"The Impractical Scheme of a Visionary:" Thomas Stevens and the Quest to Travel Round the World on a Bicycle
Gabrielle Porter and Tom Taylor
the East! To the East! Over mountain heights,
C.E. Cushing, Welcome to Thomas Stevens
On the morning of April 22, 1884, Thomas Stevens boarded the ferry plying the bay between San Francisco and Oakland. A few months shy of three years later, on January 3, 1887 he pulled into the same bay on an ocean steamer. In the intervening months he became the first person to ride a bicycle around the world. Stevens' adventure is a good tale worth retelling. Astride his fifty-inch wheeled Ordinary, equipped with little more than a change of clothes, a few simple tools, pen, paper and a revolver he rode across the United States to Boston, traversed Europe and the Ottoman Empire, wintered in Persia, got arrested in Afghanistan, sweated the searing roads of India in the summer, nearly got killed in China. He finished his trek in the rapidly changing landscape of Meiji Japan. According to his own meticulous records he had pedaled 13,500 miles.
Steven's journey is an amazing achievement and a great story but for world historians it offers more than a series of amusing anecdotes; it illuminates several themes that are central to understanding global travel during the so-called 'golden age of the bicycle.' His ride is illustrative of the emerging field of professional adventurer. We are all familiar with the travels of Stanley, Burton and others to claim glory and reward for being the first Westerners to map lands unknown in Europe. These men, and more rarely women like Isabella Bird, were enormously influential in shaping western perceptions of the wider world. Accounts of their travels were serialized in newspapers around the globe. An expanding reading public eagerly awaited news of their every footstep, their every encounter with "the native." Their lectures were often given to standing room only crowds and their books became bestsellers. About a decade before Stevens left San Francisco Jules Verne had published his immensely successful book, Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) and the idea of global travel was on everyone's minds.
Stevens is part of that emerging adventure journalist tradition, although unlike Stanley, Burton, or Bird, few remember him today. In his time he was well known, even adored, throughout the United States. His accounts of his trip appeared in Outing, an American journal that began publication in the early 1880s to promote healthy outdoor activities. These articles, in turn, were picked up by newspaper stringers throughout the United States. Upon his return The Boston Daily Globe proclaimed that, "so much has been written about the remarkable ride of Thomas Stevens that there are few who have not heard of him."1 An interview with Stevens while he passed through Shanghai near the end of his trip noted: "Portions [of his proposed book] have appeared in print in all portions of the globe."2 An article in the New York Times announced that Stevens' trip would be soon considered "the most splendid personal journey of this century."3
How Steven's writings shaped, or did not shape, America's perceptions of the world at this crucial juncture in United States history, when the country was in the middle of a phase of global outreach, is worthwhile to consider. American businessmen and missionaries were actively engaged in the Ottoman Empire and China. Meiji Japan was becoming a heavily frequented American tourist destination. Stevens was an active participant in shaping those encounters at many levels. His narrative of his trip is framed in tropes and structures which highlight his American identity and embodiment of American values.
Stevens, while a symbol of America's encounter with the world in the late nineteenth century, was not a citizen of the United States. He was born and raised in England in a working class family and only moved across the Atlantic as a teenager. Although he became thoroughly Americanized he remained a British subject and his national identity played a crucial role in the way his journey unfolded. It saved him from accusations of being a Russian spy in Armenia. It subjected him to the whims of great powers embroiled in the Great Game of imperial expansion in Central Asia. It provided him resources and support in British colonies; Steven's identity highlights the ways in which geopolitics defined global travel.
The most crucial area of Stevens' cultural encounter was 'the Orient.' It was on this part of his trip that he wrote about most extensively, and offered his most detailed cultural and social analysis. It was in these areas that American readers were most interested and intrigued with his trip, at least if we are to judge by the number of newspaper articles printed about him.
