Friday, 29 January 2016

Sarawak and the British Empire

The third (and final) book about John Williamson will be published in April and that has me thinking about how Williamson’s story started.

I introduced John Williamson in my first novel, The White Rajah. The story is based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Sarawak, now part of Malaysia, is a small state on the island of Borneo. It came under British protection when it was ruled by James Brooke in the mid-19th century, which has led many people to see it as part of the British Empire.

M.C.V.Egan runs a blog exploring historical "facts" that, on examination, turn out to be nothing of the sort. She asked me to write on 'the agreed upon lie' that Sarawak was part of the Empire. (The phrase ‘the agreed upon lie’ is supposed to be how Napoleon described history.) This was my response, which first appeared in her blog on 7 December 2013 and on my own blog a little later.

In the National Maritime Museum in London, there is a map of the world which shows all the countries that were once part of the British Empire. Over there, on the right, a little blob of red marks Sarawak. This reflects the widespread belief that Sarawak, ruled by an Englishman and later to become part of the British Commonwealth, was one of the myriad countries that made up the "Empire on which the sun never set".

Sarawak was never part of the British Empire. In fact, there was a formal enquiry to establish the relationship of Sarawak to the Crown, and the conclusion was that it was a not a British possession.

W.J. Turner 1881 Royal Geographical Society Map

Sarawak's peculiar status reflected the way in which it was acquired by its first European ruler, James Brooke. It is easy to present Brooke as an adventurer who seized control of the country by force. Indeed, nowadays the Brooke Rajahs are often referred to officially as "pirates". It's far from the truth, though.

Portrait of James Brooke by Francis Grant (1847)

James Brooke was, indeed, an adventurer. His principal goal when he arrived in Sarawak was to improve relations between the British and the local population, which he hoped would bring him benefits as a trader. His ship, the Royalist, carried six small cannon and he had less than thirty crewmen with him. He was in no position to take the country by force. However, he arrived in the middle of a civil war. It had been going on for a long time, with no sign of resolution. Sarawak was governed from Brunei, where a faction in the Sultan's court had whipped up a revolt in that distant province in order to advance their own political position. The politics was Byzantine and the Sultan was increasingly frustrated as faction balanced against faction and the war dragged on and on. He saw the arrival of Brooke as offering a way out of the impasse. The Royalist's guns, if brought into action against the enemy, could be decisive.

This proved to be the case. The cannon and the crew broke the deadlock and brought victory to the Sultan's forces. For his help, Brooke was offered the rule of Sarawak.

Sarawak remained a province of the Brunei Sultanate. It wasn't very important province and the Sultan hardly missed it. For him, the benefit of having James Brooke ruling there was that his enemies could not stir up trouble that could be used against him in Brunei. However, for much the same reason, it was essential that he could say that he still had control of his whole realm. So Brooke acknowledged the Sultan as his overlord and claimed that his authority came from Brunei.

Brooke was proudly British and saw his rule in Sarawak as strengthening the position of the British in the South China seas. At the time, the Dutch dominated trade in the area and this British foothold in Borneo was politically and militarily significant. Burke wanted to have strong ties with Singapore, the main British possession in the region, and he wanted to benefit from the protection of the Royal Navy. The obvious solution was for him to rule the territory as governor, but for it to be officially part of the British Empire with his loyalty pledged to the Queen. However, he felt unable to do this. He argued that his personal loyalty, as a British citizen, was to Queen Victoria, but as ruler of Sarawak, he had pledged his loyalty to the Sultan in Brunei. The British government was very uncomfortable with the situation, believing that they had been manoeuvred into a position where they were responsible for Sarawak but did not actually have any control of it. However, the practical reality of the politics of the region prevailed, and Sarawak never did become formally part of the British Empire.

Sarawak continued to be ruled by three generations of Brooke Rajahs until the Second World War, when it was invaded by the Japanese. The third Rajah, Anthony Brooke, claimed that he did not have the resources to make good the damage that had occurred before the Japanese were defeated. Controversially, he agreed to hand his country over to the British. The age of Empire was over when Sarawak finally became, briefly, a British colony. It was a British possession from 1946 until it was officially granted independence in July, 1963. Later that year, it was incorporated into Malaysia. Sarawak's days as a separate nation were over.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Parish notices

All the exciting social media activity I talked about in last week’s blog and the business of setting down to write the next book (it will be about James Burke and feature the Peninsular War, thank you for asking) – all this seems to be taking any time left after skating and dancing and renewing the house insurance and… Anyway, you don’t want to know.

