Thursday, 6 March 2014

Background to a Book

One of the draft covers for Torrid Zone
I've now finished the second draft of The Torrid Zone, the next instalment in my Fighting Sail series. There is still much to do, of course; the actual book is not due to appear until April or May but at least we have the roof on, as it were. This time I have strayed from home waters; HMS Scylla is heading for the South Atlantic, her destination: the small island of St Helena, and on board she has Sir Terrance Hatcher, the island's new governor.

The history has been augmented slightly (that's why they call it Historical Fiction), but like most such tales my story has a firm basis in fact. Torrid Zone is set during the interregnum between two actual governors of St Helena: Robert Brooke, (retired March 1800), and Robert Patton who arrived two years later. Between those times Francis Robson acted as governor and appears in the book, although Sir Terrance Hatcher and his charming wife – you may learn more than you wish of her later – are totally figments of my imagination.

Mixing reality with fiction is always a dangerous business. Care must be taken not to distort what actually happened, and there is an unspoken undertaking to represent the facts as honestly as possible, if only out of respect to the memory of those who took part. But when such an important outpost as St Helena is left effectively unattended for so long, the opportunity is just too good to pass by. Then the research begins, and that is one of the most enjoyable parts. The history of St Helena is every bit as fascinating as any novel, and some of the people who feature almost cry out for a good deal more attention.
Robert Brooke (1744 - 1811)

Take Robert Brooke for instance. As the previous governor, he had departed before the tale begins and is only mentioned fleetingly, but in reality he properly deserves an entire book of his own.
Brooke was born in Ireland and first joined the HEIC as an aspirant officer in his early twenties. Following a period of illness, he moved back to his homeland where he established Prosperous, an industrial town in County Kildare, to serve the cotton industry. It was an ambitious project and received generous government support, but soon proved far too expensive, consuming all of Brookes' personal fortune. In the space of a few years he went from employing over three thousand people, to losing all of his property and owing what was rumoured to be an amount approaching that of Great Britain's entire national debt.

The town bell at Prosperous
Undeterred, he reapplied for service with the East India Company and, after initial rejection, (he had previously outstayed his leave) was finally accepted. Then, almost immediately afterwards, he found himself somewhat bizarrely appointed governor of St Helena, replacing Daniel Cornelille, and in control of one of the most important bases in Britain's burgeoning empire.

Despite his somewhat disastrous record in business, Brooke was to become one of the most successful governors of the island. St Helena's defences were improved to no small degree while under his control; he also instituted a better method of signalling, and extended the harbour installations that were both inadequate and dangerous.

The disaster at Prosperous clearly had not dulled his enthusiasm for enterprise; his plans to irrigate the island involved many miles of pipes, gullies and open streams, and were heavily opposed. But Brooke had the determination to see the scheme through and, on its completion, fresh water could finally be distributed to some parts of the island for the first time. Suddenly visiting fleets could be served in a more efficient manner, while the Company's considerable herds of cattle were not only able to survive the occasional drought, 
but also increased by 20%.

During his tenure Brooke also did much to improve the lot of the common soldier. His “miscreants' mess” was a particular case in point; until that time military discipline rested almost entirely on corporal punishment and did little to actually modify bad behaviour. Brooke decided that regular floggings promoted an ethos of bravado amongst the men, some came to regard such punishment as a sign of masculinity while a few even claimed to enjoy it. Instead he ordered offenders to be removed from the rank and file, provided with poor accommodation and victuals, and employed in a variety of laborious and mundane tasks. This evoked an element of social disgrace that made the punishment truly corrective, and also provided St Helena with the many gardens and military installations that are still to be seen today.
In 1795, and based on news received from a visiting warship, Brooke initiated an expedition using HEIC ships and Corps to reinforce General Craig's recently captured Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope. Brooke's force also assisted in the taking of a fleet of valuable Dutch Indiamen, an act that won him praise, promotion and a considerable increase in salary.

The Fort at High Knoll

At a time when slavery was generally accepted in British colonies, Brooke was one of the first to bring in legislation to improve matters, making the importing of new slaves illegal, and introducing harsh penalties for “owners” found abusing their charges. His measures effectively raised the status of such labour to something nearer to that of serfdom, but by no means ended the atrocity: it would be another forty years or so before St Helena's last 800 slaves began a programme of phased emancipation. That was still ahead of any government ban, however, and Brooke's efforts certainly signalled the start of the later war against slavery that the British were to take up with all the gusto of reformed sinners.

Brooke is certainly mentioned in The Torrid Zone, although I was not able to give him the prominence he deserves for fear of making it less of a novel and more a work of reference. It is good to say more about him here however, and perhaps he might indeed feature later in a book of his own.

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