At the heart of Stevens' engagement with the Orient was the bicycle. It was the bicycle, as a mode of transport, that most importantly impacted where he went and who he met. Stevens was acutely aware of both the opportunities that his bicycle provided and the severe limitations it imposed on his efforts to circle the globe. In an era in which global travel was being increasingly defined by the railroad and the steamship, Steven's bicycle was a unique instrument of global engagement. It is only through understanding the ways the bicycle shaped his encounters that we can fully understand and appreciate Stevens' excursion.
First introduced in the 1860s in France, the bicycle rapidly transformed from amusement toy to transportation vehicle. By the early 1880s thousands were being made annually in the United States and many were beginning to speculate on their revolutionary potential. 'Feedless horses,' as they were sometimes called, offered individuals the possibility of going anywhere they wanted. Conservative moralists rued the possibility of married women using bicycles to ride to trysts. Women suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony praised the bicycle for giving a "woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent."4 A New York Times article written about Stevens wondered, "what corner of the world will be left unvisited by the silent riders of the iron steed? We shall have tricycling parties to Tibet and bicycling tours to Pekin."5 The bicycle seemed to opening up the world for any who turned its pedals.
Eugene Weber notes in his social and cultural history of turn of the century France that during this era the bicycle was considered "an emblem of Progress."6 While Stevens himself never said so, at least directly, an editorial in Outing magazine in July 1886 professed that Stevens had undertaken his quest "mainly for the purpose of displaying the powers of the modern bicycle."7 That he could ride around the world on his own power was for him a testament of western ingenuity and superiority. It promised a new age of individualism in which one person, powered by their own legs, could go anywhere they wanted. It was for him, "[a graceful triumph of Western ingenuity and mechanical skill."8
Stevens moved along steadily. Except for winter stops in Boston and Teheran, and a month-long planning period in Constantinople Stevens rarely stayed anywhere more than a night or two. For most of those he met, especially in the western United States and Asia, it was the bicycle more than the man that interested them. They may not have seen a white person but they may have at least some knowledge and formed opinions about the foreigner; almost certainly they had never seen a bicycle.
Tonio Andrade, in a recent article in the Journal of World History, called on world historians to use their "unique position as custodians of the world's past to be mediums, to bring alive, for just a few pages, some of the people who inhabited structures and lived through processes, using what Braudel called the most important tool of the historian: imagination... Let's bring the history of our interconnected world to life, one story at a time."9 Stevens' story and person, forgotten by contemporary society, does indeed bring the world of the late nineteenth century alive.
When Thomas Stevens decided to start his adventure he had never been on a bicycle. (One wonders if he'd have changed his mind with a bit more knowledge.) At the time he was working in the western United States as a railroad laborer and miner. Like many he had made his way west in search of fortune. According to an acquaintance of Stevens, he had read stories in the newspapers about failed attempts to traverse the United States and decided that his fortune, and perhaps fame, could come from succeeding where others had failed. An interview with The North China Herald, as he was leaving China near the end of his trip noted: "Mr. Stevens admits that he undertook the journey partly from the wish to travel; but mostly from the desire for notoriety—in other words pursuing the bubble reputation—which adventure would give him."10
How adventurous he had originally planned to be is a bit uncertain. In his book about his trip Stevens wrote that, while some had already thought of riding across the United States, no one had imagined the idea of becoming what Outing Magazine would later proclaim him "the future circumcycler."11 "It was the impractical scheme of a visionary," Stevens continued, and he was determined to do it.12 Hair brained was more like it. Besides the fact he had never ridden a bicycle he had little idea of how long the trip would take, which routes he would travel and how to pay for his trip. When he left San Francisco he had already spent most of his savings on his bicycle. He had no sponsorship to support him along the way. Whether he really planned to make it around the world as he crossed the San Francisco Bay or just hoped to get across the United States is uncertain.
