English PassengersEnglish Passengers by Matthew Kneale
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best thing about keeping up with the Booker shortlists of years past is that you come across some absolute gems which may have been missed otherwise. Similarly, another advantage of hoarding books which you know you will eventually get around to reading at an undisclosed time in the future is that when you eventually do, it provides some lovely surprises now and then, like finding long forgotten treasure.

Which brings me to this book that I had picked up at a sort of clearance sale of old stock at a cut price rate in a bookshop in Abu Dhabi a few years back. From the synopsis, it appeared to be an intelligently funny book, but what I got was so much more. This is a novel which so cleverly mixes humor and genuine social commentary and history without ever flagging in its storytelling pursuit. I cannot believe that this is not better known.

Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley is after a bit of honest smuggling, as he sees it. From the Isle of Man he wants to get good duty free liquor and tobacco to the rest of the British land, and he finds his vessel, quite aptly named Sincerity, and Manx seamen for the job. However, those pesky customs officials manage to reel them in, and to find a way out of his predicament, the good Captain decides to take on some paying passengers bound to Van Diemen’s land (or Tasmania, as is presently known). These passengers are a merry bunch after their own ends – a journey to prove that the Garden of Eden talked of in the scriptures is actually in Tasmania and not as previously established. Led by the stridently faithful Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, it also includes the surgeon Thomas Potter and botanist Timothy Renshaw. The good Reverend and the doctor are constantly at odds, each with their own priorities. In case of the reverend, he aims to strike down the arguments of the rationalists and atheists and prove once and for all the authenticity of the word of God. Of particular hilarity is certain of his concepts, including ‘Divine Refrigeration’.

“My opponents’ first argument was that the rocks of the earth–which are generally agreed to have once been in a hot and melted state–would have required far longer to lose their heat than the Scriptures described. My reply was that the earth had indeed cooled at great speed, being made possible by a process I termed Divine Refrigeration.”

Dr. Potter, on the other hand, is out to prove his theories of the superiority of the Saxon race and their eventual domination of the world, and wants to compare the different races, including those of the Aborigines he expects to encounter there, a race he is confident are little more than savages destined to serve the Saxons and die out.

Speaking of the Aborigines – another thread of the story takes up the case from their perspective, in the form of the half breed, Peevay, the result of the union of the rape of an Aborogine woman by a white convict. Peevay and his tribe realize their land is being slowly taken over by these shite visitors who start imprisoning and enforcing their way of civilization on them. Peevay, meanwhile, is desperate to please his mother, who on account of her travails at the white people’s hands hates them and probably him by association. As they slowly fall to their captors and realize it’s a losing battle they are fighting to preserve their race, we are filled with despondency at the fate of the native tribes. The colonizers are not all shown as brutal or uncaring – but just ignorant mostly. Steadfast in their conviction that the natives are a race which has to be brought out of their primitiveness and into their fold as civilized Christians, they don’t realize that it’s these very attempts and the foreign diseases which they bring into their midst which is slowly withering away the Aborigines. This misguided evangelism is what finally seems to virtually eliminate the natives from that land where they had been long before the colonialists set foot there.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, ranging from the quirky Aborigine voice of Peevay to the sardonic voice of Kewley and various other settlers and convicts from Van Diemen’s land. The Reverend’s voice is also uniquely funny, his firm conviction in the scriptures and various attempts to portray Potter as his nemesis leading to hilarity and trouble.

The genius in the tale is in its capability to provide laugh out loud moments on one hand, while providing a seriously unfunny insight on the effect of colonial expansion on the natives and making sure both sections are perfectly balanced. Set in the time period between the 1820’s-1860’s, this is smart, funny, sad and exciting in parts, and is, in short, a brilliant book which deserves to be more widely read.

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