At around 4am, on April 11th 2011, unable to sleep, tossing and turning in bed, I got up, put the kettle on and grabbed an old school exercise book and a pen. On the top of the first page, I wrote the date, then the title, ‘Imperial’, then started writing down what had been slowly fermenting in my head for weeks, months, possibly years: the story of Captain David ‘Jefferson’ Davies.
Even though he was born in 1848 and died in 1914, the person I had imagined into being was, by that point, as real to me as any of my immediate family. His looks, his nature, his way of walking, his mannerisms had all taken shape in the course of almost twenty years’ research. To the extent that Captain David ‘Jefferson’ Davies was known to us children at all, he was always referred to as ‘Captain Jeff’. An image of him had hung on the wall of my grandfather’s workshop, although we hadn’t paid too much notice. We knew he was an uncle from a long time in the past. We knew he’d been born near Cardigan and that he’d been a sailor, like so many in our family had been. We knew he’d sailed a ship called the Imperial and that he’d somehow been involved in a civil war in Chile. We knew he’d retired back to Cardigan sometime before the outbreak of the First World War.
There were exotic stories too, handed down. My grandmother remembered seeing him sprawled in a ditch as she was on her way to Sunday school. According to her, he would routinely fail to make it home at night because he drank too much in Cardigan’s Black Lion. No, no, he suffered from bouts of malaria, responded a more sympathetic aunt. Can you catch malaria in Ferwig, we queried? He drank so much that he cried for a woman he’d left behind in Chile, said some. When he drank even more, he sang entire rounds of Spanish songs and cried again in sorrow, they said. Or hiraeth. Who knew? Yet, he’d captained what looked to me like a seriously impressive ship. All those sharp-tongued sailors and brawny engineers – managing a crew like that would have taken some guts. And skill, surely? And hadn’t he won some medal for his part in the war? He couldn’t have been just a plain old drunk. He must have been more than a layabout? My quietly spoken chapel-going grandfather idolised him. Why? Who was the star of these wildly contradictory stories? Was he all of these characters? Or none? He fascinated me.
My mother was a talented genealogist. Her memory for dates of births, deaths and marriages was second to none. Armed with her scaffolding of basic facts and place names, I set out to fill in the gaps and discover more about who he was and what he’d really got up to in Chile. Why had he adopted the name ‘Jefferson’ and why had a merchant sailor got involved in a war that had nothing to do with him on the other side of the world? I had no intention whatsoever of writing a book. I just wanted to know more about someone who had the same genes as me.
I wish I could convey the excitement of historical research. Does the thought of sitting in an ancient library surrounded by leather-bound records fill you with dread? I was lucky enough to start my research before Lloyd’s Register of Shipping was digitized. On my first visit to the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I was thrilled to be able to turn the pages of those huge volumes with my very own hands, and marvel at my uncle’s name recorded in the loops and twirls of an elegant Victorian script.
Everything came alive with the smell of those century and a half old pages. I saw the person who wrote the record, the room they were in, what they were wearing, the time of day. Queen Victoria was on the throne when that ink was drying. I felt like an archaeologist who scrapes back dirt to find the first signs of a golden torque. They’re not gasping because they’ve found gold. They’re holding their faces in awe because what they can see in the mud is a doorway opening, right in front of them, transporting them backwards in time, to the touch of the person who laid the precious object in the earth and whose breath warmed it for the very last time.
I was hooked. Each time I found new evidence of my uncle’s ships or records of a voyage I hadn’t known about, I felt like a character in my very own adventure. I was a scout on a forgotten trail, picking up evidence here and there, piecing a life back together, making sense of the clues he’d left behind, making him breathe, seeing the world through his eyes.
Eventually, I had reams and reams of information. What was I going to do with it all? I couldn’t talk about him forever. My friends and family had started glazing over. I could see them thinking, ‘Oh, no, not again’. But I couldn’t let him languish in my lever arch files. I’d resurrected him. I couldn’t bury him again without letting him have his moment in the sun. Someone needed to write a book. Gradually, I realised no one else was going to do it. That ‘someone’ had to be me.
Were you always taught to finish what you started? Finish your food. Finish your homework. If I start something I have to see it through. It’s a good trait, mostly. When I put pen to paper that day, I knew I’d started something that I wouldn’t be able to abandon half done. I had to be in it for the long haul. There’s no way out of obsession except through. ‘Through’ over 100,000 words to be exact.
I was working and had family responsibilities so it took me three years of writing, often at four in the morning when no one else was around. Did he drink? Undoubtedly. Did he lie in a ditch? Quite probably. Did he cry for a woman he’d left behind in Chile? Almost certainly. He was also a charismatic leader, a passionate man who stayed faithful to his men in the direst circumstances. He led them safely through a series of events that could so easily have proved fatal for them all.
The very word ‘imperial’ has so many negative connotations today. Without realising that the name refers to an actual ship, some have interpreted the title as a celebration of Imperialism itself and all the bad things that went with it. The truth is far more interesting and complex than that.
Aside from any possible literary merit, am I pleased I did it? Of course. I brought a dead man back to life. At the very least, I’m immensely glad about that.
Rhiannon Lewis’s debut novel, My Beautiful Imperial, was published by Victorina Press in December 2017. In March 2018, it was listed by the Walter Scott Prize Academy as one of its recommended books, alongside established authors including, amongst others, John Banville, Neal Ascherson and Marcel Theroux.