Soon after the success of Vivian Grey Disraeli published another novel, The Voyage of Captain Popanilla (1828), an allegorical adventure story that describes travels of Captain Popanilla and his crew to distant lands. Earlier, in 1824, Disraeli submitted to the publisher John Murray the preliminary version of this book under the title The Adventures of Mr. Aylmer Papillion, which was designed as a social satire, but the manuscript was rejected. The new version, which Henry Colburn published four years later, did not become as popular as Vivian Grey because Disraeli abandoned the topic of fashionable life and adopted an allegorical narrative style. The Voyage of Captain Popanilla contains elements of utopia, in which the author makes a confrontation between innocent and happy life in a blissful Arcadian island on the South Pacific and the principles of Benthamite utilitarianism, which Disraeli despised.

Although the novel’s plot is rather thin soup, The Voyage of Captain Popanilla is interesting for its attempt to revive the ancient genre of Menippean satire as well as its exotic setting and satirical allusions to British politics, religion, trade, literature and philosophy, as well as to British colonial expansion. Disraeli used the genre of utopian fiction — as it is so often used — for ideological polemics. Monypenny described this novel as his ‘first political essay’ (123), because the polemical discourse supersedes its artistic value. It should be remembered that young Disraeli showed his gift for satire not only here but also in two mythological and burlesque extravaganzas, Ixion in Heaven and The Infernal Marriage, published in the New Monthly Magazine in 1832-33, and in book form in 1853.

A utopian travelogue that satirizes utilitarianism

The Voyage of Captain Popanilla can also be understood as a utopian travelogue in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Using the convention of travelogue, Disraeli describes an imaginary land with which he parodies contemporary English vices and follies, particularly the mercantilist mentality of the new commercial middle class that followed the doctrines of Benthamite utilitarianism. In his narrative Disraeli incorporates a series of dialogues between representatives of two opposing points of view: utilitarian and non-utilitarian. Apart from that, the novel also deals with issues of the late 1820s, such as the protectionist Corn Laws, the popularity of silver-fork novels, the economic crisis of 1825-26, as well as the founding of the University College London and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

In The Voyage of Captain Popanilla, which abandons realism for the sake of fantasy and parody, Disraeli creates extraordinary utopian situations for the purpose of mocking the philosophical tenets of utilitarianism, especially through an elaborative manipulation of various points of view. He employs the elements of social utopia and a variety of other genres to ridicule utilitarian reforms as irrational projects. Disraeli’s anti-utilitarian stance is strongly developed in his later political novels, Coningsby and Sybil.

The novel’s eponymous character, Popanilla, lives in the Isle of Fantaisie, ‘an earthly paradise in the Indian Ocean, where men lead lives of careless happiness amid the resources provided by a bountiful nature’ (Monypenny 121). One day he finds on the seashore a chest of books bearing the initials S.D.K. – an allusions to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, established by Henry Brougham in 1825. One book, The Universal Linguist or the Art of Dreaming in Languages, by a certain Mr. Hamilton, puts him to sleep when he reads it, but after he wakes up, he can understand many foreign languages. He reads from other books about various sciences including hydrostatics, and ‘(f)or the rest of the day he was hydrostatically mad’ (25). He also learns to his great shock and surprise that he and the natives of Fantaisie are nothing more than ‘a horde of useless savages’ (29). After acquiring the basic conceptions of utilitarianism, Popanilla feels that he has become an adept of the new dismal science. Convinced of its truth, he attempts to convert the King and people of the island to the new philosophy. In the following passage, Disraeli ridicules utilitarianism when he exposes its inherent antinomies and pitfalls.

He also showed that man was not born for himself, but for society; that the interests of the body are alone to be considered, and not those of the individual; and that a nation might be extremely happy, extremely powerful, and extremely rich, although every individual member of it might at the same time be miserable, dependent, and in debt. [...] Man is created for a purpose; the object of his existence is to perfect himself. Man is imperfect by nature, because if nature had made him perfect he would have had no wants; and it is only by supplying his wants that utility can be developed. The development of utility is therefore the object of our being, and the attainment of this great end the cause of our existence. This principle clears all doubts, and rationally accounts for a state of existence which has puzzled many pseudo-philosophers. Popanilla then went on to show that the hitherto received definitions of man were all erroneous; that man is neither a walking animal, nor a talking animal, nor a cooking animal, nor a lounging animal, nor a debt-incurring animal, nor a tax-paying animal, nor a printing animal, nor a pufling animal, but a developing animal. [34-35]

According to Disraeli, utilitarianism degrades people by destroying their individuality in reducing them to mere automatons and statistical numbers. The reader may infer that the mechanisation of people and converting them into machines will prevent the natural progression and development of their imagination and emotions.

‘Man’, said he, ‘is called the masterpiece of nature; and man is also, as we all know, the most curious of machines: now, a machine is a work of art, consequently, the masterpiece of nature is the masterpiece of art. The object of all mechanism is the attainment of utility; the object of man, who is the most perfect machine, is utility in the highest degree’. [37]

In Disraeli’s interpretation utiliarianism allows individual rights and liberties to be sacrificed in order to maximise the vaguely defined collective welfare.

