Sunday, 30 October 2016

Another book about Victorian London - well worth a read

Antoine Vanner writes about the late 19th century. His 'Dawlish Chronicles' follow the adventures of Captain Nicholas Dawlish, a naval officer who is anxious to embrace the technological changes in naval warfare in the period. Antoine certainly knows his stuff and his blog provides fascinating details of naval history on a weekly (often twice-weekly) basis.

The latest book in the Dawlish series is now available in paperback. I'm delighted to have the chance to review it here.

Britannia's Amazon

Nicholas Dawlish is on an extended trial of one of the new class of steel-built cruisers. Dawlish’s adventures are intimately related to advances in naval technology in the late 19th century and this looks like more of the same. But Britannia's Amazon is to be a very different book from the previous ones in the series, for as Captain Dawlish vanishes over the horizon the story remains with his wife, Florence.

A brief prologue has summarised Florence’s back-story for anybody new to the series. Once a companion to Lady Agatha, she has married above herself after meeting Dawlish while he was on active service in Turkey. We know she is brave and good, sometimes to the point where she can be quite irritating to a reader who might respond more sympathetically to someone with the occasional fault. In this book, though, we are going to get to know (and probably like) her a lot better.

With her husband away, Florence occupies herself mainly in good works at the Seamen’s Mission. Returning from another day of dull administrative effort, she sees a woman being dragged into a closed carriage. She tries to save the victim, but is beaten to the ground and the two men who are apparently kidnapping the girl make off with her.

Florence reports the incident to the police who take neither her nor her complaint seriously.

At this point the new element is added to the plot. A young naval officer approaches her because he knows her to be a friend of Lady Agatha's. He has a mysterious message which must be relayed urgently to Lady Agatha's brother.

Hurrying to London to see Lady Agatha she meets an American journalist who is writing about the life of the poor in England. Together with a campaigner for improved conditions for the working classes she explores the conditions in the London slums and, in doing so, discovers the truth behind the young officer and his death and how this is in turn tied to the kidnapping that started the adventure.

The plot is Dickensian in its twists and turns, with a large cast of characters and a few Dickensian coincidences to move things along. Like Dickens, it uses the story as an opportunity to explore and expose the world of the Victorian underclass. 1882 was at the centre of an interesting period in British history when new technology and changing social attitudes were hurrying us towards the 20th century, while the condition of the poor harked back to the 18th.

Having just written BackHome, set in the slums and rookeries of 1859, Vanner’s London is a place I recognised and felt at home in. The appalling conditions are all-too-credible. By 1878 there were more movements to improve the lot of the poor and the description of a public meeting to protest about the conditions of workers in match factories (no nonsense about Health & Safety then!) is convincing.

A recurring theme in Britannia's Amazon is the differences between rich and poor. This is often highlighted by Florence’s situation as she moves between her family (her father is a coachman) and her friend Lady Agatha. Her family is at once proud of her and embarrassed as her father finds himself in the position of a servant to his own daughter. Class is inextricably tied into every aspect of her life: the Admiral’s wife snubs her; the police don’t take her seriously. Struggling to cope with the ambiguity of her social status, Florence is a more sympathetic figure than when we met her in Britannia’s Wolf, especially when she is driven to morally dubious measures in the interests of the greater good. Moral dubiousness, though, is kept well in check, usually confined to mysterious foreigners. Otherwise the moral lines are clearly drawn: the poor are generally virtuous and sympathetic while the rich are, with some saintly exceptions, villains who one would expect to twirl their moustaches except for an absence of any really fine facial hair. This is, though, just another Dickensian aspect of the book and if the approach was good enough for Dickens (who, let’s face it, pushed that particular envelope to tearing point) it’s hardly fair to complain about it here.

There’s a lot of solid social history in this book. As I have found writing about the period, one difficulty is that the most outrageously obvious fictions all turn out to be rooted in fact. I have few illusions about Victorian morality, but I was surprised to discover that one of the more improbable details about vice in the Metropolis turns out (according to the Historical Note that completes the book) to be absolutely true. [No details because it’s a spoiler.]

Britannia's Amazon works because we get close enough to Florence to care about her and, through her, to care about the social divides in Victorian society. It provides a vivid picture of Britain, showing the social changes that are reflecting the technological changes that are a strong feature of the earlier books. In the course of Florence’s adventures, we learn a lot about Victorian life at the bottom of the social scale. The other end of society is less sympathetically described and can be sketchy in its details but by the end of the book you should have learned how to cut a person socially, if nothing else. That alone will be a key skill in negotiating Florence’s world.

