English Passengers

By Matthew Kneale

6,454 ratings - 4.06* vote

In 1857 when Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley and his band of rum smugglers from the Isle of Man have most of their contraband confiscated by British Customs, they are forced to put their ship up for charter. The only takers are two eccentric Englishmen who want to embark for the other side of the globe. The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson believes the Garden of Eden was on the isl In 1857 when Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley and his band of rum smugglers from the Isle of Man have most of their

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Book details

Paperback, 446 pages
January 16th 2001 by Anchor

(first published March 14th 2000)

Original Title
English Passengers
038549744X (ISBN13: 9780385497442)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Vit Babenco

The narration of English Passengers is situated on two different planes…
The first is the high farce of the seafaring expedition in search of Eden:
Out through the door I went and behind me I heard what wasn’t any kind of word at all, but a kind of well-spoken howl. Well, given the right day I can be swift enough on my feet. Down those stairs I went, leaping three at a time, then through that sitting-room window clean as a ball through a barrel, and till I was dashing away towards the river. The rest of them hadn’t yet reached the boat and were taking daintiest little steps to keep from slipping in the mud. They stopped and looked round when they saw me coming in my chase, and looked like they were about to start asking foolish questions – which I was in no mood to stop and answer – but fortunately just that moment there was a bright flash from the upstairs window of the house, and also a mighty bang, that settled their curiosity nice as nip.

And the second – the low tragedy of the aborigines and convicts:
What our kindly friend Mr. Crane doesn’t understand is that His Majesty’s colony of Van Diemen’s Land is not intended to reform criminals, but simply to store them, like so much rubbish in a dust heap, so that England can be emptied of troublemakers once and for all.

And in the end these both seemingly immiscible genres merge into a fine tragicomedy.
Pride is a deadly sin and what can be a better disguise for pride than to hide it behind humility and piety.


An immensely satisfying read and a literary adventure! That’s what this book was. It began with the first line:

Say a man catches a bullet through his skull in somebody’s war, so where’s the beginning of that?

How can you not be pulled into a story that begins thus? On top of that, the man behind this first line bears the auspicious name of Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, and he is as delightful as his name suggests (though you cannot see his more piratical side from the name, but it is there). Captain Kewley is the light of the story, the comic relief, the voice that steers the reader through the story and indeed through the waters of the globe, from Britain to Tasmania. And there we encounter an atrocious chapter of British imperial history and the denigration of the Tasmanian Aboriginals.

So, we have here the big story – the atrocities in Tasmania, historically accurate and probably unknown to most people; and we have the smaller stories, those of Captain Kewley and his passengers, notably an insufferable reverend and an old-fashioned doctor, the former in search of the Garden of Eden, which he has every reason to believe is located in Tasmania, the latter in search of ‘specimens’ (the story begins in 1857, two years prior to the publication of The Origin of Species). It is a story about men’s fates.

The shift in, and authenticity of the, narrators reminded me of Cloud Atlas, the old-fashioned storytelling of Wilkie Collins. (I would add that the novel also requires the patience that these two authors demand. That sounds unkind, but it actually reflects that this is a Big book, if also a bit long). Reverend Wilson has a distant cousin in the sanctimonious Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, and the Aboriginal boy, Peevay, has his own language as original as Harri’s in Pigeon English. The result is utterly convincing, and through these characters – and the big and the small stories – Matthew Kneale manages to be alternately outrageously funny and monstrously tragic. At all times, the story is exquisitely told, uniquely so.

No wonder this was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (2000). This book was written by an enormously talented writer at a time when it seems to me few books like this are being written this expertly.


The last book I read in 2016 becomes the first I review in 2017.
That sounds neat but it also sounds over obvious and not especially interesting - what else should I review first, you might ask (actually I reviewed little of what I read in November and December, and I've already read three books in January so in that sense it is not as obvious as it might seem).

There are some neat things about this book too but some others that are over obvious and definitely not specially interesting (and though I've tried, I can't find them less obvious or more interesting).