Like the king of Brobdingnag who laughs at Gulliver, the King can hardly understand Popanilla’s lucubrations and laughs at him. Filled with the liberal ideas of the utilitarians, Popanilla tells the King that he is only ‘a chief magistrate’ and has ‘no more right to laugh at him than a constable’ (42). Finally, the King ironically pretends to be a convert to the new faith and appoints Popanilla commander of a ship, although he has had no previous experience in sea voyages, and orders him to seek extension of the international relations of the island.

As the axiom of your school seems to be that everything can be made perfect at once, without time, without experience, without practice, and without preparation, I have no doubt, with the aid of a treatise or two, you will make a consummate naval commander, although you have never been at sea in the whole course of your life. Farewell, Captain Popanilla! [51]

Popanilla’s ship sets off on her maiden voyage and is carried by a storm to the great city of Hubbabub, which is the capital of the island of Vraibleusia, the most famous island in the world, and a paradise of wealth and freedom, and also, it turns out, the embodiment of laissez-faire competition. Of course, the newly discovered island is cleverly disguised England with its capital London. Henceforth, as Monypenny points out, the narrative becomes a satire on English social life and the English Constitution (122). Popanilla views England from the perspective of a noble savage. He is appointed Ambassador of Fantaisia, and the island becomes the target of Vraibleusian colonial expansion.

Disraeli’s early critique of imperialism and empire

Disraeli, who as Prime Minister led the movement to make Queen Victoria the Empress of the British empire, here early in his career ridicules British colonial expansion as a commercial enterprise created ad hoc by sea merchants and adventurers — a clear attack on the East India Company. Vraibleusians discover an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean which is only a bare rock. They take possession of it and put fortifications, regardless of expense. Next, they cram it with clerks, soldiers, lawyers, and priests and call it the ‘colonial system’ (178). As a young man, and later as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Disraeli made several anti-imperial remarks, most of which express his Tory dislike of commerce and the middle class far more than any repugnance at conquering other nations and making them part of an empire. He criticised the colonial policy of the Liberals, emphasizing the financial cost of maintaining colonies. In 1852, he complained in a letter to Lord Malmesbury, his Cabinet colleague, that ‘These wretched colonies will all be independent too, in a few years, and are a millstone round our necks’ (Walton 37).

In his critique of mismatched utilitarian and mercantilist policies, Disraeli describes the irrational overinvestment which the Vraibleusians have made in anticipation of profitable trade with Fantaisie.

The most commercial nation in the world was now busily preparing to diffuse the blessings of civilisation and competition throughout the native country of their newly-acquired friend. The greatest exporters that ever existed had never been acquainted with such a subject for exportation as the Isle of Fantaisie. There everything was wanted. It was not a partial demand which was to be satisfied, nor a particular deficiency which was to be supplied; but a vast population was thoroughly to be furnished with every article which a vast population must require. From the manufacturer of steam-engines to the manufacturer of stockings, all were alike employed. There was no branch of trade in Vraibleusia which did not equally rejoice at this new opening for commercial enterprise, and which was not equally interested in this new theatre for Vraibleusian industry, Vraibleusian invention, Vraibleusian activity, and, above all, Vraibleusian competition. [142]

Referring to the political economists’ call for new British overseas markets, Disraeli continues his satire by listing mockingly the innumerable goods and articles that were dispatched from Vraibleusia to Fantaisie, irrespective of whether they were needed there or not.

At length the first fleet of five hundred sail, laden with the most wonderful specimens of Vraibleusian mechanism, and the most innumerable bales of Vraibleusian manufactures; articles raw and refined, goods dry and damp, wholesale and retail; silks and woollen cloths; cottons, cutlery, and camlets; flannels and ladies' albums; under waistcoats, kid-gloves, engravings, coats, cloaks, and ottomans; lamps and looking-glasses; sofas, round-tables, equipages, and scent-bottles; fans and tissue-flowers; porcelain, poetry, novels, newspapers, and cookery books; bear's-grease, blue pills, and bijouterie; arms, beards, poodles, pages, mustachios, court-guides, and bon-bons; music, pictures, ladies' maids, scrapbooks, buckles, boxing-gloves, guitars, and snuff-boxes; together with a company of opera-singers, a band of comedians, a popular preacher, some quacks, lecturers, artists, and literary gentlemen, principally sketch-book men. [144-45]

An unexpected obstacle leads to the complete failure of the expedition. Because the Vraibleusian fleet simply cannot find the Isle of Fantaisie, the goods are returned to exporters, which affects disastrously the local economy. As a result, Popanilla becomes the culprit responsible for the unsuccessful commercial venture. In order to be tried for high treason, he must be first accused, by fiction of law, of stealing 219 camelopards, the species which has been long extinct in Vraibleusia. Although Popanilla is shown as ‘a political exile, the victim of a tyrant, a corrupt aristocracy, and a misguided people’ (237), the judge is still determined to execute Popanilla for high treason, even though the Captain does not understand the accusation. However, luckily for Popanilla, after carefully examining the new consolidated legislation of Vraibleusia prepared by ‘a remarkable young man’ (239) (allusion to British Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel), the judge finds that the crime of high treason has been accidentally omitted in its codes of law, and therefore instructs the jury to find the prisoner not guilty (239). Eventually, Popanilla escapes execution, and the narrative ends with him being given ‘a spade, a blanket, a hard biscuit’, and put in a boat which will sail to one of the British colonies — another plot element from Gulliver's Travels.

