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ON THE NILE: In the Golden Age of Travel by Andrew Humphreys

  • Written by  Mick Herron
  • Published in Books
ON THE NILE: In the Golden Age of Travel by Andrew Humphreys
01 Sep
‘Most wonderfully oriental and novel to English people,’ was the verdict of Miss Riggs of Hampstead on visiting Cairo in 1869, one stop on a whirlwind tour organised by the young Thomas Cook

Cook’s early ventures into tourism had involved transporting some 570 workers from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance meeting: an 11-mile railway trip.

This more ambitious enterprise was the first step in what was to be his most pioneering development in the field of mass travel: altering the perception that travel was a male pastime. Presenting himself as ‘the travelling chaperone’, he enabled the Miss Riggses of the age to reach places they would otherwise never have seen.

The places themselves altered too: those first trips down the Nile employed dahabiyas – shallow, flat-bottomed boats, big enough to accommodate a library and a piano, and which required preventive sinking upon being hired, to rid them of rats and other vermin. By the time Cook was done, steamships were patrolling that same route.

Humphreys’ beautifully produced account of tourism’s golden age is largely the story of what became of Cook & Son, from its internal politics to its ties to government and the British Army – in 1884 all tourist activity was halted, as Cook’s steamers were commandeered by the Gordon Relief Expedition, a hiatus which was followed by the launching in 1888 of a fleet of ‘floating palaces’ so grand that bathrooms were included in the fare, instead of being optional extras.

If tourism is imperialism by other means (‘Cook simply owns Egypt’ as Blackwood’s Magazine put it in 1899), then Humphreys’ account is of an empire’s rise rather than its traditional decline and fall.

ON THE NILE: In the Golden Age of Travel by Andrew Humphreys; The American University in Cairo Press; £20.40 (hardback)

This review was published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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