One of the really neat things is the name of the narrator: Illiam Quillian Kewley. I thought that name had enormous promise, and the man himself, being a Manx smuggler, and therefore wonderfully jaunty and disrespectful, especially when speaking in a mixture of Manx and English about mainland English people, shows great promise (in the parts of the book which he gets to narrate. But Illiam Quillian Kewley turns out to be only one of many narrators and therefore he gets to tell only a small amount of this very very long story. There must be upwards of twenty other narrators, and it's even hard to be accurate as to their number since many of them sound alike or only narrate very small sections here and there so that they are instantly forgotten).

Another neat thing is that a lot of the story takes place on a ship and Illiam Quillian Kewley describes his ship so well that I could hear the wind in her sails as she ploughed her way across the globe. My favourite quote was from this section: Each and every rope of the ship’s rigging was regularly examined, and perhaps painted with tar, while constant adjustments were made to maintain their tautness: a painstaking business, as the ropes formed quite a cat’s cradle, and to tighten one invariably meant altering half a dozen others thereafter. That quote could have come directly out of the 'loose end' scene on board ship in Rabelais' Le Quart Livre if the author had been feeling ironic about his own story - as Rabelais always is.

The nub of the story amused me too, or at least the (hopefully intentional) irony of it: a ridiculous group of nineteenth-century English scientists setting out to prove that the allegorical Garden of Eden was located on the island of Tasmania which up until the nineteenth century, we remember, had been a paradise for its native population, who were then expelled from their 'real' Garden of Eden by overly righteous English settlers and their governors, some of whom narrate the story.

But the book disappointed me in the way it tried to mimic too obviously a historical document. Each piece of narrative was prefixed with the name of the narrator and the exact date of his or her account therefore implying that the accounts were all written ones. This was plausible when it concerned a character who might have had reason to keep notes but not for the cat's cradle of characters who get to narrate here. Sure, we have plenty of occasion to admire the skill with which the author selects who recounts which sections, and how he takes care to include all the relevant plot details in one or other of those various accounts. We also get to see how he manages to vary the five principal narrative voices though he has to resort to some odd styles in the process: an almost Morse-like code for one of them and a very bizarre syntax for another. So in that sense, the author keeps some of the ropes of his cat's cradle separate, and I imagine that if he altered one, he must have had to alter them all. A lot of work for little result, because, for me, the least interesting thing about the book, and yet the biggest part, was the documentary nature of it. The various accounts sounded like 'evidence' in some trial, but there was no reason given for such evidence to have been gathered. No one was tried for the extermination of the native population of Tasmania or for the plunder of their graves and other artifacts. The only one who risked a trial was the smuggler Illiam Quillian Kewley and most of the testimony had little to do with him or his paradoxically harmless and hopeless but very entertaining smuggling efforts.

I would have preferred to read a real fiction about Illiam Quillian Kewley's adventures aboard his beloved Sincerity rather than a faux-historical account of the rape of Van Diemen's land in the 1800s.

mark monday

Kinda hard to enjoy a "farcical tragicomedy" when it features an actual genocide. Tone deaf much?

Not a bad book by any means and the author clearly had good intentions. The sort of good intentions that many bougie white intellectuals have when deconstructing race, personal tragedy, and large-scale atrocity. Too bad he didn't understand that playfulness is sometimes a bizarrely inappropriate and unempathetic approach to take when examining these sorts of topics. Especially when all three are combined into one rollicking adventure! ugh


Say a man catches a bullet through his skull in somebody's war, so where's the beginning of that?

This perfectly fine question is posed by captain Illiam Quillian Kewley at the beginning of English Passengers. The year is 1857, and Kewley and his crew of Manx sailors only wished to transport some duty-free liquor from the Isle of Man - strategically located right in the middle of the Irish Sea - to mainland England, where the ruthless British Customs officials were waiting for them to do just that, so they could impose a fine on the more prosperous sailors. The enormous fine forces Kewley to rebrand his vessel (whis is named - wait for it - Sincerity) into a travelling ship, and offer to take anyone pretty much anywhere, as long as it's soon and sufficiently away from British customs officials. This is when the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson enters the scene: he is a vicar devoted to proving the accuracy of Scripture and through close reading grew convinced that the Garden of Eden is located not in Arabia, as it was previously thought, but in a small island called Tasmania, south of Australia. Accompanying him is Timothy Renshaw, a botanist, and Dr. Thomas Potter, a racial theorist who has his own reasons for taking the journey. Captain Kewley has little choice but to take them on board, and Sincerity sets the course to the distant island.

