English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

The British Empire existed recently enough for it to still be a bit of an ‘issue’ in global relations. No one will let us forget all the things that Britain did – most of which were not beneficial to those being colonised. If anything the memories of the Empire have become a reminder that not only did we once have an amount of global power that compares embarrassingly with our current global status, but also that we, as a nation, have been capable of frankly inhuman ignorance, racism, evangelism and a ‘we know best’ attitude. Don’t get me wrong, I love Britain, it is my home and where I belong, but we have made a lot of mistakes. It’s a fact that there are a lot of people out there who either just don’t like us or take a thankfully more humorous attitude (given that these things happened over a century ago) and just continue to mock us. We can take being mocked. We have a stiff upper lip and the self-assurance that in many ways we are Great.

There are a million issues that can be discussed in relation to colonisation and Empire, and English Passengers tackles quite a few of them. The book is written from multiple viewpoints and jumps between the early and mid nineteenth century, with the story as a whole culminating in a certain ship’s arrival in Tasmania in 1858. It is one great story, broken down into all the individual parts of each person involved – at whatever distance. The title takes on greater and greater significance as the book progresses. Matthew Kneale acknowledges every implication of the fact and concept of English people travelling around the world in the nineteenth century – they are colonists, prisoners, and seemingly blameless passengers. There is significant depth in such an innocent phrase. While the male colonists are governors and mayors, leading the British to new things in new lands, their wives and children are simply passengers; but they too are capable of inflicting harm through their ignorance. The English penal system in Australia and Tasmania causes nothing but trouble throughout the novel, demonstrating that people are not ‘out of the way’ simply because they have been shipped to the other side of the world. Then there are the English passengers aboard The Sincerity, the ship at the centre of this story. Journeying from London to Tasmania carrying three Englishmen (and crewed by Manx men from the Isle of Man), The Sincerity’s story and its passengers demonstrate all the good intentions and ill will of men travelling to the other side of the world.

2001 Penguin edition (image: goodreads.com)
2001 Penguin edition (image: goodreads.com)

This book is just under 500 pages, so it’s not too long, but it is very… thick. There is a lot in it. A LOT. Not only are there twenty different narrators but the story spans a generation, telling one character’s life story alongside the voyage of another. The amount of research, time and effort Kneale must have put into this book is huge. There are extensive acknowledgements and an entire glossary of Manx words; some of the narrators (particularly the letter-writers) are based on real people; and to top it all the writing in every section is brilliant. Kneale manages to write in twenty different dialects and styles, each time firmly convincing the reader that this is a new person whose work they are reading. No wonder it won the Whitbread Award for Book of the Year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

English Passengers is intentionally humorous at points, often woven in with dark and unpleasant events. The humour is mostly sarcastic, black humour that makes us laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of certain situations (or indeed people – see most sections narrated by the Reverend). There are gruesome, bleak moments that bring forth the ugly side of the institutionalised racism that is presented as ‘culturing’ and ‘helping’ the natives of Tasmania, seen through the eyes of people to whom it is absolutely normal; or indeed very, very strange and unsettling. A dark, knowing look and a cheerful, ignorant smile sit side by side all the way through this wonderful book.

Yes, it is wonderful. It has its faults too of course. Sometimes it is a little slow-going, with the narration(s) taking a while to really advance, and the sheer number of characters coupled with the jumps through time can sometimes take a moment to process. However, these things do not ultimately matter. A quote on the cover states that English Passengers is a “mind-expanding book” and this is certainly true. The amount of characters, locations, years and miles are one thing – but the endless levels of study are what really boggle the mind. It is a novel about many, many things, only some of which I have been able to mention here. The one thing I can say for sure about this novel is that YOU SHOULD READ IT.



English Passengers was originally published by Hamish Hamilton in 2000, and by Penguin Books in 2001.


2 thoughts on “English Passengers by Matthew Kneale”

  1. Read this quite a few years ago, when I still had the knack of picking books based exclusively on their covers. Didn’t even read the blurb. But I agree. SO GOOD!


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