The Fever Tree took me down a rabbit warren of research – a world of dust, diamonds and disease. I began with an idea: what was life like for the British on the diamond fields of South Africa? Who were the men and women who went out there? What kind of lives did they lead? And what moral codes were they bound by? My journey started in the British Library, reading books on the history of South Africa in the 19th Century. These were wonderful for giving me a general overview of the period – the politics of the time, and the people who were in power – but they couldn't bring that world to life. I needed real stories about ordinary people. I wanted to know what it smelt like to live in a tent in a diamond mining town, alongside 4,000 Europeans and 10,000 Africans, without sanitation or running water. I wanted to know what it was like to be shipped out to South Africa to work, by an emigration society which specialised in re-locating women. Using the bibliographies of the history books, I tracked down the primary sources from which much of their material was taken. I was drawn into the extraordinary world of the pioneer – men who travelled thousands of miles into the interior of South Africa with little more than the shirts on their backs. There was Barney Barnato, a Jewish boxer from Whitechapel who scraped a living as a comedian, and went on to become one of the richest men on the fields. There were cockney traders, flush with success – lighting cigars with five pound notes; there were men who made little and – after a bad turn at the gambling tables – shot themselves on the veldt. These were the stories which allowed me to see just as my characters would have done over a hundred years ago. I read guide books on the Cape published in 1880 and sifted through women’s magazines from the 1870s - turning over patterns for embroidered glove boxes and lace cushion covers - just as my character Frances might have done. I delved into manuals on social etiquette, cooking, botany, and what to bring on a hunting expedition to the Transvaal. There are books in the British Library which you simply couldn’t find in a lending library. Books that might have had a tiny print run, and aren’t useful to anyone but a handful of historians, which proved priceless for my research.
One afternoon, I was reading about African labour on the diamond fields, when I came across a reference to a smallpox epidemic which had ravaged the diamond mining town of Kimberley in the 1880s. I looked at the notes at the back of the book, and they cited the diary of a doctor called Hans Sauer. I tapped it into the British Library catalogue, and sure enough, they had a copy. In just over an hour Sauer’s diary was sitting on my desk, and it told the extraordinary story of a smallpox outbreak which had been covered up by Cecil Rhodes, the great statesman. The epidemic – which could have been easily contained with vaccination – ended up killing thousands. At the time it was reported as ‘the greatest medical scandal in the long and honourable history of British medicine’, but it has since been forgotten. Two of the doctors who were paid off to deny the presence of smallpox – Jameson and Matthews – went on to become Prime Minister and MP. This shocking story seemed to lie at the very heart of Britain's exploitation of the resources and people of South Africa under the banner of 'civilisation'. Here was a tale of adventure, greed and exploitation, of gambling dens and brothels, of men - one minute a pauper, the next a millionaire – scratching a living on the veldt looking for diamonds. After six months of research, I knew I had 'found' my story.