Thursday, 1 October 2015

HMS President

For five years I've been going to dances aboard HMS President at her permanent mooring on the Thames Embankment near Blacfriars Bridge. Only now, though, have I learned about her history, thanks to a tour by the captain.

The President was originally called the Saxifrage and was launched in 1918 as a Q-ship. Her mission was to patrol the sea lanes off southern Ireland (this was before an independent Eire) playing the part of a merchant vessel. German U-boats would surface to board merchantmen, placing explosives aboard any that held materials they considered as “war supplies”. The idea of the Q-ships was that once the submarine was on the surface, the Q-ship would run up its naval colours (a legal requirement) and open fire on the sub. Its main offensive capability, though, was not its gun, but its prow. As the ship was not really a merchantman, it carried no cargo and its lower deck was filled with a huge engine that allowed it a dramatic turn of speed. A hidden rudder allowed it to turn very tightly and ram the submarine.

Model showing her original appearance as 'HMS Saxifrage'

Q-ships were so called because they sailed from Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland. The ships had two crews: a civilian crew who showed themselves on deck, and a naval crew, including gunners, who had to remain out of sight below deck. (The fixing points for the navy’s hammocks are still preserved.) Even when ashore, the civilian crew had to behave as if they were the crew of a genuine merchantman and at sea one would even appear on deck dressed as a woman, to convince any U-boat captain watching through his periscope that what he was seeing was a genuinely civilian vessel.

Despite these efforts, the Germans soon grew wise to the idea of Q-ships and the Saxifrage was never threatened by a U-boat on the surface. Instead, like the other Q-ships, she started to patrol more conventionally armed with her deck gun and depth charges. Soon, though, the war ended. By 1922, Saxifrage’s sea-going days were over and she was permanently moored on the Thames as a Royal Naval Reserve drill ship. Royal Navy Reserve ships in this role are traditionally named President, so Saxifrage was re-christened and remains HMS President to this day.

During World War II the President was brought back into service for gunnery training. A wooden cabin had been built on her aft deck and this was replaced with a metal structure because of the danger of incendiary bombs. The cabin was later converted to the ballroom where I dance.

The President was decommissioned in the 1980s. She remained in the same berth and, being, by now, a London landmark, she was allowed to keep her name, although she is officially HMS President (1918) to distinguish her from the new naval shore establishment which has taken the same name.

View through one of the few remaining portholes.

The President’s engines are gone and her portholes have mostly been replaced with larger windows suiting her new life as a floating office and entertainment venue. Her lines can still be made out under the new superstructure (some of it added by the navy to provide more room for drill and offices in her shore-base role).

HMS President is one of only three Royal Navy warships surviving from the First World War. As part of the centenary celebrations of the war, she was painted in a modern interpretation of the ‘dazzle’ camouflage that she wore in her original role. Until 2014 she was painted in Victorian battleship livery with a black hull, white superstructure and a buff yellow funnel and masts She was the last Royal Navy ship to maintain this livery.

If you want to see her, you had best do so before January. Work on the new Thames sewer means that she will be leaving her berth at the beginning of 2016 and the owners are taking the opportunity to put her in dry dock. With luck, she will be back on the Thames, as good as new, later in the year.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The history behind Cawnpore: the final word.

I hope you've enjoyed my week of posts about Indian history. I've blogged about the siege of Cawnpore and the British reprisals afterwards quite recently, so I'm not reposting these: click on the links if you want to read them. There is a post about Nana Sahib, seen by the British as the villain of the piece, HERE.

Cawnpore, now called Kanpur, remains the largest city in Uttar Pradesh. It flourished for a while as a centre of the cotton trade, but cotton manufacture has moved on to cheaper countries and many of the mills are closed. It remains, though, a centre of industry with significant plants producing wool and leather, as well as factories supplying the defence industry.

The Cawnpore Memorial in 1860. Now demolished.

The memorial well, which marked the site of the second massacre, was demolished after Indian independence in 1947. A park was built in its place with statues of leaders of the independence movement, including Tatya Tope, who many historians believe was the man behind the massacre. The park is called Nana Rao Park, in memory of Nana Sahib.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A cultural diversion

I'm reposting a lot of old blogs about India this week, so I thought I'd give you all a treat with an extra blog about something completely different.