The plot bowls along and, if it is not entirely convincing, it is, once again, no worse than Dickens. It’s a plot that is true to the era it’s describing and it pulls us into Dickens’ world so we can explore it further. The writing is, thank goodness, not Dickensian. It’s an easy read.

If you’re a fan of novels about the Victorian world (or, indeed, a fan of Victorian novels) it’s well worth a read.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Nell Peters: a case history.

I've just finished another book by Nell Peters. I've got a great pile of worthy tomes that I ought to get round to reading, but (as I think I just mentioned) I've been reading Nell Peters.

I don't for the life of me know why. If I were writing an Amazon review I certainly wouldn't give them five stars. They're idiosyncratic, self-indulgent, break all the rules and hop about in a rather disconcerting way. Yet with all those piles of excellent novels waiting for my attention, I keep coming back to hers. Those idiosyncrasies create a wonderfully quirky approach to writing which doesn't so much defy genre categories as put them into a sack, pound them with a baseball bat, run over them with a steamroller and then drop them into a river encased in concrete. Much in the way that people seem to get disposed of in her books, come to think of it. For Ms Peters combines a ghoulish sense of humour with a disturbing enthusiasm for violence.

Nell Peters’ books are not for everybody. But those of us who enjoy them, enjoy them quite a lot. It all seems to depend if your mind is warped in quite the same way as hers is. So, to give you an idea of whether it is or not, here's Nell Peters (not her real name), psychologist, on the twisted mind of Nell Peters, author.

Nell Peters, psych (NPP): Why thank you, Tom. You say the sweetest things! Just not to me … I’m inviting Nell Peters, Author (NPA) to join in the fun – if she’s not too busy torturing little furry animals. Hello, Nell. Did you have any trouble parking you broomstick?

NPA: Hi Nell – very amusing. I can put Tom in my next book and create a truly gruesome end for him, if you like?

NPP: Thanks for the offer – I’ll certainly keep it in mind. Meanwhile, would you care to come and perch on my couch?

NPA: Thanks – how quaintly old-fashioned. Are you a Freudian?

NPP: Most definitely not. Will that be a problem?

NPA: Not for me.

NPP: Good. If you’re sitting comfortably, would you like to begin by telling me your earliest childhood memory?

NPA: Why do psychos always ask that?

NPP: It just provides background, acts as an icebreaker – take your pick.

NPA: I’ll probably need that to break the ice.

NPP: Funny. Do you have a memory to share?

NPA: I was two and my little brother had just been born at home, as was the norm back then. Stephen was very sick and I wasn’t allowed into my mother’s room. I’ve no idea who was meant to be looking after me, but I must have given them the slip and I recall climbing the stairs and crawling along the landing to the bedroom.

NPP: Why do you think you crawled, when presumably aged two you could walk?

NPA: I was an early walker, so perhaps I was trying to make myself as small and inconspicuous as possible, trying not to be noticed.

NPP: Interesting. Go on.

NPA: When I got to the bedroom door, I pushed it open – my mother was sitting in bed, resting on plumped-up pillows, and the nanny was there, holding my brother. She looked around and saw me, of course – told me off and said I had to leave. But my mother allowed me to stay, for some reason. That’s all I remember. My brother was admitted to hospital at some stage and died before he was a month old.

NPP: That’s very sad. Did you have any other siblings?

NPA: A sister, born when I was seven.

NPP: I see. Was yours a happy childhood generally?

NPA: No.

NPP: Care to elucidate?

NPA: Not really, suffice to say I was a lonely child who spent extended periods in my room reading, hoping to be neither seen nor heard.

NPP: Not all bad then. The reading bit, I mean.

NPA: I would probably rather have had happy, family fun-type memories to look back upon, but I don’t. C’est la vie.

NPP: Tell me, what sort of books would you read in your room?

NPA: Almost anything I could get my hands on – there was a lot of Enid Blyton early on and I galloped through the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, thereby sewing the seeds of murder, mayhem and dastardly deeds in my imagination. These were reinforced by my enthusiasm for Agatha Christie and her convoluted plots, so the die was well and truly cast, to paraphrase Suetonius.

NPP: Tom describes your mind as both warped and twisted – any thoughts on that? You’d better keep on the right side of polite, as it is his blog.

