths of these young men who came to western Canada seeking adventure and who left their mark on the tapestry of a young nation’s history.