Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Strange Gods": A Mystery in East Africa

Annamaria Alfieri is the author of 'Strange Gods,' a new novel set in early 20th century British East Africa. This is where 'Out of Africa' and 'White Mischief' later unfolded, a place of great fascination and allure. We asked Annamaria to share some of the history she learned while researching her mystery in this guest post:

The British Are Coming!

So shouted Paul Revere.

But this is not about those redcoats.

In the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the Brits took hegemony over East Africa.  How and why they came to do that is the geopolitical background for my series of historical mysteries that begins with Strange Gods, which launches on June 24th.

The story begins not in the territory that is now Kenya, but off shore, so to speak.  Wanting a more efficient way to move wealth from India to England, Great Britain dug the Suez Canal. Then, to make sure the canal remained open and in their hands, they needed to take hegemony over Egypt. They concluded that to control Egypt, they needed to control the Nile. To control the river, they wanted to take control of its source. As the engineers began to plan and dig the canal, the legendary and somewhat loony explorers Dr. David Livingstone, Richard Francis Burton, John Speke, and Samuel Baker went out and eventually found Lake Victoria. But controlling the lake was not so easy. To do so, the Brits needed to keep administrators and troops there, men who needed supplies and the ability to communicate with the outside world. Today, in a Mercedes or a lorry one can drive the 525 miles between the lake and Mombasa on the coast in a day. But a hundred and twenty years ago, they had to go on foot and it took months. 

Britain had another great goal in the 19th Century, stamping out slavery.  The area between the coast and Lake Victoria was notorious for slave caravans—know as the “Trail of Tears"-- the route where slaves were dragged from the interior to the coast and then shipped to work in the households of Asia Minor and on the sugarcane plantations of what is now Iraq. 

By the 1880’s, the Brits had spent a great deal of blood and treasure trying to stamp out slavery worldwide.  As part of that effort, they succeeded in convincing the Sultan of Zanzibar—who ruled the coast—to outlaw human trafficking.

 But the prohibition, like all prohibitions, brought in the criminal class.  Contraband always costs more and as profits soar, the cutthroats always move in and sharpen their blades.  The British navy managed to stamp out much of the slave trading in the Indian Ocean ports, but that only went so far.  The practice had to be halted at the source, where the slaves were taken, in the hinterlands.

The weapons that Britain thought to use were a European presence where slaves were captured, the Christian religion, and legitimate ways to get rich in the territory—through trade.   In the words of Dr. David Livingstone, what Britain needed to check the cursed traffic in human flesh was “an open path for commerce and Christianity.”

The dangers and difficulties of transportation from the coast was a major obstacle.  The route from Mombasa to Kisumu was an oxcart trail.  To traverse from the coast took about three months with most of the party walking, carrying water and food.  Ordinarily around three hundred at a time made the trip, most of them tribal porters. 

 Many people died.
So the British decided to build a railroad.
But not everyone agreed.

Calling the railroad a “gigantic folly,” Liberals in Parliament were against the project, saying that Britain had no right to drive what African’s called the “Iron Snake” through Maasai territory.  The magazine Punch called it “the Lunatic Line.”  Politicians and newspaper editors called it a waste of the taxpayer’s money.  Shaky wooden trestles over enormous chasms, hostile tribes, workers dying of until-then unknown diseases—much of what transpired seemed to support those against the idea.

But from the outset, the railroad had its adherents.   Conservatives saw it as an important salvo in the “Scramble for Africa,” that Nineteenth Century madness of the European powers to take over whatever chunks of the African continent they could lay their hegemony on.   As the argument went, if the Brits didn’t take it, their rivals—largely that meant Germany—would.
Construction began in 1896.  It cost Great Britain’s taxpayers 55 million pounds sterling or $33 Billion in today’s money.

32,000 Indians were shipped in from the Raj to build it.  6,724 of them stayed after the work was done and made a life there—many of their descendants remain today. 2,498 perished during its construction, largely of diseases, but also by man-eating lions.

Once the railway was completed, goods and people could make the trip in less than two days.  And they put in telegraph lines along the tracks, making communication all but instantaneous.  Hooray for modern technology.

But that was not the end of their trials.

Having built the railroad, they needed to maintain it.  And they had some special problems to deal with in that regard.