It seems that Stevens had vague ideas about selling his story. Adventure journalism was a growing business. As Stevens toiled in the Wyoming and Colorado Territories Henry Stanley was making a name for himself searching for Dr. Livingstone in East Africa. Mark Twain was writing wildly successful travelogues and selling out national degaroutype tours of his trips. Newspapers and emerging outdoor magazines ran articles detailing the feats of explorers who made firsts of discoveries and adventures. At age twenty-nine he may have felt that this was best and maybe last chance to find a new career. He had never ridden a bike nor had he ever tried his hand at professional writing but it was an age in which all seemed possible.
It was also a propitious time to consider being the first to ride across the United States on a bike. The country was becoming fascinated with the new machine. Some form of bicycles had been around for decades but there use had been limited by mechanical deficiencies, the lack of infrastructure for riding them and their cost.13 Bikes were expensive; they could cost anywhere between $100–150. A laborer like Stevens may bring in a tenth of that per month so a bicycle could cost the better part of a year's wages. Despite the expense, however, there was a real interest in the new technology on which Stevens hoped to capitalize.
Stevens bought his bike when he got to San Francisco in the spring of 1884. It was a $110.00 Columbia Ordinary. Ordinaries, with their fifty-inch front wheel were a real technological advancement over the first generation of bicycles, not so affectionately known as 'bone crushers.' This first generation of bikes, often made with wood wheels and brittle iron, had a tendency to break. They also had a tendency to break the bones of those who tried to maneuver them on the unpaved streets of American cities. Ordinaries, with their big-spoked wheel provided greater comfort than the old, stiff iron bikes although their solid rubber wheels did little to soften the roads. (Pneumatic tires were developed shortly after Stevens' trip. What his solid rubber tires lacked in comfort, however, was made up for in the fact they never went flat.) The size of the wheel in relation to the pedal length meant that it was energy efficient and could move along at a decent speed if conditions were right. That, of course, was a big if. Roads in many parts of the United States were either non-existent or old cobble-stoned paths. Falling off the fifty-inch wheeler could hurt, and cause serious injury. Mark Twain famously noted of his experiences learning to ride an Ordinary, "Get a bicycle. You'll never regret it, if you live."14 Stevens spent a week with the newly formed San Francisco bicycle club getting lessons on how to stay upright on his Ordinary; he then proclaimed he was ready for his adventure.
One big disadvantage of the Ordinary was its minimal carrying capacity. There was no place for packs or panniers and, as noted earlier, Stevens carried little. His shelter was a rain slicker that also served as a bed roll. He could not carry much water and hardly any food. He needed to procure his resources from locals and this reality greatly shaped his experience. He was dependent on the kindness of strangers and he overwhelmingly received it. In over two-and-a-half years of traveling Stevens spent only about a dozen nights sleeping outside. Almost every night of his trip there was someone willing to take him in and provide food and shelter. The generosity of those he met is one of the enduring themes of his account.
Having worked the railroads across the Wyoming Territory Stevens had a vague idea about the way to accomplish his trip; following the sidings of the recently completed Transcontinental Railroad. It was a reasonable choice. Railroad grades were moderate, tunnels offered paths through mountains and bridges provided ways to ford rivers. Section houses stationed periodically along the tracks offered the possibility of shelter, food and even a bit of company. Of course railroad tracks also carried trains and there were a couple of occasions during his trip east that Stevens barely averted disaster when a train passed by and he was forced to hang from a trestle as it roared past.
