English Passengers

English Passengers

by Matthew Kneale


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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 island of Tasmania. His traveling partner, Dr. Thomas Potter, unbeknownst to Wilson, is developing a sinister thesis about the races of men.

Meanwhile, an aboriginal in Tasmania named Peevay recounts his people’s struggles against the invading British, a story that begins in 1824, moves into the present with approach of the English passengers in 1857, and extends into the future in 1870. These characters and many others come together in a storm of voices that vividly bring a past age to life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385497442
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/16/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 794,917
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.97(d)

About the Author

Matthew Kneale, the author of several novels, lives in Italy. English Passengers is his American debut.

Read an Excerpt

Say a man catches a bullet through his skull in somebody's war, so where's the beginning of that? You might say that's easy. That little moment has its start the day our hero goes marching off to fight with his new soldier friends, all clever and smirking and waving at the girls. But does it, though? Why not the moment he first takes the shilling, his mouth hanging wide open like a harvest frog as he listens to the sergeant's flatterings? Or how about that bright sunny morning when he's just turned six and sees soldiers striding down the village street, fierce and jangling? But then why not go right back, all the way, to that long, still night when a little baby is born, staring and new, with tiniest little hands? Hands you'd never think would grow strong enough one day to lift a heavy gun, and put a bullet through our poor dead friend's brain.
If I had to choose a beginning for all these little curiosities that have been happening themselves at me, well, I'd probably pick that morning when we were journeying northwards from a certain discreet French port, where tobacco and brandy were as cheap as could be. Not that it seemed much like the beginning of anything at the time, but almost the end, or so I was hoping. The wind was steady, the ship was taking her weather nicely, and as we went about our work I dare say every man aboard was having a fine time dreaming money he hadn't yet got, and what pleasures it might buy him. Some will have been spending it faster than a piss over the side, dreaming themselves a rush of drink and smoke, then perhaps a loan of a sulky female's body. A few might have dreamed every penny on a new jacket or boots, to dazzle Peel City with fashion for a day or two. Others would have kept cautious, dreaming it on rent paid and wives quieted.
And Illiam Quillian Kewley?
As the Sincerity jumped and juddered with the waves I was dreaming Castle Street on a Saturday morning, all bustle and everyone scrutineering everyone else, with Ealisad walking at my side in a fine new dress, both of us holding our heads high as Lords, and nobody saying, "Look see, there's Kewleys--don't you know they used to be somebody." Or I dreamed my great-grandfather, Juan, who I never met, but who was known as Big Kewley on account of being the only Kewley ever to make money rather than lose it. There he was, clear as day, leaning out of heaven with a telescope, and calling out in a voice loud as thunder, "Put a sight on him, Illiam Quillian, my own great-grandson. Now there's a man who can."
Then all of a sudden our dreamings were interrupted. Tom Teare was calling down from the masthead, where he was keeping watch. "Sail. Sail to the northwest."
Not that anyone thought much on his shout then. The English Channel is hardly the quietest stretch of ocean, so there seemed nothing too worrying in discovering another ship creeping along. The boys went on scrubbing down the deck, while chief mate Brew and myself carried on standing on the quarterdeck, making sure they kept at it.
But you should know a little about the Sincerity, as there was a wonder all made of wood if ever there was one. Truly, you couldn't imagine a vessel that looked more normal from the outside. I dare say she was a little old--her prow was round and blunt and well out of fashion, and her quarterdeck was too high for modern tastes--but other-wise she seemed as ordinary as seawater. I'd wager you could've spent all day aboard and still been none the wiser. Unless, that is, you had a particular eye for the measure of things. Or you happened to take a look above the inside top rim of the door to the pantry.
And that would be hardly likely.

What People are Saying About This

Nicholas Shakespeare

English Passengers is what fiction ought to be: ambitious, narrative - driven, with a story and a quest we don't mind going on. On page after page I found myself laughing or nodding or simply envious. I was compelled from first to last, and beyond. The characters are still living with me.

From the Publisher

?A grim but hilarious historical novel involving the extinction of the Tasmanians [and] a search for the Garden of Eden.??The New York Times Book Review

Reading Group Guide

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.

1. 2

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?

