A World Apart
‘ Well now, Mrs Bryant, I wouldn’t want to put you off the idea of travel but although the beginnings of the journey started pleasantly enough with calm weather, a flat sea, fresh food and good company, that didn’t last for long. My room was in the great cabin, where many of the gentlemen were accommodated. I had a window but during storms it had to be screened off to try and stop water coming in – though oftentimes that didn’t work and the sea washed into my cabin. I can’t tell you the number of times my belongings ended up swimming around the cabin while I huddled on top of my bed.’
I developed a passion for history at school, but once I had moved to London in the late seventies and started work as a verbatim shorthand writer, there was never enough time to follow my passion. More recently I have delved into my family history and visited archives, but this is my first attempt at writing fiction.
The project launch opened my eyes to a part of British history of which I had little knowledge and made me want to find out more about the impact of the East India Company (EIC) here and in South-East Asia. I was also pleased to have an opportunity to learn new skills as a heritage interpreter and historical fiction writer.
It has been a privilege to be involved in this project. Experts took us on a voyage through their museum’s archives and set the items in historical context. We handled and read ship and passenger journals written hundreds of years ago which gave a sense of the challenges for all involved in travelling by sea. It was sobering to see colourful ‘handkerchiefs’ which we discovered had been used as currency in the slave trade and to touch beautifully embroidered fine muslins, only to realise that the skilled artisans who made them centuries ago would have lost their livelihoods when cotton mills in England started making cheaper versions. I enjoyed being a part of a diverse group of people whose knowledge and experience enriched the process and took us beyond an anglocentric perspective of South-East Asia, opening my eyes to the shadows cast over Bengal by the EIC.
My story is about a young man who was born into a wealthy family in what was then Calcutta. He dresses in the best clothes and wants for nothing. His future is secure as he anticipates joining his father in the EIC. His family’s circumstances change dramatically and he has no option other than to make a journey to London in search of his grandmother and a new life. He survives the journey, only to be set upon by ruffians shortly after his arrival. He is rescued by a young lascar and through conversations with him gradually becomes aware of how his family’s fortune may have been made and the impact the EIC has had on people in Bengal. I chose the topic after reading about families in Madras which were torn apart when the soldier father returned to England, and initially envisaged a child travelling to London to find its father.
B r i c k L a n e C i r c l e