Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The characters of Cawnpore: the Hillersdons

Charles George Hillersdon, who also held the position of Magistrate for the district, was a few years my junior, being in his early thirties. He was slightly above the average in height, but a sedentary life had left him somewhat corpulent and he tended to stoop, making him appear older than his years.

This is John Williamson’s first impression of the Collector – the official appointed by the East India Company’s to run Cawnpore and the area around it. Hillersdon is to be his boss while he works for the Company in Cawnpore.

Charles Hillersdon was a real person. The description of him is based on a drawing that is unreliable for two reasons: he’s just a background figure and many of the drawings made of key incidents at the time were works of imagination by people who may not even have been there. Still, it’s a credible picture and may well be accurate.

Hillersdon’s personality is even more the product of my imagination. He seems to have been an unremarkable man, presumably good at his job or there would have been paperwork defining his deficiencies. In Cawnpore he is the most sympathetic of the Europeans, a bridge between Williamson and the other British staff with whom he has nothing in common. Hillersdon is, if you like, the acceptable face of colonialism: hard-working, sincere, doing his very best for the people who are his responsibility, but ultimately having little understanding of the country where he is living.

His wife, too, was a real person and there are suggestions that she was, indeed, the rather sweet piano playing mother that Williamson describes. Like many English wives in India, she lived an isolated life, surrounded by servants but with no real contact with the Indians. Her home attempted to keep India at bay with the furnishings and taste of the English Home Counties, while she bore children at a rate that reflected the value that Victorians placed on motherhood.

Charles, Lydia and their children all took shelter from the rebels in General Wheeler’s Entrenchment. Lydia was pregnant at the time and she survived to see her child born. None of the Hillersdon family, though, survived the bombardment of the European position. Like so many of the people who died on both sides at Cawnpore, they may well have made political misjudgements and they may have served deeply flawed systems, but they surely cannot have deserved the fate that they met there.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The characters of Cawnpore: Nana Sahib

'Real' historians tell stories pretty much as much as historical novelists do and, when I was young, the story that was told about Cawnpore had a clear villain: Nana Sahib.

Nana Sahib was, according to the Victorians (and it is their version of the Mutiny that dominated the way it was seen for a hundred years), the evil genius of Cawnpore. He was the local Indian prince who pretended sympathy for the British, and then betrayed them. Most importantly, he was the man who ordered the massacre there. For decades, he was hunted by the British, who wanted to drag him before their courts and, after a show trial, execute him. But he vanished after the British recaptured Cawnpore. For decades, there were claimed sightings of the man, but eventually it was presumed that he was dead and, in time, the historical character was forgotten and only the pantomime villain of Cawnpore lived on.

I believe that Nana Sahib was a much more complex and sympathetic character than he is usually painted, and I have tried to reflect this in my book.

Seereek Dhoondoo Punth was born in 1824 into an undistinguished family, but was adopted by Baji Rao, the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. His capital was at Poona (now Pune), which was one of the main political centres of India. From there, he ruled over the most important of the Indian kingdoms.

The Maratha Empire was riven by internal strife and some factions went to war against the British. There were three wars in total and, after the third, the British decided to annex the Maratha Empire. Baji Rao was allowed to keep his title and even given a pension by the British. However, he was stripped of all political power and forced into exile. He chose to live in Bithur (now Bithoor), a small town near Cawnpore.

Baji Rao needed a male heir to succeed him and, in the absence of a natural heir, Nana Sahib was adopted in 1827 and raised to inherit his father's position. The British, however, refused to acknowledge that an adopted son could inherit a hereditary title and would not acknowledge him as Peshwa. By then, the title was purely honorary and it is possible that the British did not realise how much distress this caused, although Nana Sahib petitioned repeatedly for his title to be recognised. He also petitioned that the pension that was paid to his father should continue to be paid to his father's heirs, but the British refused to do this, claiming that the pension had been personal to Baji Rao and their obligation had died with him.

Nana Sahib toyed with the idea of travelling to England to appeal directly to the East India Company but, as a Brahmin, he would have lost caste by travelling overseas. He therefore sent Azimullah Khan, one of his most trusted advisers. Azimullah Khan appears to have enjoyed his trip, especially as he was something of a ladies' man and was a great success with many of the women he met in London. However, he was completely unsuccessful in pleading Nana Sahib's cause and the experience seems to have left him with a very strong antipathy for the British. 

Despite Azimullah Khan’s attitude to the British and Nana Sahib’s grievances against them, the Peshwa enjoyed the company of Europeans and was very fond of entertaining them, occasionally arranging parties in the European style at his palace, Saturday House, at Bithur. His generosity made him a popular figure with the English who saw him as a useful friend. He was particularly trusted by Charles Hillersdon, the Collector (senior British official) at Cawnpore, and when news of the Mutiny reached the town, Hillersdon asked Nana Sahib for military assistance. The Nana’s troops moved into the town to guard the Treasury.

