Dark side of the Empire

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, 463pp)

With a title reminiscent of Ondaatje's The English Patient and subject, tone and style more than resembling Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (not to mention Rodney Hall's underrated novel, The Second Bridegroom), I thought I was in for something derivative from Matthew Kneale's English Passengers. As soon as I could fight off these echoes, though, I settled into one of the most enjoyable and interesting reads I have had in a long time.

It is 1857, shortly before the Indian Mutiny and two years before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. The Rev. Geoffrey Wilson, author of pamphlets railing against the atheism of geology, leads an expedition to prove his theory that the Garden of Eden was situated in Tasmania, formerly known as Van Diemen's Land. The venture is funded by the enigmatic Jonah Childs and encouraged by Mrs Wilson, understandably eager to be rid of her husband: "It is your destiny. Don't you worry about me".

The other members are a student botanist, Timothy Renshaw, whose ill-living and late nights have led his parents to petition Childs for his inclusion. Dr Thomas Potter offers his services as surgeon, and it soon turns out that this medical man has some theories so bizarre, not to say Hitlerian, as to make the Rev. Wilson's batty ideas seem positively sane.

Before the party can set out, the Mutiny deprives it of its ship when it is requisitioned. As chance would have it, a Manx ship, specially adapted for smuggling contraband, is looking for passengers. The Captain, Illiam Quillian Kewley, intends to take the charter money to pay his harbour fines so that he can get back out on the high seas and sell his goods. He will then be able to dump the passengers and repay their fares. When robbery goes wrong, however, he sets out hastily across the ocean, carrying the English passengers to Australia after all: "The wind was blowing nicely and at this rate it wouldn't be long before we were past the Scillies and safely out of range of Englishness, excepting, that was, the Englishness we had aboard."

The voyage is lively. As the ship crosses the world, its occupants are all monomaniacally engrossed in their own worlds, and find themselves hilariously at cross-purposes. The captain's shady dealings frequently necessitate hasty departures from port. The first-person narration, which shifts between the various protagonists, allows direct access to each of their stories. It not only highlights the limited vision of each, but gives them all immediacy and voice.

As the ship sails steadily towards its destination, the inevitable horrific conclusion is prefigured by an Aborigine called Peevay, who recounts his story of his people's struggle against the invading white man.

One of the most shameful events in the history of the British empire, the wholesale extermination of the people of Van Diemen's Land, is fearlessly explored with clearsighted intelligence and unflinching imagination. When the last native died in 1869, scientists vied with each other for parts of his body as samples. His grave was violated and his skull, hands and feet disappeared, later to reappear in various Royal Society collections.

In view of this, I could wish that Kneale had done more with the sinister Dr Potter. It is too easy to render this proeugenicist as a stereotypic calculating scientist, and would perhaps have been braver to make him comprehensible, if not likeable. This small niggle apart, English Passengers is a fascinating story, richly told: a major work by a major talent.

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