Why travel advice from a 19th-century polymath is still relevant today
Sir Francis Galton’ s The Art of Travel, perhaps the world’s first travel guide, is full of practical tips and advice, from how to start a fire to surviving on carrion and insects
Portraits of Briton Sir Francis Galton show a man with mutton-chop whiskers and the demeanour of a minor public school headmaster of the “spare the rod, spoil the child” persuasion. A Victorian-era polymath with a patchy education in medicine and mathematics, Galton (1822-1911) was knighted two years before his death for his services to science.
Freed by a substantial inheritance from the need to pursue a career, he flitted from meteorology to eugenics, passing through much else on the way. His classification system for fingerprinting is still in use today, and he was instrumental in persuading the British legal system to accept fingerprints as evidence. He published the first weather map, in The Times newspaper, in 1875 and coined the term “anti-cyclone”. He was also ahead of his time in running an experiment to test the efficacy of prayer. Scientific rigour required he publish a result controversial to Victorians – he had found no effect whatsoever.
Galton applied the scientific method to everything in his life, including his travels, which were extensive. A Grand Tour of Europe in 1840 that reached as far east as Constantinople and Smyrna (both in modern-day Turkey) was followed by a trip down the Nile to Sudan in 1844 and, five years later, a full-scale expedition, approved by the Royal Geographical Society, to what is now Botswana.
Galton’s spur to write was the same frustration felt by many an independent traveller at finding his guidebook lacking in accuracy or useful practical detail.
“The idea of the work occurred to me when exploring South-western Africa in 1850-51,” he explains in his introduction. “I felt acutely at that time the impossibility of obtaining sufficient information on the subjects of which it treats.”
Galton was fooled by the commonplace claim of the superiority of local knowledge. Even the natives fell short of his exacting standards.
“Their acquaintance with bush lore was exceedingly partial and limited,” he complains.
His response was not the popular modern method of rushing to consult large numbers of anonymous strangers of unknown prejudice, expertise or experience, but more logically to talk to experts, and then to test their advice for himself.
“I searched through a vast number of geographical works,” he writes, “I sought information from numerous travellers of distinction and I made a point of re-testing, in every needful case, what I had read or learned by hearsay.”
Galton was in no doubt that travel was a good idea, although not for Mark Twain’s oft-refuted reason that it broadens the mind, but rather for potentially more concrete benefits. Those with the money to spare should travel if they feel like it, and as for the rest of us, “If you have not independent means, you may still turn travelling to excellent account; for experience shows it often leads to promotion, nay, some men support themselves by travel.”
But budget travellers with laptops should note that what Galton had in mind was more logging than blogging. His examples of self-financing travellers are those who explore pastureland in Australia, hunt for ivory in Africa, collect specimens of natural history for sale, or who wander as artists. Optimistic readers who find the last option appealing should reflect that producing a “capture” in Galton’s day involved employing an easel and perhaps several days’ work at a time when exotic images were scarce and thus compelling.
In these days of mass travel and social media, it’s perhaps the person who keeps quiet about his or her travels who shows greater distinction, and the “stay-at-home public” is now more likely to be found at a full moon rave on the beaches of Thailand, or attending a weekend stag party in Tallinn – events that “wiser men” would, in fact, have avoided.
And, of course, it’s always men whom Galton is addressing as decision-makers. Women have a subsidiary role, as Galton’s expert on this subject, a “savage”, explains. “‘Women,’ said he, ‘were made for labour: one of them can carry or haul as much as two men can do. They also pitch our tents, make and mend our clothing, keep us warm at night.’”
“I believe,” adds Galton, “there are few greater popular errors than the idea we have mainly derived from chivalrous times, that woman is a weakly creature,” and he suggests that it was only confining them indoors and keeping them at embroidery that made them seem to be “helpless dolls”. But it would certainly be a mistake to regard him as a proto-feminist.
One project arising from his interest in heredity and dubious theories about improving the race through better breeding was to wander around the British Isles creating a beauty map, secretly scoring women he saw as attractive, indifferent or repellent. (London scored highest, and Aberdeen lowest.)
If attitudes to women shown in The Art of Travel sound archaic, consider that a century later, Lonely Planet’s Chinatravel guide of 1984, the book then used by every backpacker in the country, still considered it appropriate to observe, “The women are among the most flat-chested on earth.”
Times change more slowly than we might like to imagine.
But Galton did recommend that women be taken along when travelling: “A woman will endure a long journey nearly as well as a man, and certainly better than a horse or a bullock.”
Perhaps the only modern parallel to Galton’s advice on the beads to take to give away to natives would be the thoughtless recommendation of taking sweets to give away to children in villages that never see a dentist. For Galton, however, beads were the currency of persuasion, and he remarked that “40 or 50lbs. weight goes but a little way”. Today they would go nowhere at all without attracting excess baggage charges.
