Having published my three books about James Burke, a real person who operated as a spy during the Napoleonic wars, Endeavour are now publishing the John Williamson Chronicles.
The John Williamson books could hardly be less like the ones about James Burke. John Williamson is a fictitious character living in the mid-19th century. His three adventures take him around the world, coming face-to-face with the realities of Empire and, back in Britain, the political truths that underpin it.
John Williamson was invented as my narrator for The White Rajah – a story based closely on the real-life James Brooke, who ruled Sarawak in Borneo. Brooke was not your typical Victorian colonialist. In fact, he frequently clashed with the Foreign Office because he insisted that his territory was not part of the British Empire but held by him personally as a vassal of the Sultan of Brunei. He was a swashbuckling gentleman-adventurer, genuinely committed to Sarawak and its native inhabitants. Ae honestly sought to do his best for them and he is still highly regarded today, but under his rule there was a massacre so bloodthirsty that questions were raised in the London Parliament. James Brooke always defended his actions and was very bitter about the criticisms that were made of him, but in the book Williamson is repulsed by them. This gives me the chance to put both points of view and I’m delighted that some people choose to side with Brooke, while others are sympathetic to Williamson.
Unable to face living with the horror of what he has seen in Borneo, Williamson moves to India, where he works as an administrator for the East India Company. India seems at peace, reasonably consent with British rule. By the middle of the 19th century, though, a new type of colonial administrator was trying to make British India more and more like Surrey. The clash of cultures engendered by the increasing unwillingness of the British to try to understand or engage with the Indian way of life led to the Indians rising against British rule in what became known as the Indian Mutiny. Based at Cawnpore, Williamson finds himself caught up in another massacre – but this time it is Europeans who are being killed. Williamson himself escapes, but he cannot ignore the horror of what the Indians do to the British or the terrible reprisals that the British mete out in their turn.
In India Williamson has seen the worst that British rulers can do to their subjects and, horrified, he returns to England to discover that the struggle between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, is fought with as much viciousness and ruthlessness in London as in the Far East. Trying to save a friend from the clutches of a criminal gang in London, Williamson finds himself caught up in a plot by the security services to discredit a foreign agent. And if that means Williamson and his friend must hang, that is of no concern to the men who run the country. Unlike the previous two books, the third in the trilogy, Back Home, is not based on a specific historical event, but reflects life in the London slums.
Can Williamson extricate himself and his friend from the plot they have got caught up in or will he again see the country’s rulers killing to further their own ends? And how does Karl Marx get caught up in the story?
The John Williamson Chronicles take our narrator from his home on a Devon farm on a journey round the world and back again. Join him for the journey.