Thursday, 29 January 2015

The story behind 'Cawnpore'

When I started writing the story of Cawnpore, I thought that most readers would have heard of the place. How wrong I was!

Cawnpore (now Kanpur) is in the north-west of India. Looking on the map, it's pretty near the centre, but in the mid-19th century, it was one of what were then referred to as the North-West Provinces. It was a garrison town, from which troops could be despatched toward the borders with Afghanistan. During the Indian Mutiny (or the Freedom Struggle of 1857, as many Indians refer to it), the native troops at Cawnpore joined the rebellion. The British troops and the civilians living in the town dug in on open ground near the garrison. They had assumed that the rebels would march off to Delhi and they had not prepared for a long defence. In fact, the rebels stayed in Cawnpore and the Europeans, in a totally inadequate position and short of food and water held out against overwhelmingly superior Indian forces for almost three weeks. When the British commander surrendered, largely to save the many women and children caught in the siege, all of the Europeans were massacred.

For over 100 years, the story of Cawnpore was presented in Britain as a story of plucky Brits and perfidious natives. More recently, it has been largely neglected in school history and few people have heard of it. If they do think of the events of 1857 at all, it is probably with a feeling of mild embarrassment that the British were in India, lording it over the people who lived there.

In fact, the truth, as ever, was much more subtle than either the jingoistic tale of British heroism or the politically correct notion that the Indians were only responding understandably to European oppression.

The Mutiny took place at a time when the British approach to India was changing, and the attitudes of the Indians to the British were confused. In many ways, British rule in India had benefited the local population, but the Indians were growing increasingly uncomfortable with the domination of people who, as time went by, were more inclined to impose their values (especially their religion) on what they had come to see as a subject people incapable of ruling themselves. On both sides, there were those who sought compromise and coexistence and those who, had they been living today, would have cheerfully subscribed to the theory of a "clash of civilisations". This was reflected in social relationships, too. Many Indians had good friends in the European community, and there were still Europeans who married Indian women and adopted many of the customs of the country. Alongside this, there was increasing division between the two cultures, with growing distrust and enmity between individuals.

This is the background to a novel which, besides giving an account of a particularly horrible historical event, tries to show some of contradictions implicit in colonial rule. The events in Cawnpore are seen through the eyes of John Williamson – an outsider, both by class and sexual orientation, who often feels more comfortable with his Indian friends than with the Europeans he is working alongside.

Cawnpore is not a cheerful book. It was originally published by a very small publisher in the USA, and it did not sell well. Of all the books I've written, though, I think it is the best, and I have had some very kind comments from people who have read it. I am hoping that its republication by Accent will bring it to a larger readership. If you blog about books, please contact me (on and I will see if I can get a review copy to you.

Cawnpore should be available in February. I will be writing more about the background to the book between now and then.

Monday, 26 January 2015

So here we are: the new cover for ‘Cawnpore’. Cawnpore follows John Williamson from Borneo to north west India and the cover beautifully complements the cover for ‘The White Rajah’.

I love this cover. Somehow Accent have found a picture that reflects the reality of the British position at Cawnpore, something that lots of illustrators get completely wrong. The British had a miserably inadequate boundary wall (probably not even timbered as well as it is shown here) which provided no proper shelter. It was hardly a well-prepared defensive position. The picture obviously draws on somebody’s imagination, as almost everybody who sheltered behind that wall was to die.

The knife is a katar, an Indian stabbing dagger.

The book is due out next month and I’ll be writing more about it over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Buenos Aires 1806

It's been a while since my last straightforwardly historical post, so I think it's time for another.

The story in Burke in the Land of Silver is based around real historical events. James Burke was a British spy who almost certainly played a significant role in the British attack on Buenos Aires in 1806.

'What British attack?' I hear you cry. It's certainly not a well-known event in British history. Despite initial success (the captured plunder was paraded through London) it ended badly. In fact, there were not one, but two, invasions of Buenos Aires. The second was a year later in 1807 and I ignore it in the novel because it was essentially a repeat of the first. Both were disasters.

Last Spring, I wrote about the invasions for the excellent English Historical Fiction Authors blog. I know that many of my readers will have missed it there, so I'm posting it again.

The two invasions of Buenos Aires

The idea of invading a country in order to liberate the people from their ruler didn’t start with Iraq. It was popular two hundred years ago, and it didn’t end well then either.

