Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Maharajah's General

Paul Fraser Collard’s second book, The Maharajah’s General, finds Jack Lark, the hero of The Scarlet Thief in India. He’s gone there straight after recovering from the Battle of Alma, so it must be around 1855. This means he is arriving in India at almost exactly the same time John Williamson gets there in my book, Cawnpore. This made reading The Maharajah’s General particularly interesting for me, as I could compare Jack Lark’s India with John Williamson’s and see how an author I admire had tackled a similar subject.

Williamson is a civilian, so he sees a rather different side of East India Company rule from the soldier, Lark. Even so, Lark has to grasp the political realities of life in India, just as Williamson is sucked into the military. India was a colony in the most traditional sense: it was controlled by the British by the direct exercise of military power. The military and the political were inextricably intertwined. That said, Lark (partly because he is in a very remote part of the country) does not see many of the benefits that British rule brought. Native rule was often corrupt as well as inefficient. Lark is in the fictional kingdom of Sawadh, ruled by a Maharajah whose vast wealth had to come from somewhere, and it came mainly by exploiting the poor, a point that Lark does not dwell on. The British exploited the poor too, but, at least arguably, a little less than many native rulers. The British took steps to stop some of the nastier local customs, such as sati (widow burning). The British were, in this period, building railways, which revolutionised the Indian economy. They worked on flood control and brought in medical advances too. None of these developments are making much difference in Sawadh.

Despite the benefits that British rule did bring to India, nowadays we are, quite reasonably, concerned about the morality of conquest. Both Lark and Williamson end up with enormous sympathy for the Indian people, both having spent time living at the court of the local ruler. I was interested to see how Collard and I, with very different stories and very different approaches, both felt that we had to have our protagonist ‘go native’ if we were to honestly represent the times.

I enjoyed reading about Lark’s time in the Maharajah’s palace, though I did feel I was reading about a ‘Arabian Nights’ fantasy. The descriptions appear to be based on the kind of thing that travellers wrote about at the time, and they were often dazzled by the lavish displays of wealth. Jack Lark is a simple London kid who is seeing this sort of thing for the first time and we see it through his eyes. Certainly the jewelled swords, splendid fortresses and astonishing decorations did exist and Jack’s response is credible. By contrast, John Williamson has been around the Far East for a while and he is more sceptical when he visits Nana Sahib’s Saturday House. I think the Nana’s palace does reflect the reality of many of these places, its jewels and splendour existing alongside dirt and squalor. The eccentric display of clocks, the paintings, the random crockery: all these details of life at Saturday House showed how one of the most important Indian princes lived. That said, there may have been some who lived like the Maharajah and, certainly, many European visitors came away as over-awed as Lark. (This is well reflected by some of the exhibits in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, which I discuss in a later blog.)

The Maharajah’s country is about to be taken over by the British using the Doctrine of Lapse, a particularly dishonest bit of colonial unpleasantness. Collard summarises the cruel realities of the doctrine well. His British Political Officer is a dyed-in-the-wool villain, while many such men were doing their best in difficult conditions. Even so, his naked ambition and the ruthlessness of his political dealings seemed utterly credible.

The Jack Lark books, unlike mine, are really full-on stories of military history and Collard’s descriptions of both the British and Indian forces are convincing. (I am reminded, yet again, that my dismissal of the military value of the lance is probably the biggest blooper in Cawnpore.) The battle scenes are gripping and the sheer awfulness of hand-to-hand combat is depicted with gruesome enthusiasm. The final rout of the vast Indian force by a tiny detachment of Native Cavalry (small enough to fight under the command of a lieutenant) is not convincing but, ‘Then the British were over-run and Lark died,’ would have made an unsatisfactory ending. The defeat might have been less overwhelming, though. Two years later the Mutiny was to put the future of British India at real risk. It was the decision of many local rulers like the Maharajah to throw their lot in with the mutineers that nearly brought down British rule, and I would have liked to have finished the book with the Maharajah building his forces and waiting for another opportunity to destroy the British once and for all. Perhaps the name of the Maharajah’s daughter, Lakshmi, is a nod towards the great Indian warrior princess, Rani Lakshmi Bai, who was to lead her people against the British in that revolt.