A few weeks back, I wrote about a production of Carmen at the Soho Theatre. Now, in my continuing attempt to inject some High Culture into my blog, I'm writing about the ballet. And I'm posting it now because Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have just two days more in London before they vanish beyond the M25, and I'd like you to have the chance to see them before they go. You'll probably have to kill someone to get a ticket, but it will be worth it, I promise.

It's ballet, Jim, but not as we know it.

There are a few men in the history of ballet who have enhanced their reputations by dancing en pointe. Frederick Ashton famously choreographed the comic lead in Fille Mal Gardée for him to show off in the tortuous footwear that, for so many people, defines the classical ballerina. So when the curtain rises on the company affectionately known as “Les Trocks” there must surely have been some mistake. For this famous company of male dancers are draped around the stage ready to dance Les Sylphides, a classical ballet which seems designed specifically to test the ankles of even the slenderest ballerina.

It’s no mistake. Chopin’s music starts and the company glides, apparently effortlessly, into their version of this chocolate box ballet. What follows is, as ever with the Trocks, an astonishing mix of virtuoso dancing and brilliant comedy. They stagger, they fall, they miss their cues – yet when they settle to perform a set-piece dance, every step is perfect. In fact, their technique is significantly better than many a more traditional company. If you are to get a laugh by collapsing on your fellow dancers, the audience needs to know that there is no question but that you did it on purpose.
Much of the comedy is straightforward slapstick, but there is also a subtle (or sometimes less subtle) sending up of many of the conventions of classical dance: the pretty-boy principal who stands around propping up (or, in this case, not) his leading lady; the endless rearranging of ballerinas around the stage because, back in the 18th century, moving around to make pretty patterns was much of what ballet was about. The audience roars with appreciative laughter as dancers fall to the ground, somehow landing in perfect splits. Splits? But these are men. For a moment, despite the chest hair peeping above some of the costumes, we’ve all forgotten. But splits? From a jump? One or two, maybe. But the whole company?

Photo: (c)Zoran Jelenic

Yes, splits, fouettés, spins, even high lifts (though the man doing the lifting is barely bigger than the “girl” he lifts). The Trocks do it all, with a passion and élan which lets their love for ballet shine through. Les Sylphides is almost a parody of classical dance and it deserves sending up, but never have I enjoyed a performance so much and, when I’ve wiped away the tears of laughter, I realise I am still sitting through some sublime classical ballet.

Next it’s Merce Cunningham’s turn. Older ballet fans, like me, may still vaguely remember when Cunningham was exciting and new. It was pretty strange, though, even then. The Trocks dance it wonderfully, though it is so far beyond parody that I'm not sure that there would be that much difference if they did it straight. A couple of live musicians accompany them in music that the programme describes as “after John Cage”. Let’s face it, getting a laugh out of Cage’s music is not difficult but, as the sound of rustling paper gives way to the popping of bubble wrap, the audience collapses. The pastiche of the music is crueller than the sending up of the dancing, yet, even at its cruellest, it is still recognisably music (of a sort) and unmistakably John Cage.

The Trocks on Wall Street    Photo: (c)Zoran Jelenic

The Balanchine parody is nicely done, but it is nothing to the Dying Swan. I'm old enough to have seen Margot Fonteyn dance the Dying Swan as a gala piece and it was very lovely indeed. But this dying swan was like nothing you have imagined in your wildest nightmares. Shedding feathers, clutching its stomach, palpitating at its chest, there’s no doubt this swan is in a very bad way and then, suddenly, the dancer is channelling Fonteyn with that lyric pose, held for a breath – before she breaks it to gesture for more applause. It’s classic Trock – technically brilliant, beautifully moving and then crashing straight into the crudest slap-stick. Brilliant!

