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Warning: Do Not Follow This Moronic Travel Advice From the Past

All of the people in your party have died.

The mid-19th century was a boom-time for travelers. Advances in science and industry spawned a new generation of often-wealthy western explorers who began to roam abroad, intrigued by the blanks that still existed on the maps and the prospect of the big game they might find there.

So many would-be explorers besieged the Royal Geographical Society for information that the RGS’s leaders began to publish pamphlets of advice, including Hints to Travellers and The Art of Travel, the latter written by RGS fellow Francis Galton. The works proved so popular they were rewritten and republished again and again to include ever more detail. What was the daily mileage expected of an elephant, or the average pace of a camel? You could find it here, along with instruction on how to read a sextant, and the best type of slipper for a gentleman to carry abroad. These guides give extraordinary insight into the travelers’ attitudes in an era when many of the world’s cultures were encountering each other for the first time. Some pieces of advice remain sound today; others don’t. Here are selected highlights to horrify the modern traveler.  

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PHOTO: American Colony (Jerusalem)/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
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Pack Heavy

Long before luggage allowances and the modern traveler’s call to “pack light,” the Victorian traveler was encouraged to take everything but the kitchen sink, as well as a train of porters or pack animals to shift it. One of many lists of travelers’ “essentials” in the RGS fellows’ advice begins with “one or two” soft-steel axes, and ends with “specimens” which would be carried in stone jars. It also includes saddles and “heavy ammunition for sporting purposes.” This was separate from the whole range of astronomical and mapping instruments, including sextants, artificial horizons, compasses, chronometers, thermometers, barometers, and micrometers. Writing and drawing materials should also be taken, including watercolor paints, and a light board of the very best mahogany for writing and painting on. Two or three ledgers of strong ruled paper, 11 x 7 inches, each with leather binding, were needed for the traveler’s notes, with a view to future publication.

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Shoot Everything

All types of living creatures—including, sometimes, humans—were shot by Victorian travelers in the name of food, science, sport, or defense. For the purposes of collecting specimens, Hints to Travellers advised carrying double-barreled guns, as well as “a few common guns to lend to native hunters—especially if going to the interior of Tropical America.” Some gentlemen, such as the old Etonian Roualeyn George “Lion Hunter” Gordon-Cumming, traveled solely in order to shoot big game. Gordon-Cumming killed so many wild animals in South Africa that he even disgusted his contemporary, David Livingstone, who described these activities as “nauseating, indiscriminate slaughter.”

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Eat Your Sandals

Starvation proved a significant risk for travelers to the “really wild countries,” and the would-be explorer had to be prepared to eat absolutely anything, including carrion and garbage of every kind, which could be ingested without the stomach rejecting it, Galton advised, while “many a hungry person has cooked and eaten his sandals.” A besieged French garrison had even once dug up a graveyard and sucked on the bones of the unearthed skeletons in order to keep themselves alive, the veteran traveler noted. Good food didn’t have to be dead, either: the explorer of Africa James Bruce had seen people cut chunks of flesh off live oxen to eat. This saved them the bother of carrying the meat themselves.

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Burn Yourself

The discovery of quinine meant the effects of one of the greatest killers, malaria, were offset by the mid-19th century. Still, there were few protections against many other parasites, diseases, and insects that lurked in the tropic regions. John Hanning Speke awoke one night in East Africa to find a beetle burrowing into his head through his ear: he dug it out with a penknife and made himself deaf. The Art of Travel advises sufferers of fevers and plagues to head for high ground as soon as possible, in order to breathe “clean” air. Other medical tips are more drastic: in the event of a snake bite, the traveler is told to apply a tourniquet, suck the poison out, then explode gunpowder in the wound. If no gunpowder is available, he or she can follow the advice of Mansfield “Abyssinia” Parkyns and cut the wound open before burning the poison out with the white-hot end of a ramrod.

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PHOTO: John Collier/U.S. Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
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Keep Dirty

A thick layer of grease and dirt was considered to be a great protector of the skin against inclement weather. The leader of a party should therefore not be too exacting about the appearance of his less warmly clad followers, advises The Art of Travel. When necessary—which would not be often—the expedition’s clothes could be washed in a mixture of ashes and water, to which should be added the bile from the gall bladder of any animal that had recently been killed.

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Exploit Women

Galton, who once used his expertise in trigonometry to measure the posterior development of South African women, believed firmly in taking along the wives of the hired hands, since, according to The Art of Travel, they “give great life to a party,” and can endure a long journey “nearly as well as a man… and certainly better than a horse or bullock.” Women were also “invaluable in picking up and retailing information and hearsay gossip,” which the traveler might otherwise miss. Plus, they were cheap to run, as Samuel Hearne of the Hudson’s Bay Company had pointed out: “Women were made for labor… [and] though they do everything, [they] are maintained at a trifling expense: for, as they always stand cook, the very licking of their fingers, in scarce times, is sufficient for their subsistence.”

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PHOTO: Mbeckerman | Dreamstime.com
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Risk Your Life

When a member of the traveling party died, it was essential to write their own account of what had happened soon afterwards and get others to attest to its truth, according to The Art of Travel. After this had been done, the dead man or woman’s effects could be auctioned off, the money to be saved for the next of kin. Much care should to be taken over the disposal of the body to prevent it being eaten: the grave should be deep and covered heavy stones and thorn bushes to defend it against scavenging animals. On the whole, though, travelers should bear in mind that the risks they took were far outweighed by the potential reward, since, as Galton wrote: “If you have health, a great craving for adventure, [and] at least a moderate fortune … I believe no career, in time of peace, can offer to you more advantages.”

Charlie English’s latest book, The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past, is available now.

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