Customer Reviews

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English Passengers 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For a rolicking ride on the high seas with men from the Isle of Man, and of course, the English passengers, who take them to the far away island of New Zealand, where the natives are under seige by the white man's disease and weapons. Witty, but spiked with horror. One of the best books of the decade, I don't know why it didn't win the Booker. Maybe it was too funny.
PGAllison on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fantastic history lesson and novel rolled into one, told in a remarkable twenty distinct voices. If you liked Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible you will enjoy this.
RobinDawson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A tour de force. A multi-layered story set in the 1800's that moves around the globe and then focuses on Tasmania in the early days of British settlement. The arrival of settlers and British government had a disastrous impact on the Indigenous people. Other themes include the clash between science and religion, the management of penal colonies, theories about racial characteristics and superiority, and the exploration and development of new territories by the British. The story is told in the first person by more than twenty characters, each with their own distinctive voice. A great achievement. Most of these characters are misguided fools who plow on, oblivious to reality, and ultimately pay the price for their folly. The only one with a resonable grasp of what's happening is Peevay, the young Aboriginal boy.It was such a surprise to find a Manx writer had come across this small but shameful part of Australian history and decided to bring it out into the light. The other surprise is that Kneale has managed to tackle a very serious issue with a great deal of humour. The first half of the novel has a rollicking quality, with many laugh out loud scenes, but as the story progresses there's no escaping the message that the early settlers basically eradicated the Aboriginal population of Tasmania.
ChazzW on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What is it anyway? I've never read a bad book set in Tasmania. There's the wondrous Gould's Book of Fish. There's another novel that I read a few years ago that I can't for the life of me remember the name of. That one and Kneale's English Passengers both cover some of the same ground - the destruction of the aboriginal people of the island. The history itself is compelling.Kneale's historical novel (a Booker short lister in 2000, the Atwood Blind Assassin year) has a quirky cast of characters that cross all ethnicities - and form a major part of this tale. There're the Manxmen, from the small island subsumed by the British Empire. There are the convicts, trappers, and settlers of Tasmania (the white scut). There are the dwindling aboriginal tribes of Tasmania. And finally, there are the English passengers themselves, who form a broad range of types and personalities just amongst themselves. One of this group is Dr. Potter, a London surgeon who is collecting specimens of ethnic types and writing his own precursor to Mein Kampf. Another of the English passengers is a small time vicar who has visions of finding the Garden of Eden, that he decides must be located in Tasmania. Hence he, the vicar, and a wastrel geologist become the passengers of the title, who hire out the vessel of a group of Isle of Manx smugglers for the trek to discover paradise on earth. This voyage, along with the story of the extermination of the aboriginal peoples of Tasmania (Van Diemen's land) form the narrative as told through short chapters in first person of the various players in a sort of diary like format. The myriad and diverse perspectives are one of the delights of the book.There's the chronicle of Peavey, told in a pidgin English that swells with rage and deflates with despair as his people are killed off by policy, by disease, and by "progress". There are the various government officials and even the 'liberal' bleeding heart do gooder (who, at the end of the day, is as destructive as the murderous settlers) who profess that they have nothing but the best interest of the poor "savages" in mind. One can't help but note the racist seeds of 19th Century imperialism have taken root and mutated into other, more subtle forms of social hegemony that are still with us today.
Figgles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Waiting till I finish it...if ever - so far slipshod research into ships (why go aloft to let go the sheets? Sheets are lines attached to the corners of the sail and are led down to the deck, landlubbers often confuse sheets and sails, I've sailed in square rig and I know) ; since when does a sea breeze blow away from the land, I'm not trying to be petty, these little errors compound the unconvincingness...how could a wombat climb a companionway ladder on its stumpy legs...Well I finally finished it. Funny? not to me. Clever? no - full of silly little errors of fact that undermine it. Every English voice is full of self righteouss pompousness and it becomes very annoying- I realise this is a technique of characterisation (having each character speak in their own voice) but the cliches and platitudes are exceptionally tedious! (Hence the need for a third person narrator).... and what was it about - it seemed to be at war with itself, am I a comic romp about an inept Manx smuggler and a dotty Englich cleric or a dark tale about the evils of racial psuedo science and the fate of the Tasmanian aboriginals. I don't have a full O.E.D. either but I suspect as well as sailing errors we have a great deal of anachronistic speech...I think the book fell into it's own trap - every English character thinks they know best about the "poor blacks" and the author thinks he knows best about the attitudes he satirises. For all these reasons for me it failed utterly. How could it win a Whitbread? Fashion for noble savages and idiot Europeans?
