Bloodthirsty pirates, runaway concubines and many Scots – these are just a few of the colorful characters that populate the pages of Singapore Saga, an ambitious new series of novels that will cover 100 years of Singapore’s early history.
The series, by Scottish professor John D. Greenwood, comes out ahead of Singapore’s bicentennial celebrations next year, with its first volume Forbidden Hill beginning with the arrival of the British on the island.
The celebrations, announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his New Years message on December 31, 2017, mark the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ landing in 1819.
It is the first work of fiction by Greenwood, a professor of philosophy and psychology who spent more than a decade in Singapore teaching at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He is now at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Greenwood, 65, had the idea to write a book on the history of Singapore in 2000. A Scottish friend gave him back his copy of Edward Rutherfurd’s epic novel, London – which traces the history of London back to 54. av. pointed out that someone should write a similar book on Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Greenwood replied that someone should write a similar book on Singapore. He was so fascinated by the idea that he couldn’t sleep that night and found himself at 2 a.m. writing a story about a shipwrecked Chinese street opera singer. on the island that will become Singapore and save a Malay fisherman from vicious pirates. They get married and later witness the arrival of Raffles. It became the prologue to the book.
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He intended the book to cover a century from 1819 to 1919, but realized after half a million words that he had only covered about 50 years.
On the advice of another historical novelist, he divided this into three books, the second of which will be released next year and will spread outward to cover events elsewhere that have impacted Singapore, such as the Rebellion of Taiping in China. The entire series should consist of six volumes.
Greenwood was adamant that he would not follow in the footsteps of some of the most sensational historical novels, in which Raffles would do such things as sail up the Singapore River in large ships – which is not geographically possible – and single-handedly defeat an entire pirate. fortresses.
Greenwood, who is married with two children in his thirties, has spent 18 years writing and researching the book, returning regularly to the NUS library to examine microfiches of old newspaper clippings.
“What surprised me was how violent it was,” he says of the old days. Pirates were rampant in the waters around the island and there was plenty of news with reports of a “mad runaway” meaning someone had engaged in a frenzied killing spree in the streets.
He is “full of admiration” for the long road traveled by Singapore towards its bicentennial, but has no desire to glorify the personalities who gave it the kick-off, which he portrays in the book “Verrues et tout. “.
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Raffles, for example, proves to be a man of ideas but unable to carry out many of them, while the friendly Colonel William Farquhar turns a blind eye to slavery and Temenggong Abdul Rahman and Sultan Hussein Shah encourage piracy and keep slaves from their possession.
Greenwood believes that apart from the administration and maintenance of Singapore as a largely free port, the British contributed little to the economic and social development of the colony, unlike the Chinese of Peranakan and Nanyang, the Arabs, the Indians, the Jews. , the Armenians, etc. “They are the ones who invested their money and became the creators of wealth, not the British or the Europeans, a small community doing well but little on the scale of these young Singaporeans.”
Sharing the space with well-known characters from textbooks are a host of fictional characters from all walks of life, from British adventurer Sarah Hemmings to ax assassin Lee Yip Lee and Siti, a slave to the Sultan who orchestrates the escape of 27 women from his harem. The novel is told from the perspective of more than 20 characters.
Greenwood admits he has some trepidation about writing these books as an outsider. If they go up in flames, he adds, he will then try to write a story of his own hometown of Elgin, where Scottish King Macbeth was from (from Shakespeare’s famous but historically inaccurate tragedy) .
“By what right do I have the right to write this story about Singapore? ” he thinks. “I would be perfectly happy if a Singaporean did that, really. But I was driven to do it by my passion for the subject. The best I can do is make sure the books are true to form and that the characters are genuine. “