Latin American revolutionaries seeking freedom from Spanish rule were active in London around the beginning of the 19th century. The most famous was the Venezuelan, Francisco de Miranda who tried to persuade the British to intervene on the revolutionaries’ behalf. In 1804, Pitt, then the Prime Minister, met Miranda to discuss the possibility of sending an expedition to South America. This was not to be an exercise in colonial conquest. The mission objective (to use modern parlance) was to be "to secure independence for the Latin Americans" as well as commercial opportunities for Britain.

Although he was sympathetic, Pitt considered that the time was not right for such an expedition. The meeting, though, had also been attended by Home Riggs Popham, late of the Royal Navy but now the Member of Parliament for Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. Two years later, Popham – now back in the Royal Navy as a Commodore – found himself in South Africa, where he was to assist the British army in driving the Dutch out of the Cape of Good Hope. The fighting proved surprisingly easy and Popham realised that he now had access to an army which had no immediate military objectives to meet. He saw the opportunity to sail across the Atlantic with the men who had been expected to fight in the Cape Colony and capture Buenos Aires. In my novel, His Majesty's Confidential Agent, I suggest that Popham was ordered to do this by the British government. In reality, it is not at all clear to what extent he was following orders and to what extent he carried out this invasion on his own initiative. Whatever the truth of the matter, he arrived in the River Plate in June 1806. According to some accounts, he was assisted in navigating the Plate by a British agent. It was certainly not an easy river to navigate. Popham was quoted at the time as saying, "It was a bit bumpy," as his ships nearly grounded on sandbanks.

Popham’s army was commanded by Colonel William Beresford. The illegitimate son of the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, Beresford had served under Wellington and was held by many (though not Wellington himself) to have a less than perfect grasp of military strategy. He landed his troops at Quilmes, fifteen miles from Buenos Aires. The Spanish did not have enough troops mount an adequate defence and Beresford had an easy march, brushing aside the meagre forces sent to oppose him. On the 27 June 1806, Buenos Aires surrendered.

The Spanish governor had fled with the treasury, but Popham sent soldiers in pursuit and succeeded in capturing the money – over a million Spanish dollars. The idea that this was a liberation rather than a simple raid on Spanish territory was, by now, in tatters.

It seems likely that Popham's main objective was plunder. Certainly neither Popham nor Beresford had any clear idea what to do with Buenos Aires now that they had captured it. Resentment amongst the population grew. The civilian population turned on the British. A Spanish admiral, the French emigre Santiago de Liniers, led an attack that combined regular troops, riders from the rural farms and civilians from Buenos Aires. Beresford, with around 1,500 troops now faced a combined opposing force of around 10,000. He surrendered on 12 August 1806.

The episode had been a farce and Popham, who had left Beresford to cope unsupported, was court-martialed for leaving his station. In London, though, the arrival of eight wagons of silver bullion was a source of public rejoicing. The convoy with its military escort was greeted by the Lord Mayor in his robes and regalia and the City of London awarded Popham a Sword of honour. The court-martial censured him, but it did no harm to his future career. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1814 and made a KCB in 1815.

My novel has the 1806 invasion at its centre. Generally, I've tried to be true to the historical facts. However, I drew the line at describing what happened next, because it would stretch the credulity of the reader.

The 1806 invasion ended in disaster and led to the court-martial of one of its main organisers. However, on the principle that if a thing is worth doing badly, it's worth doing badly twice, the British invaded again in 1807. Eight thousand troops, belatedly sent to assist Beresford, finally arrived on the River Plate. They successfully captured Montevideo, in modern Uruguay, but then set out to march on Buenos Aires. A strong garrison was left in Montevideo, leaving a relatively weak force to attack Buenos Aires. The British moved without transport and with only a limited number of cavalry. By the time they arrived at the city, they were in poor shape with many of their weapons unusable. They tried to fight their way into the town but found themselves coming under fire from the tall houses which lined the sides of the narrow streets. Much of the fighting was in a road named, to this day, La Defensa – The Defence. The Convento de Santo Domingo on Calle Defensa still has cannonballs embedded in one of the towers, ostensibly from the battle that took place there. (In fact, the church has been much restored and rebuilt in the past 200 years – including the construction of the second tower –

The Convento de Santo Domingo. The tower on the left was used as an observation
post and came under heavy fire, marked by the cannonballs embedded in it. 

and these are not the original cannonballs.) Unable to reach the centre of the town, despite taking around 3,000 casualties, the British asked for a truce and retreated. General John Whitelocke, the British commander, was, like Popham, court-martialed. The judge advocate noted that this was "the first Trial by Court Martial, instituted to investigate into the Conduct of a General Officer, having the command of an Expedition against a foreign Province." Unlike Popham, he had failed to extract any financial benefit from his efforts and the court was not inclined to leniency. He was found to have been incompetent and dismissed from the army.

