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  • Elizabeth Alexander

Author's Note

Photo 185443307 / Missing Manuscript © iswan nawi |

One of the downsides of traditional publishing is that you can submit a manuscript--as I did--in January and not see it published until mid-October the same year.

In between there are long periods when nothing seems to happen. And in that lull some things can fall through the cracks.

That was the case with my Author's Note, which does not appear in my novel, Lies That Blind.* But I still think it's important for readers who are interested to read it. So, here's what I wrote:

Although Lies That Blind is a novel, most of its characters are historical figures; only four of the major dramatis personae are fictional: Protagonist Jim Lloyd; Dutchman, Pieter Reinaert; and the Malay headman’s two sons, Awang and Othman. Most others, including the Cornwallis brothers, Charles and William; Martinha Rozells; Captain James Scott; author/illustrator Captain Elisha Trapaud; and the officers based at Fort Cornwallis, all played a role in the true story of how Captain Francis Light (1740-1794) tricked the Sultan of Queda (now spelled Kedah) into ostensibly ceding the island of Penang to the East India Company in 1786. Hence, while many events included in this story could have happened, others certainly did.

I drew many of these facts and events from contemporary letters, journals and East India Company documents, including Francis Light’s opinions of the early inhabitants of Penang and his letter reporting the outcome of the pre-dawn attack. The stories told by characters in this novel about Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Lady Chan and her sister, Phetracha the ‘Elephant Prince’, the Reverend John Gottfried Haensel, and Light’s run-in with the French Admiral de Suffren all came from historical sources and as far as I know are true. As are the letters to Light from women known as the “Ladies of Thalang”, as reported in E.H.S. Simmonds’ article of that title published in a 1965 issue of the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Meet Jim Lloyd, the young protagonist of Lies That Blind

Details of Sultan Abdullah’s letters to Light were taken from the painstaking work carried out by the team at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Library, led by Professor Dato’ Dr Ahmad Murad Merican who transliterated and translated this correspondence (The Light Letters Collection @ USM 1771-1794, MS40320) from the original Jawi script. He obtained the rights to the use of the images comprising some 1,200 letters in the collection from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Many books and journal articles helped me gain a deeper understanding of how Francis Light took possession of Penang. These include: R. Bonney’s Francis Light and Penang (JMBRAS, Vol. 38, 1965); Ian Burnet’s East Indies; H.P. Clodd’s Malaya’s First British Pioneer; Nordin Hussin’s Trade and Society in the Straits of Melaka; J. Kennedy’s History of Malaya; A. Francis Steuart’s A Short Sketch of the Lives of Francis and William Light; Sir Frank Swettenham’s British Malaya; and Richard O. Winstedt’s A History of Malaya. Marcus Langdon’s first two volumes of Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India 1805-1830 saved me countless hours and the expense of further in-depth research.

The contemporary newspaper articles I cite did indeed claim that General George Washington was a woman in disguise. As a journalist myself, I was fascinated to read Dr Samuel Johnson’s 1758 essay entitled Of the Duty of a Journalist, from which I learned that the issue of “fake news” is nothing new. The names of Jim’s two convict friends I discovered in contemporary documents when visiting the Malaysian Prison Museum in Melaka. I have used the contemporary spellings of places and certain Malay words in Light’s time, although these varied widely.

© Photo courtesy of Beng Lim | Sunset, Kuala Sungai, Pulau Pinang

Because Lies that Blind is fiction inspired by historical events, I have taken certain liberties with the ‘truth’. Nakhoda Kechil (Tuan Ismail) was the Malay headman during Francis Light’s time on Penang but since we know very little about him I based his character—including his tendency to use old Malay sayings—on Munshi Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, whose fascinating autobiography was published in 1849. Francis Light and Martinha Rozells had five children in total but I ignored Mary Light, born between William and ‘Lanoon’, and fudged William’s age, since he would have been barely three years old when Jim arrives on Penang. Sadly, there exist no pictures of Francis Light, other than the tiny figure drawn by Elisha Trapaud in his illustration of Penang’s “christening” as Prince of Wales Island. Thankfully, Miss Anna Davis, en route to Macau with her friend Mrs. Beal, wrote letters to her sister that include the description of Light I used.

As pupils, Light and his friend, James Lynn, did scratch their names on a window at Woodbridge Free School. You can see that picture on page 260 of Lies That Blind*.

Any misinterpretation of historical events, or other factual errors, while greatly regretted, are mine alone and were undoubtedly undertaken to aid the story I wanted to tell.


January 2021

* DISCLOSURE: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


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