infjsarah on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I listened to this as an audiobook and loved it. I had read "When we were Romans" and not been that impressed. But this novel is funny and sad and thought provoking. The audio I listened to had various people performing the voices and they were very very good. I learnt about a shameful part of history yet it also made me laugh out loud. The farcical bad luck of Captain Kewley is so amusing and yet just as I thought the novel was going in one direction it changes and goes in a completely different direction. And I felt so sorry for Peevay and his people. Definately recommended.
isabelx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this for a book club, and I didn't want to repeat what everyone else said, in their reviews, so I've just written a few things that occurred to me. Dr Potter and Reverend Wilson were so blinkered by their pet theories, that they couldn't actually see what was in front of their faces. In Dr Potter's case, everything anyone else said and did was filtered through his 'notions', and discarded as a fluke if it didn't fit. This was amusing when writing about the uselessness of the Norman type during his rows with Wilson, and totally unbelievable in his under-estimation of Peevay when they were in the wilderness. How did he think the aborigines had survived there before? I think he had gone completely crazy by then. How I laughed at the thought of him mouldering away in that museum case! He would have been frothing at the mouth at the thought that anyone could think that his skeleton was an aborigine's.On the other hand, Renshaw started out as a 'slacker' with no aim in life, and found himself during the expedition. Because he didn't have a fixation about what they were going to find, he was more open to the experience. I was joyous when he came upon num sheep animals and knew he was back in the world (oops - it's catching!).I already knew that the Tasmanian aborigines had been wiped out before Istarted reading the book, and I disagree with the people who found Peevay'scontributions hard-going. In fact, I thought that it was a pity that the only Aboriginal voice that we heard was Peevay's. It would have been interesting to hear from Walyeric and Tayaleah/George as well.Reverend Wilson thinks that Tasmania is the site of the garden of Eden, and maybe it was originally. But then the Europeans arrived and turned it into purgatory for the convicts and hell for the aborigines.
shihtzu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author manages to write a humorous novel about horrible genocide. The depictions of the enslavement and demise of the Tasmanian natives is brutal and tragic. The author saves his humor for the descriptions of the English passengers who come to the island to set up their own Garden of Eden.
miketroll on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A Whitbread Book of the year (20000 - always a good sign.Beautifully written. A sharp, humorous, compassionate fictional portrayal of the destruction of the aboriginal peoples of Tasmania at the hands of British settlers (and their diseases) in the 19th Century.
akfarrar on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Missing Links or Chains?We are in Tasmania, once Van Deiman's Land, in search of Paradise; amongst the prisoners in the British run proto-concentration camps; with the aborigines facing extinction at the hands of `the British'; and on a boat of `unfortunate' Manx smugglers constantly running from customs officers. The scope is both very tight on two `small' islands off the coast of major parts of the Great British Empire, and world spanning in the vast expanses of the British Ruled Waves between.I wouldn't know the factual accuracy of everything in the novel, but it is certainly one of those fictions that contain a truth about both the good and the bad in human nature.It is a book of contrasts, where you cannot remove one `side' without making the other invisible. The Reverend Wilson, in a reaction to the new study of Geology's findings about the age of the earth is in search of a physical, only 5,000 year old Paradise; on the same trip is Dr Potter, secretive scientific in the new sense, and looking for evidence of the inheritable superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. Both wish to become famous as a result of the publications they will base on their journey across the world.Put against this high energy double-extreme is the third member of the expedition, Timothy Renshaw; a disappointment to his family and on the boat officially as botanist, but really in search for a meaning to his life - or so his family hope: A more laid-back, late adolescent you could not wish for.I can't help being reminded of the voyage of the Beagle, of Darwin and Fitzroy. But it is only a reminder - Matthew Kneale has resisted the temptation to base his characterisation on them but seems to have taken the issues which arise from that real, paradigm-shattering voyage and personified them.That this works so well is mainly due to the stunning `voice' he gives to each of his characters.The Manx captain and crew don't only have a superficial sprinkling of Manx words, they seem to think Manx - and a whole culture linked and contrasting with the dominant English emerges in those parts told by Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley (and Kneale should have won the Booker Prize on the strength of that name alone!).The tour-de-force though is