NPA: Hah! I believe Tom read psychology as well – I wonder if he used warped and twisted as adjectives in his assignments. If so, did he actually walk away with a decent degree, in fact any degree at all?

NPP: Perhaps we’ll ask him later. I specialised in serial killers, terrorists and everyday psychopaths – now they really do have a screw loose.

NPA: Is that a bona fide term found in the DSM – any number you like?

NPP: Ah, I was forgetting you sat in on the psych lectures too.

NPA: Like I had a choice!

NPP: Go on …

NPA: When I read fiction, I want to be entertained, surprised and challenged – what is the point of being able to work out whodunit before chapter two? (I tend to read mostly crime, as I have very little leisure reading time.) There is nothing worse than a pedestrian and predictable plot – I like to get to know fully-fleshed characters (whether I like or loathe them) who don’t do what’s expected of them, and to live in their world for a short time.

NPP: Mmm … Any book – or indeed TV programme, play or film that hits one over the head with too many signposts tends not to be a satisfying experience.

NPA: Agreed. I feel it’s the writer’s duty to come up with a sequence of events for the reader, without their being able to anticipate what comes next – even worse, what the denouement will be. I see the crime reader as a detective, analysing clues and discounting red herrings – there should be no formulaic content, even in a series using the same core cast of characters. Fiction is just that, depicting situations and events that most of us will never encounter, except vicariously.

NPP: If an author is not firing on all cylinders mentally, it’s evident in their writing, don’t you think?

NPA: Absolutely – for example, the Mervyn Peake trilogy, Gormenghast. It was many years ago I read all three in quick succession, but I recall noticing an increasing decline in structure and fluidity toward the end, suggesting the author’s descent into early on-set dementia.

NPP: I wrote a dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and obviously read a lot of his work …

NPA: I remember. Some of it was extremely hard to follow, as he started to lose his grip on reality, his cognitive function failing.

NPP: That’s my line!

NPA: Shall we move on – it must almost be wine time?

NPP: Sure. Do you do a lot of planning or plotting, before you start writing?

NPA: No, I’m more of a panster, though I do usually have an idea of likely scenarios that will trigger the action, plus some ghostly apparitions of potential characters floating through my head. But things change all the time and characters don’t always obey my instructions, so that plots perform somersaults whilst they evolve. And as for genre-hopping, most of us lead lives that aren’t genre-specific – stories should reflect that. How boring a fictional read would be without the mingling of relationships and incidents on every level to be found between the pages. 

NPP: Where do you get your ideas from?

NPA: Sometimes I develop a thread picked up from an overheard conversation, a scene witnessed, a news item, or similar, but nine times out of ten an embryonic plot will develop in my head. After all, I spent my formative years living in my imagination.

NPP: Quite a few of your reviews mention the humour in your writing, yet Tom refers to your
sense of humour as ghoulish. What say you?

     NPA: I have a very basic (some might say pathetic) sense of humour – my OH frequently despairs of what amuses me. I don’t actually mean to be funny when I write – it just slips out, and my editor (whom I share with Tom) has to get out his red pen and obliterate ninety per cent. As for ghoulish, gallows is perhaps a better term.

NPP: Mentioning no names, a review for one of your books included the phrase ‘Peters has a taste for the grotesque and a tendency to Grand Guignol that can be disturbing.’

NPA: It did; presumably the inference being that if Grand Guignol was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. I’m happy with a recent comment; ‘James Ellroy over-super-embellishes everything but it works well, and so does yours!’

NPP: Shall we leave Tom to it?

NPA: Suits me, I’m hungry. But before we go, any thoughts on our host?

NPP: I don’t know him well enough to make an informed judgement, but the words patronising, deluded and egocentric are strolling through my mind – and although he’s not quite a sociopath, his social awareness is severely stunted.

NPA: I’ll go with that – and after all, let he who sits atop the best seller list cast the first withering critique.

NPP: Toodles, Tom!

NPA: Don’t forget to write!

Nell Peters' books are available on Amazon: CLICK HERE  for her author page – if you dare.

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Naval Hospital at Greenwich

Last week I produced not one, but two, blog posts about pattern-welded swords. It was a specialist subject and, as I expected, not wildly popular (though worth a look if metallurgy and edged weapons are your thing). I promised a return to normal service this week so here is something much lighter.