Finally we get the peasants dancing in the village from – well, from every three act classical ballet you ever saw really. Ostensibly, this is Don Quixote, though the programme notes tell us that “due to economic reasons” neither Don Quixote or Sancho Panza features. Peasant girls do, though. And gypsies. And an ugly hag, a virtuous mother and somebody else who hangs around in the background doing not a lot, because classical choreographers always like to put in a part for their old girlfriends whose dancing days are pretty well over. There’s a handsome hero and an ugly old man who tries to steal away the beautiful heroine. And there are fairies. Why not? It’s a traditional classical ballet – why shouldn't there be fairies? The plot, such as it is, is communicated through those mime gestures that little girls learn in their ‘First Ballet Book’ and these are shoe-horned in whether they are appropriate or not, together with the odd gesture that definitely doesn't feature in the ‘First Ballet Book.’ There are solos and pas de deux and pas de quatre and dances for the whole company and, by the end, you have seen every village dance scene you will ever want to see and, if you stop laughing for long enough, you will notice some truly beautiful dancing sandwiched between the jokes.

Photo: (c)Zoran Jelenic

There is no other company in the world like the Trocks. What started as a joke in an off-off-Broadway show has become an institution in which an astonishingly talented multi-national cast of male performers dress up in tutus and dance their hearts out. And are really, really good. And funny. I did say that they’re funny, didn't I?

I doubt you can get tickets for the London run by now. (It closes on Saturday.) But they are just starting a UK tour that lasts until mid-November. Whether you are a ballet fan or just enjoy a really good laugh, do yourself a favour and go.
Yesterday someone asked me about the journeys Williamson makes in India.

These were based on accounts of travelling in the sub-continent from the time. Several of the incidents are drawn directly from the book by Fanny Parks, who wrote about her own experiences in India in the first half of the 19th century. She was an extremely interesting woman and I recommend her book. (Avoid the expensive edited versions and read the original, which is available online for free.)

I wrote about her for 'English Historical Fiction Authors' in 2013. As Cawnpore is being promoted at the moment and I'm taking the opportunity to repost some of my notes about India, here's my account of Fanny Park's life.

Fanny Parks: A Wandering Pilgrim in 19th Century India

Fanny Parks went to India in 1822, accompanying her husband. Arriving in Calcutta, she and her husband lived respectably with the other Europeans, although she was quick to learn Hindi so that she could communicate with the servants.

After two years in Calcutta, her husband took up a post in Allahabad, 500 miles to the north-west. It was her first experience of rural India and she loved it. The time was, she said, "the most approaching to delightful that we had passed in India." Once there, her husband became manager of the ice works. The manufacture and storing of ice in the days before refrigeration was an important industry, but managing an ice plant must have had more than a passing similarity to watching paint dry. Fanny threw herself into organising the household, arranging an avenue of trees and digging a new well. (She quotes the local proverb: "Plant a tree, dig a well, write a book, and go to heaven.") It seems pretty clear, though, that she was bored.

Equipped with her workable Hindi and her horse, Mootee, she spent much of her time exploring the country. "Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab [horse]," she wrote, "one might be happy for ever in India."

As a woman, she was allowed to socialise with Indian women in a way that local custom would have considered quite unacceptable for men. She formed friendships with many Indian women and was even able to visit them in the zenana (harem), an area completely forbidden to men other than the immediate family and therefore a continual source of exotic rumour amongst most Europeans. It was her accounts of life in the zenana that, in part, led to the success of her autobiographical Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, two extraordinary volumes which gave an unparalleled insight into Indian life under British rule in the first half of the 19th century.

Her husband seems to have been, by the standards of the time, unusually relaxed about leaving her to travel on her own. When the two of them went to visit the Taj Mahal, he sent her ahead in her own boat and she writes about her experiences and adventures on the river as an unchaperoned woman. Her behaviour was considered improper by more conventionally minded memsahibs and she seems to have had few women friends among the European community, although she is always writing of the men she knows and visits. (Even back in England she shocked people by going out and about unchaperoned. "I shall never be tamed," she wrote "… to the ideas of propriety of a civilised lady.")