For reasons no one could fathom, rhinos would undermine the tracks, elephants would knock over the telegraph poles, and purloined telegraph wire became the raw material for many a tribesman’s favorite jewelry.  The bill for keeping the trains going was causing great consternation on the home front.  The taxpayers were sick of the expense.  What the railroad needed was paying customers.

Though at the equator, the area around a remote station stop called Nairobi, about halfway along the line, was a mile above sea level and had a climate the King’s administrators called “healthful.”  What a perfect area for farms.  Europeans might be enticed to move in and grow coffee and sisal, raise cattle, cut and ship rare woods, and so on and so on.  Then, they and their produce would pay to ride the rails.  What a swell idea.  And so they did.
Social change in northern Europe coincided with all this.  

Industrialization meant that aristocrats in those countries could no longer remain rich and privileged just by owning land.  But with cheap labor and unexploited resources in Africa, they could have all the servants and entitlements of their former life style.
And in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, there developed an ideal of manhood the proof of which lay in striking off into uncharted territory and conquering it.  Perhaps this happened because Europe had become too manicured and tame for the available testosterone.  That would be my guess.

After the railway was built, shooting safaris became the rage.  An early visitor to the Protectorate was Teddy Roosevelt.

The railway was a huge logistical success and became strategically and economically vital for both Uganda and Kenya.  It helped suppress slavery, and it did away with a lot of suffering by eliminating the need for humans to carry burdens through such hostile territory.  It also allowed heavy equipment to be transported inland, giving rise the economic development.  Coffee and tea grown in the East African highlands could be moved to the coast and exported.   For good or evil,  the railroad cemented the British hold on what soon became the colony of Kenya.

Let me add a personal note: I read Out of Africa as an adolescent who had never traveled further from my New Jersey home than the coast of Maine.  That book gave me a nostalgic longing for a place I experience only in my dreams and had no prospects of ever visiting.  I have been there now, twice, and each encounter made me more infatuated.  Every description of its majesty, every photo I see—even the sepia ones in the books of the New York Public Library’s collection, increases the strength of my attachment.  I imagine that many of the Europeans who went to British East Africa felt much the same.

I have taken that infatuation and longing and poured it into Strange Gods.  I hope you will read my story and travel with me to there and then.

Annamaria Alfieri

“Alfieri aims for the audience who loved Out of Africa, with heartbreaking romance married to a complex mystery.” –Kirkus

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Regency Novel Like No Other: “Of Honest Fame,” by M.M. Bennetts

By Nancy Bilyeau

How do you solve a problem like Napoleon?

For many modern novelists and many more readers, perhaps, the French emperor is not a problem requiring a solution. Which is, among other things, the point.

Of Honest Fame, by M.M. Bennetts

           Strictly speaking, the Regency Period lasted from 1811 to 1820, the timespan when the mental breakdown of King George III called for the greater involvement of his oldest son, George, the Prince of Wales, variably described as a spendthrift, drunkard, lecher and patron of the arts. Some scholars liberally extend both boundaries so that the Regency began in 1795 and ended in 1837, the year that Queen Victoria succeeded her dissolute uncles George IV and William IV to the throne. In which case, it was a period of truly astonishing literary output: Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his second wife, Mary Shelley, William Blake, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth and John Keats.

             Overlapping the time that some of these novels and poems were proudly published, England was at war, and not just any war. From 1803 to 1815, England allied with Prussia, Russia, and Austria to fight the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican officer turned general turned emperor. Roughly 5 million people died during the Napoleonic Wars, an estimate that includes civilians. 

               This was a war of "extreme violence," of atrocities committed against the civilian population. Philip G. Dwyer writes, "The sacking of towns, during which soldiers committed murder and rape in what is often called an 'uncontrolled frenzy,' was part and parcel of 18th century warfare." Yet historians agree that the French armies, greatly hardened in the Revolution, took the frenzy to its most pitiless level.

           England was not invaded during these wars, but families were robbed of their young men fighting Napoleon, and the population feared and hated the French emperor and was, to varying degrees, aware of the atrocities committed in Europe, particularly in Spain. England was also riven by poverty, with as much as one-third living close to starvation. Food riots raged. In London, alongside the luxury-driven, gambling-addicted aristocracy, existed squalor and crime.