This seems to have left a gap where writing this blog should have gone, so this week I’m catching up on all those silly little things I’ve meant to mention but that haven't seemed to justify blog posts of their own. Think of these as parish notices, if you will. Anyway, it gives me an excuse to produce a blog in the form of a numbered list and apparently this is exactly what people like to click on, so I'm hoping to be overwhelmed by the scale of your response and enthusiasm.

Even more enthusiastic than this lot

1. Libraries are great, especially if they have my books in them

Please try to get your local library to stock my books  – and books by any other independent authors you enjoy, for that matter. It's that time of year when all my friends boast about the size of their Public Lending Rights cheques and I'm feeling left out. People can't borrow my books if they're not in the library and they won't be in the library unless you ask librarians to put them there. (I blogged about it recently but I think I underplayed the whole getting paid when people borrow my books bit.)

OK, strictly speaking, this is a bookshop. But when it's as beautiful as this, who cares?

2. You don't need a Kindle to read Kindle books

Don’t want to pay for paperbacks but don’t have a Kindle? Not a problem. There is a free Kindle app (download it here) that lets you read Kindle books on your tablet or even your phone. I know a lot of you know this already, but a lot of people don't, so it's worth mentioning.

I prefer reading on a tablet to reading on a Kindle. I like the slightly larger page size, the colour illustrations and the ease of making notes, but that may just be me. The main thing is, for a lot of people, that you don’t have to pay for a second bit of kit to carry around with you.

I also sometimes read on my phone. I never thought I would, but it’s surprisingly easy to cope with and I can pull out a book and read one handed standing on the Tube or wherever. (Subway to my US readers.) All your various Kindles and Kindle apps can sync together, so whichever you pick up it should open at the page you’re on.

3. Book groups are wonderful

I love book groups. If any of you are members of a book group and want me to come along and talk about any of my books, I’m more than happy. Unfortunately, it has to be somewhere I can get to reasonably easily and that usually means London or mid-Wales. But I’m open to suggestions if you live somewhere really pretty.

Mid-Wales and really pretty - but maybe not so many book groups just here

4. I do author talks

Im also available to talk about the history behind the books. If your local history group wants to know more about the first White Rajah of Borneo or the siege of Cawnpore or any of the campaigns that James Burke fought in, I'm happy to come and chat. I can also offer a talk on some of the weapons featured in The White Rajah. That’s an illustrated talk: may contain sharp objects. Contact me through the Comments section or email

If you don't like the talk, there could be consequences ...

Philip Pullman is completely right to complain that writers are expected to talk for free. When I'm a best-selling author, I'll charge you staggering amounts of money. Not yet, though.

5. The one you saw in the click bait

All these click-bait lists say things like: "#5 will blow your mind." They lie. In my case there isn't even a #5. I've run out of things to say. I'll be reduced to writing my book next.

I'll be back soon, hopefully with lots of exciting things to talk about. Until then, have fun. I know it's cold (unless you're one of my Southern hemisphere readers) but that's a great excuse to cuddle up with a good book. 

If you have been, thank you for reading.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Friends, followers and artificial people

It's Friday already, and time for another blog. What happened to this week? It seems to have flown by.This Friday has snuck up on me so fast that I don't have any ideas for this week's post. Perhaps I should take the opportunity to wonder why I post at all.

I wrote recently about how I use social media and how important they are to writers nowadays, but I do wonder increasingly often about the whole way in which we use social media and whether or not we're helping ourselves with all this frenetic activity.

There's been a lot of discussion of this area in the general (non-social? anti-social?) media lately. People who use social media a lot are, we read, less happy than those who don't. And I can see why. Competitive social media use has become an epidemic. He's got more friends than me; she's got more Twitter followers. (Side note for people who like statistical paradoxes: most of your friends will have more friends than you for reasons you'll be able to work out if you turn your mind to it. Yet most of us can't help feeling that this simple fact somehow reflects badly on us.)

