Emperor of Dust: Jonathan Spencer Interview

Jonathan Spencer

The author of the Hazzard series chatted with us about the historical inspiration behind series and his latest novel.
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Jonathan Spencer, your Hazzard series of novels begins in 1798, at the height of the Revolutionary Wars – why pick this period which isn’t as well known to British readers as the Peninsular War and the Hundred Days campaign?

In a way, the period and setting picked me – after my work on the history of the Rosetta Stone I became captivated by the story of the expedition and campaign – the discoveries, the characters, the Battle of the Pyramids and of course the Battle of the Nile – all of it was larger than life, with some of history’s greatest names, and a generally unknown window into Egypt’s more recent past.

Was there a figure in history who inspired your hero, William John Hazzard?

The gentleman scholar and amateur Egyptologist William John Bankes did lend his first names to the cause, but Hazzard has been compared to the hot-headed and unruly Thomas Cochrane, and even Cockburn, who later sacked Washington. But neither of these is the mistrustful outsider that Hazzard so easily became in my mind.

William John Bankes (1786-1855)

Your Hazzard series has been described as ‘better than Sharpe’. I suspect you’ll back your man, but given we’ve got a new Sharpe out, please forgive us for asking: who would win in a fight, 1799 Hazzard or 1815 Sharpe?

I’m a great fan of Sharpe – ironically, my father and many of his side of the family were in the Greenjackets, in the 60th Rifles, and not the marines. But yes I’d have to give it to Hazzard, the master of sword. I’ve fenced sabre for some twenty-odd years, both toe-to-toe and the modern variant: sabre requires explosive speed and accuracy, assaults lasting mere fractions of a second – ideal for the intemperate William John. Although Hazzard is no crackshot, (he often misses through impatience), Sharpe was likewise never trained in the sword – as he once said himself, in his hands it was a brutish thing, a butcher’s tool.

Hazzard encounters a pandemic in Cairo – as well as the historical basis, was our own recent experience why you included this element?

It was an extraordinary coincidence that today’s events echoed those of Egypt in 1798. The bubonic plague was an important factor in the failure of Bonaparte’s Syrian campaign – its terrors had to play a role in Emperor of Dust. The fear all about us was palpable as I wrote, sitting in Cape Town, under a curfew enforced by paramilitary police who were at times utterly out of control – it wasn’t difficult to identify with an 18th century world where measures were harsh and brutal, and the deadliest of known diseases was silent, imperceptible, and horribly fatal.

Sir William Sidney Smith, by John Eckstein

Emperor of Dust is set during the siege of Acre, when HMS Tigre’s crew distinguished themselves. Its captain, Sir William Sidney Smith, most prominent among them. His painting by John Eckstein is one of a dashing naval officer bravely urging his men to attack – is this a good example of a painting accurately capturing its subject’s character?

Sir William Sidney Smith was too large a character even for Eckstein’s canvas, but that wry, devil-may-care expression is absolutely true to life. He was possibly the best-loved naval hero of the age, more so even than Nelson. Dashing, witty and popular, the army and the navy used to wrangle over who would have him to dine (Nelson resented him – much as others resented Nelson).

Smith had also been a spy, captured by the French for espionage, with John Wright, whom he made his First Officer on the Tigre. The stories of Smith are legend – and they’re all true. Imagine a cross between Bond, Hornblower and Douglas Fairbanks, and that’s Smith.

He reinforced HMS Tigre, adding a new layer of cannon and sundry gadgets – in Emperor of Dust I credit the Tigre with being a mobile Intelligence HQ, armed to the teeth. Acre was Smith’s greatest achievement: though this is not to play down the courage of the Turks, especially the Nizam-i Çedid, who simply refused to yield. But through the marines at Smith’s command he saved the Levant, and earned the enduring wrath of Napoleon in his memoirs, who called him a ‘thorn in his side’. I’m quite sure Sir Sidney was delighted to have been of such service.

After this campaign, Napoleon uttered that had he taken Acre, the victory would have led him to further campaigns in the Middle East, and battles that would have emulated Alexander the Great’s conquests. He seemed to hold Smith responsible, but was he deluded or were these conquests realistic?

Bonaparte before the Sphinx, by Gerome

I believe Bonaparte meant every word – he suffered the ‘folie de grandeur’, and thrilled at the thought of Oriental majesty, for Europe was but ‘a molehill’. He foresaw his own troops as a devoted elite, his ‘Sacred Battalions’, (like the Persian Immortals) in Turkish uniform, the hordes flocking to his banner as he marched in glory to India. He was a student of Caesar and Alexander, and knew that if the Ottoman Empire collapsed, he could theoretically step in and seize the throne, spreading his conquest eastward, absorbing peoples as he went, just as Alexander and the Romans had done. What is difficult for us to grasp is that it was not entirely impossible – but Smith stopped him dead at Acre. Had it not been for Smith and Captain Ralph Miller of HMS Theseus, European history might well have played out very differently.

The marines during this period were a relatively recent innovation – how enjoyable has it been researching them?

It was actually quite difficult – much of the information we have on the marines is from post-1802 and their elevation to Royal status – but we have little on these last days of the turn of the century. It made me return to first principles as an historian. I had to use prime-source diaries and memoirs for the most part, and it was strangely heartening: one comes away with a sense of extraordinary mutual respect, between both the ship’s crew and their marines, and between marine officers, sergeants and their men.

Where will Hazzard be campaigning next?

The action will take us from the Delta to Naples and Constantinople – among more backroom politics and Admiralty in-fighting, Sidney Smith and Hazzard uncover a plot to assassinate the great General Kléber, the peace talks hanging in the balance – just as Yussuf Pasha and an army of 80,000 Turks reaches Heliopolis and prepares to attack Cairo. Hazzard Book 4 is already in the planning stages, and will be with us shortly.

Jonathan Spencer is the author of Emperor of Dust, the third, and latest, in the William John Hazzard series, published by Canelo. You can read our review of Emperor of Dustand Jonathan’s article on the Night Raid on Haifa.