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The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Matthew Kneale's English Passengers, a riveting historical novel that was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize (2000). Set in the nineteenth century, it explores in dramatic, eyewitness detail the colonization of Tasmania and the thirst for conquest, adventure, and fame that propelled the spread of the British Empire.
English Passengers presents the diverse and often conflicting perspectives of a remarkable cast of characters—including British convicts, government officials, missionaries who impose their European standards and self-serving rules on the native population, aboriginal Tasmanians caught in a desperate struggle for survival, and members of a bizarre expedition searching for the Garden of Eden. The narrative begins in 1857, as Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley of the Sincerity, thwarted in his plans to smuggle tobacco and brandy into England, is forced to put his boat up for charter. He soon finds himself bound for the Pacific, carrying not only his well-hidden contraband but also the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, an eccentric vicar out to prove that the Biblical Garden of Eden lies in the heart of Tasmania; Dr. Thomas Potter, an arrogant scientist developing a revolutionary and sinister theory about the races of mankind; and Timothy Renshaw, a diffident young botanist. Each man offers a highly personalized record of the high seas adventures and internecine feuds that mark the voyage.
The situation that awaits them in Tasmania is brought to life in narratives exposing the dark history of British and aboriginal relationships since the 1820s. Peevay, the son of an Aborigine raped by an escaped convict, describes the subjugation of his people by English invaders who are as lethal in their good intentions as they are in their cruelty. His impressions, ironically confirmed by reports from white officials, schoolteachers, and settlers, chronicle the destruction of a thriving, self-sufficient community in the name of God, science, and "civilization."
Based on historical facts, English Passengers is an epic tale, packed with swashbuckling adventure, humor, and memorable characters. Matthew Kneale renders the prejudices and follies of the Imperialist Age with dead-on accuracy and captures—through the voice and destiny of Peevay and his tribesmen—the irreversible tragedies it wrought.
2. English Passengers focuses on the evils of colonialism and particularly on the racism that "legitimized" it. Kneale cites several examples of insidious racial theories that started in the 1850s and continued to flourish in the twentieth century [p. 440]. What other figures or writings perpetuate this legacy? In what ways do they echo Potter's pseudo-science and Wilson's insistence on the literal truth of the Bible?
Matthew Kneale, the author of several novels, lives in Italy. English Passengers is his American debut.