What do all these friendships and followers mean? I have a friend (a real friend who I've met and talked to and even quite like) who has over a thousand Facebook friends. Now, she is a lovely person and her job does involve travelling round the world and meeting lots of people, but a thousand friends? Most people would struggle to remember basic facts about a hundred friends (and some social psychologists claim that this would be at high end of what the human brain can really cope with). A thousand?

Twitter is worse. I've read that if you have less than 250 Twitter followers, you are essentially talking to yourself. I've got 155, so that's me in my place. (Fortunately some of them re-tweet me to thousands.) Yet those 155 followers clearly mean something because, since I've been on Twitter, hits on this blog have massively increased. Should I, then, be concentrating on increasing the number of Twitter followers I have? There are apparently lots of ways to do this. I could end up like DanieleThoma (@daniele_thoma), with 11,500 followers. I enjoy Daniele's tweets: they're sardonic and amusing and only a minority are click bait taking me to sites dominated by ghastly pop-up ads. The only problem with Daniele is that I'm pretty sure she's not a real person. Somewhere a very attractive robot (one that shares a remarkable physical resemblance with, for example, LeelahGalen @LeelahGalen) is churning out witty comments designed to grow the number of followers and hence, eventually, the number of people clicking on the click bait sites. (If you're real, Daniele, I apologise, and if you ever turn up in person and look remotely like your photograph, I'll buy you a drink.) But what does this vast number of followers mean in practice? Koehler Books (@koehlerbooks) follows over 5,000 people, including me. Are they reading all my tweets? Or even any of them? I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only person who, rather than going for the nuclear option of unfollowing somebody whose tweets are becoming tedious, simply mutes them. Even amongst the relatively small number of people I follow, there is the odd one whose tweets I never see. If someone is following hundreds of people, how many of them do you think they ever really read?

Still, 155 huh? Not very impressive. Maybe I should change my avatar. My Twitter account doesn't have a photo of me attached and if I changed that I should get more followers (I'm told). Maybe I will. I'm already posting cute animal pictures because cute animal pictures do well on Twitter, but, really do they have anything to do with my books or my blog? Still, I quite like cute animals, so what's the harm? [Pauses from writing to tweet a cute animal picture. Check @TomCW99 if you don't believe me.]

And another cute animal for good measure
The problem is that, joking and snarky comments aside, once you get seriously into this whole social media business, you spend an awful lot of time working out your media strategies, optimising your posts/tweets, monitoring the number of followers you have and, ultimately, spending money on software to make the whole process even more efficient. In the end, I'm not sure that what you produce is in any way related to your writing any longer and it's certainly taking up a lot of time and effort the could, maybe, be put to better use elsewhere.

At least I have the excuse that my social media efforts are designed to sell a book. Worryingly, more and more people – especially young people – find themselves sucked into social media for their own sake. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with Facebook or Twitter. I have virtual friends whose friendship I really care about and whose support I value, and I use social media to keep in touch with real friends who I might not be able to see on a regular basis – because, for example (and this one's real), they've moved to Australia. But my sense of self-worth is not linked to the number of Facebook friends I have. Most posts I make on my personal Facebook account (as opposed to my author account at are visible only to my friends. Many people – mostly, I think young, but some definitely old enough to know better – post their selfies, their holiday photos and pictures of what they had for dinner so that they can be seen publicly. I'm reliably assured that if a young woman posts a selfie but does not get a significant number of 'likes' she'll delete it. Why wait for lecherous men and the patriarchal society to objectify and body shame you when you can so conveniently do it yourself? And heaven help you if you post your birthday publicly (I don't) and you find fewer birthday wishes on your Facebook page than you saw on page of your richer, handsomer rival. It's nice to see your friends' friends wishing each other well on their birthdays, but the scope for competitive popularity contests is one of the more unpleasant aspects of Facebook. Somebody has to be the least popular kid and that somebody will, at best, get very depressed and, at worst, kill themselves. (Yes, really: suicide remains the leading cause of death for men aged between 20 and 34 in England and Wales.)