Jack Lark, for all his inner angst, is a basically more optimistic character than Williamson. He can see the things that are wrong with British rule but, like many a soldier today, he considers that worrying about them is beyond his pay grade. He will fight and kill because, as he reluctantly accepts, that is his job and he’s very good at it. He will love and lose women along the way (it’s the law in books like this: my James Burke is the same) but the end will see him moving on, bloody but unbowed, to his next adventure.

There are several Jack Lark books already available and more in the pipeline. I’m looking forward to reading them. Paul Collard writes fast-paced adventure stories that bring the reality of 19th century warfare home with brutal immediacy. At the same time, the military detail shows a love of historical tactics and weaponry while the backgrounds evidence a lot of research, without bogging down in displays of superfluous historicity. They are great reads and I wholeheartedly recommend them.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Aftermath of Cawnpore

Although we always talk about the Cawnpore massacre, there were actually two separate massacres: the massacre at the boats and the massacre of the women and children at the Bibighar. At the time, there were no formal laws of war but there were tacit understandings of what was and was not acceptable behaviour. Massacre of troops who had been promised safe conduct was, of course, outside of these. It was the massacre of the women and children, though, that truly horrified the British.

How Europe viewed the killings at the Bibighar
(not a terribly accurate representation)

In any rebellion in the 19th century, those on the losing side could expect to suffer, but after news of the Cawnpore massacre spread, the suffering of Indians was on a horrific scale. A relief column reached Cawnpore only days after the women and children had been killed and immediately took vengeance on any men who were (or might have been) involved. Prisoners were forced to clean the blood off the floor and walls of the house where the murders had taken place. Many were ordered to lick it off. Muslim prisoners were forced to eat pork and Hindus to eat beef. Then they were executed.

The scale of British reprisals was almost unbelievable. British columns delayed reaching their objectives to take the time to annihilate the adult male populations of entire villages. Trees along the line of march were decorated with the hanged bodies of any men who couldn't conclusively prove that they had had no involvement with the insurrection.

The bloodletting went on for months, largely supported by people in Britain. This cartoon by Tenniel (from Punch magazine) reflects the popular mood.

No one knows how many people died in the reprisals, referred to as 'The Devil's Wind' by Indians. It was a wind that probably cut down 100,000 Indian soldiers but there are no records of civilian casualties, which probably exceeded this figure.

It was not until July 1859 that Lord Canning finally issued a proclamation officially declaring peace in India.
"War is at an end; Rebellion is put down; the Noise of Arms is no longer heard where the enemies of the State have persisted in their last Struggle; the Presence of large Forces in the Field has ceased to be necessary; Order is re-established and peaceful Pursuits have everywhere been resumed."

Friday, 17 July 2015


A hundred and fifty-eight years ago British forces in India were fighting an insurrection which became known in British history as the Indian Mutiny.

The mutiny started at Meerut on 10 May 1857, rapidly spreading to nearby Delhi. Mutinies of Indian troops and outbreaks of rebellion by local leaders soon spread across the whole of north-west India.

In June, the rebellion reached Cawnpore. The events that followed are the subject of what was my second novel, Cawnpore, which was republished by Accent Press earlier this year.

The tiny British force stationed in the town was commanded by General Wheeler, a man coming to the end of a long military career. He had not seriously considered the possibility of the Indian troops and the local leader, Nana Sahib, turning on them. They had made totally inadequate provision for defence. Wheeler’s force consisted of around sixty European artillery men with six guns, eighty-four infantrymen, and about two hundred unattached officers and civilians and forty musicians from the native regiments. In addition, he had seventy invalids who were convalescing in the barracks hospital and around three hundred and seventy-five women and children. They were surrounded by hugely bigger Indian force, supported with cavalry and artillery from 6th to 25th June, the British forces were under continual bombardment by day and sometimes by night. They nevertheless managed to hold out until they were offered safe passage in return for their surrender.

The Indian forces, under Nana Sahib, reneged on the terms of the surrender and attacked the British as they boarded the boats they had been promised would take them to safety. The massacre (and massacre it was, as almost all the soldiers who had survived the siege were killed at the boats) was bad enough, but terrible things happen in war. It was what came next that made Cawnpore a byword for horror for almost a century and was used to justify appalling acts of retribution by the British after the real fighting in India was over.

