Travel Writing 1700-1830: An Anthology

Review by Raana Haider
Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Edited by Elizabeth A. Bohls and Ian Duncan

Oxford World’s Classics

Oxford University Press, New York, 2005



‘I am made for travelling.’

James Boswell,

‘Grand Tour’ journal,

1 October 1764


There is Homer’s epic travel narrative ‘Odyssey’.  Mentionable is the second century guidebook ‘Guide to Greece’ compiled by Pausanias that briefed Roman tourists on their destinations’ star attractions  – the Acropolis and the Oracle at Delphi. Pilgrims to religious sites in the Middle Ages were also travelers as the editors graphically mention: “Sincere devotion mingled with simple wanderlust, or the urge to escape one’s sodden, smelly cottage after a long winter” remains a valid reason even today. Conquest-obsessed European Christian Crusaders travelled en masse to the Middle East. Long long before travel blogs, “even tourists, travelling for pleasure, left graffiti on the Pyramids by 1500 BC” records Lionel Casson in ‘Travel in the Ancient World.’ Nuggets of such information trace the long throw-back of historical travel.


A Chronology of historical events starting with Isaac Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica in 1687 through to the 1833 British Parliament’s enactment to emancipate slaves in Britain and colonies provides the reader with a valuable time-line to place the literary output of the selected British authors in this immensely readable and informative anthology. The book is organized in chapters with geographical boundaries. The first being ‘Europe and Asian Minor’, followed by ‘The British Isles’, ‘Africa’, The Caribbean’, ‘North America,’ and ‘Australia and the Pacific.’


The convergence of travel and writing has been early documented by the likes of Marco Polo and Ibn Khaldun. As early as in 1670, Richard Lassels coined the term ‘The Grand Tour’ of France and Italy in his book ‘The Voyage of Italy.’ The purpose for young English aristocrats was self-educational in the likes of a finishing school whereby they observed foreign courts, learnt modern languages and viewed the monuments of classical antiquity. One John Galt (1779-1839) in a cumbersome title ‘Letters from the Levant: Containing Views of the State of Society, Manners, Opinions, and the Commerce in Greece and Several of the Principal Islands of the Archipelago’ (1813)  memorably writes of his impressions of the Acropolis in Athen on 1 March 1812: “At first, as every traveller who now comes to Athens must be, I was greatly vexed and disappointed by the dilapidation of the temple of Minerva; but I am consoled by the reflection that the spoils are destined to ornament our own land, and that, if they had not been taken possession of by Lord Elgin, they would probably have been carried away by the French.” No hesitancy in declaring ‘better us than them.’ Captain Cook’s documentation of his Pacific voyages in the 1770s were runaway best sellers – “by far the most popular travel books of the age.” Mythical travel accounts include today classics Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726).


This compilation of eighteenth and early nineteenth century British travel writings uniquely offers us the lesser known marginalized and virtually unknown travel narratives by women and non-whites whose writings often never reached the public eye. Virtually unknown is the 1688 publication by Aphra Behn ‘Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave.’ Then there is the personal account ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African’ written in 1789. Born in 1745 in present-day Nigeria, he was kidnapped by slave traders at the age of 11 and brought to North America. Resold, he was taken to the West Indies, then London and in time became a slavery abolitionist activist. In graphic detail, Equiano narrates the horrors of the trade in humans. “Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites.” The editors note that “Equiano’s book was a success, with nine British editions in the author’s lifetime.” The slave trade was abolished in 1807. However, British slave emancipation was incomplete until 1838.


Bohls and Duncan have provided the reader with a selection of the writings of a female slave Mary Prince born a slave in 1788 in Bermuda. Her story is ‘The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. Related by Herself’ (1831). In a deeply disturbing account, she cries out: “Oh, the horrors of slavery! How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave – I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free…”


Helen Maria William (1761-1827) wrote ‘Letters from France (1790-1796). An ardent supporter of the ideals of the French Revolution, she and her sister visited France to celebrate the anniversary celebrations of the fall of Bastille in 1790. A poet and an activist, William fled to Switzerland in 1794, escaping the in-fighting that swept through post-revolutionary France. Witnessing, the celebrations, she inexorably declares: “If the splendor of a despotic throne can only shine like the radiance of lightning, while all around is involved in gloom and horror, in the name of heaven let its baleful luster by extinguished forever. May no such strong contrast of light and shade again exist in the political system of France!” Helen William’s powerful words resonate to this day globally.


Lady Mary Wortley Montague (1689-1762) in her collection of letters to her sister; which were only published following her demise, offers the reader a keen eye on Ottoman palace life-style and mores and manners of women of the imperial court. Importantly, Lady Mary had in her time, unique access to the inner quarters of the royal women’s domain. Here is her following frank observation: “Thus you see, dear Sister, the manners of mankind do not differ so widely as our voyage writers would make us believe. Perhaps it would be more entertaining to add a few surprising customs of my own invention, but nothing seems to me so agreeable as truth, and I believe nothing so acceptable to you…” Her husband was Great Britain’s Ambassador to the Sublime Porte that was the Ottoman Court’s capital at Istanbul.  Also included in Bohls and Duncan’s anthology is the ‘Diary of Celia Fiennes (c. 1685-1703) who rode through England on a side-saddle ostensibly “to regain my health by variety and change of air and exercise.”


Unknown are the travel accounts of the American Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855). Her travelogue is ‘Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, AD. 1803.’ She along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and her brother William Wordsworth (both achieving public acclaim) visited Scotland, covering much of the journey on foot through “inhabited solitudes.” Her lyrical details of Loch Lomond enrapture the reader: “”wherever we looked, it was a delightful feeling that there was something beyond. Meanwhile, the sense of quiet was never lost sight of; the little peaceful lakes among the islands might may you forget that the great water, Loch Lomond, was so near; and yet are more beautiful, because you know that it is so: they have their own bays and creeks sheltered within a shelter.”


“Armchair adventurers” is the term coined by Bohl and Duncan to entice us readers “whose curiosity embraces the globe and all it contains.” In other words ‘always the itch to see the world.’  The duo has achieved their objective as we join them through a comprehensive historical selection fanning out to every corner of the world – of a rich literary genre of long-standing. One such contributor was Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741-1821) who penned ‘Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany in 1789. Who would dispute the immortal words of Piozzi? ‘Il mondo e bello perche e variabile.’ In other words, “The world is pleasant because it is various.”


Raana Haider is a history and travel enthusiast.

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