I was born in 1962 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, to English parents who were both academic scientists. A year and a half later we moved to New Zealand, where we lived for four years and I first went to school; after that we went to England, and then to Canada again. My parents became university professors in Ontario, where they eventually bought the farm and wilderness tract where I’ve written most of my novels. The farm continues to be a base for me, when I’m not on expeditions or living in England in a 16th century cottage beneath a castle close to my daughter’s school.
All of our travel meant that I’d circumnavigated the globe by sea before the age of six. I have vivid memories of our return voyage from New Zealand across the Indian Ocean and around Africa, and I’ve no doubt that those early experiences fuelled my fascination with maritime adventure. As the photo opposite shows, my fixation on diving began at a very early age! From a child’s perspective, the 1960s was a fascinating decade to grow up in, a great age of exploration, and I was entranced equally by the underwater world being revealed by Jacques Cousteau and by space exploration; one of the highlights of my life was watching the moon landing in 1969 on a rental black-and-white television. It astonishes me to think how long ago that now was, and how little manned space exploration there has been since. By then I was poring over National Geographic articles on shipwreck discoveries, from treasure-hunting stories to the first actual excavations of ancient wrecks in the Mediterranean, and after I’d found a copy of George Bass’s Archaeology Under Water I was hooked. Even in land-locked Ontario there were many wrecks preserved in the cold waters of the Great Lakes, and my focus was on being old enough to learn to dive so I could begin to explore them.
My peripatetic childhood probably helps to explain a yearning to know more about my own roots, something that’s continued to absorb me as I’ve seen how they interweave with my fascination with the history of exploration and discovery. Despite my Canadian birth, and a great-grandfather who became a U.S. citizen, my recent background is largely English, with a smattering of Welsh, Scots, Irish and Danish in the 19th century, a French Huguenot origin for my Gibbins forbears and a similarly distant Sephardic ancestry in Spain. My maternal grandfather fought in the First World War and his father was a Dragoon Guard in Egypt and India in the 1880s, two of many military ancestors whose lives have shaped my fascination with British colonial war and exploration. My paternal grandfather was a ship’s captain with the Clan Line, the last of the great East Indies shipping companies, and sailed more than a million and a half miles during his career; he was another big influence on my interest in the sea. His father was an architect and his grandfather a Royal Engineers Colonel, one of a long line of army officers, sea captains and merchants in India and in trade with the Americas, where they owned land in Maryland and Virginia before the Revolutionary War.
Although I’m the first professional archaeologist in my family, there are fascinating snippets of interest in the past. My great-great grandfather brought back artefacts from the jungle in India for the Royal United Services Institute Museum in London; later he was chair of the ‘Gordon Relics Committee’, responsible for the archaeological and ethnographic collections left by General Charles Gordon after he has been murdered in Khartoum in 1885. This history provided inspiration for my novels The Tiger Warrior and Pharaoh, both with settings in the 19th century. Another ancestor, John Gale, a ship-owner and sea captain who sailed the Spanish Main in the early 18th century – when piracy and treasure were a reality – owned a ‘screw for raising ships’, evidence perhaps that he was one of those who tempted to salvage sunken Spanish treasure wrecks in the Caribbean. My interest in ancestry has led me up many fascinating byways of history, just as it does for my protagonist Jack Howard in my main series of novels, and will crop up in my blogs where it provides a backdrop for the fiction.