At this stage, it seems likely that Nana Sahib had not decided which side to ally himself with. Many of his advisers, especially Azimullah Khan, urged him to act decisively against the occupiers, and regain his rights and titles through military power, but he was unwilling to commit himself while the outcome of any war seemed in doubt. In any case, it seems likely that he had genuinely warm feelings for Hillersdon and some of the other British officials. On the other hand, he was proud of his Indian heritage and his position as Peshwa – a position the British were still refusing to acknowledge.

After considerable vacillation, he threw in his lot with the rebels. Some people believe that he was forced to do so. In any case it seems likely that, once the British had surrendered, he was pressured to agree to the treachery in order to prove that he was firmly on the side of the native population and that he would not be able to turn against them if (as happened) the British returned to Cawnpore in force.

The initial attack on the British after their surrender left many of the women and children alive and in Nana Sahib's hands. Again, he seemed uncertain what action to take. He did not kill his captives and, although their conditions were not good, he seems to have done his best to provide them with reasonable food and shelter. To the extent that they were ill-treated, this seems to have been largely due to the attitudes of some of the people who were dealing with them on a day-to-day basis, while Nana Sahib kept his distance. Eventually, though, the decision was made to massacre the women and children. At the time, the English straightforwardly blamed this on Nana Sahib, but there is no record of who actually ordered the massacre. Many people think the decision was taken by Azimullah Khan. Nana Sahib himself refused to witness the massacre.

After Cawnpore was once again firmly in British hands, Nana Sahib disappeared. At first, he was reported as having died of fever, but later he was said to be hiding out in Nepal. Although he was widely believed to have died there by 1906, a report in the The Hindu (a major Indian newspaper) in 1953 claimed that he had moved back to India. There, they said, he lived out his life little more than a hundred miles from Cawnpore, finally dying in 1926 at the age of hundred and two.

Monday, 16 February 2015

The characters of Cawnpore: John Williamson

My editor has signed off my efforts on Cawnpore and now there is only the proofing of the final copy to go before the new edition is published in a few weeks. One of the joys of electronic publishing is that the months of delay between submitting your manuscript and seeing your book printed can be reduced to weeks. That's a definite plus, as far as I'm concerned.

With the book about to go on sale again, I'd like to the chance to tell everyone about it. It was only the second book I wrote, but it remains the one I'm most proud of. It's not a cheerful read and I'm not surprised that it didn't initially find much of an audience, but I am disappointed. I hope that, with a publisher like Accent behind it, it will gather more readers this time around.

I'm going to blog a little about the main characters, so that you know something about the people that you will meet when you read the book. I'm starting with the narrator, John Williamson. He was the narrator of The White Rajah, making Cawnpore technically a sequel, though it's a self-contained story with John himself the only character carried over from the previous book.

At the start of the story, Williamson leaves Borneo to begin a new life in India. He had arrived in Borneo an illiterate seaman, but with the help of his lover, James Brooke, he had become a successful administrator. Unwilling to return to his old life in Britain, and unhappy to stay in Borneo following the massacres of the natives there, he decides to look for a post in India where his administrative skills will allow him to earn a living. Rather to his surprise, he learns that Brooke’s achievements in Borneo have become well-known to Britain's colonial administrators and he is rapidly pointed to a senior position at Cawnpore.

Most of the characters in Cawnpore are real people, although their personalities have often been invented. Williamson, however, is totally fictional. His name was borrowed from that of James Brooke's real-life interpreter, but everything else about him is pure invention. His importance to the story comes from the fact that he is so completely an outsider to both Indian and British colonial society. He's a homosexual at a time when homosexuality was illegal in England. Buggery was still punishable by hanging. Probably of more concern to the men who ran British India, Williamson has working-class origins. He does not know the right people and he is uneasy in the rigid class society of his time.

Uncomfortable with the British, Williamson finds himself attracted to the court life of the local Indian prince, Nana Sahib. Yet, he is, of course, no more truly at home in the Indian court than he is in the British club. As an outsider, Williamson can see what is going on from both the point of view of the colonisers and of those whose rule the English had displaced.

I like Williamson. He is a fundamentally honest and decent man who is always trying to act for the best in impossible circumstances. Writing as John Williamson (it's a first person novel) came naturally in Cawnpore, perhaps because I spent so long trying to get inside his head while I was writing The White Rajah. He has a back story which was originally the start of The White Rajah, but which was cut out before it reached the final draft. For anyone who's interested, here it is:

 The man I am today is the man that James Brooke made me. 

My family were farm labourers who had never known anywhere but their own small village in Devon. Five generations, I know, had lived and worked on Mr Slattery’s farm, for each generation was recorded in the family Bible that was the only book I ever saw as a child. That book was honoured in our home and kept as a great treasure, though none of those who had scratched their mark in it could read what was written there.

