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Matthew Kneale: English Passengers

Kneale tells a fascinating story – or, rather, several fascinating stories that intertwine and illuminate a little known part of English history. There are really four main stories that merge and influence one another. The first two concern British colonisation of Tasmania. One is about the aboriginals of Tasmania and how they are exploited and then slaughtered by the British settlers. Related to this is the story of the convicts sent to penal settlements in Tasmania. In particular, we follow the story of Jack Harp, a former convict still living in Tasmania. Seeking female company, he captures a Tasmanian woman, tethers her up and sexually exploits her. However, this woman (who, apparently, is based on a real Tasmanian woman) is a strong, formidable woman. She escapes and then leads a band of Tasmanians against the settlers. She has two children but it is Peevay, her son by Harp, who we follow most and whom she utterly despises (to the chagrin of Peevay.)

The second set of stories concerns a group of Manxmen, led by Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley who endeavour to cleverly smuggle contraband to England. Inevitably things go wrong and then worse and they are forced to leave England in a hurry. Linked to this is an expedition led by the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, a Yorkshire vicar, who has determined that the Garden of Eden is in Tasmania and manages to persuade a rich man to fund an expedition to confirm this. Unfortunately, at the last minute the ship they were to use is diverted to help fight the Indian Mutiny. Fortunately, Kewley and his ship are available, uniting two unlikely groups.

Kneale tells the story through the voices of the main characters – over twenty of them – which gives a vivid and varied picture of the expedition, the ship and, in particular, Tasmania. And a fine story it is. He manages to give us the voices of the exploited aboriginals and their struggle for survival, the voices of his fellow Manxmen (who consider themselves very different from the English), the voices of both the convicts and those guarding them and, of course, the voices of the expedition members. All sorts of things go wrong, of course, and, inevitably, the surviving Tasmanians meet the expedition members. Kneale manages to keep the story going, tell it with great humour and gusto and painting a picture of the savagery of the times. That his sympathy is with the exploited – the Tasmanians and the Manxmen – is clear, with most of the English being at best weak and often mad, bad or both. And that is, to a least some extent, what make the story enjoyable.

Publishing history

First published 2000 by Hamish Hamilton