Say a man catches a bullet through his skull in somebody's war, so where's the beginning of that?
This perfectly fine question is posed by captain Illiam Quillian Kewley at the beginning of English Passengers
. The year is 1857, and Kewley and his crew of Manx sailors only wished to transport some duty-free liquor from the Isle of Man - strategically located right in the middle of the Irish Sea - to mainland England, where the ruthless British Customs officials were waiting for them to do just that, so they could impose a fine on the more prosperous sailors. The enormous fine forces Kewley to rebrand his vessel (whis is named - wait for it - Sincerity
) into a travelling ship, and offer to take anyone pretty much anywhere, as long as it's soon and sufficiently away from British customs officials. This is when the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson enters the scene: he is a vicar devoted to proving the accuracy of Scripture and through close reading grew convinced that the Garden of Eden is located not in Arabia, as it was previously thought, but in a small island called Tasmania, south of Australia. Accompanying him is Timothy Renshaw, a botanist, and Dr. Thomas Potter, a racial theorist who has his own reasons for taking the journey. Captain Kewley has little choice but to take them on board, and Sincerity
sets the course to the distant island.
Now, for a bit of historical trivia! The English passengers of the title are not limited to those aboard the Sincerity
. The 19th century was the age of British colonialism, a time when the nation had no equal in global dominance. Even the loss of the thirteen colonies in North America, which were among its oldest and most populous, did not stop the empire from growing: it soon expanded into Asia and Africa, along with Australia and various other islands on the Pacific. The English people colonized and settled, and traveled around the globe - many of them with malicious intent of benefitting from the new colonies, paying little heed to the native populations; even the colonist which intended to spread education and progress could have inflicted harm by their ignorance. Not all emigrants left willingly: 19th century Britain was ridden with poverty, unemployed and crime, and one of the main reasons for British settlement of Australia was the establishment of penal colonies there, and subsequent transportation of convicts from overpopulated British correction centers. Approximately 165,000 convicts have been sent to Australia, where they had to work for the government as a part of their sentence, thus freeing Britain from spending money on them and offering almost free labor for its colonies. What's slightly less known is that not all British deportees were adults: the infamous "Home Children" program forcefully sent more than 100,000 British children from various child care organizations to provide for labor in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other parts of the Commonwealth. Not all of them were orphans; many parents gave their children to such organizations during hard times, and when they came back they were told that the child has died. The practice continued well into the 20th century, and thousands of children were expatriated to Australia between the 40's and 70's. Men who smiled and wore suits, and told them about this wonderful place called Australia - where the sun shines all the time and where you can pick up oranges straight from the trees and eat them for breakfast, where they will ride to school on horses. They were told that their parents died, and they had no family in Britain - why not go?
The colonists paid little attention to silly kid dreams of oranges and horses. They saw children as particularly attractive immigrants; they thought of them as able to accomodate to new conditions much more easily than adults. Children also had a long working life ahead of them, and it cost much less to feed and house them in the colonies than in the UK. After arrival in Australia they were immediately placed in state institutions and orphanages, where they often experienced psychical and mental abuse. To earn their keep they were forced to work in severe conditions - out in the open, without any protection from scorching weather, or deep down underground in dangerous mines. Some of these children found foster families, but the majority were not as lucky; they would help build the empire worth millions for pennies. Child miners in Australia in the 1800's. Thousand of British children deported to Australia are remembered today as the "Forgotten Australians".
Now let us get back to the book. Structurally, it is a small wonder. Kneale pays homage to the polylogic epistolary novel, and employs over 19 separate narrators; this is no mean feat of literary ventriloquism, as his characters have distinctive voices and personalities. He makes full use of discrepant awareness - the unequal distribution of knowledge among the protagonists, used to heighten suspense and dramatic tension. This device allows the reader to cross-examine the characters, often to comical and/or ironic effect. The quirky voice of Manx captain Kewley is probably the favorite and funniest, as his sense of irony and biting humor are spot on and a delight to read. The old salty smuggler who is always scheming could easily fill up a whole novel, and the bad luck which seems to send plague after plague upon his person will gain him sympathy even in the most hardhearted of readers.
The animosity between Reverend Wilson and Doctor Potter - both men of immense egos - is fantastic, especially because the omniscient narration does not get in the way and we can see what both men think of one another - Wilson brands Potter as a heretic, while Potter thinks Wilson is an old lunatic. Their respective approach to the journey and what they consider to be their goals reflect the conflict between Biblical creationist and naturalistic evolutionists, prominent in the 19th century. Hit heavily by the discoveries of Darwin and Wallace, creationists still sought ways of defending the Biblical story of creation - as does Reverend Wilson with his own theory of "Divine Refrigeration" which makes it possible for the Garden of Eden to be located in Tasmania. Dr. Potter is convinced that the Saxon race is above all in intelligence and capabilities, destined to rule above other races: he keenly observes the people and notes down their behavior, being most efficient with his words and underlining a lot, making sure that his observations confirm his already made conclusions - which interestingly they always do. He has his own interest in the Australian aborigines, and works tirelessly on what he considers to be the accomplishment of his life: a volume he titled The Destiny of Nations
, which he is sure will bring him fame and recognition. Their utter cluelesness combined with the vivid animosity for one another serves for many a comic moment.
Beside the sailors, scientists and a priest, the novel features the voice of Peevay, a Tasmanian aboriginal. His storyline begins in 1828, 30 years before Sincerity
will begin her fateful journey. Back in 1828, Tasmania was experiencing what could be called a British Invasion - only it's not the Beatles, it's the settlers! They have been slowly sneaking into the island, swallowing it piece by piece, until relations with aboriginal tribes escalated into violence. Peevay is a half-bred child, whose aboriginal mother was kidnapped and raped by an escaped convict. She is now fueled with a hatred towards all whites and Peevay, who reminds her of his father - and her only desire is to find and kill him. Wanting to win back her love, desperate Peevay joins her in her fight, even though he does not understand why the whites are in Tasmania, their greed for his land and atrocities against his people. Peevay's narration is almost Faulkneresque; written from a perspective who is intelligent and interested in words, but wholly separate from a culture which invented and used them. Therefore, each discovery of a new word requires capitalization; one can almost feel his sense of wonder.Truly it was a mystery to confuse how they ever could kill all my ones and steal the world, or even why they wanted it, as it was no place they could endure. Why, they couldn't live here just alone but had to carry some HOBART TOWN with them hither and thither.
Peevay's sections progress towards the future, where Sincerity
is sailing for Tasmania, and are alternated with chapters narrated by the crew and those composed of letters and dispatched from other English settlers: the two eventually intersect, and merge. Kneale never lets the reader drown in his sea of voices, and although the sails of his ship might feel to be losing wind at times the currents will carry it through to its very end, along with reader. And is it some story! Well written, rich with everything one can wish for in a novel, and best of all - it really works!
Matthew Kneale managed to skilfully weave so many voices into a tale which could easily ended up as incoherent babble, full of insulting stereotypes, hopeless cliches and lame jokes. But not only is it genuinely funny - it's also genuinely moving, as it tackles serious issues with respect they deserve, reserving the pokes for the silly ones. It's cast of characters is wonderful and memorable, and the storyline is quite brilliant because of them and it's a pleasure to see them interact and explore that wild land, untamed by man. Kneale obviously did his research to render both the setting and characters authentic, as he even provides a 75 word lexicon of Manx words at the end of the book to understand captain Kewley's more seasoned retorts. Full of intelligence, wit and feeling, which are so rare to find together, English Passengers
is an undiscovered gem which I am so glad to have found and will happily return to again in the future.