She took to wearing Indian dress, even having a burka made for herself (though she doesn't say that she ever wore it in public). She complained that "a lady in European attire gives me the idea of a German mannequin" and contrasted European women's stiff walk with "that snakelike, undulating movement, – the poetry of motion" that she saw in the Indians. Although the early 19th century saw generally good relations between the Indian and European communities, Fanny Parks was much closer to the local aristocracy than most and was regarded by many Europeans as having "gone native". She learned Urdu, which was the language of court and which she described as "Hindostanee, intermixed largely with Persian."

She was sympathetic to Indian religions and contrasted them favourably with Christianity.

"The fakir, who from a religious motive, however mistaken, holds up both arms until they become withered and immovable, and who, being, in consequence, utterly unable to support himself, relies in perfect faith on the support of the Almighty, displays more religion than the [bishop], who, with a salary of £8000 per annum, leaves the work to be done by curates, on a pittance of £80 a year."

Her enthusiasm for Indian religious observance did not, however stop her from stealing idols that she found in the countryside and adding them to her collection of Indian artefacts. On her return to England she proudly announced that: "My collection of Hindoo idols is far superior to any in the [British] Museum."

She was entranced by fabrics and fashion and learned the esoteric skill of dressing a camel. "There is but one thing in the world that I perfectly understand, and that is, how to dress a camel," she claimed. She was good enough at dressing camels to be asked to dress the camel of a local Rajah. The dress was made of "many yards" of black and crimson cloth covered in seven hundred bells, one hundred beads and thousands of cowrie shells. She drew the line, though, at actually riding the beast, saying that she would be frightened of tumbling off.

Much of her time was spent at entertainments, whether the balls given by the British or more elaborate entertainments provided by the Indians. Having animals fight seems to have been considered a great sport, with elephants and even rhinoceroses being pitched against each other. Nach dancers provided a more relaxed entertainment.

With no need to find herself employment, Fanny Parks gives the impression of a life spent in a continual round of exploring, socialising and being entertained. The realities of life in India do intrude, though. She is constantly reporting herself unwell, often through the effects of the heat. She matter-of-factly records the deaths of native friends, servants and Europeans as smallpox, plague, heatstroke and other unspecified illnesses take their toll. Even her substantial domestic menagerie suffers. "The sickness in our farm-yard is great: 47 … sheep and lambs have died of small-pox; much sickness is in the stable…" There is the occasional murder to break the monotony of death from illness sickness. The East India Company offered generous pensions. Fanny Parks reminds us of why they could afford to: most of their employees failed to survive to collect their pensions. A detailed study of the mortality rate amongst British troops in India in the 1840s suggested that almost 3% died every year. A 21-year-old soldier in the Bombay army was reckoned to have only an evens chance of surviving 25 years of service – much less than he would need to collect his pension.

The life expectancy of the native Indians was, of course, less than that of the Europeans. Besides issues of sanitation and general health, the natives suffered the effects of famine. Fanny Parks describes passing through a famine area:

"There lay the skeleton of a woman who had died of famine; the whole of her clothes had been stolen by the famished wretches around, the pewter rings were still in her ears, but not a rag was left on the bones that were starting through the black and shrivelled skin; the agony on the countenance of the corpse was terrible. Next to her a poor woman, unable to rise, lifted up her skinny arm, and moaned for food. The unhappy women, with their babies in their arms, pressing them to their bony breasts, made me shudder… I cannot write about the scene without weeping…."

In 1839, Fanny Parks returned to England to visit her family, her father having died. She complained that the country was small and dark. Even the mutton was compared unfavourably with that in India, although she was fascinated by her first experience of a steam train. Her visit was not a happy one. While she was in England, her mother died and she herself was seriously ill for three months. It was not until 1844 that she returned to India. She seems to have spent less time now exploring the country and complained of life being monotonous. Years in India had sapped her health and that of her husband. In 1848, both of them left India for England, arriving on New Year's Day 1849.

Her homecoming was unpropitious. "[I]t was bitterly cold, and I began to speculate if it were possible to exist in England." Exist in England she did, though, surviving until 1875, when she died at the age of 81.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

As Cawnpore is still on offer, I'm re-posting another of my old posts on the history behind the novel. This one is from 2012.

