The Queen’s Captain (Captain Ian Steele)

Written by Peter Watt
Review by Indrani Ganguly

The Queen’s Captain, which completes Peter Watt’s Colonial trilogy, is a patchwork of intriguing mystery, selective snippets of history, and ethnocentric fable.

Mystery surrounds the pact between Samuel Forbes, a wealthy English aristocrat’s son who fights in the American Civil War, and blacksmith Ian Steele, impersonating Forbes in India, Australia, and New Zealand. The story shows their complex and sometimes controversial romantic and family relationships.

The historical elements are patchy in their depth and accuracy. The Indian rebellions of 1857 are described as a mutiny of Indian sepoys, supposedly called ‘fanatical Hindustanis’ by British administrators. There is no mention of why it occurred or the struggles of other Indians whose realms and livelihoods were decimated by the British. The only Indian to feature is the super-servile ruler oddly referred to as ‘the Khan’. Australian Aboriginal people are summarily dismissed as ‘savage natives’ threatening British invaders.

‘Colonial notions of egalitarianism’ are absent in the depictions of both these groups. The pontifications by Samuel and his lover, James, on the evils of slavery also ring hollow. Curiously, the Maoris of New Zealand are extolled for their military prowess, and their right to defend themselves is somewhat recognized. The ugly side of colonial policies is only occasionally revealed through graphic depictions of the killing of even lightly wounded Pashtoons fighting a ‘jihad’ to protect their country and Ian’s cynical comment about the British bringing ‘civilisation to the ignorant heathens’.

Works like these highlight the importance of increased debate about the need for fiction writers to embed their creations in sound research and ethical storytelling as well as feedback from more diverse reviewers and readers.