Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

English Passengers is a historical novel, containing no elements of science fiction or fantasy. Great writers of fantasy and sci-fi such as Isaac Asimov and Steven Erikson have observed the close connection between historical literature and fantasy, and it is certainly true that really great historical fiction can trigger the same vibe as genre fiction, and this novel certainly felt that way at times. This novel excels in its ability to balance the making of sincere and important observations about English colonialism whilst also retaining a wonderful air of fun silliness. This is a hard balancing act to maintain, and Kneale succeeds with aplomb in English Passengers.

English Passengers tells the story of an expedition to Tasmania in 1857, led by the foolish ninny Rev Geoffrey Wilson, who has become convinced that the island in the location of the Garden of Eden. WIlson is accompanied by Renshaw, an idle botanist and Dr. Potter, a racial theorist obsessed with categorising and ranking the different races of man (he unsurprisingly places the Anglo-Saxon English as the greatest race.) To arrive at their destination, they charter a ship of sailors from the Isle of Mann, led by a Captain Illiam Kewley. Unbeknownst to them, the Manx sailors are in fact smugglers with a hidden cargo hold filled with illicit goods. A parallel storyline takes place decades earlier, starting in 1820. This storyline primarily deals with the tale of Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine, the mixed race child of the rape of an Aboriginal woman by a white escaped convict. The separate narratives begin to intersect as the novel goes on, with the disparate strands of the narrative coming together nicely.

The structure of the novel reminded me, oddly enough, of George R.R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels. At the beginning of each section is the name of a character, and it follows that character for that section. There are around twenty POVs in the entire novel, but many are just for a single chapter, with the majority of the novel coming from the POVs of Wilson, Kewley and Peevay. Kneale takes this structure one step further than Martin, by placing each POV in the first person. This leads to one of the most impressive triumphs of the novel, the varied and interesting narrative styles adopted by each character. The most striking is that of the Aborigine Peevay, who uses English in a fascinating and interesting way, it not naturally being his first language. Kneale does an excellent job of undermining preconceptions about Aborigines; Peevay is, in his odd way, a much more intelligent and eloquent protagonist than the self righteous Reverend Wilson and the entertainingly blunt and pragmatic Captain Kewley.

This is fundamentally a novel about colonialism, with the central Garden of Eden narrative being little more than a pretence to visit Tasmania and to witness the horrific crimes visited upon the native Aborigines by the white settlers. Kneale’s outrage pours through with a biting potency, particularly in analysis of the avowed racist Dr. Potter. Kneale argues that, at the beginning part of the 19th century, colonialism was (flimsily) justified as the spreading of God and civilisation to those unfortunate enough to lack it. There was no inherent suggestion that non-white races were inferior, merely that their cultures were inferior, and that with sufficient education they could be raised to the level of culture seen in white civilisations. Although this is of course a ridiculous concept, and one which caused immeasurable harm to countless societies, it was not strictly speaking ‘racism’ in the sense that we know it, but more a puffed up sense of cultural and moral superiority. Kneale suggests that, around the middle part of the century, this view began to shift with several major publications suggesting that certain races are inherently superior to others, and that they will inevitably clash. These writers were said to have been major influences upon the ideology of Adolf Hitler, and it’s not difficult to see how. Although post-colonial fiction is certainly nothing new, Kneale takes a look at one of the many crimes of the British Empire which has been somewhat less explored than those that were committed in Africa, mainland Australia and North America.

Of course, this novel is far from a dry humourless exploration of human cruelty, but also a wonderful collection of incredibly amusing character portraits. The Manx smugglers in particularly provide some genuinely hilarious moments, constantly underestimated by their haughty English passengers, yet almost always holding the upper hand. If there’s one thing which Kneale clearly finds incredibly amusing it is self delusion. The first person narratives mean that each character usually views themselves as entirely justified and moral figures, with all those who conflict with them being in the wrong. People see themselves in a very different light to how others see them, and it never failed to amuse to shift from the POV of the pious Reverent Wilson to the irreverent irritated patience of Captain Kewley, who sees him as nothing more than a self righteous fool. This is exactly how a novel should be; I’m of the firm belief that a novel devoid of humour is a novel which fails, even when dealing with a serious and brutal subject such as this.

This is probably the best historical novel I have ever read, and certainly the most fun. Although this novel serves a serious moral purpose, it never sacrifices the readers enjoyment to convey this purpose, with the many moments of levity serving to throw the indignities and cruelty inherent in colonialism into sharp relief. 

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