The European civilians had taken shelter with the army when mutiny broke out at Cawnpore. The men fought alongside the soldiers and were massacred with them. There were, though, around 375 women and children who were also trapped in the siege. It was concern about the safety of these civilians which was a principal reason for the surrender. Many of the women and children were killed at the boats, but after the initial bloodshed, those who survived were taken prisoner. They were kept in a private house. The house was said to have once belonged to the mistress (or 'bibi') of a British officer, and it was therefore called the Bibighar. Around 180 women and children were imprisoned there.

Conditions in the Bibighar were, to put it mildly, poor, but some effort was made to ensure that the prisoners received food and medical attention. They were even occasionally allowed to take the air outside the house – an important concession in a jam-packed building in the summer heat.

It seems likely that Nana Sahib didn't really know what to do with his prisoners. There were those in his court (notably his adoptive father's widows), who demanded that he show mercy to the women and children. Others, though, had a different agenda. As the British forces sent to relieve Cawnpore drew close to the city, the latter group gained the upper hand.

A little before 5.30 in the evening of 15 July, the women of the Bibighar were told that Nana Sahib "had sent orders for their immediate destruction". The soldiers ordered to do the killing refused, most firing instead into the ceilings.

In the end, five men (two of them butchers) went into the Bibighar with swords and cleavers and set about hacking all those within to death. Their leader hacked with such a combination of enthusiasm and incompetence that he twice broke his sword and had to send out for new ones.

The next morning, the bodies were removed and thrown down a nearby well. It emerged that not all of them were dead, but the wounded were thrown in anyway. Three or four children, who had survived uninjured, ran helplessly around as the bodies were disposed of. Once the adults were all in the well, the children were killed and tossed in after them.

Cawnpore looks at the historical facts from the perspective of a European who finds himself fighting alongside the Indians. He sees the horrors committed by both sides. Decent people are doing terrible things as they are caught in a clash of cultures and civilisations. It is a story without heroes and where there is little chance of a happy ending. Unsurprisingly, it is not my best selling book, though it is the one I am most proud of (and it has had some lovely reviews).

A hundred and fifty-eight years after the massacre, it is worth reminding ourselves of where the ideals of British colonialism (and there were idealists amongst the colonisers) could all too easily end up.

Friday, 10 July 2015

On being an expert

Last week’s blog post explained why I spend so much time talking about war. June marked the anniversary of Waterloo and this month is the 158th anniversary of the siege of Cawnpore, which is at the centre of my book, Cawnpore. I’ll write about the siege next week, but I thought that this week I’d get away from wars and back to the whole question of researching historical novels. I’ve written about this before, but I’m giving my blog over to Kirsten McKenzie, whose book, Fifteen Postcards, has been gathering praise since it was published by Accent in May.

An Expert in Antiques?

My first book, ‘Fifteen Postcards’ has just been published by Accent Press. It’s a novel incorporating three continents and traversing two centuries: historical fiction written from a modern perspective. I like to describe it as a blend of ‘The Far Pavilions’, with a touch of ‘The Time Traveler's Wife’, rolled together with a smidgeon of the ‘Antiques Roadshow’. But I haven’t always been an author.

Nine years ago I was working as a Chief Customs Officer with the New Zealand Customs Service. It was a career I adored, and one I appeared to be particularly good at, according to my performance reviews and peer feedback. Then unexpectedly my father died, leaving my mother a widow without an income.

My brother and I quit our jobs. Someone needed to run Antique Alley, the business my father started in 1971. My brother worked full time, whilst I went part time, as my first daughter was born six months after Dad died. The timing was brutal.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’ states that the key to achieving world class expertise in any skill requires practicing, correctly, for around 10,000 hours. I’ve roughly estimated that since my father died, I’ve worked in the shop for 5,616 hours. I don’t work full time, and I’ve had two children in the past nine years, but I do know that I now have roughly 5,000 hours of additional knowledge of antiques. With that, I thought I had enough knowledge to sit down and write a novel about a girl who works in an antique shop. So I did.

I sat down, with my MacBook one day, and started writing, with no idea of where to go, or how the story was going to evolve. Who it was going to involve, or what the future plan for my writing was. But damn it, I knew antiques, I liked writing, so it shouldn’t be that hard, right?

