Victorians coined the phrase "annihilating space" to describe the transformative effects of steam power on human perceptions of distance. Yet the term had a violent component as well: the subjugation and destruction of indigenous peoples and the dangerous philosophy of "steam as civilization" that ultimately came to define a particular brand of technological imperialism. This book will engage that concept as it applies to steamships, building on previous work done with railroads. It will explore the ways in which steamship travel transformed the Victorian imagination by looking at the three vantages Victorians engaged with the machine: as spectators, tourists, and imperials.
In the third decade of the 19th century a sense of wonderment replaced initial distrust of the steam engine in Europe and America. Longing for a lost bucolic past was now seen as reactionary, even naïve. This transformation was accomplished by making steam a spectacle, thereby lessening fear. Steam became a "friendly giant," and the way to encourage public trust and investment is to show it off. Thus, from the beginning this new technology, especially as applied to locomotives and steamships, is tied to spectacle.
The construction and career of Isambard Brunel's Great Britain became a parable for the age. The ship was the embodiment of steam and spectacle, an avatar of Victorian aspirations. Its ultimate failure was a severe test to such attitudes, yet it resulted in a doubling down whereby an even greater mammoth, the Leviathan/Great Eastern, was conceived.
In many ways the 19th century was conceived by Jules Verne and built by Isambard Brunel. Verne was among the first to recognize the transformative power of machines, their ability to radically reorder society. This sense of limitlessness, of infinite potential, fired the imagination of engineers like Brunel. Brunel's steamships, including the giantess Great Eastern, were much like the age itself: brilliant, unwieldy, and profoundly flawed. Yet they demonstrated how an empire could be run from the deck of a single ship, in ways unimagined before. Among the Great Eastern's passengers was Verne, who was so enthralled by the liner that his vision of the world was transformed. His future novels depicted "propeller islands," steam-powered elephants scything through India, and even that "floating city," the Great Eastern herself. The limits of Verne's imagination were realized by Brunel, in a symbiotic blend of science and fantasy that characterized the age.
Steamships took on a "landscape of infallibility" for Victorians; they could not sink, because if they did then Victorians' faith in their technology and themselves would founder also. But technological overreach had terrible consequences. This chapter explores the disaster narrative and how it transformed over time, as the meaning invested in such tragedies reflected societal expectations.
For ordinary working-class men and women, ferries and Mississippi paddle wheelers become a means of escaping the drudgery of their daily lives, rubbing elbows with "high society," and acting out an anonymous masquerade of wealth in appropriate surroundings. Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man portrays this phenomenon on the Mississippi at the height of the steamboat era.
Even as smaller vessels became a means of transcending class, Atlantic liners reinforced it. Robert Louis Stevenson's experience as an "amateur emigrant" is indicative of the class disparities that were carefully constructed on board such vessels: artificial facsimiles of those existing ashore.
This chapter considers how early steamship passengers conceived of their relationship with the ship, one another, and the places they encountered. In each case, the medium of the ship itself transforms these interactions, with lasting consequences for Victorian tourism and identity. The travelogues of William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain are testament to the pivotal effect of steam travel on shaping Victorian perceptions of "the other."
Steamship travel was originally conceived as being a means of encouraging communication with other cultures, breaking down cultural barriers, and so on. In fact, as the century wore on, the opposite effect became manifest: Cruising reinforced the detachment between travelers and the people they encountered, and it became a means of reinforcing stereotypes rather than dispelling them.
Even as the P&O Line became preeminent transport for administrators traveling to take up their posts in the British empire, the ships themselves became loci of transformation. Neophyte "griffins" were ensconced in patriotic surroundings, served by Indian crews, taught to speak the lingo of empire, and overall transformed into "imperials." The role of the voyage in this transformation is pivotal and has never been assessed.
By the time of the First World War, commercial steamships had become avatars of empire. Their names, interiors, decorations, and marketing campaigns all reflect an explicit melding of technology, spectacle, "civilization," and imperial prowess.
By the end of the 19th century, the extension of steamship and railway lines became the most visible paradigm for the spread of "civilization," just as canals in the Suez and Panama symbolized a new way of "annihilating space." Not coincidentally, the peoples uprooted by such projects were derided as savages, and the introduction of steam was thus seen not only as bringing civilization but displacing anarchy. Mark Twain and Jules Verne had been among the first to posit the dangers of steam imperialism. The later works of both authors reflect disillusionment with both engine and empire.
"Transportation is civilization." Rudyard Kipling coined that phrase to describe the nexus between steam travel and empire, which this book has explored at some length. It is a legacy that still holds some currency today: Steamship travel allowed tourists to explore foreign locales without surrendering any of their prerogatives or prejudices; the ship itself became an avatar of nationhood that preserved their insularity. This is still true today.