In the middle of this New England winter, it’s easy for all of us to get lost in daydreams of faraway places. Images of sun-dappled beaches, tropical islands, and swaying palms might flood our minds as we trudge through the snowy sludge and biting wind on our way to work or classes.
Travel for leisure has occupied an increasingly large space in our lives and imaginations. While travel in early history was largely motivated by transportation and exploration needs, mass tourism emerged in the nineteenth century. Technological advancements expanded the ability of individuals with disposable income to travel for fun and leisure, in turn fostering the development of a robust tourist industry. This industry, of course, largely remained the domain of the world’s elite classes, as working class families could not afford the exorbitant costs (in terms of time and money) of extensive travel.
1836 was a particularly pivotal year in the history of tourism, marking the first publication of John Murray’s guidebooks in England. In contrast to early travel accounts, in which authors typically produced guides that recounted their personal travels, Murray’s handbooks were the first travel guides to provide methodical information about whole countries and continents. Murray’s organizational structure and inclusion of practical information regarding transportation, accommodation, and currency allowed tourists to manage their journey easily and to tailor itineraries to their personal tastes. Indeed, Murray’s handbooks set the standard for modern travel guides. Travel guidebooks that followed in Murray’s wake adopted his style of including pertinent logistical information instead of the flowery personal anecdotes that dominated earlier forms of travel writing.
The Burns Library possesses an impressive collection of travel guides, including many of Murray’s handbooks, and a variety of guidebooks for the tropical Caribbean. Panama, Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Bermuda are just a few of the many destinations represented by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Caribbean travel guides in the Williams Ethnological Collection at Burns Library. The collection, which has particular strengths in Africana and Caribbeana texts, was compiled by Joseph J. Williams, a member of the Society of Jesus who served as a missionary in Jamaica and helped establish a (now defunct) department of anthropology at Boston College.
Like Murray’s handbooks, the Caribbean travel guides of the Williams collection contain practical information about transportation, currency, weather, geography, and so on. J.H. Collens’s 1888 A Guide to Trinidad: A Handbook for the Use of Tourists and Visitors, for example, includes sections on “Early History and People,” “Soil, Productions, and Climate,” and “How to Reach Trinidad.” The preface to James H. Stark’s 1903 History and Guide to Barbados and Caribbee Islands promises readers information about “some of the many attractions to be found there, how to reach these beautiful islands, their resources and productions; and a brief history of their discovery and settlement; also the manners and customs of the inhabitants, and a complete index and guide to all points of interest.”
Beyond providing tourists with the practical information needed to plan and execute their journeys, the Williams collection guidebooks provide a fascinating look into turn-of-the-century upper class lifestyles and mindsets. There is no doubt that these Caribbean guidebooks were directed at Europe and America’s most elite classes. After a discussion of the island’s favorable weather and geographic location, for example, Collens writes that “with so many natural advantages, it will indeed be surprising if Trinidad in time to come does not become one of the most fashionable places of winter resort for well-to-do Europeans and Americans.” Both Collens and Stark also emphasize the health benefits of the Caribbean for wealthy invalids “desirous of escaping the bitterness of an English or American winter.” Collens even includes a list of appropriate servants’ wages in his guidebook, providing a clear indication of his readers’ high economic status. The cost of traveling to the Caribbean also suggests that these guidebooks were written for the elite classes that dominated the tourism industry at the time. The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, for example, which dispatched steamships between England and Trinidad, offered round-trip tickets ranging from £40-65 in 1888. In today’s inflation-adjusted rates, the tickets would range from £3772-6129 (or $5877-9549), a staggering sum beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest of individuals.
People traveling to the Caribbean from their homes in America and Europe brought with them their social and political opinions, including those on the subject of race. Denigration of the islands’ black populations emerge throughout late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century travel guides. Stark refers repeatedly to the “islands of the savage, man-eating Caribs,” for example, and Collens’s guide to Trinidad includes a section on “Habits and Peculiarities of the Lower Classes” which degrades the natives’ practice of voodoo and asserts that “it is a waste of time to attempt to reason with them about the improbability and inconsistency of some of their beliefs.” Stark’s guide in particular, published in Boston in 1903, overflows with derisive comments about the black populations of Caribbean islands. “On the whole,” writes Stark, “the Barbadian negro does not improve on close acquaintance, and a residence for a short time on the island will go far to evaporate any enthusiasm for ‘Free Suffrage, or the Brotherhood of Man.’ For notwithstanding some remarkable exceptions, the general verdict passed upon the negro as he appears in this island must be that he is a creature of a low type of humanity, whether his present condition be one of arrested development or of retrogression from a higher state.” These hostile comments are followed by an appeal to the racist pseudoscience of phrenology and a diatribe about the dangers of black rule, which Stark asserts is “the greatest danger today that menaces the West Indies and Barbados in particular.” Historic travel guides, therefore, not only provide helpful information about a certain locale, but also exist as important historical sources for understanding upper class lifestyles and ideologies.
This winter, make your way through the wind and snow to Burns Library, where you can get lost in the sunny, tropical destinations represented in the Williams Ethnological Collection, which consists of books as well as writings, legal documents, government documents, correspondence, maps and engravings pertaining to Jamaica, the Caribbean and Africa. The books are cataloged and searchable in Holmes. To see catalog records for the books in the Williams Collection, in the advanced search form in Holmes, do a local collection name search for “Williams.” To learn more about the documents and correspondence, read the finding aid for the Williams Ethnological Collection. You can also read learn more about travel-themed books from the Williams Collection in these recent blog posts written by students from Professor Sylvia Seller-Garcia’s Spring 2014 Making History Public class. If have you have additional questions, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Grace West, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & BC’15