Now, for a bit of historical trivia! The English passengers of the title are not limited to those aboard the Sincerity. The 19th century was the age of British colonialism, a time when the nation had no equal in global dominance. Even the loss of the thirteen colonies in North America, which were among its oldest and most populous, did not stop the empire from growing: it soon expanded into Asia and Africa, along with Australia and various other islands on the Pacific. The English people colonized and settled, and traveled around the globe - many of them with malicious intent of benefitting from the new colonies, paying little heed to the native populations; even the colonist which intended to spread education and progress could have inflicted harm by their ignorance. Not all emigrants left willingly: 19th century Britain was ridden with poverty, unemployed and crime, and one of the main reasons for British settlement of Australia was the establishment of penal colonies there, and subsequent transportation of convicts from overpopulated British correction centers. Approximately 165,000 convicts have been sent to Australia, where they had to work for the government as a part of their sentence, thus freeing Britain from spending money on them and offering almost free labor for its colonies. What's slightly less known is that not all British deportees were adults: the infamous "Home Children" program forcefully sent more than 100,000 British children from various child care organizations to provide for labor in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other parts of the Commonwealth. Not all of them were orphans; many parents gave their children to such organizations during hard times, and when they came back they were told that the child has died. The practice continued well into the 20th century, and thousands of children were expatriated to Australia between the 40's and 70's. Men who smiled and wore suits, and told them about this wonderful place called Australia - where the sun shines all the time and where you can pick up oranges straight from the trees and eat them for breakfast, where they will ride to school on horses. They were told that their parents died, and they had no family in Britain - why not go?
The colonists paid little attention to silly kid dreams of oranges and horses. They saw children as particularly attractive immigrants; they thought of them as able to accomodate to new conditions much more easily than adults. Children also had a long working life ahead of them, and it cost much less to feed and house them in the colonies than in the UK. After arrival in Australia they were immediately placed in state institutions and orphanages, where they often experienced psychical and mental abuse. To earn their keep they were forced to work in severe conditions - out in the open, without any protection from scorching weather, or deep down underground in dangerous mines. Some of these children found foster families, but the majority were not as lucky; they would help build the empire worth millions for pennies.

Child miners in Australia in the 1800's. Thousand of British children deported to Australia are remembered today as the "Forgotten Australians".

Now let us get back to the book. Structurally, it is a small wonder. Kneale pays homage to the polylogic epistolary novel, and employs over 19 separate narrators; this is no mean feat of literary ventriloquism, as his characters have distinctive voices and personalities. He makes full use of discrepant awareness - the unequal distribution of knowledge among the protagonists, used to heighten suspense and dramatic tension. This device allows the reader to cross-examine the characters, often to comical and/or ironic effect. The quirky voice of Manx captain Kewley is probably the favorite and funniest, as his sense of irony and biting humor are spot on and a delight to read. The old salty smuggler who is always scheming could easily fill up a whole novel, and the bad luck which seems to send plague after plague upon his person will gain him sympathy even in the most hardhearted of readers.
The animosity between Reverend Wilson and Doctor Potter - both men of immense egos - is fantastic, especially because the omniscient narration does not get in the way and we can see what both men think of one another - Wilson brands Potter as a heretic, while Potter thinks Wilson is an old lunatic. Their respective approach to the journey and what they consider to be their goals reflect the conflict between Biblical creationist and naturalistic evolutionists, prominent in the 19th century. Hit heavily by the discoveries of Darwin and Wallace, creationists still sought ways of defending the Biblical story of creation - as does Reverend Wilson with his own theory of "Divine Refrigeration" which makes it possible for the Garden of Eden to be located in Tasmania. Dr. Potter is convinced that the Saxon race is above all in intelligence and capabilities, destined to rule above other races: he keenly observes the people and notes down their behavior, being most efficient with his words and underlining a lot, making sure that his observations confirm his already made conclusions - which interestingly they always do. He has his own interest in the Australian aborigines, and works tirelessly on what he considers to be the accomplishment of his life: a volume he titled The Destiny of Nations, which he is sure will bring him fame and recognition. Their utter cluelesness combined with the vivid animosity for one another serves for many a comic moment.
Beside the sailors, scientists and a priest, the novel features the voice of Peevay, a Tasmanian aboriginal. His storyline begins in 1828, 30 years before Sincerity will begin her fateful journey. Back in 1828, Tasmania was experiencing what could be called a British Invasion - only it's not the Beatles, it's the settlers! They have been slowly sneaking into the island, swallowing it piece by piece, until relations with aboriginal tribes escalated into violence. Peevay is a half-bred child, whose aboriginal mother was kidnapped and raped by an escaped convict. She is now fueled with a hatred towards all whites and Peevay, who reminds her of his father - and her only desire is to find and kill him. Wanting to win back her love, desperate Peevay joins her in her fight, even though he does not understand why the whites are in Tasmania, their greed for his land and atrocities against his people. Peevay's narration is almost Faulkneresque; written from a perspective who is intelligent and interested in words, but wholly separate from a culture which invented and used them. Therefore, each discovery of a new word requires capitalization; one can almost feel his sense of wonder.