Peevay.With a Tasmanian mother abducted to be a sex-slave by an escaped convict father, Peevay journeys through the book searching for love and identity. The only certainty he has is his ability to endure. He tells his story in a language which stretches English to its limits. It isn't the usual `poetic' limit, or `stream-of-consciousness' limit; it is a twisted grammar and not-quite-right-vocabulary of a none-native speaker struggling to express complex thoughts and emotions limit; it is a way of thinking about the world in another culture limit; it's a limit which pulls you screaming and kicking into a strange world and consciousness of `other' experience.It is a language that makes you regret that part of your ancestry which was responsible for the Genocide on Van Deiman's Land.I don't think I give too much away if I say Peevay does achieve a sort of resolution, nor if I say there is an ending which leaves one hopeful. This is a book which you won't forget in a long time, and which treats the 19th century as what it was - the foundation of much of what we think and do at the start of the 21st Century.Well worth reading!
aapjebaapje on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The vicar is looking for the Garden of Eden in Tasmania. The aborigines are being killed off by the white settlers. Surprisingly, for the content this is a comic novel. I finished it because it was on the Radio 4 Reading Club but it wasn¿t really my cup of tea although it was quite a good book.
Clurb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A comic and touching story of racial extinction, religious fervour, and honest-to-goodness smuggling. I raced through this one and loved every page.
jennyo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Kneale wrote this book in about 20 different voices. All unique and fascinating to read. The book succeeds on several levels. It's great historical adventure fiction, it's a study of prejudice disguised as academia, and it's literary enough that the English teacher in our book club is adding it to her high school reading lists. I recommend this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
English Passengers is a historical fiction book that tells the story of a ship’s journey to Tasmania. Matthew Kneale, the author, writes the story to be reflective of several various voices and backgrounds. He begins the story with a band of rum smugglers, who were caught by the British customs forcing them to put their ship up for charter. This opportunity allows the real adventure to take place, starting with an expedition set for Tasmania, hired by two individualistic Englishmen who set sail for two very contrasting motives. Kneale’s broad sense of enlightenment allows him to tell the story from such viewpoints like religious affiliated men, scientists, and common sailors. His proficiency with writing becomes crystal clear through speaking in so many different voices. I would recommend this book for people looking for something with occasional touches of humor and historically enlightening material.  -Sam Paek
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Guest More than 1 year ago
One person of this novel is most interesting character a Tasmanian Aboriginal. But the other creatures from the wrriters fiction are in the plot of 20 persons interesting from different readers angle. Matthev Kneale have had wroten a book with sence for philosophical fine art about life. I have had enjoy from first to last sentence of this magister ( think excelent) book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This may well be the best historical fiction I've ever read! A masterful portrayal of very different characters -- their voices, their visions of life -- I asked myself how one author could have created such fully realized people, and then I read the afterword last. Much of the history of Tasmania which is related in this 'novel' is based on real people and events. The story skillfully teeters along the thin edge of human comedy/tragedy so the reader is drawn to the brink of horror while laughing at the nearly insane antics of characters driven by their quests. The tantalizing afterword detailing the real people behind the characters drew me into further research about the early penal colony days in Tasmania. The book is full of evocative sensory detail that delivers the story's world vividly. Descriptions of men with scurvy, storms at sea, treks through the Tasmanian bush, and indigenous aboriginal life made me feel like I was on the trip myself. A truly literary and fascinating read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book had me from the first chapter. I loved it. Matthew Kneale brought over 40 different characters to life, each in their own narrative voice and the result is utter beauty. English Passengers is filled with adventure, with humor, and with deep pain. It is satire at its greatest and brings the ideas of racism and equality to the forefront of your mind without seeming pushy or overlydramatic. I did not know what to expect when I picked up this book, but am glad I did and reread certian passages multiple times. Thank you Matthew Kneale for such a book. I only hope their are plenty more to come.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I am attracted to entertaining adventure stories that additionally impart knowledge about a country and/or people. 'Shogun' was such a novel, and this one is of the same ilk, giving the reader insights into the history of the 'development' of Tasmania by the British. I particularly enjoyed the postscripts supplied by the author, wherein he discusses the historical facts upon which he based events and characters in the novel. I enthusiastically recommend this book to others who enjoy a good tale, well told.