Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

For a time in history the sun never set on the British Empire and the penal colonies in Australia and Tasmania were as far away from England as one could get. The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale begins in England in 1857. Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, a rum smuggler who is experiencing financial difficulties, is forced to charter his ship to missionaries who want to go to Tasmania. Reverend Geoffrey Wilson hopes to refute Darwinism by his proving his theory that the Garden of Eden is located on Tasmania. His fellow traveler, Dr. Thomas Potter, secretly plans to collect aboriginal skulls to prove his theory of the superiority of the white race.
Alternating chapters begin in 1820 and move forward in time. In these chapters the suffering of the aborigine people is told by Peavay, a young mixed-race child whose tribe is eventually decimated by the English, both those who mean well and those who don’t.

As the smugglers’ ship sails toward Tasmania, the aborigines’ story moves forward to 1857. Until the ship docks in Tasmania, the reader is reading two separate and equally engrossing books, one humorous, one tragic. Once the two stories merge, the characters, humor and tragedy also merge. Reverend Wilson becomes suspicious of Dr. Potter’s motives and fights to maintain control of his project. An Eden-searching trek into the jungle drives Dr. Potter power-mad and Reverend Wilson simply mad. Peavay, renamed Cromwell by missionary teachers, agrees to guide the search.  Using Potter’s and Wilson’s own weaknesses, hubris and treachery, he manages to turn the two men against each other and abandons them in the bush. Consumed by the hatred that has been building in him for thirty-seven years, he plots his revenge.

The missionaries eventually find their way back to the ship and when the ship departs Tasmania, the party is in disarray. When Dr. Potter, consumed by a sense of power, engineers a mutiny and takes control of the ship, he brings about both disaster and one of the most satisfying story conclusions in modern literature.

Check out The English Passengers @ the library!