Indian Mutiny or War of Independence?

In Cawnpore, I refer to the events of 1857 as the Indian Mutiny. The book is written from the point of view of a Victorian Englishman and "Indian Mutiny" is what Victorian Englishmen called it. Nowadays, though, what to call that uprising is an intensely political decision. To many Indians and Pakistanis the war was the First War of Indian Independence or the Freedom Struggle of 1857.

Leaving aside political considerations, part of the confusion as to what to call it is down to the fact that several conflicts coalesced into a single rebellion. There seems little doubt that the actual fighting started with a mutiny. That is, soldiers disobeyed a direct order and, when some were imprisoned, their comrades rose up to release them, murdered some of their officers and broke camp. Whether the soldiers were encouraged to mutiny by political activists seeking independence from the British is uncertain. Some Europeans were convinced that the whole thing was a calculated plot, but it is the nature of the political class always to claim that acts of rebellion were incited by "outside agitators" and there is no clear evidence on this either way. What is certain is that the first troops to mutiny decided to march to Delhi and put themselves at the service of the Mogul emperor.

With mutineers claiming to be acting in the cause of the deposed rulers, the conflict quickly began to take on a wider political complexion. Other rulers, like Nana Sahib, saw the opportunity to re-establish their power while the British, deprived of the support of their native troops, were weakened. The situation was further confused because these rulers did not all act in concert. For example, as mentioned in my novel, the troops who mutinied at Cawnpore first marched towards Delhi to put themselves at the service of the Mogul emperor, before being persuaded to return to Cawnpore to serve the Peshwa, Nana Sahib. Although the various leaders of the Indian forces made common cause against the British, their failure to act effectively as a single political or military force counted against them.

One of the first acts of the rebels in many places (including Cawnpore) was to open the jails. So beside the mutinying troops and the various forces of the native rulers, many of those who joined in the fighting were local convicts who simply saw an opportunity to profit from the general unrest. Thus natives who were associated with the British (such as Christians or other Eurasians) were often attacked and murdered, less to achieve military or political goal than because their attackers could then loot their property. With an almost complete breakdown of law and order and mass conflict spreading across huge areas of the country, there was an opportunity for many old scores to be settled.

There are clear modern parallels. In Iraq the fighting following the American-led occupation was blamed on elements of the Army (essentially mutineers), forces loyal to the old regime, criminal elements and those settling scores between different religious groups. In Britain, at least, commentators struggled for ages to find a term which encompassed all these different elements before they settled on "insurgency". Perhaps that is how we should refer to the events of 1857. But, whatever the best term should be, for the British involved, and for most historians, even today, the bloodshed and horror of that year are simply summed up as the Indian Mutiny.

Monday, 21 September 2015

India: the Mutiny and what came earlier

This month I'm talking about the background to my book, Cawnpore, because it is on promotion for September. If you want to read a plug for it, check out last Friday’s blogpost.

Concentrating on Cawnpore seems a good excuse to revisit some of my old blog posts about India. They’re scattered around my archive, many of them from the days when this blog had far fewer readers, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to bring them together, starting with a brief overview of the history of British rule in India in the years before the events of 1857. This is a slightly edited version of a piece I wrote for the excellent  English Historical Fiction Authors in October 2013.

British India to 1857: The Rise and Fall of the East India Company

In the mid-19th century, India, the jewel in Britain's imperial crown wasn't, technically, part of the Empire at all. It was run by the East India Company, a commercial organisation, originally set up to trade with the Far East. Under the India Act of 1784, the activities of the Company were subject to direction from the British government, but the Company remained a commercial organisation with shareholders who were paid dividends from the Company's substantial profits. How had we reached a situation where one of the world's largest countries was being administered for profit by a private company?

For centuries, Europe had traded with the Far East. The spice trade was of vital economic importance as far back as the days of Ancient Rome. Look in your store cupboard, even today, and see how many of the spices we use come from the Far East. And remember that, in the days before refrigeration, spices were essential in making meat palatable.