Mocking British publishers and the literary world of readers and writers

In The Voyage of Captain Popanilla Disraeli also ridicules the nouveau riche, principally the rising world of capitalism and industry and by extension the silver-fork novels, like his own Vivian Grey, which enjoyed great popularity among both servants and middle class readers. Disraeli laughs at the newly rich called Millionaires (however desperately he wished to become one himself), who do not know how to behave in a polite society and need to read books about fashionable life for education.

At this moment of doubt and dispute, the Government of Vraibleusia, with that spirit of conciliation and liberality, and that perfect wisdom, for which it had been long celebrated, caring very little for the old class, whose interest it well knew was to support it, and being exceedingly desirous of engaging the affections of the new race, declared in their favour, and acting on that sublime scale of measures, for which this great nation has always been so famous, the Statue issued an edict, that a new literature should be invented, in order at once to complete the education of the Millionaires, and the triumph of the Romantic over the Classic School of Manners. [155-56 ]

Disraeli here reveals a streak of social conservatism that in England goes back at least to the age of Elizabeth.

One of the novels of fashionable life subsidised by the government of Vraibleusia is Burlington, A Tale of Fashionable Life, in three volumes. Due to their utilitarian usefulness and entertaining value, books of that kind are published in Vraibleusia almost every day for mass readership. Disraeli also reveals the practice of employing hack writers who can produce books on any topic for a fee. Popanilla is introduced to an eminent bookseller who wants to publish an account of his voyage. When the Captain confesses that he cannot write, the bookseller tells him that it is not an obstacle because someone will write it for him. The book, which contains a completely distorted account of Popanilla’s voyage, is published in less than a week and becomes an immediate bestseller.


The Voyage of Captain Popanilla appeared with a dedication to Robert Plumer Ward, who had earlier expressed appreciation of Disraeli’s first novel, Vivian Grey. This time Ward was also laudatory: ‘Since the days of Swift and Voltaire, I have not read anything so witty. Je riais aux éclats (I laughed out loud) and made others do so too. In my opinion it is equal to A Tale of a Tub and Candide, and superior to Zadig and Babouc’. Also John Bright (1811-1889), a Lancashire manufacturer and a promoter of free trade policies greatly admired Popanilla (Monypenny 123-24). However, the critics and the reading public were not attracted by Disraeli’s new novel, although it was advertised as ‘written by the author of Vivian Grey’. Readers expected another silver-fork novel, not a political and philosophical satire.


Disraeli, under the influence of Byron’s romanticism, criticises in The Voyage of Captain Popanilla the utilitarian outlook which reduces people to rational animals who seek only to achieve maximum utility in their actions. In his view utilitarianism unnaturally promotes reason and logic at the cost of fancy and imagination. The Voyage of Captain Popanilla, being a utopian social satire, is a prelude to the more mature political trilogy, Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred, in which Disraeli rejects classical liberalism and advocates Tory democracy. Unlike Vivian Grey, The Voyage of Captain Popanilla is addressed to a more cultivated reader concerned with philosophical and social issues. It presents utilitarianism as a disease of the intellect.

References and Further Reading

Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Eyre & Spottiswode Publishers, 1967.

Bradford, Sarah. Disraeli. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982.

Copeland, Edward. The Silver Fork Novel: Fashionable Fiction in the Age of Reform. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Disraeli, Benjamin. The Voyage of Captain Popanilla. London: Henry Colburn, 1828.

Flavin, Michael. Benjamin Disraeli: The Novel as Political Discourse. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.

Dyer, Gary. British Satire and the Politics of Style, 1789-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge and New York: University Press, 2006.

Froude, James Anthony. The Earl of Beaconsfield. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1890.

Jerman, B. R. The Young Disraeli. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Kirsch, Adam. Disraeli. New York: Nextbook and Schocken, 2008.

Kuhn, William M. The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006.

Maginn, William. Whitehall; or, The Days of George IV. London: Marsh, 1827.

Meynell, Wilfred. Benjamin Disraeli: An Unconventional Biography. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1903.

Monypenny, William Flavelle, George Earle Buckle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume: 1. Edition: Revised. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.

O’Kell, Robert. Disraeli: The Romance of Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Pearson, Hesketh. Dizzy: The Life and Nature of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. London: Methuen, 1952.

Richmond, Charles, Paul Smith, eds. The Self-fashioning of Disraeli, 1818-1851. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Ridley, Jane. Young Disraeli, 1804-1846. New York: Crown, 1995.

Smith, Paul. Disraeli: A Brief Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Walton, John K. Disraeli. London: Routledge, 1990.

Last modified 20 January 2016