This week I finished the first draft of the next book about James Burke, so, what with that and writing about metallurgy, I've been a bit busy. So I have no brilliant ideas for this week's blog post.

I know that you all seem to like things with photographs and last month I spent an afternoon taking pictures at the Naval Hospital in Greenwich, so I thought I'd just share some of these with you.

The Naval Hospital was the brainchild of Queen Mary, though it was completed after her death in 1694. She was concerned that, while old soldiers had provision at the Chelsea Hospital (where they can still find accommodation as Chelsea Pensioners) there was no equivalent institution for old sailors. Note that  this was a hospital in the old sense of somewhere providing a place of shelter, rather than  a medical facility. The buildings did include an infirmary, though, which  continued operating as the Dreadnought Seaman's hospital until 1986.

The building was very grand, designed to reflect the country's gratitude to the Navy rather, perhaps, than meeting the needs of  common seamen. Indeed, one of the reasons that  the naval hospital (unlike the Chelsea Hospital) was eventually  closed down was because sailors did not particularly want to live there.

There is a good example of the way that  the glorification of  Britain's naval history was worked into the architecture here:

This shows the dead body of Nelson being delivered to Britannia by an angel and (look carefully for the tail) a merman. [Click on the photo to see the detail.]

Nelson is not wearing his uniform, but is naked except for a cloth spread across his loins. The figure is strikingly similar  to many depictions of Christ taken down from the cross. Notice Nelson's great victories inscribed on plaques held by the figures around him (including a cherub). There is Trafalgar, of course, but also Copenhagen and the Nile. Nowadays we tend to forget  the Battle of the Nile, but it was an astonishing triumph over a vastly superior French force. [And I might mention that it's the climax of Burke and the Bedouin.]

The accommodation was spacious but utilitarian. This is a view of one of the rooms nowadays.

The public rooms (most notably the chapel and the Painted Hall) were quite extraordinary,  although savings were made whenever possible. The "marble" pillars in the chapel, for example, are not real marble and the  sculpture work (including the  scene of Nelson's death shown above) are not actually carved from stone but cast in ceramic.

The Chapel
The Painted Hall
Ceiling of Painted Hall
The buildings ceased to be used as a retirement home in 1869 and were later taken over by the Royal Navy as a training college for its officers. The Navy left in 1998 and the sailors accommodation  is now used by the University of Greenwich for teaching and administration. The students there are lucky to be working in such beautiful buildings.

My books

I have written a series of books set in the Napoleonic Wars, when this hospital would have been filled with sailors who had lost limbs fighting the French. The second in the series (all the books stand alone, so you don't need to have read the first) ends with an account of Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile. It's called Burke and the Bedouin and if, like most people, you have never heard of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, you will know a lot more about the history of the wars with France when you finish it than you know now. Like all the Burke books, it features dark deeds and desperate fights, a beautiful woman and a sardonic streak of humour. You can buy it on Kindle for just £2.99/$3.99 or in paperback for £9.99/$14.95

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The metallurgy of Oriental weapons

This blog post looks at the science behind kris manufacture. It's even more technical than the last post about kris, so I'm making this an extra mid-week posting for people with refined taste. Don't worry: normal service will be resumed with my next effort.

Iron and steel

Swords are essentially made out of iron. Pure iron is quite soft, which isn’t ideal in a sword. But if you heat iron in a charcoal furnace, some of the carbon from the charcoal combines with the iron to give you steel. Steel is much harder than iron, which is a good thing, but as you add carbon it becomes much more brittle, which is not. A brittle blade shatters too easily, leaving you holding a few inches of broken sword for the last few seconds of your life.

The trick is to have just the right amount of carbon, giving you a sword that is flexible enough not to shatter but hard enough to do the whole cutting into your enemy and killing him bit. Getting this balance, especially with primitive equipment, is as much art as science. Not for nothing were the first Malay smiths regarded as sorcerers.

Iron and steel were first made in ‘bloomery’ furnaces. Bloomery furnaces are not particularly hot, and the iron never melts. Iron produced in this way is never pure, always being mixed in with slag from the ore. 

Although iron has been made in this way for thousands of years, the limited quantities produced and its poor quality means that early kris were probably made using meteoric iron. Meteoric iron is usually found in small quantities and contains many impurities, including carbon. Depending on the amount of carbon, meteoric iron might be soft and flexible or hard and brittle. The early smiths discovered that if they beat together needles of iron from different sources they could produce a weapon that combined flexibility and hardness to give an ideal blade. A kris would therefore contain at least two kinds of iron and a good kris would have seven. The kris of the legendary hero Hang Tuah contained twenty kinds of iron.