Until the 15th century, trade routes to the East went overland and were controlled first by Arabs and later by the Ottoman Turks. It was not until 1498 that the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, navigated round the Cape of Good Hope and opened a sea route from Europe to the Far East. This meant that European merchants could trade directly with their suppliers and a new age of maritime commerce was born.

Britain was late to the party. By the time that the Queen Elizabeth signed the original Royal Charter of the East India Company in 1600, the Portuguese and the Dutch were well established in the Far East. Repeatedly rebuffed by their rivals in the East Indies, Britain looked to the possibilities of India.

It was not until 1639 that the Company established its first permanent base in India, in Madras on the Bay of Bengal. In 1668, it acquired Bombay, and then Calcutta followed in 1690. These three "factories", as they were known, were intended as trading outposts: places where merchants could warehouse goods imported and exported in the increasingly profitable trade between Britain and the Indian states.

By the 1740s, the main threat in India came not from the Portuguese or the Dutch, but from the French. Their principal trading point was at Pondicherry, less than 100 miles from Madras. In 1749, the local ruler died. There were two rival claimants for his throne. The French and the British, both trying to extend their own influence, each backed one of the rivals. Both trading companies had their own military forces to defend their activities and each supported their own choice for ruler with troops. Open war was underway by 1750.

Although the dispute was notionally between two Indian princes, involvement of French and British trading companies led, inexorably, to the involvement of the French and British governments. Both sides sent professional government troops to support their own trading companies.

Backed by the military and naval resources of Britain and France, the two companies had now become significant political forces in the region. At this point, in 1756, a separate war broke out a thousand miles away, where the nawab of Bengal attacked and occupied Calcutta. The military build-up around Madras meant that the British were in a position to respond decisively. Ships of the Royal Navy carried an army from Madras to Bengal. At the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757, Robert Clive, commanding the forces of the East India Company decisively defeated the Nawab of Bengal, supported by French troops. The defeat of the Nawab was of huge symbolic importance and Plassey came to be seen as marking the start of British rule in India.

Statue of Clive of India. Whitehall, London

Immediately following the victory at Plassey, Clive installed the British candidate, Mir Jafar, as Nawab of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. Effectively, the East India Company now governed Bengal through a puppet ruler.

The tax revenues of these provinces now passed to the Company with Mir Jafar left responsible for justice and policing. (The Company took over even these residual powers in 1772.) All Frenchmen were expelled from Bengal. With the revenue from Bengal, the company was able to expand its efforts against the French further south and their hold over Pondicherry was destroyed in 1761.

India, at this time, was not a single country. The place was governed by local rulers, some with limited authority while some were absolute monarchs of huge areas of the subcontinent. All, though, recognised that the political and military presence of the British had changed the balance of power for ever. Some chose to make formal alliances with the British. Others sought to maintain some kind of independence by joining with the French.

The Sultan of Mysore allied with them to war on the Company in southern India in the late 1770s and 80s. His son, Tipu, became the most powerful threat to British hegemony. He styled himself the "Tiger of Mysore" with tiger motifs worked into his uniforms, cannons, cane handles, bed hangings, swords and thrones. His famous model of a full size tiger killing an East India Company soldier is now on display in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Tipu Sultan sent agents to Europe to buy arms that might enable him to meet the British on equal terms. Intelligence reports suggested he bought 50 cannon, 80 gun carriages, and 100,000 cannonballs, besides muskets and sabres. His army was built up to the point where he did pose a real threat to the British, but he was ultimately defeated, dying in battle in 1799.

By now, the Company was committed to Indian politics. Company troops had to defend the borders of those rulers that the Company had put in power and this meant coming to terms with their neighbours. In some cases "coming to terms" meant crushing militarily. In others, alliances were formed. The continuing involvement of the French, trying to regain territories that they had lost, and carrying on their Revolutionary Wars in the Indian theatre, meant that the Company continually felt under threat. Rulers who had not been won over to the British side might always ally with the French. Every new territorial gain, therefore, meant more territory that had to be defended, which, in turn, meant the need for further expansion.

