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Writer Dave Gerow introduces us to the world of 19th century travel through Sir Francis Galton, who has advice for just about any situation a traveler of means might encounter in wild, undiscovered lands.
Text by: Dave Gerow
Country: England

n the 19th century, English travelers weren’t exactly backpackers. Their hobby was uncommon and expensive; they explored regions that had barely been touched by other Europeans. Because they were such a rare breed, there was a definite lack of published materials to help them along. The resources they had were limited and utterly bizarre.

One of the strangest travel guides of the Victorian Era is Sir Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries. Published in 1855, it offers advice on everything from how to soften your boot leather (crack an egg onto it and rub it in) to how to take prisoners (at gunpoint, carefully, with a knife in your mouth) – topics completely overlooked nowadays by Lonely Planet.

Who was Sir Galton?

Sir Francis Galton was the first cousin of Charles Darwin. He was a meteorologist, a statistician and a doctor, but his enduring legacy is a dark one: He founded the unpleasant pseudoscience of eugenics, suggesting that the human race could be made better through controlled breeding. But Galton’s first love was travel. He was 22 years old when he inherited his father’s fortune; he used the money to travel the Middle East and unexplored regions of Africa.

A traveler, Galton writes, must be healthy, adventurous, and have “at least a moderate fortune”. If your fortune isn’t quite large enough, Galton recommends taking up the ivory trade or insect-collecting to fund your travels.

Of course, Galton’s fortune was sizeable, so his idea of roughing it involved more than a few luxuries. The Art of Travel is full of advice on how to deal with your servants: Galton suggests that an African attendant is content to be given meat, coffee and a few biscuits every day. He warns, however, that “if the coffee or biscuit has to be stopped for a few days, he is ready for mutiny”.

But don’t worry – Galton has valuable advice for travelers who are worried that their servants are going to mutiny. He suggests sleeping with your rifle between your legs to prevent your servants from stealing it and shooting you; Galton says this “has occurred more than once”.

According to Galton, it is inevitable that a traveler must sometimes “take the law into his own hands”, but he insists that punishments ought to fit the crime. For example, if one man steals an ox from you and another steals a sheep, Galton recommends flogging the ox thief more heavily than the sheep thief. It’s only fair.

Animals were of particular importance to travelers in the 19th century, and Galton has something to say about every conceivable beast of burden. He observes that “men attach themselves to horses and asses, and in a lesser degree to mules and oxen, but they rarely make friends of camels.”

Galton considers donkeys particularly affable, but he acknowledges that their braying can be annoying. Fortunately, the inexhaustibly creative Mr. Galton has a remedy for that: Just tie a heavy stone around the ass’s tail. Galton noticed that “when an ass wants to bray, he elevates his tail, and, if his tail be weighted down, he has not the heart to bray”. The modern reader can’t help wondering what PETA would have made of Sir Francis Galton.

Few modern day backpackers hire donkeys, but there are certain aspects of travel which have remained unchanged since the 19th century. What about the danger of robbery, which has always been a part of traveling? Galton is full of suggestions on that subject. The first step is prevention: To keep from being robbed of all your belongings, make an incision in your arm and stuff it with jewels. (Galton was writing before the days of fanny packs.)

If you find yourself being held up at gunpoint, Galton offers some strangely theatrical advice: When the robber orders you to lie down, draw your own gun and yell, “If this were loaded, you should not treat me thus!” Then lie on the ground as ordered. As the robber approaches to relieve you of your belongings, aim quickly and shoot him dead – “the pistol being really loaded all the time”.

It’s hard to imagine that this scheme has succeeded more often than it has failed (what stops the robber from shooting the moment you draw your gun? What if you miss?), but Galton insists that it’s “a trick that has been practiced in most countries, from England to Peru”.

Galton has advice on all the most dramatic emergencies. What, for example, if a member of your party nearly drowns? Wisely, Galton ridicules the once-common treatment of “hanging up the body by the feet, that the swallowed water may drain out of the mouth”. (Imagine waking up to find yourself hanging upside-down in front of a group of Europeans waiting to be thanked.)

Galton had a far simpler idea: The ideal treatment, he says, is to have two big men lie on either side of the victim to increase his body temperature. It may be strange to wake up to, but at least you’re not hanging from a tree.

He also left behind the strangest travel guide you’ll ever read. Happily, an electronic edition of The Art of Travel is available for free through Project Guttenberg. Much of the information may be woefully out of date, but a few of Galton’s tips are as relevant today as they were in 1855. For example, he advocates keeping a ravelogue: “It appears impossible to a traveler, at the close of his journey, to believe he will ever forget its events, however trivial…But…I have conversed with men of low mental power, servants and others, the greater part of whose experiences in savagedom had passed out of their memories like the events of a dream.”

Translation: Memories fade, so keep a journal when you travel, whatever your “mental power”.

Sir Francis Galton

  • Knighted in 1909
  • Has a plant genus named after him: Galtonia, a pretty white flower from South Africa
  • Was a prominent member of the Royal Geographical Society, along with Charles Darwin, David Livingstone and Sir Edmund Hillary
  • Invented the first weather map, similar to those used by weather reporters on TV today
  • Pioneered the use of questionnaires in psychological studies
  • Although not exactly a feminist, he acknowledges in The Art of Travel that “[a] woman will endure a long journey nearly as well as a man, and certainly better
    than a horse or a bullock.”


Travel Guide .

For English travelers, traveling in the 19th century was very different than it is today. It was an uncommon and expensive hobby. They went to places that were not well-known and dangerous. There were few books or other materials to help them on their travels. And some of the books that were available were very strange.

One of the strangest travel guides of the Victorian Era is Sir Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries. This travel guide was published in 1855 and has all sorts of advice for travelers. It explains things like how to soften your boot leather and how to take prisoners. These are things that you cannot find in today’s travel guides, such as Lonely Planet. It also tells you how to deal with your servants and how to handle the animals you hire as well as what to do if someone steals your belongings.

It is interesting to read the crazy advice it provides and you can even find some useful recommendations such as that you should keep a travel journal. This is particularly important as with time people’s memories can fade.



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The Art of Travel



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