Every great adventure needs a great leader, and Beyond the Rails is no exception. The stories and crew find that leadership in the person of one Clinton Monroe, former commodore in the Royal Aero Service. Unjustly cashiered in disgrace while serving in Malaya, Monroe refused passage back to England, kicked around Calcutta for a time, then found his way to the Kenyan colony where he crawled into a bottle and made a home for three long, nightmarish years before he reached rock bottom and began the process of redeeming himself.
But, let’s go back to the beginning. Monroe joined the cavalry at the age of 17, which would have been in about 1854. You see, Monroe was another character I was less than clear about concerning his age. I list him as “about 45” at the beginning of the stories. After distinguishing himself for both bravery and initiative in the Crimean War and the Taiping Rebellion, Monroe found himself on the fast-track to staff and command positions. Circumstances brought him into the reconnaissance arm in the era of tethered observation balloons, and as that service began to experiment and then equip itself with free-ranging airships, he was on the leading edge of its first wave of officers.
He was made executive officer, or second-in-command of Her Majesty’s Airship Dulcimer in 1874, and promoted to command of his own vessel, H.M.A.S. Arondight the following year. In 1876, he was promoted to the actual rank of captain, an aero-naval rank comparable to colonel in the land forces, given the title “commodore,” and placed in tactical command of a unit of four frigates. He had by this time built a stellar reputation, both as a tactician and a leader of men, and unbeknownst to him, his name was often mentioned in senior circles as one who would take his place with the likes of Drake and Nelson someday.
Alas, it was not to be. As with many men (and women!) who carry an aura of greatness, many below him were jealous. His squadron, serving at the pleasure of the Officer in Command, Far East Theater, was engaged in one of those classic little “actions short of war” that history is so rife with. Sent to secure the flank of an operation, one of his subordinate commanders allowed himself to be lured out of position, the flank was turned, and the Crown was forced to make humiliating concessions to a petty potentate. The offending ship’s captain, a young dandy whose chief claim to command came from his well-placed father, blamed Monroe for issuing conflicting and unreasonable orders, and that father ensured that the son’s view prevailed. Monroe was cashiered in the spring of 1878, and England lost one of her most able leaders.
Offered transport home to Britain, Monroe refused, swearing he would never again share sky with the monarch who had allowed this travesty. He departed Singapore for Calcutta within a week, and tried his luck for nearly a year as a low-level warehouse manager for the East India Company. Finding that not one of the 206 bones in his body was suited to keeping books and riding herd on a native workforce, he found his way to Mombasa. The main industry at the time was the building of the railroad, if one rules out such activities as the slave and opium trades, and Monroe very much did rule those out.
He took a job as a guard for the railroad, fending off wild beasts and wilder natives, but as the treatment he had received in exchange for a lifetime of service gnawed at him constantly, he began to drink. If drinking a little eased the pain, he reasoned, then drinking a lot would ease it more. He began to drink a lot, losing his job in the process, and returning to Mombasa, where he would wash dishes, clean toilets, and worse for drinking money. On good nights, he slept in a workhouse; other nights found him under the stars.
One night as he began his evening ritual of drinking himself into a blissful stupor, his old friend and second-in-command from the Arondight , a man whose life he had once saved, happened to come in search of a dram of refreshment. Seeing from his clothes alone what state Monroe had sunk to, he offered to help him get back on his feet. Had Monroe been fully in his cups, he would have sent him off in a drunken rage, but the man had caught him before the liquor had taken hold, and they talked long into the night about what Monroe might do to make a living here in east Africa. His friend was able to convince him that Monroe most likely knew as much about the operating of airships as any man on the shores of the Indian Ocean, and with great difficulty, persuaded him to accept a loan and use of the man’s good name to put together an airship; a small one, to be sure, and one that no spit-and-polish military martinet would deign to set foot on, but with a working ship and his own experience, Monroe could be his own man and write his own ticket.
In the end, Monroe accepted his friend’s help, and as the Kestrel began to take shape in an open-air boatyard, his reputation as an airman brought him David Smith, a knowledgeable American deck hand with a solid work ethic, and Gunther Brown, an Anglo-Prussian who knew motors like Monroe knew airships. And one more crew member who knew nothing of Monroe’s reputation, or his treatment at the hands of his government… But her story is for another day.
The completion of the ship and the assembly of the crew brings us up to 1882. Monroe’s solid reputation for integrity has brought them enough work to stay solvent, and if the Governor-General in Mombasa and the Garrison Commander in Nairobi view him as something of a pirate and a con man, he doesn’t have to deal with them for his livelihood. This, then, is the new life he has established when we meet him in the late spring of 1882. Care to go aviating? Come, then, the Kestrel awaits.