By the 11th century smiths had developed ways of making crucible steel. Here iron and carboniferous material (e.g. plant matter) were heated in a crucible for several days. While bloomery iron was produced using air drawn in naturally, crucible steel was produced using bellows. The temperature in the crucible is much higher than that in a bloomery and the result is that the iron melts. The slag can be separated out, leaving a purer metal with a higher carbon content.

Making the kris

As crucible steel became available, it was possible to produce a flattened bar of steel that could be shaped to form the core of the sword. This steel would be hard but brittle. Softer iron was therefore welded both sides of the steel core, providing a protective layer of flexible iron. Another layer of soft steel was then welded onto that to form a harder (but not hard to the point of brittle) outer coat.

As the blade is worked, the spine of the blade is left thick, with the alternating layers of steel and iron providing a strong, yet flexible  weapon. Towards the cutting edges, though, the blade is ground away, so that at the very edge we are left with just the hardest steel from the core. This gives a vicious cutting edge, but, though it may chip, it will not shatter because of its protective iron coat.

The iron is not hammered on as a simple sheet, but is folded  into twisted strips before being welded onto the core. It is these twists that introduce the striations that will generate the characteristic pamor. Shaping and grinding the rough blade into finished shape reveals differing levels of the respective layers. Treating the blades with arsenic further emphasises the pattern, as does cleaning the blade with lemon juice or other fruit acids. (Some people still clean kris blades by cutting a lemon with them. The acid, though, is essentially eating away the blade and modern conservators would discourage this approach, however dramatic its short term effectiveness.)

The hammering is a vital part of creating the sword. Twisting, heating, and hammering further hardens the steel by changing its crystalline structure. It also strengthens the bond between the different layers of iron and steel. The hammering, though also adds to the waviness of the pamor, which are such an important part of the spiritual element of the blades and their aesthetic appeal to the modern collector.

With the different layers of iron and steel beaten and welded into a single blade, all that  remains is the final shaping of the weapon. The blade is heated once again and then, having been hammered into its final shape, it is plunged into cold water, not only completing the shaping process but also hardening the outer steel (which changes its crystalline structure) while allowing the iron, protected by the outer steel coat, to retain its vital flexibility.

This, then, is the way that kris were traditionally produced. The patterning was both a product of the manufacturing method and appreciated for its aesthetic and spiritual properties.

Crucible steel and the development of wootz

Meanwhile, the way in which steel was produced was becoming more technologically advanced. Smiths discovered that if crucible steel was left to cool very slowly it would form  large dendritic crystals of a ferrous carbon compound, cementite (Fe3C). If such steel was carefully forged at low temperatures, it would retain these large crystals which could (after polishing and micro etching) form a visible pattern on the blade surface. This is known as watering and steel produced in this way is often referred to as ‘Damascene’ steel or, in India, wootz. Fig 1 shows a comparatively crudely patterned wootz blade.

Fig 1

Usually the patterning is much more subtle. By careful hammering and working of the steel, smiths could work the watering into regular patterns. On this blade (badly displayed and almost impossible to see properly – yes, I’m looking at you, Wallace Collection) you can (just) make out a pattern of horizontal stripes across the blade (known as the ladder of the prophet) interspersed with rosettes. (Click on the pic for a larger, clearer view.)

Fig 2

Here’s a much less beautiful – but more easily seen – example of watering on a knife from Syria.

Fig 3

As you can see, there are similarities between the pattern produced in a damascened blade and that produced by pattern welding. Because Damascene steel was viewed as exceptionally strong (and is said to never need sharpening) swords made of wootz were particularly valued. (Game of Thrones fans can think of Valerian steel at this point.) Some blades were therefore pattern welded so that they could be passed off as damascened. At the same time, some blades were so polished – especially by Western collectors – as to almost entirely eliminate the patterning. (That's one of the reasons that the pattern is so difficult to see in figure 2.) The result is that, although the blades have very different qualities in use, it is often impossible to tell how the blade was made by visual inspection. (Note that I describe the blade in figure 3 as Damascene judged on appearance and provenance. It may well not be.)

