Who was James Burke? by Tom Williams

Who was James Burke? by Tom Williams

Endeavour are just publishing my books about James Burke, a spy for Britain during the Napoleonic wars.

James Burke was a real person. He was born in 1771 and, lacking the money he needed to buy a commission in the British Army, he went off and fought for the French. Britain and France weren’t at war at the time, so this was seen as a perfectly respectable thing to do. This changed when hostilities broke out between the two countries and in 1793 he found himself fighting against his own king in Sainte Domingue, on what we now call the island of Haiti.

Burke’s regiment, made up mainly of British subjects, surrendered en masse and simply changed their uniforms and kept on fighting, but on the opposite side. Burke, however, seems to have been detached from his regiment and used for intelligence work. It’s not at all clear what he did next (he was a spy, after all) but he turns up again in Argentina preparing the way for the British invasion of 1806.

The British invasion of Buenos Aires is one of those incidents that have got forgotten about over the past 200 years – possibly because, after initial success, it all went horribly wrong. It could have given Britain a valuable foothold in South America, but we were forced into ignominious retreat. (Twice, actually, but only once in my book.). The operation was, as we say nowadays, intelligence led and James Burke was certainly important in planning the attack, which is a key moment in the first Burke book, Burke in the Land of Silver. His adventures definitely weren’t confined to Argentina, though, or to purely military matters. He crossed the Andes to explore what are now Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. He seduced a princess (or, more likely, she seduced him) in Brazil and, back in Europe, he had an affair with the Queen of Spain. People got around more at the beginning of the 19th century than we give them credit for.

We know that Burke remained on the Army List and his peculiar pattern of promotion and movement between regiments suggests that he continued to work mainly in intelligence. Sadly, we don’t know exactly where he was or what he was doing, so in the later James Burke books I use my imagination, putting this real character in actual historical situations, but giving him completely fictional adventures. The first of the stories which is more imagination than reality as far as Burke goes is Burke and the Bedouin. Unlike his adventures in the Land of Silver, what Burke does in Egypt is a product of my imagination but the events around him are very definitely real. Burke’s activities do go some way to explain some of the unanswered questions of history. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, why did he not order the invasion fleet out to sea once his troops were safely landed? Was there, as some people have suggested, an order given for the ships to sail which somehow failed to reach the admiral? Perhaps James Burke was there and it was his doing that the French fleet waited in an exposed anchorage until Nelson annihilated them at the Battle of the Nile. We will never know the truth of that strategic failure, which doomed Napoleon’s attempt to capture Egypt for France, but perhaps James Burke was responsible for it.

James Burke is an ideal subject for a historical author – a shadowy character who lived in the margins of real historical events. I hope you enjoy reading about him as much as I’ve enjoyed writing him.

Start your adventures with the first instalment of the James Burke series, Burke in the Land of Silver, HERE!