SEAFLOWER and CARIBBEE
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More than a decade ago, in SEAFLOWER, Thomas Kydd and Nicholas Renzi were in the Caribbean as sailors before the mast in an old line-of-battle ship. Now, in CARIBBEE, Kydd, a storied hero of Trafalgar, holds the glory of being post-captain of a 32-gun frigate.
Kathy and I had over three weeks in the Caribbean on location research for SEAFLOWER and I knew Kydd would be returning there at some point in his career. We took hundreds of photographs and extensive notes – so I wasn’t short of material for CARIBBEE. I also have a full set of Navy electronic navigation charts of those waters.
I can only speak for myself as a writer, but I feel it’s necessary, wherever possible, to visit the locales I write about to really get a visceral feel of a place and how it would have been two hundred years ago. There are also the small things – the colours, smells and sounds which you just can’t get from travel books.
On our Caribbean location research we studied in depth four countries – Jamaica, Antigua, Guadeloupe and Barbados.
In Kydd’s time, the British Navy’s presence was broadly divided into the Leeward Squadron (whose main role was protecting the sugar islands against the French) and the Jamaica Squadron (who concentrated on anti-piracy and countering the Spanish).
The Leeward Island Squadron used the dockyard facilities at Antigua and St. Johns, to the north of the island, as an administrative base. Watering was mainly done in Barbados, which was handily upwind of everywhere.
After a long flight from the UK we landed in Jamaica and first based ourselves at Strawberry Hill in the Blue Mountains, making the 15 mile trip down to various research facilities in Kingston each day (on a very precipitous, narrow road).
Henry Morgan’s Port Royal (reputedly once the wickedest city on earth) slid into the sea a century before Kydd arrived, but the bones of the dockyard still exist near Kingston.
One of the interesting side trips I did was to the mountain hideaway of Ian Fleming, where he wrote “Dr No”.
Then we took a light aircraft to Antigua, and set off for English Harbour, a fascinating Georgian dockyard that Kydd worked in, and an important careenage in the eighteenth century.
Next stop was Guadeloupe, gathering background on the French presence, then it was off to Barbados, a colony they say was more English than England in the eighteenth century!
Many months before we leave on such trips Kathy and I work out, in a general sense, what material we need, what things to see, who to contact. Then she sets about lining up appointments, checking museum opening times and hiring translators if necessary.
Once we arrive in a location, the first stop is always the museums and libraries, plus historical studies departments of the university, and any other local experts we have identified. We also spend some time getting a feel of the place, especially in terms of local food, customs etc.
Quite often, one research lead will point us in the direction of another. As well as being planned, you have to be quite flexible. For example, we tracked down one eminent academic in the middle of an eighteenth century archaeology dig in the field! It is from people such as these that you get the real insights and local colour that you just can’t get any other way.
There were many highlights of the trip. Among the special moments – setting up deckchairs at the edge of the ocean at the end of a long day and just watching the glorious sunset; looking out across the bay at Antigua to the angry, spuming steam of the Montserrat volcano, not more than ten miles away; and being an old Navy man, of course visiting Mount Gay Distilleries, the world’s oldest rum distillery!
The Caribbean islands have an incredible variety of culinary delights. The cuisine was definitely a wake-up call for Kydd’s and Renzi’s tastebuds after their plain ship-board fare. There’s callalloo (a sort of spinach, popular at breakfast with green banana); black crab pepperpot (pepperpot is thought to have arrived from South America with the Amerindians; it’s a delicious, spicy stew) and sangaree (a refreshing long drink made with madeira, sugar, water and grated nutmeg on top). There’s also ackee, really a fruit but eaten as a vegetable and resembling scrambled egg in appearance; bammy (a local bread) and jerk hog.
Rum production was well underway in the Caribbean by 1703, plenty of time to perfect this for rum punch recipe:
One of sour (lemon or lime juice)
Two of sweet (sugar or syrup)
Three of strong (dark rum)
Four of weak (water)
Grated nutmeg to taste
Serve well chilled with plenty of ice! But be warned; they’re quite addictive…
CARIBBEE is published next month, in hardback and ebook format