When Stevens finally made it to Boston a reporter interviewed him about his experiences traveling across the American West. "Did you have any trouble with Indians?" "None whatever," Stevens replied. "What about the cowboys?" the reporter asked next. "They treated me alight," Stevens answered, "in fact I am a cowboy myself."15
Stevens' reference to himself as a cowboy is illuminating. It certainly reflects his self-identity having long lived as a farmer, rancher and laborer in the western United Sates. Yet, Stevens was not American; he was born and educated in England. Frequently throughout his reports of his trips he refers to himself as an Englishman. While Stevens was an Englishman at one level he was quintessentially American on another and his trip is reflective of American values and culture in the late nineteenth century. A French journalist after interviewing two young Americans who imitated Stevens' round the world effort a few years later noted, "You have to be an American to come up with an idea like that."16
The late nineteenth century was a time of American globalization. The nineteenth century communication revolution—telegraphs and the expansion of the press—fueled American interest in distant affairs.17 Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States had a special calling for expansion across the North American continent and engagement beyond, was widely held. Trading enclaves were established in China. The United States forced an open door treaty on Japan. Whalers and missionaries populated many Pacific Islands. Stevens manifested these American values. His trip was a result of this growing engagement with the world and was motivated by his interest that there may be a market for his trip in the burgeoning popular presses of the day.
Despite this growing global presence, however, many Americans did not consider themselves colonists or imperialists. They tended to believe that their global engagements brought benefits—technology and western cultural values—to those who needed to progress. They believed they were agents of mutual benefit not exploiters of indigenous peoples. Stevens shared this sentiment. He did not see his trip as part of a larger political or colonial enterprise; it was adventure for adventure sake. It was also a trip that glorified American notions of rugged individualism. Stevens was a cowboy. Riding in the desolated stretches of western Afghanistan Stevens wrote "I bowl along southward, led by the strange infatuation of a pathfinder, traveling terra incognita…"18 A solitary man astride his mechanical steed who with little but his determination and wits, and a gun, could overcome any obstacle. "I scarcely anticipate any [difficulties] that time and perseverance cannot overcome," he wrote confidently as he approached Istanbul.19 He saw his trip as a way to demonstrate western superiority through the technology of the bicycle.
Even though Stevens saw himself as a traveler not a colonizer he was, nonetheless, often taken for an imperialist enroute. Partly this was a consequence of his own attitude of superiority that comes in strongly through his writings. Partly this was the reality that outside of the West he was a foreigner to everyone he met and western foreigners in the late nineteenth century were associated with imperialism.
By the time Stevens completed his transcontinental journey his ambitions had grown; his success crossing the United States convinced him to keep going around the world. His decision was aided strongly by the support of Colonel Albert Pope, the owner of the Pope Bicycle Company and the manufacturer of Stevens' Ordinary. Pope had started the company seven years before and was looking to expand the market for his machines. He had recently started publishing a monthly magazine, Outing to promote the virtues of bicycles and outdoor activity. Stevens' exclusive reports of his trip to Outing would cover his expenses and Pope hoped that Stevens' success would stimulate sales. He expected that Stevens' everyman background may help expand the market to average Americans as until then bicycles were the toys of the rich and well-to-do, not a tool for the common man. He wanted to convince buyers of the superiority of his American brand as early Ordinary sales were dominated by English firms: "This product," a Columbia brochure boasted, "is the product of American industry which all who are American should be truly proud of."20
Bicycling the Orient
Stevens ride through Europe was uninteresting. His reports read like standard travel logs of miles completed, food consumed, sites visited and, occasionally, people met. Bike clubs which were springing up in most majors cities feted him and rode along with him part of the way. About ten days out of Vienna Stevens slipped across the Danube River into Hungary. He had crossed a threshold; he was leaving the West. His interest in comparing the West he was leaving to the East ahead preoccupied many of his experiences and observations for the rest of his trip.