Truly it was a mystery to confuse how they ever could kill all my ones and steal the world, or even why they wanted it, as it was no place they could endure. Why, they couldn't live here just alone but had to carry some HOBART TOWN with them hither and thither.

Peevay's sections progress towards the future, where Sincerity is sailing for Tasmania, and are alternated with chapters narrated by the crew and those composed of letters and dispatched from other English settlers: the two eventually intersect, and merge. Kneale never lets the reader drown in his sea of voices, and although the sails of his ship might feel to be losing wind at times the currents will carry it through to its very end, along with reader. And is it some story! Well written, rich with everything one can wish for in a novel, and best of all - it really works!

Matthew Kneale managed to skilfully weave so many voices into a tale which could easily ended up as incoherent babble, full of insulting stereotypes, hopeless cliches and lame jokes. But not only is it genuinely funny - it's also genuinely moving, as it tackles serious issues with respect they deserve, reserving the pokes for the silly ones. It's cast of characters is wonderful and memorable, and the storyline is quite brilliant because of them and it's a pleasure to see them interact and explore that wild land, untamed by man. Kneale obviously did his research to render both the setting and characters authentic, as he even provides a 75 word lexicon of Manx words at the end of the book to understand captain Kewley's more seasoned retorts. Full of intelligence, wit and feeling, which are so rare to find together, English Passengers is an undiscovered gem which I am so glad to have found and will happily return to again in the future.


Kneale’s book tries and largely succeeds in being multiple things. First of all, it’s good historical fiction—the kind where the education comes sans textbook aridity. Much of the story is set in Tasmania in the 1800s where the native Aborigines were underfoot and too many British imperialists were wearing heavy boots. A character named Peevay is one of the principal narrators, offering a unique perspective as the son of an English father and a resistant, indigenous mother. The other storyline was a seafaring adventure. The captain and crew were Manxmen and as such had a different language and culture that added color to the mix. They had failed in their attempts at smuggling and had no other recourse than to take a small but paying set of passengers from England to Tasmania. Yet another goal of the book was to expose some of the day’s more egregious notions related to colonialism, evangelism, racism, and class.

Somebody counted the number of narrators in this book to be 19. Only a handful were major, though, with repeated chances to tell their side of things. The first was Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley who had a plan to run brandy and tobacco from the Isle of Man to England for a quick profit. Customs officials had other ideas, of course, forcing Kewley and his crew to scramble to pay their fine. They chartered out their ship, ironically named Sincerity, to Reverend Wilson, who had convinced himself with God’s presumed guidance that the Garden of Eden was actually in Tasmania, and Dr. Potter, who wanted to collect evidence supporting his wrong-headed theories about race and ethnicity. There were some humorous moments when Wilson’s cluelessness was on full display. My astute Goodreads friend, Helle, likened him in her review to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. The following gives you an idea of what we mean:
I began my ministry with some zeal, endeavouring to improve the lives of my flock by launching a little campaign to have the alehouse open only three days in the week instead of seven, and offering--as a nobler recompense--two extra church services. Sadly this little initiative was answered, in certain quarters, with something like hostility.

Potter was vile in his own way, but at least he served as a pain in the pious Reverend’s rear end. They were joined by a third Englishman, a young botanist who was lazy and self-centered, but a possible candidate for redemption. The interplay among the passengers and the crew shed plenty of light on the vast sea of moral philosophy. Conflict was easy to come by, especially in close quarters.

