The Fever Tree first spoke to me on a dark winter's afternoon in the British Library. The hush in the reading room was broken only by the turning of old pages and the soft tapping of keys. I was researching the history of English colonials in South Africa, and amongst the books stacked on my desk was an old canvas- bound diary. The spine creaked as I opened it, and the gilt lamp spilled a pool of light onto its thick yellowing pages. The diary had been written by a doctor at the end of the nineteenth century, and it told the extraordinary story of a smallpox epidemic that had ravaged the diamond-mining town of Kimberley. Extraordinary because reading on it became clear that the epidemic had been covered up by the great statesman Cecil Rhodes to protect his investment in the mines.
The disease raged for over two years, killing thousands of men, women, and children, mostly African laborers. The tragedy was that the epidemic could have been brought under control in just a few months if the doctors had quarantined and vaccinated patients instead of denying its very existence. The doctor writing the diary had fought at great personal risk to bring the epidemic to the attention of the authorities in Cape Town. It was later reported as "the greatest medical scandal in the long and honourable history of British medicine." Dr. Jameson, one of the doctors who was paid to deny the presence of smallpox, went on to become prime minister of the Cape colony, as did Rhodes himself.
I could scarcely believe what I was reading. Cecil Rhodes was a man with vast colonial ambition, but nonetheless a figure generally talked about with respect. He had established the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, an award of immense prestige. Was it possible that he had been responsible for such horrors? If so, how could history have forgotten? The smallpox scandal in Kimberley seemed to lie at the very heart of Britain's exploitation of the resources and people of South Africa under the banner of "civilization." It was a tale of greed and corruption, exemplifying a complete disregard for human life. But it was also a tale of courage. The story gripped me. I couldn't let it go, and, before I knew it, I had begun to work it into the pages of a novel.
The landscape of southern Africa wasn't new to me. A few years previously I had been to Namibia with my boyfriend (now husband). We had rented a Land Rover, filled it with enough food and water to last a few weeks, and set out to drive the length of the country from Swakopmund to the Angola border. We free-camped, and tackled the infamous van Zyl's Pass, vertigo steep and strewn with boulders the size of oxen. We put up our tents on the crocodile-infested Kunene River and lurched into hidden valleys where the Himba still live in their beehive huts, dressed in animal hides, their skin thick with ocher, their lives unchanged for hundreds of years. We saw leopard prints by our fire in the morning, and in a dried- up river valley I touched the carcass of a giraffe hollowed out by drought and burnt to leather.
My residing memory, over and above the staggering beauty of the landscape, was the dust, which found its way into every crevice, coated every surface, and gritted in our teeth. One day towards the end of our journey, we drove past a high wire fence cordoning off a diamond mine, and I remember thinking, What would life have been like for the first Europeans who came to these desolate places to try to profit from the land?
I wanted my lead character, Frances Irvine, to mirror something of my own journey through the wilderness of Namibia and my growing sense of anger, and political enlightenment, as I came to understand the mercenary and often brutal exploitation of South Africa at the hands of the English. But what would drive her to such a place? Would she go willingly or would she be pushed? And what kind of life would await her?
Frances led me down a rabbit warren of research a world of dust, diamonds, and disease. I read political pamphlets from the nineteenth century that discussed the million surplus women living in Britain and the emigration societies which specialized in shipping them out to the colonies to work. I dipped into guidebooks on the Cape published in 1880 and sifted through Victorian women's magazines turning over patterns for embroidered glove boxes and lace cushion covers just as Frances might have done. I delved into manuals on social etiquette, cooking, botany, and what to bring on a hunting expedition to the Transvaal. I found old pictures of Kimberley, which showed women sorting diamonds, camping in the dust and filth of the town alongside their husbands. It wasn't long before Frances emerged, a living, breathing character with a story of her own.
I went back to southern Africa one last time before I began writing The Fever Tree, driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town, over the vast arid plains of the Karoo, a landscape of extraordinary beauty. I spent a few days in Kimberley, and stood giddily on the edge of the Big Hole, the largest handdug diamond mine in the world. But what stayed with me the indelible impression were the quaint little Victorian towns, with their whitewashed Cape Dutch houses, and always on their outskirts the sprawling corrugated townships with their story of apartheid, disease, and poverty. I have traveled to many parts of Asia and Africa and seen disparity and hardship of all kinds, but nowhere has a place seemed as desolate as those I witnessed in South Africa. Here, in the twenty- first century, were the all- too- visible legacies of the English speculators who had mined Africa for a profit. The Fever Tree is my response to that history.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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