The British conquest of India, state by state, was far from being motivated solely by the need for self-defence. The settlement after Plassey, gave the East India Company vast tax revenues. Clive predicted a £2 million annual revenue surplus (an incredible sum in 1760), which led to a 100% rise in the price of Company stock.

The military also benefited directly from the campaigns that accompanied the Company's expansion. The word "loot" comes from the Hindu word for booty and its adoption into the English language gives an indication of the enthusiasm with which European troops plundered their enemies. Everyone from the humblest private to the general could expect to get rich should they survive a war in India.

As the Company moved from a commercial to a political entity, trade became an increasingly unimportant part of its activities. In 1833 the Charter Act ended the Company's trading rights in India, as trading was deemed to be incompatible with ruling. The East India Company was therefore the ultimate example of privatisation. The entire government of one of the largest countries in the world had been outsourced to a private supplier whose profits came from the tax surplus of the nation that they governed. (Thomas Babington Macaulay, a leading British politician who served on the  Supreme Council of India, described it as “the strangest of all governments … designed for the strangest of all empires”.)

Government for profit clearly had a vast potential for abuse. A clear example of this came early in the East India Company's rule, with the Bengal Famine of 1770. This is estimated to have killed around 10 million people – about a quarter of the population of the province. During this time, the government of the East India Company took no effective measures to reduce starvation but, instead, increased land taxes and encouraged the growing of non-food crops (including opium) instead of the desperately needed rice.

Despite horrors such as the famine, many aspects of British rule were benign. In a time when communications with India were slow, British administrators would spend years in post, often not returning to Britain for long periods. In general, the late 18th century saw a relaxed coexistence between the Company's servants and the native rulers. Many pleasures were shared, with British officers often enjoying lavish hospitality from native rulers.

Initially too, intermarriage was encouraged, with the Company giving cash gifts when their employees had children with Indian women, on the basis that the children would grow up to soldier for the Company. Colonel James Skinner, the founder of a famous cavalry troop, Skinner's Horse, fathered a substantial Anglo-Indian dynasty. According to his family he had seven wives, while legend claims he had fourteen. In appropriately multi-denominational style, Skinner built a mosque for one Muslim wife, a temple for a Hindu one and then his own church in Delhi, where he was buried in 1841.

The result of such good relationships was a European ruling class that, for a while at least, demonstrated some understanding of India and a real interest in improving the economy of the country. The commitment of enlightened European rulers to their Indian subjects was rewarded with a surprising degree of loyalty and respect by many of the Indians.

By the mid-19th century, though, such mutual respect and understanding was breaking down. One in three wills made by Company servants between 1780 and 1785 made provision for Indian wives or mistresses. Between 1805 and 1810, it was down to one in four and by the middle of the century, such provisions had almost entirely disappeared. A new breed of administrators was ruling India, often contemptuous of all things native. Christian missionaries, whose activities had been restricted by the Company until 1833, were now proselytising widely in a country which was not naturally inclined to Christianity. Changes in the structure of the Army had reduced the pay and promotion opportunities of native soldiers. Perhaps most seriously, the British now controlled so much of India that they were increasingly ruthless in their manipulation of the law in order to seize those few states that remained even notionally independent.

By the time of my novel, Cawnpore, British rule had lasted almost 100 years. A trading company, still structured as a commercial organisation, was ruling over around 200 million people. It was a time of technological and social change, yet the administration was increasingly out of touch with the people and the army was restless. The scene was set for revolution.

In 1857 a rumour spread that the cartridges issued to native troops had been greased with pig and beef fat, making them unclean for both Moslems and Hindus. The story about the fat may well have been untrue. Despite official inquiries, no one will ever know for sure. On 24th April Colonel Carmichael-Smyth of the 3rd Light Cavalry took it on himself (against the advice of many of his officers) to insist that his men drill with the new cartridges. The men refused and 85 were convicted of mutiny. On May 9th, the men were paraded in chains before their regiment at Meerut in north west India and marched off to jail. Shamed by the treatment of their comrades, the regiment rose in revolt on Sunday 10th May, 1857. The Indian Mutiny had begun.