             This is the time and this is the place of M.M. Bennetts' remarkable novel, Of Honest Fame, a companion book to May 1812. Although the story swings wide, to France, Prussia and Scotland, the focus is on England in that same tense, pivotal year of 1812. According to rumor, Napoleon is turning toward Russia. It's only the British Foreign Office's skilled spy network that can learn the truth of France's plans, yet a sadistic French assassin is picking off the spies on their home soil. In the struggle to outwit the assassin—and discover who in London has betrayed them—a group of men are tested as never before. The layers of intrigue reveal themselves slowly, worthy of a John le Carré plot, but it's in the rich details of the characters' daily lives that the novel soars. They are soldiers, statesmen and spies, driven by their hatred of the enemy.

            No one can blame Jane Austen for not depicting the harshness of war. That was never her brief. Yet to the careful reader, the realities of the Napoleonic Wars do play a key role in Austen fiction. Men who lack the wealth and position of a Mr. Darcy or a Mr. Knightly seek a career in military service, some willingly, others less so. In Pride and Prejudice, the local officers—members of a militia of sorts—are a fatal attraction for the younger Bennett daughters. The deceptive Mr. Wickham is thus introduced: “But the attention of every young lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance, walking with an officer on the other side of the way." In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is desperate for a ship after Anne Elliot rejects him due to his lack of social status.

            Napoleon was defeated, exiled, disgraced. England moved forward, to carve its Empire. Yet Bonaparte is an object of eternal fascination in fiction. He appears in two of the  most memorable novels of the modern age. Tolstoy triumphs in his ability to depict a Russian society under strain and then under siege in War and Peace. And in a very different sort of book, it is a letter from an exiled Napoleon that sets the entire plot of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo into motion.

A painting of Napoleon's retreat from Russia

          In the novels written in the late 20th and 21st centuries the presence of Napoleon takes interesting shape. Patrick O'Brian and Bernard Cornwell have each produced masterful novels of men fighting the French. But the wars take a background role in most other Regency-era books, that surge of historical fiction and romances that is to some degree inspired by Austen. What complicates it further is that Bonaparte himself stars in a number of historical novels, focusing on his marriages to the calculating Créole Josephine and the stolid Austrian princess Marie-Louise. Even his Bonaparte siblings get a piece of the action.

            Of Honest Fame refuses to flinch from the ugliness of war and its devaluing of human life, the obliterating horror of torture and rape. There are no battles in the book; it is not a "war novel." But each character in the book is molded—if not scarred—by England's grueling conflict with France while retaining his or her innate humanity and need for companionship and love. M.M. Bennetts' book could never be described as romance fiction. And yet it contains a relationship between two outsiders—a rejected and terrified wife and a debauched yet determined spy—that is tremendously moving and quite erotic.

            Still, the novel's power is most keenly felt in its descriptive passages. In two sections in particular, a man finds himself in a new place, and the details of what he sees and hears and feels drive home the needs of each character.

            Boy, the youngest and most psychologically damaged of the English spies, tracks Napoleon's army into Prussia with the utmost care:

Running, zigzagging across the abandoned countryside, past the smoke-blackened houses and empty, eerie Gothic churches which sat deserted and silent, discarded like the playthings of some long-dead giant. Dodging the few travelers and fewer carriages by diving into ditches or behind the low walls and hedges to wait, still and alert, for minutes or longer. To wait until the roads were quiet once more. And only then to emerge, and wary, to begin again.

           Another of the spies, Captain George Shuster, seen as the "cream of the officers' mess" but wearier and lonelier than even he may realize, arrives in Scotland:

He caught sight of the chestnut crest and black mask of a wax-wing. 'Struth, it had been an age since he last walked through a wood like this. Walked, unafraid and unharried, through strands of yew and holly and oak with sunlight dappling the ground and the tree trunks, and underfoot a carpet of wild thyme, garlic and most decaying leaves, their scents crushed together by his boot. Without having to run--crouched over and silent in his breathlessness--wondering when some Frenchie's bullet was going to find its way into the gut or his head. Without fear of stumbling across the corpse of a soldier or a child, half-eaten and decayed. Without listening for the sounds of pursuit or the murmuring of vagabonds or the unnatural silence of waiting bandits. For here there was nought but the incessant callings of the birds--wood pigeons and woodpeckers, robins and thrushes--and the rustling, grunting enthusiasm of Comfit at his heel.

          In moments such as these, Of Honest Fame finds a poetry in the human struggle that no conqueror could ever silence.


To learn more about Of Honest Fame and M.M. Bennetts, go here.