First off, I started writing about postcards. One of Dad’s passions. He collected them personally. We sell them at the shop. I know that real photo postcards are more collectable than others. That Tuck’s postcards are highly sought after. And that... That’s when I stumbled. What else did I know about postcards? Highly embarrassing, but I had to turn to Google, to the library, to the reference books at work. Those 5,000 hours may as well have been 5 hours, or five minutes watching the Antiques Roadshow for all I knew about postcards. Fortunately William Main had published an exquisite book titled ‘Send Me A Postcard’ which had somehow appeared on the bookshelf at home. Fate? Google is great, but nothing beats a beautifully illustrated piece of research. And so it continued.

Green stone adzes (axe heads), made by the early Maori in New Zealand? I’m a New Zealander, born
and bred, albeit with a British passport as well, I know everything there is to know about Maori adzes. Ah, no. Just like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, I knew nothing. A research trip to Auckland’s world class War Memorial Museum proved how little I knew. These are just two tiny examples of the level of research I did for my novel - the one which was meant to be easy because I knew at least half of all I (thought) I needed to know about antiques.

I can hear your readers asking why I bothered with all that research. Surely ‘Fifteen Postcards’ is a fictional account of Sarah Lester’s life in her antique shop in London. It’s not an autobiographical account of Kirsten McKenzie’s life in an antique shop in Auckland. I’ll tell you why. Because my father would have known.

My father was a walking encyclopedia of back stamps, and hall marks, of fakes and reproductions. He knew gemstones from glass with barely a flick of his eyepiece. He would have been mortified if I’d placed a Victorian dining chair in a Regency setting (I didn’t). I also expected that people who read historical fiction probably knew as much, if not more, about some of things I wrote about. Given that my father won’t ever read my book, I didn’t want to upset the readers who will. It was embarrassing enough when my editor David Powell highlighted that I’d used the wrong currency to describe when Sarah is counting her coins in her bedroom suite in the Savoy in London. His words are burnt into my brain when he gently pointed out that Sarah probably wouldn’t be using George V coins. But that’s what editors are for, and I am eternally grateful.

I wanted every description to not only be beautifully written, but I wanted them to be accurate. That ormolu on the edge of the table? I needed the reader to be able to see it as it was then - in 1860s India, not how its presented in some poorly funded TV commercial for tea bags.

So instead of pumping out an 80,000 word novel in a few months, I wrote a 130,000 word novel over a period of one and a half years, edited it, had it accepted for publication by Accent Press, where it was edited again (and again) and here we are. I’m writing a blog piece for another historical fiction author, one who understands and appreciates the quest for historical accuracy in his research for the Burke series.

I leave you now to carry on with my next manuscript, where I’m immersed in colonial New Zealand just prior to the outbreak of the Maori wars in the 1860s. Wish me luck.

Fifteen Postcards: History shapes those who travel through it

Following the unexplained disappearance of her parents, and in a last ditch attempt to save the antique store she has inherited from financial ruin, Sarah Lester takes on a deceased estate. Amongst the estate is a collection of fifteen vintage postcards.

Sarah is unprepared for what these postcards hint at about their reclusive former owner, and soon they complicate her life in unimaginable ways.

Traversing three continents and two centuries, where tiger hunts and ruby necklaces are irrevocably entwined with murders and mysteries, auction houses and antiquities, Sarah is drawn into the enigma that could solve her parents' disappearance.

Buy it on Amazon:

Kirsten McKenzie has worked in her family's antique store since she was a toddler, where she's gone from being allowed to sell 50c postcards in the corner of Antique Alley, a literal treasure trove, to selling $5,000 Worcester vases. This is her first novel, which traverses London, India and New Zealand over two centuries. She lives in Auckland with her husband and two daughters.

Friday, 3 July 2015

War! What is it good for?

When I was at school we learned our history the old-fashioned way. Lists of battles were dutifully memorised. I remember exams in which we had to mark each of the main incidents of the Peninsular War on a map of Iberia. When it was over, I had no idea why the British had been fighting in Spain, or what the importance of the campaign was in terms of Napoleon's ultimate defeat.

Nowadays, we have put this approach behind us. Children are taught to imagine the lives of "ordinary people", especially if these people are women, poor, or otherwise disadvantaged. There's an emphasis on social history; a move away from kings and queens and those interminable lists of battles. It's a humane response to an idiotic way of teaching history.

