The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

An Alien Abduction as a Footnote to History

In one scene, Fuegia turns all the power of a young female sexuality on the Reverend and, uncomfortable and alarmed, he exits hurriedly.

Some years ago a footnote to Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle caught Laline Paull’s eye. Three young people were being returned from England to Tierra del Fuego. Why? Why were they in England? What happened to them? Research could answer some of the questions, Laline Paull’s imagination did the rest.

In 1830 Captain Fitzroy sailed to chart the shores of South America. He had four skiffs on board - essential equipment for him, but also priceless to the tribes, who were completely dependent on the sea for survival. When one of these boats was stolen the success of the expedition was threatened and Fitzroy kidnapped four young people, in the belief that the tribe would exchange the boat for the prisoners. Sadly, the boat appears to have been more valuable to the tribes than the children, so Captain Fitzroy had no option but to bring them back to England.

These four kids were abducted on to a ship that was to them what a spaceship would be to us. They were taken to a culture where there were vehicles and animals they’d never seen before, and statues made of stone that looked as if they could leap out and eat them. I thought: this is science fiction set in the past.

Captain Fitzroy was committed to the young people and was devastated when one of them, Boat Memory, died. He entrusted the three survivors to one of the most progressive priests of the period, the Reverend Wilson — by contemporary standards a bigoted snob, but enlightened for his time, and eager to educate the children in his school at Walthamstow, the first ever Church of England school.

The Church of St Mary and the school are still there in Walthamstow. You can go there and walk in the footsteps of the characters in the play. You can sit in the same pews, and when I went there to research the play I saw the baptism of an Indian child. The congregation was completely multi-racial, and I thought how incredible: it’s less than two hundred years after the events of the play, and now the Fuegians would fit into the community without any difficulty.

The play starts as the Walthamstow children are waiting to 'greet' the strangers in the language familiar to asylum seekers today. They abuse the visitors and are only stopped when the Fuegians are baptised. There is, it appears, something to be said for enforced baptism.

It's probably relevant to the story that I'm Indian and grew up in London, where my family and I experienced racism. Growing up was a struggle and I identified with these kids. But I also see it from the other side, and I can see that people can be very frightened by people and cultures they don't understand. But things are changing. The more I travel, the more I realise what a compassionate country this is.

Hannah, Laline Paull’s invention, is an orphan of the parish who, as an intelligent girl, is making the best of herself in the only way available to her. At the age of fifteen, she has become the governess and housekeeper in the Revered Wilson's household. His wife is dead and he is probably unaware of his feelings for Hannah and his jealousy that he may be usurped in Hannah's regard by his son. But the Fuegians do not need to be told of the undercurrents. They are aware. They have no sexual guilt or sexual manners. The Reverend is the most powerful member of the tribe, so why should Hannah not want him? In one scene, Fuegia turns all the power of a young female sexuality on the Reverend and, uncomfortable and alarmed, he exits hurriedly.

This is the point when the experiment failed spectacularly. York Minster fights Jemmy Button for the possession of Fuegia Basket, and Matthew and Hannah sleep together in the forest. The consequence of these relationships is that Hannah is banished by the Reverend Wilson, and the Fuegians become dangerous influences.

Jemmy is intelligent enough to know he has been left without a woman. He has been cut out. He can't have Fuegia Basket and he cannot have an English woman. His only hope is to return home, and so he has a vision in which Jesus tells him that he must go home. Whether or not he sees a real vision is up to each production.

The return voyage is hastily arranged, with Matthew's place taken by Charles Darwin (the scientist who wrote The Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of the Species, books which transformed the way people think about the Bible's account of creation). Once on board, the Fuegians can reject what they've used only in order to survive, and they cast off their English names and their clothes.

At the end I wanted to empower them. Clothes are like chains to them, and by rejecting clothes they are rejecting everything that has been imposed on them. And they reclaim their true Yamana names. I feel glad that these dead children at a distance of a hundred and seventy years can say their true names and we can remember them.

So how did the young people fare? As far as we know their return led indirectly to the destruction of the tribe. There are now no longer any full-blooded Yamana people left and their language is dead. We know nothing about York Minster, but Fuegia went on to become a fat, toothless old woman who liked to show off about her time in England. Jemmy Button was a celebrity, and later notorious when ten years later he was implicated in the murder of a missionary.

I'd be proud to see young people put this play on. It could be interesting to do it with reverse casting - the Fuegians white and everyone else black or mixed-race. That would say everything. All the issues would be so much clearer. And it could be very empowering for kids who have experienced racism or alienation or rejection to see they are standing at the front of a long line of people who have endured something similar, despite the years between them.