Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



World exploration generated curiosity in armchair travelers about exotic places. CRUSADER LORE such as Graindor de Douai's Song of Antioch (ca. 1180) and Geoffrey de Villehardouin's The Conquest of Constantinople (1207) brought information about food, dress, customs, and the arts from the Middle East to Europe. Later, The Travels of Marco Polo (1298) astounded Europe with its account of MARCO POLO'S 17 years in China. Arab readers treasured On the Curiosities of Cities and the Wonders of Travel (1354), IBN BATTUTA'S survey of Christian, Hindu, and Islamic port cities and the customs of 15 empires. The SATIRE of JONATHAN SWIFT made an account of mock voyages in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a sustained send-up of ethnocentricism, the blindness of people to the perspectives, mores, and aims of other nations and ethnicities.

White authors found readers eager for details of the black races. Mungo Park (1771-1806), a Scots surgeon, aroused interest in Africa, which he visited on three expeditions. As physician to the African Association, at age 23, he joined a trek to find the source of the Niger River. Imprisonment for four months at Ludamar on the southern edge of the Sahara and a seven-month recuperation from fever in Bambara country in the Malian empire delayed his return until December 22, 1797. He wrote up his observations in a popular memoir, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799). His sociological inquiries covered empire building in the Fulani territory in Guinea and as far north as Timbuktu in Mali. Of the encroachment of Europeans, he described people on the Senegal River as traders who “carried on a great commerce with the French in gold and slaves, and still maintain some traffic in slaves with the British factories on the Gambia” (Park 1816, 62).

Park exhibited his subjectivity by taking an instant dislike to the Moors. He accused them of thievery and savagery toward Mandingo bondsmen, whom Moors openly kidnapped. He disclosed that Arab conquest resulted in the conversion to Islam of black enclaves from Senegal to Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia). Of Arabs, he declared, “They are a subtle and treacherous race of people; and take every opportunity of cheating and plundering the credulous and unsuspecting Negroes” (110). Enslavement affected three out of four blacks, most of them prisoners of petty wars: “They claim no reward for their services, except food and clothing; and are treated with kindness or severity, according to the good or bad disposition of their masters” (280). Just before sailing from the slave warehouse on the island of Goree, Senegal, to St. John's, Antigua, Park witnessed a swap of rum and tobacco for slaves. His eloquent narrative on the miseries and deaths of some 130 blacks in the hold of an American slave ship, the Charlestown, confirmed accounts of cruelties that killed off Africans and lessened Captain Charles Harris's profits.

Another Scots physician, David Livingstone (1813-73), became the first European to cross central Africa and was a fellow observer of the flesh trade. Recruited by the London Missionary Society, from 1848 to 1856, through negotiation and kindness, he made a peaceful trek from the Atlantic to the Zambezi River on the Indian Ocean. He returned to East Africa in 1866 to press into the interior from Zanzibar west to Lake Tanganyika. He failed to locate the source of the Nile and died in Zambia from dysentery and malaria 15 years before the British added the territory to its empire. His two-volume travelogue, The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa (1874), delved more poignantly than Park's writings into the African's plight, either as an Islamic pawn or a slave. Of the slave trade as a business, he damned it as “an accursed system” (Livingstone 1874, 114). He maligned Muslim husbands of the Comoro Islands as “more like jailers than friends of their wives… . They thus reduced themselves to the level of the inferior animals, and each was like the bull of a herd and not like a reasonable man” (214). Livingstone's writings led to renewed calls for the abolition of SLAVERY and a growing intolerance of Islamic misogyny.

Reporting on a Grand Scale

A bold seeker of headlines, investigative reporter Nellie Bly (1864-1922), the pen name of Elizabeth Jane “Pink” Cochran, earned renown for traveling around the globe in 72 days. The trip established her position as one of the “New Women” of the suffrage era. At age 21, she became one of the few female writers to cover a city beat for a major newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch, for which she interviewed Marxists and factory workers. As one of the first international female reporters and war correspondents and a born muckraker, she reported graft and poverty under President Porfirio Diaz in Six Months in Mexico (1888), a view of the country two decades after the collapse of the second Mexican Empire. In an expose for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, she had herself admitted among the 1,600 inmates at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in Manhattan. Her eyewitness report yielded Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887). She crusaded for women by posing undercover as a domestic for the story “Trying to Be a Servant” (1890) and as a sweatshop girl for “Nellie Bly as a White Slave” (1890).

On November 14, 1889, the reporter, billed as “Bly on the Fly,” challenged the French science fiction writer Jules Verne's fictional 80-day world voyage by embarking from Hoboken, New Jersey, on the Augusta Victoria. The bet attested to the improvement in transportation: She sped around the world in 72 days and six hours. Her foreign stops began with London and included Amiens, France, where she met Verne, and Brindisi on the southeastern coast of Italy. Arriving in Africa at Port Said, Egypt, which was a recent acquisition of the British Empire, she ventured beyond Ismailia into Asia at Aden, Yemen, at a time when Britain and the Ottoman Turks vied for control of traffic through the Suez Canal. She voyaged across the Indian Ocean to Colombo, Ceylon, and, aboard the Oriental, want on to Penang, Malaya, and through the Straits of Malacca to Singapore. From there, she passed through a monsoon on her way to Hong Kong and Yokohama, Japan. On horseback and burro, in ricksha, and by rail, sampan, and steamer through 10 countries and from San Francisco by train to New Jersey, she covered 24,000 miles, issuing regular telegraph updates along the route. Afterward, she published Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in 72 Days (1890) before giving up journalism for lecturing. Ever the feminist, she admired Japanese geishas for their serenity and saluted Queen Victoria for guiding the British Empire.



Bly, Nellie. Around the World in 72 Days. Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books, 1998.

Livingstone, David. The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa. London: John Murray, 1874.

Park, Mungo. Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa. London: John Murray, 1816.