1807 was the last time that a foreign power attempted to capture Buenos Aires. The British and Argentinian armies did not meet on the field again until 1982 when Argentina invaded the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. The British won a decisive military victory. Wisely, though, they did not attempt military operations on the Argentine mainland.

Monday, 12 January 2015

2014: a year in blog posts

Last year I made 62 posts on this blog. Google’s analytics are not entirely reliable, but they do give me an idea of which posts get most attention. In the past, I’ve been surprised at what has got read and what hasn’t. This is what has tickled readers’ interest this year. (Click on the titles to be taken to the posts.)

Historical novels and the 20th century 

This post revisited the old question of how long ago a story has to be set to make it a historical novel. I argue that a story from the 1960s can definitely be a historical novel and illustrate this with Sharon Robard’s remarkable book, Unforgivable.

I was surprised at the interest this post seemed to generate. I have two series of books out with Accent. The Williamson Papers are set in the mid-19th century and are quite serious books about the impact of colonialism on both the colonisers and the people they colonised. The books about the adventures of Napoleonic-era spy James Burke are more light-hearted. I thought this blog post was a rather self-indulgent piece about the problems of writing two very different kinds of book, but for some reason it caught peoples’ interest.

Someone asked me to post seven interesting things about myself. It’s not the sort of thing I generally do on my blog, but I was asked, so I did. It turned out to be huge fun to write and, apparently, a lot of people thought it was fun to read too.

This is an article on kris, the famous Malay weapons. There’s one on the cover of The White Rajah. If you want to know about kris, this article is a good place to start. Apparently quite a few of my readers are interested.

I don’t often straightforwardly plug The White Rajah, but it’s a good book and I was glad to see people reading this post.

This guest post by Christopher Hawthorne Moss (author of Beloved Pilgrim) looked at historical novels as a way of exploring the role of transgendered people in history.

So, as last year, there seems a range of different types of post that attract interest. I’ll carry on with the mix of guest posts, articles about writing, about the history behind my books (like the kris piece) and, occasionally, about me. I didn’t write about tango this year but the piece I wrote about Milonga 10 in Buenos Aires remains one of the most widely read posts I’ve ever made, so I might yet put in some more stuff about dancing.

If there’s anything you’d particularly like to read about in 2015, do let me know. You can write to me in the Comments section below or email me at

Monday, 5 January 2015

Twelfth Night

So today is the official end of Christmas.

I don't like the modern run-up to Christmas that sees the Day as a climax and then we all rush back to work (or the sales) as soon as Boxing Day is over - or even on Boxing day, though (in the UK at least) it's supposed to be a holiday. I like to start the decorations and excitement a few days before Christmas and then to celebrate properly until Twelfth Night.

It's not really possible these days. There are other people and their holidays to consider, but, all-in-all, we've managed to make our Christmas pretty well what we wanted. We usually try to go away at Christmas time, and this year was no exception. Some people don't like the idea of not being at home at Christmas, but it suits us. My wife and son both ski, so, when we can, the three of us go away together. This year, it was to Tignes, where we had a lovely time with traditional log fires and a lovely tree to come home to after a day on the slopes. The couple looking after us, Paul and Lorraine, were older than the average chalet hosts and spectacularly good cooks. The food was outstanding in both quality and quantity. I don't think I have ever eaten so much in a week before, or enjoyed it more.

We sneaked in a day in Paris (back to Les Invalides, rapidly becoming my favourite museum in the world) and then back to London, with just enough time to recover before New Year's Eve and greeting 2015 dancing with friends.

We rounded off the holiday with a day spent learning how to master scuba kit, ready to go diving with our son. He dives for his job and is determined to introduce us to the pleasures of underwater exploration but, gosh, the course was exhausting.

So here we are, tired but happy. Really, I need a holiday to recover, but instead I have to put my head down and get on with the revisions to the next Burke story. Burke's adventures at Napoleon's final battle should be ready for the 200th anniversary of Waterloo in June.

And, Christmas being over, I've taken the Christmas banner off the top of the page. I hope you like the new one.

2015 looks like being another great year. I wish all my readers the best for it.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy New Year!

2014 turned out to fulfil pretty well all its promise as far as we've been concerned here, whatever is going on in the wider world.

2015 will be the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, so expect to hear more from James Burke as he battles against the wily French at the climax of the Napoleonic Wars. And then, who knows? More from John Williamson, back in the UK after his adventures in the Indian Mutiny? Or another adventure for Burke?

It's January: there's plenty of time to plan for the year. I hope all is going well with all of you and that you can look forward to peace and plenty in the year ahead.