My name was entered in May of 1819. I was the third child my mother bore but the only one to survive infancy and, after me, there were no others. Perhaps it was this that made me a solitary child. I suppose, when I was younger, I must have played with the village children. I have some vague memories of rolling in the mud with the other boys and of our parents scolding us for our dirty clothes. But from my earliest youth, I spent most of my time alone with the animals of the farm, growing up alongside the horses and the poultry and the pigs. As soon as I was old enough, I would make myself useful to my mother, feeding the pigs and collecting the eggs. By the time I was twelve, I was working in the stables. I was good with the horses and Mr Slattery seemed to like me. It seemed I was settled and would be there forever.

Then, in 1831, sickness came to our village. Some said it was a visitation from the Lord but I preferred to believe those who said it was some contagion of the wells. Whatever the cause, all of us on the farm were stricken down and I remember lying in a fever, between life and death.

By the time I recovered, both of my parents were dead. I was not even able to attend their funeral. Mr Slattery organised it and I am sure that he did all that was needful and proper.

I remember that when I was strong enough to leave my bed, I made my way to the churchyard and knelt for some time praying beside my parents’ grave. It was a warm day in early spring, quiet, save for the calling of the birds. I listened for a human voice but I heard none, for everyone was busy in the fields or the housewives about their work in the cottages.

I had no special friends among the boys and no sweetheart among the girls. I would pray together with my neighbours in the church that would now watch over my parents’ bones but I would never find true fellowship there. I saw my life stretching before me and ending where I stood beside this grave.

And so a restlessness seized me and, as I regained my strength, the restlessness grew until, one day in June, I made my farewells to the farm. I left the Bible – mine now, for there was no other family – with Mr Slattery for safekeeping. I packed my few other belongings into a stout canvas bag and set out to see what the world had to offer.

I moved first from village to village, seeking work as a farm-hand or ostler but, though I found employment enough to give me a roof for the night and food in my belly, nowhere I saw on my travels round the county offered me more than the life I was escaping. It seemed that Providence guided my footsteps ever closer to Plymouth and the sea. And then, as if by chance, I took up life as a sailor.

I will say nothing of my first experiences of a shipboard life. I voyaged mainly in coalers, plying the coastal waters on the East coast of England. The work was hard and, as a landlubber from the West Country I found myself alone on vessels crewed mainly by men who had grown up with the water of the North Sea running in their veins. After two years of moving from ship to ship, I was still an outsider and, when I was discharged in London, I had nothing better to do than find some dingy tavern by the Pool and set out to drink my pay away. I was in low spirits and wondering if I might not be wise to make my way back to Devon and reconcile myself to a life on the farm.

It was a quiet evening and the place matched my sombre mood but at about ten, the door opened and a group of young men stood for a moment caught in the tavern light against the darkness of the night outside. It was twenty years ago, yet I still remember that first glimpse I had of James Brooke.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015


Dan Brown once said that he researches his novels after he's written them. Well, it hasn't done his sales any harm, so I thought I'd try the same trick.

Burke and the Bedouin was published last October. I had wanted to visit Egypt while I was writing it, but the political situation there made this impractical. This year, though, our son booked a diving holiday on the Red Sea and suggested that we join him. We took the chance to visit Luxor and, very briefly, Cairo on our way back.

If you're writing about Egypt, you have to have a picture of the Pyramids. It's the law.

The Cairo of 1798 has almost totally vanished under a modern city that we were told now houses 22 million people. That figure seems incredible, but a quick Internet search suggests that it is correct if you include the entire metropolitan area. We visited the pyramids, of course, and I stood there and looked out over the field of Napoleon's famous victory, but all I saw was Cairo's suburbs. The built-up area extends almost to the pyramids and the three famous structures can be a bit of an anti-climax, but the smaller pyramids there that nobody talks about are interesting. And if you enter one of the huge structures and climb down to the burial chamber it is a truly awesome experience – especially now when you can often have a place to yourself. If you do visit, make sure you see the solar boat – an astonishing artefact from the time of the Pharaohs.

The Solar Boat would carry the Pharoah to the afterlife. It was found near the Great Pyramid

The guides we met had surprisingly strong views on Napoleon, either praising him as the man who opened up our modern interest in Ancient Egypt or attacking him as a villain who was responsible the death of many Egyptians and the theft of thousands of pharaonic artefacts. The sight of the base of an obelisk at Luxor crudely hacked off so that the monument could be carried back to Paris (it's in the Place de la Concorde) was quite sobering.

The temple at Luxor. There should be another column on the right of the entrance. Blame Napoleon!

It was interesting to visit, if only very briefly, the site of Burke's adventures and to take a felucca out onto the Nile. Egypt is a fascinating country and even such a short trip was better than nothing. I recommend it. But if you can't go, try to catch a glimpse of its past in Burke and the Bedouin.