Iain Sinclair

A bitter brew from darkest Peru

Iain Sinclair on the trail of his Victorian ancestor


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

At a time when statues are being pulled down to cleanse public places of shadowy figures from colonial days, many might prefer to bury any such family connections. Iain Sinclair, the veteran novelist, travel writer and scribbler of off-beat books about London (aged 78), bravely and determinedly takes the opposite approach.

There is also a sense of exorcism and, at times, disgust

Long fascinated by grainy family pictures of his great-grandfather Arthur Sinclair — many of which hang on the wall of the downstairs loo of his Hackney house — Sinclair decides to dig into his ancestor’s days as a coffee plantation man in Peru. The Gold Machine is the curious result in which the writer travels to the Upper Amazon in 2019 in the company of his daughter, Farne, to follow in the footsteps of Arthur as far as a remote tributary of the Amazon, the River Perené.

The Gold Machine: In the Tracks of the Mule Dancers by Iain Sinclair (Oneworld, £20)

After spells in Sri Lanka (where he cut his teeth in the coffee business) and Tasmania (in search of silver), Arthur, born in Scotland in the 1830s, was commissioned by the Peruvian Corporation of London to lead an expedition to survey this virtually impenetrable territory in 1891. This was a daunting journey, involving crossing the Andes by train some of the way on an uncompleted line and then by mule. The possibility of vast coffee plantations producing bags of beans (the “gold” of the book’s title), however, drew Arthur onwards.

British involvement in the out-of-the-way spot came about after Peru had reneged on repayment of a bond to the City of London. In exchange, in a deal struck in 1889, Britain was handed control of Peru’s railways for 66 years as well as 2,000,000 hectares of land. Resonances with what China is up to in many parts of the globe today are strong.

Arthur described his life in a memoir, In Tropical Lands (1895), and this acts as the backbone of his great-grandson’s mission, driven by a deep curiosity about the bearded man staring out of the family snaps. There is also a sense of exorcism and, at times, disgust. Arthur writes of the local Ashaninka tribe: “The time seems to be approaching when, in vulgar parlance, you must take a back seat; but it must be acknowledged you have had a long lease of those magnificent lands, and done very little with them… The world, indeed, has been made neither better nor richer by your existence.”

It was time, says Arthur, to turn the “wealth of vegetation too long allowed to run to waste … [into] some useful account.” References are made to “savages”. The phrase “little better than monkeys” crops up. Sinclair describes these passages as “hard words for Farne to read. Hard sentiments for me to process.”

Arthur Sinclair, Iain Sinclair’s great-grandfather

The pair, using locations from In Tropical Lands, search for those with memories of plantation days. Elias Meza Pedro, born in 1935, is one such, who describes himself as having been a “slave” to the Peruvian Corporation. He was coerced and beaten during the last days of the coffee colony, he tells them.

Now the plantations are owned by a local co-operative. At one named Pampa Whaley, Sinclair stumbles upon a tumbledown room full of old forgotten documents from the era as well as a desk with cigar burns, perhaps from “a vanished supervisor with time on his hands”.

The strength of The Gold Machine lies in the nitty-gritty tale of a father and daughter’s travels in Peru (accompanied by the British filmmaker Grant Gee), seeking clues that might shine light on Arthur’s 1891 trip. Along the way, they attend masato ceremonies (masato is a punchy fermented drink made from yuca). They eat much yuca. They drink coca tea. They stay in rudimentary huts on stilts by the Perené. They catch rides with shaman-boatmen, eating fish smoked in leaves by the riverbank.

Sinclair’s description of the cacophony of Lima and the beauty of the ride, combined with the effects of altitude sickness, on the Trans-Andean Railway into the interior are vivid: “Air thins, mountain lakes and cloud-reflecting craters appear … lovely streaks of copper and red.” However, his tendency to shoot off on literary asides and anecdotes is consistently frustrating — and the structure of the book, with huge sections on Sri Lanka and Tasmania, badly slows it down. It is far too long: by 100 pages or more.

Yet, the impulse to uncover his great-grandfather’s doings, and Victorian motivations, provides momentum and by the end Sinclair is clear that had Arthur ever made a statue in Aberdeen it probably would indeed by now have been “torn from his plaque and flung in the river”.

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