Sunday 5 December 2021

A Novel Education, guest post from E.S. Alexander

E.S. (Liz) Alexander was born in Scotland but now lives in Penang, Malaysia. She has written and co-authored over 20 award-winning non-fiction titles, while maintaining a successful freelance journalism career. Asked to describe herself in three words she typically answers: thinker; writer; adventurer. The order depends on her mood.  

Penang was “founded” in the late eighteenth century by a British adventurer, Captain Francis Light. Liz’s first novel, Lies That Blind, re-imagines what happened a few years after the new trading settlement was established. Aspiring journalist Jim Lloyd risks his wealthy father’s wrath to sail from Britain to Penang, where he becomes Light’s assistant. He hopes that chronicling his employer’s achievements will propel them both to enduring fame. But he soon discovers that years of deception and double-dealing have strained relations between Light and Penang’s legal owner, Sultan Abdullah of Queda, almost to the point of war. Tensions mount: pirate activity escalates, traders complain about Light’s monopolies, and inhabitants threaten to flee, fearing a battle the fledgling settlement cannot hope to win against the Malays. Jim realises that a shared obsession with renown has brought him and Light perilously close to infamy, a fate the younger man, at least, fears more than death. Yet Jim will not leave Penang because of his dedication to Light’s young son, William, and his perplexing attraction to a mercurial Dutchman. He must stay and confront his own misguided ambitions as well as help save the legacy of a man he has come to despise.

Liz’s credo is to write about what she wants to discover. Here she discusses what she learned during the three years she worked on Lies That Blind.

So, over to Liz…

“Write what you know” might have worked for Mark Twain, the US author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that advice never appealed to me. As a freelance features journalist for over 30 years, I developed the habit of writing about what I wanted to discover. Nevertheless, I wasn’t prepared for such an eye-opening education when I immersed myself in historical documents about Francis Light the “founder” of Penang, and the politics of the East India Company, for my novel, Lies That Blind

I discovered that death by elephant is not as quick as I had imagined, and that piracy by Malay anak raja (princes) in the 18th century was a necessity for the many male offspring of sultans whose courts could not support them financially. I also learned of the flourishing publication of books during that era, containing "sample" letters, love poems, and messages on cards for uninspired lovers to copy and pass off as their own.  But as I dug into the plot and developed the characters of Lies That Blind, most of whom were real-life historical figures, I realised that many aspects of life 250 years ago aren’t all that different to today. 

Take “fake news”, for example. Perhaps, like me, you have only associated that term with recent political shenanigans and conspiracy theories. So imagine my surprise when I came across a 1758 essay written by Dr. Samuel Johnson entitled Of the Duty of a Journalist. In it he decries that journalists were guilty of transmitting intelligence to the public before the “truth” could be reasonably ascertained. Information that often came from dubious and self-interested sources. 

Newspapers in the 18th century were just as likely to exaggerate the news and write shockingly inaccurate headlines, as they are today. I had thought that since life back then occurred at a slower pace, reporters would spend more time gathering news with care and restraint. But according to Dr. Johnson, journalists - as they do today - rushed to disseminate news that they “know not to be true, because they hope that it will please,” and “with shameless tranquillity” contradict themselves the very next day. Scandalous goings-on grab people’s attention and sell newspapers; that’s as true now as it was almost three centuries ago. 

However, it wasn’t only editors and journalists who took advantage of public gullibility; members of the medical profession also showed a worrying lack of integrity. 

We’ve no doubt all been familiar at some time or other with products whose claims do not live up to the hype. The same was true in the 17th and 18th centuries when nutmeg was shamelessly promoted by greedy physicians as a cure-all for everything from aches and pains to protection from the bubonic plague. Profit-hungry merchants touted nutmeg’s magical properties, claiming that keeping a single seed in your pocket would bring you luck, wealth, and enhanced mental capacity. England’s enemy at the time, Holland, forced farmers in the Banda Islands to grant the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), the Dutch East India Company, a monopoly on the spice. Such was the hatred and fear of the VOC that it was  known as the "Violent Opium Company". 

The English East India Company (EIC), paymaster of Captain Francis Light, the superintendent of Penang who features in Lies That Bind, was not much better.

During the 2008 global financial crisis we heard the phrase, “too big to fail.” Yet there is precedent for this with the EIC. At the height of its power, the “Honourable Company” ruled over India, collected taxes, oversaw a highly profitable trade in opium, and directly caused the famines that led to the deaths of tens of millions of Indians. It was, according to William Dalrymple, author of The Anarchy, “the original corporate raider.” 

As with so many of today’s corporations, poor management, corruption, and over-ambitious  decision-making meant that by 1772, the EIC had to go cap in hand to the British government for an emergency loan of £1 million to avoid bankruptcy (that’s the equivalent today of almost $230 billion). Because of its power in India, and possibly the fact that the EIC had a private military twice the size of the British army at the time, the EIC was bailed out, in exchange for much-needed oversight into its policies and practices. 

Focusing on transactions at the cost of relationships, and putting the desire for profit over people, are themes I weave throughout Lies That Blind. After digging into the business practices of both the Dutch and English East India Companies, I learned how they viewed inter-marriage between their employees and local women. The EIC, for example, was so focused on making money that they originally banned women coming to their Indian presidencies from Britain, even those who wanted to join their husbands, citing the expense and distraction. Yet the English might have learned from the Portuguese about how to keep their employees happy without detrimentally impacting business. 

Portugal was the first European power to become dominant in the Malay Archipelago. Realising that by encouraging inter-marriage, his men would more quickly learn local languages, establish firm business relationships, and gain access to insider knowledge as to where the most valuable commodities could be found, King Manuel 1 (1495-1521) encouraged his subjects to marry local women. The wives and children from such unions were to be known as Portuguese Eurasians. 

The English were not so enlightened and it may have been for this reason that Francis Light never married the half-Portuguese, half-Siamese Martinha Rozells, with whom he cohabited for 22 years, producing five children.

The author of the Wolf Hall trilogy, Hilary Mantel once said, “I began writing fiction when I discovered I wanted to be a historian.” That was never my ambition. All I have ever wanted from my writing career is to continually pique my curiosity, expand my knowledge, and learn things I never knew before. Who would have thought penning a novel, let alone reading historical fiction, could do all that?  

Details: Lies That Blind is published by Penguin Random House Southeast Asia  in paperback and as a Kindle eBook through Amazon. Priced in local currencies.