CHENNAI: Textbooks may make history seem like a fixed, unchanging list of names, events and dates. But truth be told, our knowledge of history is never quite that exact or thorough. Yes, there are many things that we are certain of beyond a reasonable doubt, and those are the bits that usually make it to the textbooks; but they are not always the whole story.
Consider the case of T E Lawrence, or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as he was known. He earned this title because of his extensive liaison work between the British Army and the people of the Middle East, during World War I.
Co-opted by British Army intelligence, he wound up fighting alongside Arab troops against the Ottoman Empire. Coupled with his archaeological interests, a deep knowledge of Arab culture and the ability to fit in and be accepted by the locals, this made him a powerful asset for the British Empire.
His career after the war was less dramatic — he tried to join the Royal Air Force, and succeeded after initially being rebuffed. He was posted to India, but had to return to Britain when his reputation as an intelligence officer resulted in repeated rumours that he was a spy. He pursued a keen interest in high-speed vehicles, including motorboats and motorcycles. It was this passion for motorcycle-riding that proved fatal, and he died as a result of injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash in 1935, just a few months after leaving military service.
What is less well known is that Lawrence was suspected of sympathising with the Arab cause to the extent that he was appalled at how Britain was treating the people of Mesopotamia — now known as Iraq — and other Arab countries. As a matter of fact, many of the British policies for this region, along with the policies of other European powers, especially in light of the oil reserves discovered there, can be seen as laying the foundation for the continuing turmoil in that unfortunate part of the world.
There’s something missing here, though, isn’t there? Such a brilliant man, such an abrupt and pointless death at just 46. Such a dynamic, brilliant and respected man would surely have had a vital role to play in the Second World War, just around the corner. Is there more to his death than we have been told by the history books?
This is how Yves Sente, writer of the Blake and Mortimer adventure series, begins his The Oath of the Five Lords. Working between the gaps of history, he has imagined a conspiracy by British intelligence, spurred by the existence of a manuscript in which Lawrence criticised British policy in the Middle East in great detail.
The heroes of the series are Captain Francis Blake of military intelligence, and his friend Phillip Mortimer, a leading scientist with interests in a range of disciplines apart from science.
When Mortimer is called to address the students at Oxford University, he becomes involved in investigating a series of mysterious thefts at the Ashmolean Museum, a museum with an extensive and eclectic collection, amassed over 300 years.
The thefts seem to focus on only specific items, and not on the most valuable items in the museum. They are carried out so well that an inside hand is suspected. When Blake hears of the robberies, he is inexplicably worried and gets involved in the investigation. This is followed by the sudden death of his old friends at intelligence, and it soon becomes obvious that he and his friends have something to do with all this. Many exciting revelations lie ahead, including the role Blake may have played in Lawrence’s life.
It’s a thrilling story, though I prefer it when the Blake and Mortimer series takes a break from its usual concepts of science fiction to focus on a more mundane adventure like this, or in The Francis Blake Affair.
Best of all, it shows how fascinating history is — with both the things that we do know and the unknown spaces between them.