What started as a mutiny in one small outpost became a revolt that swept across the sub-continent and nearly saw Britain driven from its most important colonial possession. When it was over, millions had died, either in the fighting or the reprisals that followed. The East India Company was abolished soon afterwards. The British continued to rule for almost another hundred years, but the relationship between rulers and ruled had changed forever.

Friday, 18 September 2015


Cawnpore is on offer this month (99p in UK, 99c in the USA), so I probably ought to take the time to tell you why you should read it.

I asked Accent if they would put this book on price promotion because, of the five I have written, this is my personal favourite, but I don't think it's ever going to be the best selling.

The books that people like to read are the ones about James Burke, the dashing spy who wins through against the backdrop of the battles of the Napoleonic wars. I enjoy writing them and I hope that you enjoy reading them. The history is realistic and therefore, inevitably, sometimes a bit gruesome, but the tone is generally light. Burke is not unduly worried about the morality of his work and there is an underlying assumption that it is the proper role of the British Army to travel round the world beating the French. (And why not?)

A sharp contrast to these books are the memoirs of a fictional mid-Victorian called John Williamson. There are two so far and I've just finished writing the final instalment of the trilogy.

John Williamson and James Burke could hardly be more different. Williamson is a gay man from a working class background who finds himself elevated to positions of authority in Britain’s colonial empire. An outsider on grounds of both class and sexuality, he finds himself questioning the situations he finds himself in, torn between a conventional assumption of the rightness of British rule and doubts as to what the British end up doing to the countries they have occupied.

The books aren't an attack on colonialism. Williamson sees the good as well as the bad in colonial rule. The result is that the poor guy is constantly conflicted.

The first book, The White Rajah, is set in Borneo, where Williamson is working with James Brooke, the adventurer who famously came to rule his own country. Like all first novels, it took years to write and it still shows that I was new to the game. It will always have a special place in my heart, but it’s not my favourite.

Cawnpore followed on from The White Rajah. Technically, that makes it a sequel, but the story stands by itself. The book finds Williamson in the eponymous city during the months running up to the Indian Mutiny. He loves India and develops a deep attachment to the culture. He also enjoys his work, which he sees as improving the lives of the natives. But he is far from comfortable with the narrow-minded bureaucrats who make up his colleagues. When the Indian Mutiny breaks out, he is torn between his loyalty to England and his love of India.

The story sticks very closely to the well-documented history of the siege of Cawnpore and the eventual arrival of a British relief force just too late to prevent the massacre of the entire European population. Williamson is in the remarkable position of, at different times, finding himself fighting on both sides. It can't end well, and it doesn't.

It's a deeply depressing book. Nobody – Indian or European – comes out of it particularly well. Given the historical facts, it is hardly a plot spoiler to say that most people don't come out of it at all. Many people who have read the book have told me that it reduced them to tears. You can see why it's not a book that is going to attract casual readers who don't know me. In fact, when I was first trying to sell the Williamson books, I was advised to get myself better known with something more commercial before letting these out on the world. That’s how James Burke was born.

So Cawnpore is a book written in the first person (with all the long sentences and peculiar vocabulary that you associate with the mid-19th century), by someone who is deeply distressed about events that end up killing most of the characters. Why on earth would you want to read it? Well, this is what some other people have said about it:

… an excellent introduction to India as part of the British Rajah, and to the siege of Cawpore. The author does not deviate from the facts and the novel is a solid piece of history turned into a fascinating story and well worth a read.
Evocative and haunting. I couldn't put this book down. Not only is it a solid account of the tragic events at Cawnpore, it's a rattling good adventure and a gentle, understated love story. It's one I'll return to.
 … approaches that ranks of Sarah Waters in storytelling.

On Amazon
A moving and thought-provoking novel.
An absolute gem of contemporary literature!
I read this all in one sitting and it's one of those evocative and haunting books I know I'll return to again.
… a fine work of historical fiction, faithful to the events but able to reveal far more about them through the interpolation of self reflective fictional characters.

For anyone who has a love for this period, Cawnpore is probably one for you.
Cawnpore is on offer throughout September. I do hope you will take the opportunity to read something a little different.

Remember to buy tissues.