Analysing blades by neutron diffraction

You can take a sample of the metal for analysis, but many museums are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of chipping bits off some of their finest exhibits. Fortunately, it is now possible to establish the nature of the metal by a process of neutron diffraction.

When neutrons are passed through metal some of the neutrons are distracted as they interact with the atoms in the metal. When they are passed through steel, the pattern of diffraction allows you to estimate the proportion of carbon in the steel. This will show whether the steel was produced by the bloomery process or if it is crucible steel.

If the steel is homogeneous, then the results will be the same whatever the angle at which the beam enters the metal. However, if these steel contains cementite dendrites, then the results will vary according to the angle at which the beam enters the metal because the carbon within the steel is not evenly spread. Neutron diffraction can therefore be used not only to state whether or not the metal is crucible steel, but also whether or not there is watering. Because the watering is a function of the crystalline structure, it extends throughout the sword even if it's surface appearance has been removed by over polishing. This approach, which reveals some sorts to be finer than they appear, also enables us to say with confidence that some swords which seem to have damascened blades were actually produced by pattern welding, as there is no evidence of dendritic cementite. (Pattern welded swords may be made from crucible steel. For example, much iron contains a small amount of phosphorus and if irons with different phosphorus content are welded together in the manufacture of a blade, it is possible to obtain a watered blade through pattern welding.)

The manufacture of wootz developed in India. It is unlikely that wootz was produced in Malaysia, but there was an extensive trade in wootz ingots. It is therefore quite possible that some later kris were produced with damascened blades.

The development of neutron diffraction analysis of metal weapons has led to a reassessment of some museum pieces. For example, many 19th-century Indian axe heads, richly overlaid with silver and/or gold turn out not to have been made of steel at all, but just plain iron.

Neutron diffraction does allow us a better understanding of the way these swords were made but, despite our sophisticated technology, there is nobody nowadays who can produce  the exquisite watered  patterns  of the finest blades of the past.

Acknowledgements and further reading

I was inspired to write this after a two-day conference at  the Wallace collection (All Depends Upon the Brave:Recent Research into Museum Collections of Ottoman, Middle Eastern and Asian Arms and Armour). I'm very grateful for all that I learned there. I have drawn particularly on the presentations by Prof. Alan Williams and David Edge. 

For an excellent discussion of the making of  pattern welded blades with details of how a modern smith achieves this effect, see

Fig 1 is reproduced using a Creative Commons licence: awrose/Foter/CreativeCommons attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Friday, 7 October 2016

Kris: the magical sword of Malaysia

If you were reading the blog last week, you'll know that I spent a couple of days at the Wallace Collection while people talked about Oriental arms and armour. This reminded me that I blogged about some oriental daggers a fair while ago, so I've dug that post out and updated and expanded it. 

I hope you find this interesting. I think that the swords are beautiful and the more I know about them, the more I appreciate them. If you find the text heavy going, enjoy the pictures.

I first came across kris on holiday in Borneo. This was the holiday where I discovered James Brooke, so kris and Brooke have always been linked in my mind. Accent even put a picture of a kris on the cover of their edition of The White Rajah.

What exactly are kris? Most are really too long to be called daggers but too short for swords. They’re a distinctive weapon common in South East Asia, being found throughout Indonesia and Malaysia. In the UK they’re usually depicted (as in the cover illustration) as wavy, though they come in a variety of shapes and sizes with marked differences from one area to another. Some old kris are as small as any dagger and the largest are the size of a sword. There isn't even any agreement about how it should be spelt. Although 'kris' is the usual English spelling, I have also often seen it spelt 'keris'. Wikipedia throws up even more variants: 'cryse', 'crise', 'criss', 'kriss' and 'creese', although these appear obsolete terms used by European colonists. Generally, the usual spelling in the West is 'kris', while 'keris' is more popular in the East.

Despite the variety of spellings, sizes and shapes, kris are easy to recognise. What are the attributes that define them?

The blade

The first thing is that all kris have, to a greater or lesser extent, "watered" blades. I’m going to write a lot more about this in a separate post, which is likely to appeal to a more specialist audience, but for now I’ll just say that the watering here is produced by a technique called ‘pattern welding’. Although the pattern can resemble that seen in the famed damascene steel, these blades are produced by a completely different technique and are vastly inferior in quality. They are quite beautiful though.

