Today I’m delighted to be sharing an excerpt from E.S. Alexander’s newly released novel Lies That Blind as part of a blog tour hosted by The Coffee Pot Book Club. Lies That Blind is a novel of late 18th century Penang.
Jim Lloyd, has just arrived on the island of Penang to begin work for his new employer, Captain Francis Light, the island’s superintendent.
George Town, Penang. Wednesday, 7th January 1789.
Captain Light announced that we had arrived at my lodgings, and that he would speak first with the Chinese owner, a relative of their headman or ‘Kapitan China’, Koh Lay Huan. My face sank in disappointment. I had not expected to lodge with Captain Light, of course, nor did I wish to stay in the barracks with a bunch of unruly sepoys, but I would not have chosen to live among the Chinese whose language I did not know and who, from my experience of the ones who lived among us in Calcutta, were rather too fond of setting off firecrackers for no good reason, and whose constant burning of incense I did not like.
My new employer disappeared around a corner where I heard the knocking of knuckles on wood, some brisk chatter, followed swiftly by the closing of a door. When Light reappeared, he was scowling. “It seems word did not get passed to the right people after all. I suggest you wait here, Jim, while I seek out the Chinese towkay to resolve this.”
“Captain Light?” I said, before he had a chance to stride off. “Might it be possible to lodge in Malay Town since the Chinese landlord appears not to be expecting me?”
Light looked startled. “Whyever would you wish to do that?”
I shuffled my feet and looked down with some embarrassment. “After arriving in India, I became fascinated by the history of the Mughal Empire, whose bloodline I have come to learn goes back to Jenghiz Khan.”
“Malays are not related to the Mughals,” snapped Light.
“Yes, sir, I am aware of that. But both groups are Mohammedans and I wish to understand that religion and culture better. I had hoped that residing here would afford me such an opportunity as well as help to improve my Malay. Not least since we will presumably be in constant communication with the sultan and his wakils.”
Light made a scoffing sound and pointed out that there was a difference between the language written and spoken in the court and that used by the rakyat in the streets. I replied that knowing everyday Malay would still give me an advantage with Penang’s local population.
“You realize you are asking to reside among pirates, Jim,” barked Light.
“I did not think that would be the case,” I responded with more of an edge to my voice than I had intended. Why was this so difficult for him to understand?
“Then allow me to offer some background that will change your mind.” Light sighed. “The Malays may be divided into two orders: those who are inoffensive and easily ruled but capable of no great exertion beyond planting paddy, sugar cane, and a few fruit trees for which no great labour is required. Then there are those who skulk in rivers and bays in their prahus, watching for the unwary trader whose goods they plunder. Addicted to smoking opium, gaming, and other vices, they spend their whole time in sloth and indolence, only rousing themselves when an opportunity presents itself to rob and assassinate with abandon.” Light barely took a breath before continuing. “The feudal government of the Malays encourages these pirates, since every chief is desirous of procuring these desperate fellows to bring him plunder and execute his revengeful purposes.”
Like a court prosecutor confident that his summation would return a guilty verdict, Captain Light looked at me, but obviously did not expect this reply: “I am still interested to live among the Malays, sir, if the additional distance to their township would not cause you too much extra exertion.”
Light’s face appeared to darken as if a rain cloud had singled him out. His eyes narrowed and his voice seemed to chill the surrounding air. “I already have three sets of antagonists: Sultan Abdullah of Queda grows increasingly impatient over the treaty we had expected by now would be ratified by London and Bengal; Lord Cornwallis, whose notorious parsimony prevents me from investing in further benefits to this new settlement and appears ignorant of the fact that a rising settlement cannot be expected to yield much profit; and our European enemies, the Dutch, who eye my success here with increasing jealousy and hatred.
“I should not venture to trust myself alone with the Malays, on account of their treacherous nature. But I am beleaguered enough without battling you over where you choose to lodge. Should you decide to ignore my expert opinion, that is up to you. Just be sure you arrive promptly at Fort Cornwallis tomorrow morning.” And with that, Francis Light turned on his heels and hurried off.
Had it not been for my surprise at Light’s explosive reaction I might have bolted after him to say that I would lodge with the Chinese after all. But I became as rooted to the spot as a tree. I imagined the captain was tired and had not wished to walk further on to Malay Town so watched him grow more miniscule with each lengthening stride.
Disappointed at this inauspicious start to my employment, I determined to apply myself with the utmost energy and diligence so that I might demonstrate my value to Penang’s superintendent the very next day. I truly desired to be helpful to Captain Light but should never forget that he needed me just as much as I needed him. After all, I had just freed myself from the yoke of one oppressor who sought to constrain my personal liberty, I did not need to substitute Father with Captain Francis Light.
With that thought, I turned heel myself and made towards Malay Town, confident that I had sufficient language to make myself understood and enough money to pay for a bed and food. As I grew closer to the kampong, past a smattering of fierce-looking Armenians, I began to doubt the wisdom of my stubbornness. If Light was right about the piratical Malays, I might end up with my throat cut before morning.
What would you risk to avoid obscurity?
Aspiring journalist Jim Lloyd jeopardises his future in ways he never could have imagined. He risks his wealthy father’s wrath to ride the coat-tails of Captain Francis Light, an adventurer governing the East India Company’s new trading settlement on Penang. Once arrived on the island, Jim—as Light’s assistant—hopes that chronicling his employer’s achievements will propel them both to enduring fame. But the naïve young man soon discovers that years of deception and double-dealing have strained relations between Light and Penang’s legal owner, Sultan Abdullah of Queda, almost to the point of war. Tensions mount: Pirate activity escalates, traders complain about Light’s monopolies, and inhabitants threaten to flee, fearing a battle the fledgling settlement cannot hope to win against the Malays. Jim realises that a shared obsession with renown has brought him andLight perilously close to infamy: a fate the younger man, at least, fears more than death. Yet Jim will not leave Penang because of his dedication to Light’s young son, William, and his perplexing attraction to a mercurial Dutchman. He must stay and confront his own misguided ambitions as well as help save the legacy of a man he has come to despise.
Inspired by true events, Lies That Blind is a story featuring historical character Francis Light (1740-1794) who, in an effort to defy his mortality, was seemingly willing to put the lives and livelihoods of a thousand souls on Penang at risk.
E.S. Alexander was born in St. Andrews, Scotland in 1954, although her family moved to England a few years later. Her earliest memories include producing a newspaper with the John Bull printing set she was given one Christmas. She wrote and directed her first play, Osiris, at age 16, performed to an audience of parents, teachers, and pupils by the Lower Fifth Drama Society at her school in Bolton, Lancashire. Early on in her writing career, Liz wrote several short stories featuring ‘The Dover Street Sleuth’, Dixon Hawke for a D.C. Thomson newspaper in Scotland. Several of her (undoubtedly cringe-worthy) teenage poems were published in An Anthology of Verse.
Liz combined several decades as a freelance journalist writing for UK magazines and newspapers ranging from British Airway’s Business Life and the Daily Mail, to Marie Claire and Supply Chain Management magazine, with a brief stint as a presenter/reporter for various radio stations and television channels, including the BBC. In 2001 she moved to the United States where she earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in educational psychology from The University of Texas at Austin.
She has written and co-authored 17 internationally published, award-winning non-fiction books that have been translated into more than 20 languages.
In 2017, Liz relocated to Malaysia. She lives in Tanjung Bungah, Pulau Pinang where she was inspired to embark on one of the few forms of writing left for her to tackle: the novel.
Book Title: Lies That Blind
Author: E.S. Alexander
Publication Date: 19th October 2021
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Page Length: 304 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction