About the Author

Margaret MacMillan

MARGARET MacMILLAN is the renowned author of Women Of The Raj, Stephen Leacock (Extraordinary Canadians series), and the international bestsellers Nixon In China and Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, which won the 2003 Governor General’s Award and the 2002 Samuel Johnson Prize. She is also the author of The Uses and Abuses of History. The past provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, she is now the warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University.

Books by this Author
History's People

History's People

Personalities and the Past
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover
More Info
History’s People

History’s People

Personalities and the Past
edition:Paperback
More Info
Nixon in China

Nixon in China

The Week That Changed The World
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
More Info
Paris 1919

Paris 1919

Six Months That Changed the World
edition:Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

Chapter 1

Woodrow Wilson Comes to Europe

On december 4, 1918, the George Washington sailed out of New York with the American delegation to the Peace Conference on board. Guns fired salutes, crowds along the waterfront cheered, tugboats hooted and Army planes and dirigibles circled overhead. Robert Lansing, the American secretary of state, released carrier pigeons with messages to his relatives about his deep hope for a lasting peace. The ship, a former German passenger liner, slid out past the Statue of Liberty to the Atlantic, where an escort of destroyers and battleships stood by to accompany it and its cargo of heavy expectations to Europe.

On board were the best available experts, combed out of the universities and the government; crates of reference materials and special studies; the French and Italian ambassadors to the United States; and Woodrow Wilson. No other American president had ever gone to Europe while in office. His opponents accused him of breaking the Constitution; even his supporters felt he might be unwise. Would he lose his great moral authority by getting down to the hurly-burly of negotiations? Wilson¹s own view was clear: the making of the peace was as important as the winning of the war. He owed it to the peoples of Europe, who were crying out for a better world. He owed it to the American servicemen. "It is now my duty," he told a pensive Congress just before he left, "to play my full part in making good what they gave their life's blood to obtain." A British diplomat was more cynical; Wilson, he said, was drawn to Paris "as a debutante is entranced by the prospect of her first ball."

Wilson expected, he wrote to his great friend Edward House, who was already in Europe, that he would stay only to arrange the main outlines of the peace settlements. It was not likely that he would remain for the formal Peace Conference with the enemy. He was wrong. The preliminary conference turned, without anyone's intending it, into the final one, and Wilson stayed for most of the crucial six months between January and June 1919. The question of whether or not he should have gone to Paris, which exercised so many of his contemporaries, now seems unimportant. From Franklin Roosevelt at Yalta to Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton at Camp David, American presidents have sat down to draw borders and hammer out peace agreements. Wilson had set the conditions for the armistices which ended the Great War. Why should he not make the peace as well?

Although he had not started out in 1912 as a foreign policy president, circumstances and his own progressive political principles had drawn him outward. Like many of his compatriots, he had come to see the Great War as a struggle between the forces of democracy, however imperfectly represented by Britain and France, and those of reaction and militarism, represented all too well by Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany's sack of Belgium, its unrestricted submarine warfare and its audacity in attempting to entice Mexico into waging war on the United States had pushed Wilson and American public opinion toward the Allies. When Russia had a democratic revolution in February 1917, one of the last reservations that the Allies included an autocracy vanished. Although he had campaigned in 1916 on a platform of keeping the country neutral, Wilson brought the United States into the war in April 1917. He was convinced that he was doing the right thing. This was important to the son of a Presbyterian minister, who shared his father's deep religious conviction, if not his calling.

Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856, just before the Civil War. Although he remained a Southerner in some ways all his life‹in his insistence on honor and his paternalistic attitudes toward women and blacks he also accepted the war's outcome. Abraham Lincoln was one of his great heroes, along with Edmund Burke and William Gladstone. The young Wilson was at once highly idealistic and intensely ambitious. After four very happy years at Princeton and an unhappy stint as a lawyer, he found his first career in teaching and writing. By 1890 he was back at Princeton, a star member of the faculty. In 1902 he became its president, supported virtually unanimously by the trustees, faculty and students.

In the next eight years Wilson transformed Princeton from a sleepy college for gentlemen into a great university. He reworked the curriculum, raised significant amounts of money and brought into the faculty the brightest and the best young men from across the country. By 1910, he was a national figure and the Democratic party in New Jersey, under the control of conservative bosses, invited him to run for governor. Wilson agreed, but insisted on running on a progressive platform of controlling big business and extending democracy. He swept the state and by 1911 "Wilson for President" clubs were springing up. He spoke for the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and all those who had been left behind by the rapid economic growth of the late nineteenth century. In 1912, at a long and hard-fought convention, Wilson got the Democratic nomination for president. That November, with the Republicans split by Teddy Roosevelt's decision to run as a progressive against William Howard Taft, Wilson was elected. In 1916, he was reelected, with an even greater share of the popular vote.

Wilson's career was a series of triumphs, but there were darker moments, both personal and political, fits of depression and sudden and baffling illnesses. Moreover, he had left behind him a trail of enemies, many of them former friends. "An ingrate and a liar," said a Democratic boss in New Jersey in a toast. Wilson never forgave those who disagreed with him. "He is a good hater," said his press officer and devoted admirer Ray Stannard Baker. He was also stubborn. As House said, with admiration: "Whenever a question is presented he keeps an absolutely open mind and welcomes all suggestion or advice which will lead to a correct decision. But he is receptive only during the period that he is weighing the question and preparing to make his decision. Once the decision is made it is final and there is an absolute end to all advice and suggestion. There is no moving him after that." What was admirable to some was a dangerous egotism to others. The French ambassador in Washington saw "a man who, had he lived a couple of centuries ago, would have been the greatest tyrant in the world, because he does not seem to have the slightest conception that he can ever be wrong."

This side of Wilson¹s character was in evidence when he chose his fellow commissioners‹or plenipotentiaries, as the chief delegates were known‹to the Peace Conference. He was himself one. House, "my alter ego," as he was fond of saying, was another. Reluctantly he selected Lansing, his secretary of state, as a third, mainly because it would have been awkward to leave him behind. Where Wilson had once rather admired Lansing's vast store of knowledge, his meticulous legal mind and his apparent readiness to take a back seat, by 1919 that early liking had turned to irritation and contempt. Lansing, it turned out, did have views, often strong ones which contradicted the president's. "He has," Wilson complained to House, who noted it down with delight, "no imagination, no constructive ability, and but little real ability of any kind." The fourth plenipotentiary, General Tasker Bliss, was already in France as the American military representative on the Supreme War Council. A thoughtful and intelligent man who loved to lie in bed with a hip flask reading Thucydides in the original Greek, he was also, many of the junior members of the American delegation believed, well past his prime. Since Wilson was to speak to him on only five occasions during the Peace Conference, perhaps that did not matter.

The president's final selection, Henry White, was a charming, affable retired diplomat, the high point of whose career had been well before the war. Mrs. Wilson was to find him useful in Paris on questions of etiquette.

close this panel
The Lion's Cub - Le lionceau

The Lion's Cub - Le lionceau

Canada and the Great War - Le Canada et la Grande Guerre
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged :
More Info
The War That Ended Peace
Excerpt

Chapter 1

Europe in 1900

On April 14, 1900, Emile Loubet, the President of France, talked approvingly about justice and human kindness as he opened the Paris Universal Exposition. There was little kindness to be found in the press comments at the time. The exhibitions were not ready; the site was a dusty mess of building works; and almost everyone hated the giant statue over the entrance of a woman modeled on the actress Sarah Bernhardt and dressed in a fashionable evening dress. Yet the Exposition went on to be a triumph, with over 50 million visitors.

In style and content the Exposition partly celebrated the glories of the past and each nation displayed its national treasures—whether paintings, sculptures, rare books or scrolls—and its national activities. So where the Canadian pavilion had piles of furs, the Finnish showed lots of wood, and the Portuguese decorated their pavilion with ornamental fish. Many of the European pavilions mimicked great Gothic or Renaissance buildings, although little Switzerland built a chalet. The Chinese copied a part of the Forbidden City in Beijing and Siam (today Thailand) put up a pagoda. The Ottoman Empire, that dwindling but still great state which stretched from the Balkans in southern Europe through Turkey to the Arab Middle East, chose a pavilion which was a jumble of styles, much like its own peoples who included Christians, Muslims and Jews and many different ethnicities. With colored tiles and bricks, arches, towers, Gothic windows, elements of mosques, of the Grand Bazaar from Constantinople (now Istanbul), it was fitting that the overall result still somehow resembled the Hagia Sophia, once a great Christian church that became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest.

Germany’s pavilion was surmounted by a statue of a herald blowing a trumpet, suitable, perhaps, for the newest of the great European powers. Inside was an exact reproduction of Frederick the Great’s library; tactfully the Germans did not focus on his military victories, many of them over France. The western facade hinted, though, at a new rivalry, the one which was developing between Germany and the world’s greatest naval power, Great Britain: a panel showed a stormy sea with sirens calling and had a motto rumored to be written by Germany’s ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, himself: “Fortune’s star invites the courageous man to pull up the anchor and throw himself into the conquest of the waves.” Elsewhere at the Exposition were reminders of the rapidly burgeoning power of a country that had only come into existence in 1871; the Palace of Electricity contained a giant crane from Germany which could lift 25,000 kilos.

Austria-Hungary, Germany’s closest friend in Europe, had two separate pavilions, one for each half of what had come to be known as the Dual Monarchy. The Austrian one was a triumph of Art Nouveau, the new style which had been catching on in Europe. Marble cherubs and dolphins played around its fountains, giant statues held up its staircases and every inch of its walls appeared to be covered by gold leaf, precious stones, happy or sad masks, or garlands. A grand reception room was set aside for members of the Habsburg family which had presided for centuries over the great empire stretching from the center of Europe down to the Alps and Adriatic, and the exhibits showed off the work of Poles, Czechs, and South Slavs from the Dalmatian coast, only some of the Dual Monarchy’s many peoples. Next to the Austrian pavilion and separating it from that of Hungary stood a smaller one, representing the little province of Bosnia, still technically part of the Ottoman Empire but administered since 1878 from Vienna. The Bosnian pavilion, with its lovely decorations by craftsmen from its capital of Sarajevo, looked, said the guide published by Hachette, like a young girl being brought out into the world for the first time by her parents.1 (And they were not particularly happy ones at that.)

The mood of the Hungarian pavilion was strongly nationalistic. (Austrian critics said sourly that the folk art on display was vulgar and its colors too bright.) The exhibits also included a reconstruction of the great citadel of Comorn (Komáron) in the north which stood in the way of the Ottomans in the sixteenth century as they stretched northwards into Europe. Much more recently, in 1848, it had been held by Hungarian nationalists in the revolt against the Habsburgs but had fallen to Austrian forces in 1849. Another room was dedicated to the Hussars, famous for their bravery in the wars against the Ottomans. The exhibits paid less attention though to the millions of non-Hungarian peoples, Croatians or Rumanians, for example, who lived within Hungary’s borders.

Italy, like Germany a new country and a great power more by courtesy than in reality, had built what looked like a vast, richly decorated cathedral. On its golden dome stood a giant eagle, its wings outstretched in triumph. Inside it was filled with art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but the glories of the past could weigh heavily on a poor young country. Britain, by contrast, chose to be low key even though it still dominated much of the world’s trade and manufacturing and had the world’s biggest navy and largest empire. Its exhibit was housed in a cozy country house designed by rising young architect Edwin Lutyens in the half-timbered Tudor style and consisted mainly of English paintings from the eighteenth century. Some private British owners had refused to lend their works because Britain’s relations with France, traditionally difficult, were particularly strained in 1900.2

Russia had pride of place at the Exposition as France’s favored ally. The Russian exhibits were huge and scattered in several different locations, ranging from a massive palace in the style of the Kremlin dedicated to Siberia to a richly decorated pavilion named in honor of the Tsar’s mother, Empress Marie. Visitors could admire, among much else, a map of France made in precious stones which the Tsar, Nicholas II, had sent as a present to the French and marvel at the sheer extent of the Romanovs’ possessions. The French themselves did not have their own pavilion; the whole Exposition was after all designed to be a monument to French civilization, French power, French industry and agriculture, and French colonies, and room after room in the different special exhibits was devoted to French achievements. The French section of the Palais des Beaux-Arts was, said the guide, naturally a model of good taste and luxury. The Exposition marked the reassertion by France that it was still a great power, even though only thirty years previously it had been utterly defeated as it had tried to prevent Germany coming into existence.

The Universal Exposition was nevertheless, the French declared, a “symbol of harmony and peace” for all of humanity. Although the more than forty countries exhibiting in Paris were mainly European, the United States, China, and several Latin American countries also had pavilions. As a reminder though of where power still lay, a large part of the Exposition was given over to colonies where the European powers showed off their possessions. The crowds could marvel at exotic plants and beasts, walk by replicas of African villages, watch craftsmen from French Indochina at their work, or shop in North African souks. “Supple dancing girls,” said an American observer severely, “perform the worst forms of bodily contortions known to the followers of Terpsichore.”3 Visitors came away with a comfortable assurance that their civilization was superior and that its benefits were being spread around the globe.

The Exposition seemed a suitable way to mark the end of a century which had started with revolutions and wars but which now stood for progress, peace and prosperity. Europe had not been entirely free of wars in the nineteenth century but they had been nothing to compare with the long struggles of the eighteenth century or the wars of the French Revolution and later those of Napoleon which had drawn in almost every European power. The wars of the nineteenth century had generally been short—like the one between Prussia and the Austrian Empire which had lasted for seven weeks—or colonial wars fought far from European soil. (The Europeans should have paid more attention to the American Civil War which not only lasted for four years but which gave an early warning that modern technology and the humble barbed wire and spades were shifting the advantage in war to the defense.) While the Crimean War in the middle of the century had involved four European powers, it was the exception. In the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian, or the Russo-Turkish the other powers had wisely stayed out of the conflict and had done what they could to build peace again.

In certain circumstances war was still seen as a reasonable choice for nations if they could see no other way to obtain their goals. Prussia was not prepared to share control of the German states with Austria and Austria was determined not to concede. The war that followed settled the issue in Prussia’s favor. Resorting to war was costly but not excessively so. Wars were limited both in time and in their scope. Professional armies fought each other and damage to civilians and to property was minimal, certainly in light of what was to come. It was still possible to attack and win decisive victories. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, though, like the American Civil War, hinted that armed conflict was changing: with conscription, armies were bigger, and better and more accurate weapons and increased firepower meant that the forces of the Prussians and their German allies suffered large casualties in the opening attacks on the French. And the surrender of the French army at Sedan did not end the fighting. Instead the French people, or large sections of it, chose to fight on in a people’s war. Yet even that had finally ended. France and the new Germany had made peace and their relations had gradually mended. In 1900 the Berlin business community sent a message for the opening of the Exposition to the Paris Chamber of Commerce, wishing success to “this great undertaking, which is destined to bring the civilized nations of the world nearer to one another in the labours common to them all.”4 The large numbers of German visitors who were expected to go to Paris would, so many in Germany hoped, help to build better relations between the peoples of their two countries.

All the peoples of the earth have worked on the Exposition, said the special Hachette guide: “they have accumulated their marvels and their treasures for us to reveal unknown arts, overlooked discoveries and to compete with us in a peaceful way where Progress will not slacken in her conquests.” The themes of progress and the future ran throughout the Exposition, from the new moving pavements to the cinema in the round. At one of the pavilions, the Château d’Eau, with its cascading waterfalls, shooting fountains, and colored lights playing on the waters, the centerpiece in a giant basin was an allegorical group which represented Humanity led by Progress advancing towards the Future and overthrowing the rather odd couple of Routine and Hatred.

The Exposition was a showcase for individual countries but it was also a monument to the most recent extraordinary achievements of Western civilization, in industry, commerce, science, technology, and the arts. You could see the new X-ray machines or be overwhelmed, as Henry James was, by the Hall of Dynamos, but the most exciting discovery of all was electricity. The Italian Futurist artist Giacomo Balla later called his daughters Luce and Elettricità in memory of what he saw at the Paris Exposition. (A third daughter was Elica—Propellor—after the modern machinery he also admired.) Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a special cantata in praise of electricity for the Exposition: Le Feu céleste with orchestra, soloists and choir was performed at a free concert. The Palace of Electricity was ablaze with 5,000 light bulbs and high on the summit of its roof stood the Fairy of Electricity in her chariot drawn by a horse and dragon. And there were dozens more palaces and pavilions devoted to the important activities of modern society, among them machinery, mining and metallurgy, chemical industries, public transportation, hygiene, and agriculture.

There was still more, much more. The second modern Olympic Games took place nearby in the Bois de Boulogne as part of the Exposition. Sports included fencing (where the French did very well), tennis (a British triumph), athletics (American dominated), cycling and croquet. At the Exposition Annexe in Vincennes you could examine the new motorcars and watch balloon races. Raoul Grimoin-Sanson, one of the earliest film directors, went up in his own balloon to film the Exposition from above. As the Hachette guide said, the Exposition was “the magnificent result, the extraordinary culmination of the whole century—the most fertile in discoveries, the most prodigious in sciences, which has revolutionized the economic order of the Universe.”

In light of what was to come in the twentieth century such boasting and such complacency seem pitiful to us, but in 1900 Europeans had good reason to feel pleased with the recent past and confident about the future. The thirty years since 1870 had brought an explosion in production and wealth and a transformation in society and the way people lived. Thanks to better and cheaper food, improvements in hygiene, and dramatic advances in medicine, Europeans were living longer and healthier lives. Although Europe’s population went up by perhaps as much as 100 million to a total of 400 million, it was able to absorb the growth thanks to increased output in its own industry and agriculture and imports from around the world. (And emigration acted as a safety valve to avoid an even more dramatic increase—some 25 million Europeans left in the last two decades of the century for new opportunities in the United States alone and millions more went to Australia or Canada or Argentina.)

Europe’s cities and towns grew as people moved from the countryside in increasing numbers in search of better opportunities in factories, shops and offices. On the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, Paris had some 600,000 inhabitants; by the time of the Exposition, 4 million. Budapest, the capital of Hungary, showed the most dramatic increase: in 1867 it had 280,000 inhabitants and by the time of the Great War, 933,000. As the numbers of Europeans making a living from agriculture went down, the industrial working classes and the middle classes grew. Workers organized themselves into unions, which were legal in most countries by the end of the century; in France the number of workers in unions went up fivefold in the fifteen years before 1900 and was to reach 1 million just before the Great War. In recognition of the increasing importance of the class, the Exposition had exhibits of model houses for workers and organizations for their moral and intellectual development.

close this panel
Women of the Raj
Excerpt

Chapter 1
The Voyage Out

Englishwomen—and Welsh and Scots and Irish women—had been going to India for generations by the time the Raj reached its peak in the late nineteenth century. The first to make the voyage may have been a Mrs. Hudson and her maid, Frances Webb, who went in 1617 as companions to an Armenian lady who had been born in India. (Frances had a love affair on the voyage, unwittingly setting the pattern for countless women who came after her.) Over the years, India drew a few women looking for work—as milliners, perhaps, or governesses. And some women had a calling to be missionaries. Others simply went because they had been summoned back by their families after an education in Britain.

The great majority, however, went to India because their husbands were there or because they hoped to find husbands for themselves. (To keep them chaste for the marriage market, unmarried women traveled, until well into the twentieth century, under the care of chaperones, usually married women who were making the voyage anyway.) The “fishing fleet,” as it was known unkindly but accurately by the nineteenth century, arrived in India in the autumn at the start of the cold weather. One lady who came out in 1779 divided what she called “the speculative ladies” into old maids, “of the shrivelled and dry description,” and girls, “educated merely to cover the surface of their mental deformity.” The odds were that their fishing would meet success: throughout the period of British rule in India, European men outnumbered European women by about three to one.

Understandably, few British women had cared to come to the unsettled India of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; and, what is more, the early charters of the East India Company pointedly forbade women on its posts. Its employees ignored that regulation as they did so many others. They took Indian mistresses; worse, from the point of view of the Company’s staunch Protestant directors, they married Catholics, daughters or widows of the Portuguese. To save the souls of its men, the Company, for a time, played matchmaker. In the later part of the seventeenth century it shipped batches of young women from Britain to India. The cargo, divided into “gentlewomen” and “others,” were given one set of clothes each and were supported for a year—quite long enough, it was thought, for them to find themselves husbands. Some did not; and the Company tried to deny that it had any obligation to look after them further. Most unfairly it also warned them to mind their morals: “Whereas some of these women are grown scandalous to our nation, religion and Government interest,” said a letter from London to the Deputy Governor of Bombay in 1675, “we require you to give them fair warning that they do apply themselves to a more sober and Christian conversation.” If that warning did not have the right effect, the women were to be fed on bread and water and shipped back to Britain. The experiment was not a happy one and it must have been with relief that the Company abandoned the practice in the eighteenth century. British women still traveled to India but they came individually.

The voyage was a dreadful one. The wooden sailing vessels, tiny by today’s standards, were tossed about in every storm—and the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean were famous for their storms. The passengers faced at best being thrown about in their cabins, at worst drowning. The Reverend Hobart Caunter recorded one such storm, which took place off the east coast of India in the 1830s. The weather began to turn foul early one morning. “The only lady among us every now and then expressed her fears, when a sudden gust caused the vessel to lurch with an increased momentum, as if the billows were already commencing a fiercer conflict.” By late afternoon, they were in the midst of a full-blown hurricane. The ship pitched violently and furniture was torn from its fastenings. More dangerously, a cannon got loose and threatened to batter a hole in the side. Even Caunter, a seasoned traveler, found the noise, coupled with the crashing of waves and the howling of the wind, “painful in the extreme.” Night came on and the storm increased in fury. As Caunter and the captain were in the main cabin, or cuddy, trying to carry on a conversation, “suddenly, a heavy sea struck her astern, but happily on the quarter, and in an instant carried away the quarter-galley on that side, swamping the cabin into which the poor lady before spoken of had retired for the night. The force of the water was so great, that it dashed open the door of the cabin, and its fair occupant was borne head foremost into the cuddy, dripping like a mermaid, her hair hanging about her shoulders in thin strips, when she was rescued by the captain from further mischief. She was drenched to the skin.”

At its shortest the voyage under sail took under two months; at its longest well over six. Sometimes the winds were so contrary on the west coast of Africa that the ships were blown off course almost to Brazil. The crew and passengers gasped with the heat; then, when they were rounding the Cape of Good Hope, they shivered in the cold. There was the danger of being dashed against the shore by a sudden shift in the winds. Those who survived often ended up in the great slave markets along the east coast of Africa. Occasionally the winds might fail altogether and the unhappy ship would sit becalmed for weeks on end.

Accommodations were cramped and dirty and often had to be shared with huge rats which scurried about, boldly eating any food that was left out and nibbling holes in clothing. Women who could afford it had cabins abovedecks. Otherwise they were housed below, in stuffy cubbyholes, often with walls made of canvas, where they had very little privacy. A bucket of salt water was the closest passengers got to a wash tub; another bucket made do for a toilet. Mrs. Sherwood, later famous as a writer of sentimental children’s stories, accompanied her army officer husband out to India at the beginning of the nineteenth century; she had to sleep in a hammock strung above a cannon while filthy water from the bilges ran across the floor beneath.

Mrs. Eliza Fay, who lived in India in the late eighteenth century, endured the voyage several times. Fortunately she was a woman who faced difficulties (and she had many—from imprisonment by an Indian ruler to her wastrel of a husband) in an optimistic spirit. Her letters to her sister are filled with cheerful gossip and appalling details of shipboard life. On one voyage back to England, she nearly suffocated. “The port of my cabin being kept almost constantly shut, and the door opening into the steerage; I had neither light nor air but from a scuttle.” On her first voyage the captain was “overbearing and insolent” and kept his passengers half starved. At meals, Mrs. Fay reported proudly, “the longest arm fared best; and you cannot imagine what a good scrambler I am become.”

When they could, women on the sailing ships escaped from their cabins to the fresh air of the deck, but that depended on both the weather and the mood of the captain. Many of the captains of the East Indiamen were quite charmingly eccentric on dry land; at sea they seemed half mad and one of their more common phobias was women. Ladies were often forced to take their meals in their cabins rather than in the cuddy because the gentlemen drank and swore so dreadfully. Mrs. Sherwood confided to her diary that “those who have not been at sea can never conceive the hundredth part of the horrors of a long voyage to a female in a sailing vessel.”

At the start of the voyage, there might be the luxury of fresh meat, because many ships carried cows and sheep on deck. Sooner or later, rations would get shorter, the preserved meat tougher and saltier. Water would turn the color of strong tea, with a foul smell and an even fouler taste. Minnie Blane, a happy, sheltered young middle- class girl from Bath, experienced all the unpleasantness of sailing ships when she traveled out to India in 1856 with her husband, an officer in the Indian Army. (They might have taken the shorter route overland via Egypt and enjoyed the relative comfort of steamships but her husband needed to save money.) Minnie, who was pregnant, was sick a good deal of the time and the meals she faced cannot have helped. For weeks on end, after they had rounded the Cape, the only meat was “Pork, boiled, roasted, fried, chops, curry (with so much garlic in it, it is quite uneatable), and one leg of mutton, half raw.” The butter was thick with salt and sugar had long since run out. Some food was quite rotten. “I cannot tell you,” wrote Minnie to her mother, “how sick it made me one day, on cutting open a fig, to see three or four large white maggots lying comfortably inside!” Cautious travelers often took a private stock of food and wine. Many women brought other little comforts along in a brave attempt to make their quarters bearable. They had their own folding chairs, washstands, linen, and even chintz curtains to hang across the door.

Soldiers’ wives had the worst time of all. The Army’s own troopships were appalling—leaking, dirty, and cramped—and the transports it sometimes had to hire from private contractors were scarcely better. Since the usual class distinctions were rigidly observed at sea, officers’ ladies at least got cabins; “wives of others ranks,” as the Army described them, were belowdecks, often in a corner of the hold next to the horses. There they endured the voyage, sleeping, eating, and passing their days in a stench which got worse as the voyage dragged on. Unless they were working for an officer’s wife, they had little opportunity of getting on deck.

The military authorities of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not approve of women and their children accompanying the troops—only a few of the families of the ranks were permitted to go—so they did little to make them comfortable. The Army gave them a pittance for their subsistence but no advice on what to bring with them. Mrs. Helen Mackenzie, the strong-minded and pious wife of an officer in a Sikh regiment, was horrified on her first voyage to India in the middle of the nineteeth century to discover a soldier’s wife eating the scraps from her plate. The unfortunate woman was “worse off than a female convict”: she did not even have adequate clothing.

Gradually the Army was forced to modify its attitude; by the twentieth century wives usually accompanied their husbands abroad and the troopships, while never luxurious, gave them at least decent food and accommodation. After the First World War, conditions were better still; the Army even provided free baby food on board ship.

It is not surprising that passengers on those early voyages in sailing ships vented their misery and boredom in violent quarrels with each other. The men threatened each other with duels; the women gossiped viciously and absurdly cut each other dead. Every now and then there were more agreeable moments. If it was calm, the passengers danced on the deck under the stars. They celebrated “crossing the line,” when male passengers who had never crossed the equator before were ceremonially shaved by Neptune and his court. The biggest sailors played Mrs. Neptune and her daughters. The gentlemen were shaved with a saw and a tar brush and ducked in a tub of salt water while the ladies watched from a safe distance. Mrs. Ashmore, the prim wife of an officer, witnessed the merriment when she traveled out to India in 1840, though the scene “soon became of too riotous a nature to admit of our remaining witnesses to it.” (She retired to her favorite reading—the works of Bishop Berkeley and Volney’s Ruins of Empire.)

Occasionally (and not always by design) the ships put in briefly to shore. St. Helena in the South Atlantic was a popular spot to pick up provisions and water. The passengers could stretch their legs briefly; if they had time they might make a trip to Napoleon’s tomb (at least until the bones were restored to the French in 1840). The Cape of Good Hope was another regular stop. The ships tied up at Simonstown, then a pretty little fishing village, and passengers hired carriages to take them to Constantia, where there were excellent local wines, and to Cape Town with its charming houses set in tidy gardens. The Dutch settlers, various ladies noted approvingly, preserved both the simple ways and the hospitality of their ancestors.

There was a much shorter way of getting to India, by boat across the Mediterranean, then by land across the narrow strip of Egypt that divided the Mediterranean from the Red Sea, and finally by boat again across the Indian Ocean. This route was first used in the eighteenth century and was eventually to supplant the one around the Cape. At first it presented as many hazards as the longer route, because Egypt, nominally under the control of the Ottoman Sultan, was quite lawless. Passengers for India gathered in Cairo until they were a large enough party to defy the bandits who lay in wait in the desert. Sometimes they joined forces with Egyptian merchants heading in the same direction. The caravans traveled with an escort of hired Arab soldiers. The men generally rode while the ladies were jolted about in a sort of litter, slung between two camels. In spite of a canopy and blinds, the unfortunate occupants nearly stifled in the heat of the day only to shudder in the sudden chill of the desert night. Mrs. Fay, who traveled in one of these in the 1770s, remembered with particular antipathy “the frequent violent jerks, occasioned by one or other of the poles slipping out of its wretched fastening, so as to bring one end of the litter to the ground.” In later years, men and women bounced together across the desert in crude horse-drawn vans; later still there was a railway.

The journey became much safer and much faster as the nineteenth century wore on. In 1830 the first steamer was put into service between Suez, at the head of the Red Sea, and Bombay. In 1840, the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company signed an agreement with the government of India to provide a regular service between Suez and certain Indian ports. The P&O was in time to become almost synonymous with the journey to India, but there were other lines: the Anchor and the Clan Lines, which ran between Liverpool and Bombay, the Calcutta Star Line between Liverpool and Colombo, and (generally considered by the British inferior to all these) the Italian Rubatino Line from Genoa and Naples to Bombay. Steam and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 helped to shorten the trip to four weeks and even less and the whole experience became rather enjoyable. The author of Indian Outfits, a guide for women published in 1882, was quite rhapsodic. “To those who like the sea, the voyage is very pleasant; there are generally many nice people on board, and, if troops are carried, sometimes a band, and on fine nights dancing on deck, or singing, glee parties, and so on; very often amateur theatricals are got up, and come off the night before port is reached. There is usually a library on board, and there is no reason why, with so much that is new to interest and with pleasant society, the time should not pass quickly and agreeably.”

close this panel
Parties Long Estranged

Parties Long Estranged

Canada and Australia in the Twentieth Century
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback Hardcover
More Info
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...