Some legends say that this pattern, known as the "pamor", is made by the waves of the hair of a spirit inhabiting the blade. In fact, the waves are the result of the kris being made from thin bars of iron or steel which are beaten together. I’ll be writing separately about how these and other blades are made in a post for sword/metallurgy geeks.
The top of blade is wider on one side, maintaining a sharp edge. The other side is decorated with a curl in the metal, which resembles an elephant's trunk (the 'belalai gajah'). A good example of this is shown in figure 2.
FIG 2. Detail of a Kris Ksay Cantrik from Jogjakarta, Java.

The widening of the blade allows it to form a guard (the 'ganja'). The guard is usually made from a separate piece of metal. This is placed across the top of the blade, providing a stronger and more effective protection for the user's hands. Although this is made separately, during the forging of the weapon it is attached to the main part of the blade. This is also clearly visible in figure 2. At the top (in figure) a gap is clear between the main part of the blade and the guard, but the two are firmly joined beyond that point.

Some people suggest that the shape is derived from the shape of a stingray’s ‘sting’. The idea is that people used the sting as a weapon and then produced metal weapons based on the same shape. Unlikely as it is, the oldest kris are very small and thin and the resemblance there is more marked.

The details of the decoration at the top of blade vary considerably. The example shown in figure 2 could be regarded as typical. The example shown in figure 3 shows how, in some cases, these elements are reduced to a minimal symbolic representation. However, they are always present even if, as here, the cross piece is omitted.

FIG 3 Detail of peninsular kris
The tang (the bit of the blade that fits into the hilt) is very narrow. This is a significant weakness of the kris as a weapon. European sailors fighting natives armed with kris would typically use a belaying pin (essentially a large, heavy stick) to disarm their opponents by striking the kris blade, which would snap at the tang.

The kris in use

The hilts are sometimes described as offering a pistol grip. The blade is held horizontal to the ground. The fist fits around the hilt with the thumb and forefinger pinching the blade itself. Held like this, the  so that the guard covers the base knuckle of the forefinger. (This would not be the case with the very long kris of the Philippines, which are, effectively, swords and will be held in the usual way.) 

If only one kris is being used, it’s generally held in the right hand, with the scabbard sometimes held in the left, where it can be used to ward off blows. According to Draeger and Smith, the kris fighter will strike into soft flesh target areas of his enemy with the abdominal region, throat, and kidney areas most highly favoured.

I have seen displays, showing how the kris might be used in combat. Such displays, called main silat are a traditional form of entertainment where the duellists imitate the thrusts and parries, the passes and steps of a fight to the death. It is impossible to be sure how accurately these reflect fighting in the days when they were typically used, but the display I witnessed  seemed a very stylised form of fighting, rather than a straightforward thrust and parry. Of course, as any fighting style becomes more refined it can take on an almost ritualistic quality, like fencing with the epee. It may be that the main advantage that English sailors had was that they did not bother with the finer points of kris use but simply bludgeoned their way to victory.

The style of fighting does mean that the blade will often slide along your opponent's guard and the guard was often notched. This would serve to catch your opponent's blade momentarily, and might give you an advantage.

Many people suggest kris blades were poisoned, although it is difficult to find any evidence that this was common. There are lots of Malaysian plants that can be used to make poisons (and blow-pipe darts, for example, have to be poisoned to be effective) but making these poisons takes time and if they are left smeared on the blade they soon become ineffective. You’d need a lot to cover the whole length of the blade and it’s just not an efficient way of killing. The application of poison to the blade hardly seems necessary as the blade is extremely lethal anyway. Perhaps the use of arsenic and lime juice to clean and etch the blade in its final stages of preparation has given rise to the idea that all kris blades were poisonous.

Kris were also used in executions. It is likely that straight edged kris were preferred for this. In the West, straight kris are sometimes referred to as executioners kris. This is, in part, because of a notion that straight kris are unusual and therefore probably reserved for some special purpose, but, as we have seen, this is a misunderstanding. Straight kris are, if anything, more common than the wavy ones. Not all of them could have been used principally for executions. 
Nonetheless, the straight kris is particularly well adapted to the traditional manner of execution in which the victim is held with their arms out their sides and the kris is pushed vertically down through their collarbone into the heart, causing instant death. The kris may be pushed through wadding to reduce the amount of blood generated.

The hilt

The hilts are usually made of wood, often kemuning, which some people claim has magical qualities. Weapons owned as status symbols may well have hilts of horn, ivory (elephant or walrus) or bone.