At one level, like so many Westerners of the time, Stevens was an Orientalist. Everything from the Danube until he boarded his steamer out of Yokohama was "the Orient." The Oriental mind and customs were a frequent subject of speculation and observation and, in both regards, the Easterner was inferior to his western counterpart. While it is obvious that Stevens' trip reinforces many of the typical nineteenth-century Orientalist stereotypes there are also many instances where he modifies and challenges them. In his recent article "Kipling, the Orient and Orientals: 'Orientalism' Reconsidered?" David Scott argues a close reading of Kipling compels us to think of more complex understandings of Orientalism than those first proposed by Said. He notes that while many travelers reinforced binaries of Western superiority and Eastern backwardness they also manifested "countercurrents" to these views; Stevens fits this revisionist mold.21
First and foremost, Stevens did acknowledge that there were significant differences in the peoples and cultures of different parts of the Orient. The Ottoman Empire formed one zone, dominated, in his view, by Islamic culture and a pastoral economy. Persia was characterized by a more conservative strain of Islam (although he does not differentiate between Sunni and Shi'a traditions), by the rule of the Persian sultan and the internationalism of Teheran. Stevens' India experience was heavily influenced by British colonialism. China was a land on to itself, the most foreign and alien part of his trip. Japan was the antithesis of China. Japan was the Orient in transition to modernism; whether Stevens believed Japan can make that transition is one of the keys to understanding his views of the Orient.
Second, while Stevens was often denigrating of "the Asiatic mind" he could be equally as effusive in his praise of the Orientals' generosity and hospitality. While he certainly criticized Orientals for their backwardness he also acknowledged many positive traits of those he met which challenged sharp distinctions between East and West. As he wrote on more than one occasion, "I think human nature is pretty much the same the world over."22
For Stevens the "Orient" began southeast of Budapest as he moved away from the Germanic sections of the Habsburg and into Hungary. As he rode through small villages of the southern Habsburg Empire he noted that "there has been a perceptible softening of the disposition of the natives… the generous southern sun, shining on the great area of Oriental gentleness, casts a softening influence toward the sterner north, imparting to the people amiable and genial dispositions."23
Part of the 'softening influence' of the Oriental for Stevens was on display in native dress. Billowing pantaloons for Stevens represented the greater casualness of the Orient versus the more formal attire of coats, ties and collared shirts of the Occident. In Istanbul he purchased a pair of "oriental slippers" which he declared perfect for riding. Fezzes, the other bit of attire he most associated with the Orient, however, were completely impractical for biking. Stevens preferred his hard shell sun helmet which provided some relief from the searing sun of Asia (it not only provided shade but the air space underneath acted like a cooling tower for his head), and deflected rocks and sticks aimed his way on more than one occasion. Along with the revolver strapped to his hip, it also clearly defined him as a Westerner.
Most typically, especially for male travelers, Stevens associated the Orient with females. It was the women who were the most exotic. While traveling through Kurdish parts of the Ottoman Empire Stevens was having a morning meal in a small village. As often happened he was immediately surrounded by a crowd interested in him and his bicycle. This crowd, however, had many women and his description of these women speaks of the exotic feminizing that Edward Said argues was typical of much of Western Orientalism.
Muslim women, he noted while in Persia, "are merely overgrown children."25
Stevens ventured into Asia having been constantly warned of the danger that awaited him. "From the time I left Hungary I have been warned so persistently of danger ahead," he noted after getting off of the ferry across the Bosporus, "and so far met nothing really dangerous, that I am getting skeptical about there being anything like the risk people seem to think." In Istanbul he had been warned by British and American counsels that "Asia is infested with brigands, the former going the length of saying that if he had the power he would refuse me permission to meander forth upon so risky an undertaking." Another advised that "Persians are quite agreeable, their only fault being the one common in the East; a disposition to charge whatever they think possible to obtain for anything."26
While he was almost daily engulfed by curiosity seekers, and he did face thieves on a couple of occasions, he was most frequently met by accommodation and kindness. While pedaling through the Anatolian Plateau he wished that someone would actually attack him "for sake of livening things up a bit, and making my narrative more stirring; after venturing everything, I have so far nothing to tell but a story of being treated everywhere with the greatest consideration, and much of the time even petted."27
There would be a few occasions when Stevens felt endangered but they were few and far between. More often he was met with gracious warmth, with caravaners sharing their tents and food. "The eager hospitality of these villagers is really touching. The moment I approach, they assign me a place of their 'table' and two of them immediately bestir themselves to make me comfortable. Neither is there so much as a mercenary thought among them in connection with the invitation."28 At one point, for example, he complained that people were so generous that he could not even pay them for the food he ate in poor, remote villages and gave the money to the children as he left.
