French first edition of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, published on January 30, 1873

Travel after the pandemic #21: around the world

On the road, rails and seas with Phileas Fogg and Passepartout

When London gentleman Phileas Fogg bet his fellow members of the exclusive Reform Club in 1872 that he could travel around the world in 80 days, he was met with general disbelief, and a rush to put money down. Having just re-read Jules Verne’s famous 1873 novel about Fogg’s subsequent global adventures, I started wondering – how much of what Fogg encounted might we still experience today if we followed in his trail?
2. September 2021 16:27

For instance, when Fogg reached the West Coast of America after sailing by paddle-steamer from Yokohama, Japan, he set out on the seven-day, 3786-mile train journey from San Francisco to New York. At Medicine Bow, Wyoming Territory, the train unexpectedly stopped because the suspension bridge over a swollen creek ahead had become too dangerous to cross.

It would take at least six hours to get a replacement train to the other side of the bridge, and as long or longer to walk on a snow-covered plain to find a ford over the creek. Such a delay could wreck Fogg’s plans and he would be ruined by losing his huge bet of £20,000.

Until, that is, the engineer came up with the bright idea that if the train backed up a mile and then attacked the bridge at full steam, it would hurtle across so fast that the bridge simply wouldn’t have time to collapse first. The madcap idea worked: the train flew across at a hundred miles an hour, the bridge fell with a crash immediately afterwards and Fogg’s wager had survived yet another crisis.

One impression of Phileas Fogg

The consideration now, a century and a half later, is this – would there be any likelihood of a repeat of this dramatic moment from “Around the World in 80 Days” on our post-Fogg journey? Unfortunately, probably not; this is one section of Verne’s narrative that would certainly have been lost to time – some sort of boringly restrictive health and safety regulations would surely now apply, and US President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill would likely have fixed up the bridge nicely anyway. Not to mention that steam locomotives with cow-catchers on the front are a rarity in 2021.

The cow-catcher, unfortunately, was of no use when Fogg’s train came upon another unexpected hitch – a massive herd of as many as 12,000 buffalo that took a full three hours to cross the rail line. No way could the train push through this insurmountable obstacle, and it simply had to wait, further imperilling Fogg’s extremely tight timetable. His steamer for Liverpool, UK, was due to leave the same day that he reached New York. (He missed it, and had to dig again into the carpet-bag’s dwindling cash for an alternative. See below.)

Once more, we would be unlikely to meet such a problem in 2021. While North America had an estimated bison population of 50 million-60 million in the early 1800s, the species subsequently went into dramatic decline, primarily due to over-hunting, and after near-extinction the population today is a mere 360,000 or so. They don’t block railway tracks now.

Similarly, a train today would be unlikely to be attacked by a hundred murderous Sioux Indians, as was Fogg’s. The bright side of this incident was that the attack prevented a duel with pistols about to take place in an emptied railway carriage between Fogg and an obnoxious American who had insulted him. In 2021, such repugnant redneck Americans join the Republican Party and even become governors of states, without needing to fight duels. Others might join the police or an armed militia out in the woods waiting to rise up against something. Doomsday maybe. The Indians, of course, lost their land, and the danger today is more due to wildfires and flooding.

American bison skulls waiting to be processed outside glueworks (Detroit, 1892).

Phileas Fogg, of 7 Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, was rather mysterious to the members of the Reform Club, an imposing edifice in Pall Mall. Unmarried with a single domestic, he was asolutely punctilious in his habits and undoubtedly rich, though no one knew how he became so, nor would they dare ask the taciturn and rather eccentric man.

Seated at the whist-table one evening, the conversion turned to the possibility of circumnavigating the globe in only 80 days, according to an estimate in the Daily Telegraph, now that the section between Rothal and Allahabad had been opened on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. But the Reform Club gentlemen disagreed, saying 80 days wouldn’t be time enough because there would sure to be delays caused by bad weather, contrary winds, shipwrecks, railway accidents, violent Hindoos and other hazards.

The unflappable Fogg declared that he could absolutely do it in 80 days – 1920 hours or 115,200 minutes – and he bet four fellow members a total £20,000, which was half his fortune. Fogg was a man who bet not to win but more for the sake of playing the game. He would leave that very evening on the train from London to Dover.

He returned home, told his flabbergasted servant Passepartout to put a few essentials in a carpet bag, including £20,000 cash – the other half of his fortune – for expenses, and said they would start for Dover and Calais in 10 minutes to go round the world. (Passepartout, by the by, had been employed that very day after Fogg sacked his previous valet for bringing him shaving water at 84 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 86, and Passepartout had been looking forward to a calm and predictable time with his methodical master.)

