I decided to write Secret of the Sands on a whim. An archivist at the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh showed me three letters from a Murray author – James Raymond Wellsted. Wellsted was a lieutenant in the Indian Navy and travelled extensively around the Arabian Peninsula in the 1830s, while the Indian Navy was employed in surveying the region. In the post-Bonaparte era, Britain was still licking her wounds after losing several ships to a lack of good charts during wartime. In addition, the French were strong in Egypt, which made Britain extremely interested in nearby nations to promote what they considered 'balance in the region'. None of this was what originally grabbed me, of course. Wellsted's voice was fresh and the accounts of his time on the Peninsula were unencumbered by prejudice. In his letters to Murray he sounded almost breathless – like a schoolboy. I went on to read the books that he wrote and again, in a more tempered form, there was that voice – naïve, enthusiastic and open-minded. In particular, there were a couple of intriguing sentences – mentions that made me sit up and take note, not of the actual historical detail, but of ideas that were coming to me. In particular, Wellsted mentioned a slave girl called Zena. Zena was Abyssinian (current day Ethiopia and Eritrea). She was young. And Wellsted spoke to her - in fact, Zena told Wellsted about her Abyssinian home. A few weeks into their journey (for Wellsted travelled disguised as a slave trader) Zena was stolen from his caravan and he never saw the girl again.
I'm accustomed to reading Georgian and Victorian letters and diaries and sometimes you simply know in your gut that a blithe sentence is covering up deeper emotion. In my view Wellsted wouldn't have mentioned Zena if she hadn't been important to him. I felt he'd completely understated how important. I decided that it was Zena who would be my female lead. So I went on and I researched William Wilberforce and the Abolitionists and read the accounts of freed slaves from the period. British history focuses heavily on the slaves of the Middle Passage. When you visit the Slavery Museum in Liverpool, for example, no mention is made of the flourishing slave trade in the opposite direction. But Arab and Turkish slave traders ferried their human cargo around India and Ceylon and all over the Gulf and for those poor souls the conditions were no less appalling than the Ghana to Jamaica route westwards. I decided to make up two Arab slave traders to complete the 'character square' I was creating - Wellsted, Zena, Kasim and Ibn Mohammed.
Then I went to London on a research trip and in between one archive and another I ended up in the offices of Anti-Slavery International. To my mind this was an historical problem, not a current one, but I thought they might have information from the period. I had been researching William Wilberforce and his acolytes and reading up on the legislation that was drafted in the 1830s. When I walked through the door into the office, I realized I was completely naïve. If anything the problems of what we call human trafficking today (rather than slavery) are more acute than at any time before. The route that Zena had taken from Abyssinia to Oman (where Wellsted bought her) is still open – in fact the Arabian Peninsula is one of the world's slavery blackspots to this day. Now the issues are around indentured labour – naïve economic migrants, the poor of eastern Africa, are tempted to make the trip of their own free will by unscrupulous agents who offer them employment in decent conditions. When they arrive in Oman or Dubai or Saudi Arabia or Yemen, their passports are confiscated and they are locked up, treated every bit as much as human vermin as the poor souls who undertook the middle passage in the 1800s. Anti-Slavery International had accounts and pictures. I was horrified.
After London I headed northwards to the Wigtown Book Festival. I was talking about a previous novel there – The Secret Mandarin set in 1840s China – but the questions from the audience came round to the more general subject of history. I was asked about how morally wrong I felt the British Empire was and if personally I suffered from post-Colonial guilt. My mother is Jewish and my father is Catholic, I quipped; there is no form of guilt from which I do not suffer. The audience laughed and I went on to talk about 'standards of the day' and imposing present-day morality on to historical figures. On reflection, what I should have said is that many of our forbears may have ignored the suffering of others. It seems unbelievable to us now that children as young as five worked full days in cloth factories in the most evil conditions or that 200 souls might be crammed aboard a sailing ship and starved and beaten all the way across the Atlantic. That it took so long for anyone to say or do anything about it is shameful. But today we, as a society, are just as bad, if not worse. Most people don't think about indentured labour in the Far East; until recently I certainly didn't. I would often shop in supermarkets or discount stores for clothes that were almost certainly produced in conditions at least as grim as those in early-Victorian Manchester. We are today in a far better position than our forbears to be informed – which is more than can be said of the Georgian and early Victorian middle classes. In fact, as soon as information was generally available the changes were relatively rapid. Today you can watch YouTube videos of the abuse and read government reports readily available online. The question shouldn't be 'are we guilty about our Colonial past'; it should be 'why aren't we more guilty about our corporate present'?
As a novelist it is my job to tell stories that inspire and entertain but I am increasingly mindful that many of these historical tales (which of themselves are fascinating) relate directly to issues in our society today. As I become more experienced I'm learning to keep my eyes open as I look not only backwards in time but also at our world today. (Sara Sheridan)