The hilts of kris are always carved into symbolic decorations, often with a religious element. Many hilts represent the garuda bird, which carries the god Vishnu in Hindu myth. Sometimes these images are elaborate, but, in many cases, they are very stylised and can appear quite plain. Examples of two extremes of decorative style are shown in figure 5.

Although the most common image is that of a more or less stylised garuda, other patterns are seen. Sometimes, the figure is that of a crouching man. The Erotic Museum in Berlin has several examples of hilts which represent people engaged in sexual acts.

A particularly interesting type of hilt is tajong, known in the West as a "Kingfisher" hilt. This is characterised by a long "beak" extending from the end of the hilt. Carving these takes considerable skill, and such hilts are rare. The workmanship would have made them valued when they were originally produced, but their scarcity nowadays means that they are worth considerable sums to collectors.

Although Western collectors attach great significance to the hilts, it is important to remember that the culture is that produced the kris saw the true magic and value of the weapon as lying in the blade. The blade will be preserved as the furniture is changed. This is particularly the case with kris that have been traded by collectors. It is common for hilts to be removed from blades so that a particularly good hilt can be matched with a particularly good blade to make a more saleable piece. My own collection includes kris where the orientation of the hilts to the blade is wrong, indicating that the hilt has been replaced. Whilst the furniture of a kris can provide useful clues as to its provenance, they can never be definitive.

The hilt usually sits in a small metal cup (the pendongkok), separating the hilt from the main part of the blade. Figure 3 shows a relatively elaborate example of this. Once the hilts are removed, the cup, which is not attached to the blade, is easily slipped off and therefore often changed when hilts are changed. In some examples held by Western collectors, the cup will be missing.

The sheath

Kris sheaths are also distinctive. Sheaths are made of wood, although they may be covered with a metal sleeve. The end of the sheath might be tipped with a chap of bone or ivory (the buntut). They are distinguished by a wide wooden crosspiece (the sampir) which protects the guard of the weapon. This is often described as "boat shaped". The sampir may be a relatively functional rectilinear shape or an elaborately carved piece of decorative work.

Fig 6. Scabbard with metal sleeve. Jogjakarta.

The kris as a spiritual object

Kris are valued as spiritual objects. Although there is some uncertainty surrounding their origin, it is likely that the very first kris were the kris majapahit. 'Majapahit' refers to the Majapahit Empire, which was based on Java in the 14th to 15th centuries. The very first kris were made when iron was a rare and precious metal. Early kris may well have been made of meteoric iron. They were very small, and may have been intended for use in religious ceremonies, rather than combat. The symbolic carving of the hilts reflects their continuing religious links.

Fig 7. Kris majapahit

Traditionally, the manufacture of kris was surrounded with ceremonies reflecting the fact that the early smiths were practising an art which was viewed as as much magical as technological. Some stories say that women smiths would temper the blade by drawing the red hot metal through their vulva before throwing it into water. Another version says that every kris would be tempered by being stabbed into the body of a prisoner, so that a person would be killed for every kris that was made.

Although kris are functionally defined by their use as weapons, they have always been much more than that. Often beautifully decorated (sometimes with gold worked into the surface of the blade) and with hilts and scabbards so ornate as to make them almost useless for fighting, kris are symbols of status, and of craft and cultural values at least 700 years old. Collected enthusiastically by Europeans (especially the Dutch), they can still be found and bought at affordable prices in the markets of Malaysia and Indonesia. The huge variety of styles and the stories that go with them make these a source of continual fascination to any traveller in the region.


Draeger and Smith (1986) Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts. Kodansha America, Inc

Gardner (1936) Keris and Other Malay Weapons . Progressive Publishing Company: Singapore

Hill (1956) The Keris and Other Malay Weapons, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 29, Part 4, No. 176.

My next post, all about the metallurgy of pattern welded and watered blades, is now available HERE.

About 'The White Rajah'

The White Rajah is the first of three books about John Williamson. Williamson is a fictional character, but his adventures take him into the lives of some very real historical figures. The White Rajah is quite closely based on the life of Sir James Brooke. Like the true story of his life, it raises issues about colonialism and our attitudes to what we now call Third World countries. But like his life, it also has pirates and rebellions and battles. And there's an orang-utan who, if I'm entirely honest, probably wasn't there in real life. It took quite a long time to research and write and is available on Kindle at the embarrassingly low price of 99p. You can use this book link to buy it, wherever you are in the world. Please do.