Pardon my rambling. I seem to see more and more people questioning social media – ironically, of course, usually on social media. A friend of mine is infuriated when people send birthday wishes to elderly relatives. 'Do they really imagine their grandmothers are checking Facebook to see who wishes them a happy birthday?' he grumbles. Well, no, but a friend who died recently now has a page full of tributes like 'I miss you so much and can't believe I won't see you again,' and they're not reading their page either, but I think the tributes are rather nice. It's tricky, isn't it? We're all feeling our way through this new social media world and we're bound to mis-step from time to time.

If Jane Austen had Facebook, we could just have put this on her page.

Where am I going with all this? Well, probably pretty much where I'm going already. Twitter takes quite a lot of time and I don't particularly enjoy doing it, but there's a fair chance that you're only reading this because of the link from there. I do enjoy this blog and I do enjoy the fact that so many people read it. It's nice to be able to have the occasional rambling rant like this one and to share my confusion with the world at large. What is a little alarming is that readership of the blog does not seem to translate into more people buying books. Still, I'm told that these things take time and I'm sure you'll all buy the books eventually. They're all available on Kindle and very reasonably priced.

There: a book plug. Possibly the longest, most convoluted route to a book plug in history, but it's done. Blog post objective achieved.

Let's chat again next week.

Friday, 8 January 2016

2015: a year in blog posts

It's time for our annual look back at the blog posts that have been particularly popular over the past year. As ever, Blogger’s data is not entirely reliable, but it does let me see what has really worked as far as you, the readers, are concerned.

If you've missed any of the most popular posts, click the links to take you to them.

Our best year yet

The first thing to note is that 2015 saw a significant increase in readership. I hope that a lot of this was because people have been gradually discovering the blog over the years, but at least some of it is down to the fact that I am now promoting the blog on Twitter. I started doing this in the summer and it has really boosted hits. It does mean that the most successful posts are generally in the second half of the year, which may be as much because of the way that they're being promoted as because of their content.

I did write about social media and how I try to use Facebook, Twitter and this blog to connect with readers. Surprisingly (to me, at least) this was one of the most popular posts of the year.

Guest posters rock!

Guest posts are always popular, and that has been particularly true this year. Kirsten McKenzie's post 'On Being An Expert' drew the second most hits of any post ever. Readership of the post reflected the success of her book Fifteen Postcards. I think that Kirsten is not only a popular writer but clearly has a lot of friends in New Zealand, where she seems to be involved in everything from running her antiques shop to organising her local Air Training Corps and supporting her kids' school. And, in idle moments, turning out blog posts like this one.

Other noticeably successful guest posts came from Jenny Kane, Paul Fraser Collard and Maggie Cammiss.


June saw the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, marked by the publication of Burke at Waterloo. In honour of the occasion I posted regularly about events 200 years ago, culminating in accounts of the battle itself. It was my post on the much less well-known, but arguably decisive, battle of Quatre Bras two days earlier that was the most widely read.

Black Watch at the Battle of Quatre-Bras, 1815, by William Barnes Wollen

Besides the posts on my own blog, I wrote about Waterloo for Antoine Venner's 'Dawlish Chronicles' and the Historical Writers' Association's Historia


There's no getting away from it: I write about war and many of my blog posts are related to military events. It's odd, because I've never been in the army myself and, when I was younger, had little interest in that sort of thing. I wrote a piece in July arguing that military history matters – probably more than it is fashionable to admit. So, besides Waterloo, I wrote a few posts about Cawnpore and its aftermath. I was pleased to see the interest these generated, although the post on the aftermath attracted more hits than the pieces on the siege itself.


A post on the importance of reviews, attracted a reasonable amount of interest. I'm glad to say that I followed my own advice to write more reviews and that these got a decent number of hits. They included The Strangler Vine, The Scarlet Thief and The Maharajah's General.

This isn't a review site, but I'm always happy to read books for review. If there's something you'd like me to review, let me know. Although I have been known to make exceptions, I'll only generally review books if I think I can say something positive about them and I do definitely prioritise things that I already have a copy of. Given the interest that people seem to show in reviews, perhaps this is something I should be doing more often.


Outside of historical writing, one of my main interests is Argentine tango. Every so often, in what I always think of as an act of pure self-indulgence, I write about it on my blog. Every year I am surprised to see these tango posts among the most popular. This year was no exception, with the highest number of hits going to 'Mi Buenos Aires querido', a post about life in Argentina, thinly disguised as a book review.

