If ever one needed reassurance that 'truth can be stranger than fiction', then you need only read David Sunderland's account of one of the more bizarre instances of imperial intrigue from the high period of Victorian Imperialism. In the aftermath, the story was portrayed as one of masculine derring-do in the pursuit of Imperial glory, with the lead protagonists even being interred in the great pantheon of imperial martyrs at St. Paul's Cathedral between Nelson and Wellington! In reality, it seems as if it were more a catalogue of miscalculations, misunderstandings, greed and corruption mixed together with occasional glimpses of honour and self-sacrifice. In short, this book tells the story of an undercover operation that had the Victorian equivalent of spin-doctoring applied to it in order to cover up the original intentions and sideline the bumbling incompetence and competing deviousness that saw it come to grief.
The book actually tells the story of a series of expeditions in and across the Sinai peninsula during the upheavals of the Anglo-Egyptian War in the early years of the 1880s. The British were attempting to ascertain the loyalty of Bedouin tribes in and around the Suez Canal during the 'Colonel's Uprising' led by Arabi Pasha against the Anglo-French backed Khedive of Egypt. The British chose the Arabic scholar, Henry Palmer, to front attempts to communicate with Bedouin Sheikhs in Sinai and establish if they would remain loyal to the Khedive or at least ascertain how much it would cost to buy that loyalty. The Suez Canal had been operating for just over a decade and had already proved to be vitally important to Britain's strategic imperial communications systems. They did not want to take any risks in losing control of the canal. Palmer had previously worked for the interesting 'Palestinian Exploration Fund' which had been established to try and prove the provenance of The Bible through archaeology in the Near East. This provided the perfect cover story, or at least it may have, if Henry Palmer had not decided to invent his own cover stories and broadcast his movements so brazenly to so many before he had even left England! It also did not help that he decided to change his orders from the Admiralty by attempting to negotiate with a single Sheikh, or rather just a surrogate of his, instead of contacting as many local leaders as possible. He did at least make it across the Peninsula in one piece on this occasion which allowed him to set up his second, more fatal, expedition. There then occurred a whole series of mini expeditions to try and discover the fate of Palmer's second expedition and bring to justice those who may have been involved in his mysterious disappearance.
It should be said that the cast of characters in this book simply could not have been invented if it were a work of fiction. They are unbelievably eclectic and varied in their interests, histories and abilities. If an author were to submit to his editor that his lead character - in addition to being a Cambridge scholar - was also a lawyer, a journalist, a hypnotist, a mesmerist, a conjuror, a spiritualist, a gambler, a ventriloquist and an escapologist he might be told that this was beyond believability and to reign in this particular character's traits. And yet, Henry Palmer was all this and much much more. In fact, many of the other characters also had fascinating back stories and accomplished some astonishing feats across the length and breadth of the Empire and beyond before becoming entangled in the sordid events surrounding these expeditions. Some of the characters passed into legend in their own right, particularly Richard Burton, but others like William Gill certainly should have their exploits more widely known than they are. It is the pen portraits of lesser known imperial characters that is a real strength to the book. It helps cast light on fascinating imperial figures with all their flaws and their sometimes heroic exploits and helps take the reader to all corners of the Empire following the careers of the dramatis personae.
The book is also good at casting light on the Empire of the 1880s. Little asides like the description of Greek market gardens in the town of Moses Well at the foot of the Suez Canal or the changing economy of the Sinai Peninsula as Bedouin guides were losing their livelihoods to the ships of the canal that no longer required their expert services are the kinds of detail that often escape more narrative and more traditional histories. You also gain an appreciation on the importance of camels to the society and economy of the region - little could be achieved without these hardy beasts of burden being available - and this very lack of availibility often caused serious difficulties for the expeditions discussed. Of course, the book also gives an overview of the Anglo-Egyptian War and the political events that led to the conflict that necessitated Palmer's expeditions in the first place. In essence the book tells the story of a part of the world in transition as the global economic and strategic spotlight shone more brightly on the region than it had for many years previously. In many ways the book is a story of a clash of civilisations as the ethics and values of the Bedouin was simply beyond the comprehension of many of the British that were finding themselves having to operate in this alien culture and its harsh geography and climate. It was even beyond the comprehension of Arabists like Palmer who thought that he understood the Bedouin better than he actually did!
At heart though, this book is about a tragedy born from a comedy of errors. Too many of the protagonists had their own complicated agendas which clashed with other competing schemes and created an unbelievably complicated mess for the investigators to try and unpick and get to the bottom of. In many ways it was surprising that the investigators were as successful as they were given the complexity of the agents involved and how deeply they were ingrained into the investigatory process at various times. You really do have to read the book for yourself to gain a grasp of just how complicated the process became and how duplicity, errors and political intrigue only magnified the difficulties. I said at the beginning that 'truth can be stranger than fiction' and after reading this book, I am sure you will come to the same conclusion!