English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
It is 1857 and the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson has set out for Tasmania, hoping to find the true site of the Garden of Eden. But the journey is turning out to be less than straightforward – dissent is growing between him and sinister racial-theorist Dr Potter, and, unknown to both, the ship they have hurriedly chartered is in fact a Manx smuggling vessel, fleeing British customs. In Tasmania the Aboriginal people have been fighting a desperate battle against British invaders, and, as the passengers will discover, the island is now far from being an earthly paradise …
It is 1857 and the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson has a dream, in which he is told that the Garden of Eden is not, as is usually accepted, in the Middle East but is in fact in Tasmania. He decides he must explore the island to see if this is true, and after receiving financial backing, he sets about chartering a ship to take him to the other side of the world.
Meanwhile, Manx Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley’s ship has been holed-up in port in London by customs officials who suspect him of smuggling, but despite extensive searches of the vessel, they find nothing. Undeterred, and still suspicious after finding sheets from a French newspaper, they give Kewley a £200 fine. In order to pay this, the captain and crew decide to offer Sincerity for charter, and she’s hired by none other than Rev’d Wilson.
They are joined on ship by Dr Potter who is keen to join the expedition to ‘Eden’ to find specimens to help him write his book on the races of man.
So begins an epic voyage that will take them to the other side of the world.
In the meantime, through Peevay, an Aboriginal, we hear of the effect on Tasmania and the Aboriginal population of the settlement of white men through transportation and those associated with it who took over their land and tried to civilise the native population.
These two main stories are overlapped throughout the book, as it jumps from 1830 to 1859 and back again, until coming together in a wonderful conclusion.
I loved this book. It was recommended to me because I enjoyed The Secret River by Kate Grenville, but I found this book to be far superior.
The characterisation is fabulous, from the pious Rev’d Wilson to the angry and bitter Peevay to the likeable and amusing, if not entirely honest, Captain Kewley, all of whom are totally believable and provoke different emotions. There are many other peripheral characters, all of whom are well-written and have their parts to play in this rich novel.
Having read this and done some research into transportation/colonisation on the internet, I cannot believe the audacity of the English to go to another country and try to change the people who live there – or worse still, remove them all to an island in an attempt to colonise them whilst taking over their land!
The sad fact is that the indigenous people of Tasmania died out as a result of this take-over of their lands, although some people are descended from them as a result of the white men abducting Aboriginal women for sexual partners.