So why, then, was I talking about Waterloo a couple of weeks ago, the Crimea last week, and, in the weeks to come, will I be writing about the siege of Cawnpore during the Indian Mutiny?

I've written five historical novels. Three are about a spy in the Napoleonic wars, so I imagine that some degree of military action was inevitable. The other two, though, are about issues of colonialism in the mid-19th century. They are essentially about misunderstandings between cultures – misunderstandings that, in theory, do not have to end in bloodshed. The fact is, though, that each of these books includes acts of horrendous violence. This cannot be explained simply by saying that the history of British colonialism is a history of military conquest, for my account of Cawnpore centres on the military aggrandisement of an Indian princeling.

I write books that centre on conflict. Some literary theorists would say that this is true of all books, but my conflicts are more explicit than some others. In the case of the books about James Burke, the conflict is there principally to provide adventure and excitement for the reader, so you could argue that, for example, the battle of Waterloo inevitably features because if you want excitement in the Napoleonic wars, the field of Waterloo is an obvious place to find it. However, in the first of the series, Burke in the Land of Silver, the conflict is the struggle for Argentinian independence, a struggle waged principally between the people of Argentina and the government of Spain. Yet the battle that features in this novel is waged by Britain. It's even less obvious why a story about the dynamics of ruling a small country in Borneo (The White Rajah) should climax with a battle involving the British Navy, especially as the country that the Navy was acting for was not even a British colony.

Brooke's and HMS Dido's forces attacking pirate stronghold 

Part of the problem, I think, is that since the end of World War II we have come to think of armed conflict as an aberration. Economic or political crises should be settled diplomatically. After all, nobody is suggesting that the Bundeswehr is going to march into Greece to demand that it give the Germans their money back. Historically, though, this is arguably an unusual state of affairs. Bismarck famously said that war was the continuation of diplomacy by other means and the idea that disputes between nations should be settled militarily is much older than the concepts of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Arguably, our modern notions that history is not about battles are about to be set aside. It is interesting to see the difficulty that the international community has in trying to discuss the future of Ukraine whilst carefully ignoring the reality that that future has already been decided by the presence of Russian tanks on Ukrainian soil.

This does not explain, though, why Britain invaded Buenos Aires at a time when the principal conflict in the area was between the Argentinian people and their Spanish rulers. Nor does it explain the intervention of the British Navy in a conflict between the rulers of Sarawak and a tribe of marauding Sea Dyaks. To a degree, of course, the British were taking advantage of a period of uncertainty in order to strengthen their political and military position. I think, though, that this does not imply that these were calculated moves. There is a lot of truth in the aphorism that the British Empire was acquired mostly in moments of absentmindedness.

When there is cultural or political conflict, there is a tendency for people to resolve the situation with force. Violence is often a response to political or economic upheavals, even when the violence does not in any way address the factors that created it. Thus, there is a clear correlation between economic conditions and the number of lynchings in the southern states of America, although those lynched were more likely to be accused of a sexual crime or a lack of respect rather than anything related to the economy.

It seems, perhaps, that my teachers were at least partly right. History can be taught as a series of military conflicts. However, I do not think that it makes sense to see military achievements as shaping the course of history. Rather, it is that periods of great change are punctuated by military adventures. Waterloo, for example, did not initiate the end of a revolutionary era and bring peace to Europe. After decades of war, Europe was ready for peace and the Great Powers had united to end revolution. The military defeat of Napoleon was an inevitable consequence of social and political change at the beginning of the 19th century: the changes that followed 1815 were not caused by Napoleon's defeat but were the product of the movements that had destroyed him. History can only be understood by looking at social and economic changes, but to pretend that these are not accompanied by violence and conflict is to ignore reality. War is the punctuation of history and to teach the history of an era without teaching about the military campaigns that took place at the time is to present the student with a book in which sentences and paragraphs are run together.

I do not want to spend my life writing about war, but I'm fascinated by the drama of periods of radical change in history and the clashes between different ways of looking at the world. It is not inevitable that writing about these issues will always mean writing about battles, but I suspect that I haven't seen the last of war in my stories. Fortunately, armed conflict, however terrible in reality, can always be turned to good account in fiction. As pedagogical fashions change, I hope that it might also find its way back into the teaching of history.