The schedule would be absolutely tight. Fogg believed he had allowed for all contingencies, but when news of the venture spread fast, almost nobody thought he could do it. Should he once miss, for example, a steamer even by an hour, the chain of travel would be irrevocably broken and the wager lost.

Fogg and Passepartout departed on October 2, 1872 at 8.45pm and had to be back in London on Saturday, December 21, 1872 at 8.45pm. Immediately, if we retrace his route, we must part ways with Fogg here, for while the two men travelled first-class from Charing Cross Station to Dover and then on a cross-channel ferry to Calais and on to Paris, in 2021 the Eurostar train now leaves from St. Pancras and goes under the Channel Tunnel connecting Folkestone and Calais. This opened in 1994 and the whole trip takes just two and a quarter hours.

Jules Verne, 1828-1905

From Paris, author Verne quickly takes us without details through Turin to Brindisi, Italy, where Fogg and Passepartout boarded the iron steamer Mongolia, belonging to the Peninsula and Oriental Company, which would pass through the Suez Canal on its way to Bombay in India.

The intrepid travellers arrived at Suez on October 9, 1872, only three years after the canal was completed in 1869, cutting the old roundabout route from England to India via the Cape of Good Hope by at least half. Fogg, fortunately, did not encounter giant container ships in his day, thus avoiding the sort of problem that occurred in March 2021 when one ran aground and completely blocked the vital 193-kilometre waterway for six days, disrupting global trade.

He arrived safely and ahead of schedule in Bombay, now Mumbai, and India is described in Verne’s narrative as a land of mosques, minarets, temples, fakirs, pagodas, palanquins, tigers, snakes, opium and indigo merchants, and so on. Here at The Budapest Times we venture to say that even though they have things like internet cafés and space rockets in India these days, it’s still one almighty weird place.

The train from Bombay to Calcutta (now Kolkata) would take three days but at a hamlet called Kholby the passengers discovered that no matter what it said in the British press, in fact the rail line had not been finished and there was a 50-mile gap before Allahabad.  Astonishingly (although nothing should astonish in India), passengers were expected to arrange their own transport over this section even though they had bought tickets.

Fogg overcame the complication by buying an elephant for a hugely over-priced £2000, hiring a Parsee as a mahout (elephant driver) and guide, and the party climbed to the howdahs (seats) for a bumpy and swaying ride through the forest for Allahbad. Next happened the strangest incident of the entire round-the-world trip.

Fogg and company kept out of sight when they heard a large group approaching in the forest. This turned out to be a procession of Brahmins with priests and fakirs droning songs and striking tambourines and cymbals for some sort of religious ceremony. There was a hideous statue of Kali, goddess of love and death. A woman was being dragged along reluctantly – there would be a suttee, or sati, a practice wherein a widow was burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre.

This was usually voluntary on the part of the widow but evidently not so in this case. The young woman’s husband had been a prince, an independent rajah of Bundelcund. Fogg, not for the first or last time, threw aside thoughts of his wager in order to tackle someone else’s troubles.

In doing so, Fogg and Passepartout knew they risked capture and horrible torture. However, Passepartout silently mounted the pyre in the night, disguised himself as the body of the late rajah and, as soon as the wood was lit, sprang up and seized the widow, Aouda. The Indians, thinking the corpse had come to life, fled howling through the trees.

Does suttee still happen in India? The ancient Hindu tradition was banned in 1829 but there were hundreds of cases officially recorded each year afterwards. According to a report in “India Today” news outlet, at least 30 cases of suttee were recorded in the country between 1943 and 1987; others put the number at 40.

Suttee ceremony

As recently as 1987, Roop Kanwar, an 18-year-old girl in Rajasthan, committed suttee with the blessing of her family. This remains India’s last known case. Her death shocked the nation and forced a rewrite of its laws, punishing abetment to committing the act or its glorification.

And so Fogg pushed on via Hong Kong and Yokohama in his stiff-upper-lipped and precise manner, but always alert to the importance of assisting others even if it meant losing his bet. One unlikely beneficiary was the Scotland Yard police inspector Fix, who pursued him and dogged him at every turn in the mistaken belief that Fogg was a bank robber on the run.

Whether on a wind-powered sledge across the snow or bribing the crew and imprisoning the captain aboard a hired French steamer to get from New York to Liverpool on time, Fogg pressed ever forward. When the coal ran out on the steamer crossing the Atlantic, he bought the vessel from the captain and began burning its wooden parts and anything else combustible until there was virtually only the iron hull left.

Did Fogg get to London on time and win his wager? Would we face such obstacles today? Armchair travel armed with a copy of “Around the World in 80 Days” might be a safer bet.

(PS: If Bombay is now Mumbai, why hasn’t Bollywood become Mollywood? – author)

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