Peevay, his defiant mother, and their dwindling tribe faced conflict of a different sort: sickness, murder, and oppression. Their spears were no match for the firearms and bad intent directed their way. Even putatively good intentions often worked against them. Peevay’s narrative began decades before Sincerity’s arrival, but ultimately caught up. The convergence of these two storylines brought about even more folly and hypocrisy. And let’s not forget atrocities. The book definitely did not turn a blind eye to them.

The multifold narration, in my view, mostly worked. As a rule, it kept the stories from growing stale. The subtle humor helped, too, where the butts of the jokes invariably had it coming. I also consider the language a strength—varied and slightly archaic. My only real criticism is that it seemed to drag in places, and a few of the characters seemed superfluous. In the end, though, the four stars I’m giving it should tell you that the pleasures and education I gained outweighed the tedium. The Booker committee evidently agreed, and in fact, saw their own scales tipping even more to that side.


English Passengers is one of the best novels I have ever read. A story told by multiple narrators, it initially focuses on a Manx smuggling vessel which sets off for England only to get chartered to set sail to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) because some crazy reverend is convinced that Van Diemen's Land is the site of the Garden of Eden. Among the ship's many larger-than-life passengers are the reverend himself, a doctor with some rather alarming racial theories and a captain desperate to keep his secret cargo hidden from his passengers and make a profit from the unexpected detour to the other side of the planet. Their adventures on board the ship alternate with those of Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine boy who describes his people's struggle against the white settlers who seek to displace them. Eventually the two storylines intersect, setting the stage for war, mutiny and shipwreck and a very satisfying finale that had me grinning for hours.

English Passengers paints a vivid (and frequently shocking) picture of Australian history and the Victorian era in general, and is worth reading for that reason alone. However, the real reason to pick up the book is Kneale's phenomenal writing. Like David Mitchell, Kneale has mastered the art of telling a story from different perspectives, and then some. English Passengers is told from about twenty vastly different points of view, and while some of them ring a bit false, the majority are utterly convincing, not to mention gripping. Both the characterisation and the use of language are superb. Add a ferocious black sense of humour and a ring of truth (part of the Tasmanian chapters is based on true events) and you have a magnificent book, at turns thought-provoking and funny. Highly recommended to anyone who likes a good, entertaining work of fiction with a message.


This is one of the few books that I have given up on reading. I had a strong sense of wrongness from many of the point of view (POV) characters and quickly began to skim read before skimming off the book all together.

By wrongness I mean that the POVs seemed to me to strike false notes: they didn't seem fictional enough to me. All novels are constructed things. Fiction is the deliberate choice of unreal elements to achieve the effect chosen by the author, but in this case it felt too obviously so for me and I simply found it too didactic, which I suppose is hard to avoid in a novel dealing with the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines. (The settlers were familiar with their Herodotus and swept across the island in the same style as the Kings of Persia went hunting for game, its how we made the modern world).

I abandoned with the book with prejudice, I feel awkward about this because the author's mother is Judith Kerr who delighted me in childhood with The Tiger who came to Tea and Mog the Forgetful Cat.

Anyhow within the novel are subsumed nationalities, nineteenth century race science, a plurality of voices and various other things that many other readers have enjoyed as a complete edifice, while for me this was one of those books were I was painful aware of the building blocks it was constructed from.


Peevay's take: BOOK started wonderfully. BANG! Like Manx gun. All echoey bouncing off num WHITE MEN. Scuts!

Captain Illiam Killian Kewley's take: I came to the godforsaken island of Tasmania speaking my strange Manx tongue, with my Manx crew. If I could have found a way to weigh anchor with the slebby preacher, Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, his nemesis, the snurly Dr. Thomas Potter and the gorm, lazy bones, Timothy Renshaw attached, I would gladly have done so. But instead fate put us all together in the Sincerity for a cruise that will ne'er be forgotten.

My guess is that at the end of the year, English Passengers will be one of my favorite reads. I love the variety of methods used to tell the tale, the wit, unique characters all interwoven in the history of Tasmania.

Its worth all 4.5 of its snurly stars.

My English Passenger blogpost.