John Greenwood's 'Forbidden Hill' has pirates, concubines and lost of Scots

  • Books
  • Monday, 05 Mar 2018

Bloodthirsty pirates, runaway concubines and lots of Scots – these are but some of the colourful characters that people the pages of Singapore Saga by Scottish professor John D. Greenwood.  This ambitious new series of novels

will span 100 years of Singapore’s early history.

The series comes out ahead of Singapore’s bicentennial celebrations next year. Its first volume, Forbidden Hill, kicks off with the arrival of the British on the island.

The celebrations were announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his New Year’s Day message on Dec 31, 2017. They mark the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ landing at Singapore in 1819.

A stirring debut

This is the first work of fiction for Greenwood, a professor of philosophy and psychology who spent more than a decade in Singapore lecturing at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He is now at the City University of New York’s graduate centre.

Greenwood, 65, first got the idea to write a book about Singapore’s history in 2000. A Scottish friend was returning his copy of Edward Rutherfurd’s epic novel London, which charts the history of London from 54BCE to 1997, when the book was published. He remarked that somebody should write a similar book about Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Greenwood replied that somebody should write a similar book about Singapore. He was so transfixed by the idea that he could not sleep that night. He found himself up at 2am writing a story about a street opera singer from China, who is shipwrecked on the island that will become Singapore and rescues a Malay fisherman from vicious pirates. They marry and later witness the arrival of Raffles. This went on to become the book’s prologue.

He intended the book to span a century from 1819 to 1919. After half a million words, he realised that he had covered only about 50 years.

On advice from another historical novelist, he broke this up into three books. The second will come out next year. It will ripple outwards to cover events elsewhere that impacted Singapore, such as the Taiping Rebellion in China. The whole series is expected to run to six books.

A devotion to accuracy

Greenwood was adamant that he would not follow in the footsteps of some of the more sensational historical novels out there. There, Raffles would do things such as sail up the Singapore River in big ships – not geographically possible – and single-handedly defeat whole pirate strongholds.

Greenwood is married with two children in their 30s. He spent 18 years writing and researching the book, returning regularly to the NUS library to examine microfiches of old newspaper clippings.

“What surprised me is how violent it was,” he says of the old days, speaking during his recent visit to launch Forbidden Hill.

Pirates were rampant in the waters around the island. The news was rife with reports of “run amok”, which meant someone had gone on a frenzied killing spree in the street.

He is “full of admiration” for the long way Singapore has come to its bicentennial. However, he has no wish to lionise the figures who gave it its start. They are portrayed in his book “warts and all”.

Raffles, for instance, is shown to be a man of ideas but ineffectual at seeing many of them through. The likable Colonel William Farquhar turns a blind eye to slavery. Temenggong Abdul Rahman and Sultan Hussein Shah abet piracy and keep slaves of their own. Greenwood feels that aside from administration and keeping Singapore a largely free port, the British contributed little to the economic and social development of the settlement. This was unlike the Peranakan and Nanyang Chinese, Arabs, Indians, Jews, Armenians and so on.

“They were the ones who invested their money and became the wealth creators. Not the British or Europeans, a small community who did fine by themselves but little on the scale of these fledgling Singaporeans.”

A crowded cast list

Sharing space with well-known figures from textbooks are a multitude of fictional characters from all walks of life. These range from swashbuckling British adventuress Sarah Hemmings to axe-wielding assassin Lee Yip Lee and Siti, a slave of the Sultan’s who helps 27 women escape from his harem. The novel is told from the perspective of more than 20 characters.

Greenwood admits he has some apprehension about writing these books as a foreigner. Should they go down in flames, he adds, he will next try to write a history of his own hometown. This was Elgin, where the Scottish king Macbeth (of the famous but historically inaccurate Shakespeare tragedy) was from.

“What right do I have to write this story about Singapore?” he muses.

“I would be perfectly happy if a Singaporean did it, really. But I was driven to do it by my passion for the subject. The best I can do is to make sure the books are true to form and that the characters are authentic.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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