His advice to visit a dentist before travel is sensible enough, but few will follow him by treating wasp or scorpion stings with the oil scraped from a tobacco pipe, or to take his advice on care of footwear and the feet: “A raw egg broken into a boot, before putting it on, greatly softens the leather: of course the boots should be well greased when hard walking is anticipated.”
His other foot-care advice is surprisingly illogical. Sore feet may be relieved by swapping socks, he advises, or by turning one sock inside out if only the one foot is sore. Why in this case swapping them anyway, or turning both inside out when both feet are sore wouldn’t be equally effective is not explained.
Many of the problems for which Galton offers solutions, and particularly those of navigation, would be greeted today with, “There’s an app for that.” But should your map app fail, your data quota be exceeded or your battery die, you may re-silver your sextant using tinfoil, mercury and a hare’s foot. His source for these instructions is Admiral Sir Edward Belcher, surveyor of Hong Kong waters and the man commemorated in the names of Hong Kong’s Belcher’s Street and Belcher Bay.
And if you don’t happen to have a hare’s foot to hand, Galton provides instructions on how to identify compass points using ant hills, and spends several paragraphs explaining how to walk in a straight line through a forest, anticipating Crocodile Dundee by more than a century.
Should Uber let you down, there’s instruction on how to manage mules using an older female animal called a mandrina. If you’ve left your Ray-Bans at home, Galton explains how to make what he calls snow spectacles Eskimo-fashion using soft wood and gauze. He reports that a cooking fire may be started in colder climates by using a piece of ice as a lens to concentrate sunlight, and details the best wood to burn, “having procured an assortment of those used by the fancy toy-makers of Tunbridge Wells, and the chippings from botanical gardens”.
And as regards the advice to dress in layers, monotonously repeated today regardless of climate or destination, forget thermal underwear or hi-tech fabrics of theoretical one-way porosity – flannel is Galton’s fabric of choice: “The importance of flannel next the skin can hardly be overrated: it is now a matter of statistics; for, during the progress of expeditions, notes have been made of the number of names of those in them who had provided themselves with flannel, and of those who had not. The list of sick and dead always included names from the latter list in a very great proportion.”
Most of us who travel these days are clearly living on borrowed time.
And Galton has more to say about packing, including, “Persons who travel, even with the smallest quantity of luggage, would do wisely to take a thick dressing-gown,” suggesting that the idea of “smallest quantity” has undergone significant deflation since Victorian times. But the days of steamer trunks are long gone, to be replaced with those of ever more draconian baggage restrictions. To the modern way of thinking, the dressing gown no more belongs with basic travel than spats or white tie and tails, although it’s possible to imagine that Galton dressed for dinner even in the bush.
Galton’s do-it-yourself approach to nutrition has little to offer today’s soi-disant foodies, who claim travelling and tasting are inseparable, although their meals are cold by the time they have finished photographing and posting.
“Life can certainly be maintained on a revolting diet,” Galton says, clearly anticipating the global spread of McDonald’s, and he offers an entire section called “Revolting Food, that may save the Lives of Starving Men.”
“Most kinds of creeping things are eatable, and are used by the Chinese,” he points out, news of Canton’s markets having perhaps arrived in England with that of the opium wars, and recommends the locusts and grasshoppers until recently still among the offerings at a tourist street market in Beijing’s Wangfujing, if really only to provide selfie opportunities.
He describes an Abyssinian method of carving meat from a live animal, which then survives to carry the rest of itself along as a walking larder, rather than be consumed at one sitting. “Of course the idea is very revolting,” he admits, and “should only be adopted to save a human life.”
Nearly as revolting is the idea of eating carrion, but Galton insists that the starving may be able to consume a diet “that would cause a dangerous illness to a man who was not compelled to adopt it by the pangs of hunger”, and describes how to find carcasses by following the flight paths of crows and vultures.
Nor is liquid refreshment overlooked, Galton providing instructions for making a still using a kettle and a gun barrel, although sadly only for the purpose of making distilled water in circumstances in which strong drink might be more welcome. Taking experimentation to extremes, Galton describes fitting a teapot with a thermometer, and spends several pages explaining the results of making tea with water of different temperatures, and providing instructions on how to get it right – so important when in the middle of nowhere, at least if you are British.
Galton was a cousin of Charles Darwin and a strong supporter of evolutionary theory, but went beyond Darwin in inventing new statistical methods for examining heredity, and in supporting human interference in the process of improving the stock. He coined the expression “nature versus nurture”, and at the end of his life funded a chair in eugenics at University College London that still exists in a tactfully renamed form.
But in times when a crisis means encountering a delay at customs or finding that the guest house has an unreliable Wi-fi signal, Galton’s observations remind us refreshingly of a time when the world was bigger, and when travel really was a matter of the survival of the fittest.