The Williamson Papers

I don't write that often about my own books, but in November I posted about the Williamson papers. The reason was that the final part of this trilogy following John Williamson through Borneo and India back to England will be published in April. I'm excited about completing the Williamson Papers and I was delighted to see how much interest there was in reading about Williamson's adventures. It bodes well for 2016.

In conclusion ...

So there we are: the usual mix of history, articles about writing, stuff about my own books and random posts on tango. The interest in guest posts and reviews means that I should probably do a bit more of this in the future but readership figures suggest I must already be along the right lines. If you have your own ideas about what you would like to see in this blog, do respond using the "Comments" box below.

I hope that you are enjoying what you see here and that you will carry on reading in 2016. If you do enjoy it, would you consider buying some of the books? It really does make a difference.

Thank you.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

What we did on our holidays

Every so often, people suggest that I should put in more about myself on my blogs. So this week I'm indulging myself with a post about a skiing holiday in Chamonix Valley. Non-skiers can skip reading for a week.

We spend Christmas on the snow most years. The three of us (my wife, Tammy, my son, Michael, and me) love skiing and it's a chance to do something together as a family while someone else cooks Christmas dinner. This year, knowing that the snow might be poor, we set off for Chamonix and, in particular, the Argentiere ski area with its top station at 3,300 metres.

Top station at Grand Montets

When we arrived, we discovered that most of the mountain was closed because of lack of snow, but for experienced skiers the areas that were open offered a range of different runs over generally excellent snow cover. Rather to our surprise, we found the off-piste offered lots of opportunities to make fresh tracks. Here we are, doing just that, on our second day.

There’s a 30̊ slope on this run, so you definitely get a decent ski.

After four days in Argentiere, though, we were ready for a change. The rest of Chamonix Valley is quite low in comparison, so we decided to head through the Mont Blanc tunnel to have a look at Courmayeur in Italy.

There weren't many runs open, but those that were were in excellent condition. One, in particular, was a smooth but icy straight drop that Mike loved because it let him practice carves he needs for his slalom racing. We ran up and down that until we felt we had faced death rather more often than we wanted and then explored some other runs – and the local restaurant. A lovely day in Italy with 16 miles of skiing.

Tammy puzzles as to what this sign at Courmayeur could possibly mean.
Day 6 was another trip out of France: this time to Verbier. After a spectacular drive we arrived at a startlingly well maintained resort. There may not be a lot of snow around, but the Swiss pisteurs saw no reason for not offering brilliant skiing, albeit with not that many runs open. That was hardly a problem for us, as we had only a few hours to ski there. We went up to Mont Fort, which I remember as being quite scary and the first few metres did encourage thoughts of mortality, as they are both steep and icy but then there is a pleasant run down culminating in a very long 50+ mph runout. There’s this rather nice restaurant to recover in.

By Day 7 the lift to the top of Grands Montets is finally open and we are able to explore the top of the mountain. There’s minimal queuing, so we get in five runs. The snow is amazing.

Here’s the view at the top. (Yes, you just tip over the edge in front of the camera. It’s a long way down.)

And here’s Mike about to drop in from the very top of the off-piste Italian bowl.

Day 8 is Christmas Day, so we take it easy with a trip up the Flegere lift, just by our hotel. The top is fine but the piste has a muddy gap in it lower down and we decide not to do it again. The link to Brevant is closed for lack of snow, so we drive to the Brevant lift and take the cable car to the summit for a couple of easy runs. Then I hit a stone in the middle of a fast piste and Brevant loses its appeal. We decide instead to walk in the woods, which are beautiful. A lovely, easy day for Christmas.

A ski holiday doesn't mean missing out on Christmas
Boxing Day and it’s our next to last day of the holiday, so it’s back to Grand Montets and a few runs over towards the Argentiere glacier.

Posing about by the Argentiere glacier
Finally it’s Day 10 and time to go home. I make one last trip to the summit  and a couple of runs on Bouchard for old time’s sake and then we pack the gear in the car and set off down the valley.

It’s been an amazing ten days.