Almost certainly one reason for Stevens generally warm reception throughout much of Asia was his attitude. He was highly aware of his circumstances; he travelled alone, with few provisions, and though armed with a pistol, he was almost completely dependent on the daily kindness of strangers he met. He needed them and, therefore, he realized he needed to be accommodating to them as well. Stevens also believed in the power of the bicycle to overcome potential problems. "While not being blind to the fact that there is a certain amount of danger in traveling alone through a country... I feel quite confident that the extreme novelty of my conveyance will make so profound an impression on the Asiatic mind that... they would hesitate seriously to molest me."29
Often the bicycle did make an impression. While he was rarely physically threatened he was often suffocated with curiosity. Crowds swarmed him as he entered towns and villages. Some poked and prodded the bicycle, threatening to tip the machine. Most evenings when approaching a village he agreed to ride around the central square until everyone's curiosities about the strange man and stranger machine were sated. Food, drink and hospitality usually followed. "And am I not hobnobbing and making myself accessible to the people, instead of being exclusive and heading straight away to the pasha's shutting myself up and permitting none but the few privileged persons to intrude upon my privacy?" he mused. "All these things appeal strongly to the better nature of the imaginative Turks, and not a moment during the whole evening am I suffered to be unconscious of their great appreciation of it all."30 "I surrender myself, as it were, to the intelligence and good-will of the common people, to their credit it can be recorded, I can invariably count on their not lacking at least the latter qualification."31
On several other occasions he praised the work ethic of farmers and peasants he passed on the way. "I have throughout the Orient been struck by the industriousness of the real working classes," he noted while observing hard working peasants in fields in Armenian areas of the Anatolia Plateau. 32 Steven's praise for the work ethic of Armenians contrasts sharply with the assessment of Armenians by another bicycle rider riding through those lands about a decade later. On this trip Dr. Darwin McIllrath was traveling with his wife and they were attempting to be the first couple to ride around the world. When passing through the area the Doctor observed:
It is possible that Stevens' humanism toward his hosts was shaped in part by the nature of his bicycle travel but as the observations of Dr. McIllrath make clear not all bicyclists observed locals with the same sympathies. It cautions us as historians to recognize the individuality of travelers and uniqueness of their experiences that are central to cross-cultural encounters.
While Stevens had much praise for the courteousness of the "Oriental" he constantly denigrates the intelligence of the "Asiatic mind." The mayor of Angora he notes "appears to be remarkably intelligent compared to many Asiatics, and, moreover, of quite a practical turn of mind."34 He is clearly the exception rather than the rule. Stevens strongly associated technology with modernization and the West and like many Westerners reasoned that Western technological superiority was a consequence of cultural values rather historical circumstances. "The Oriental, with his primitive methods and tenacious adherence to the ways of his forefathers, probably enough, has to work these extra long hours to make any kind of progress…in practicability and inventiveness the Oriental is sadly deficient."35
It was in this regard that his bike mostly strongly symbolized the "Occident" for him. Entering into the western part of the Ottoman Empire he noted that "the natives of a Turkish village are not over-intimate with newspapers and are in consequence profoundly ignorant… and the appearance of a bicycle is indeed a strange visitation, something entirely beyond their comprehension."36 Given that Orientals seemed incapable of really understanding the technology of the bike it was a key marker of the distance between the civilized West and the less developed East. Riding through the Armenian section of the eastern Anatolian plateau he noted —"They are very like their neighbors… in one respect… the bicycle is a Gordian knot too intricate for their semi-civilized minds to unravel, and there are no Alexanders among them to think of cutting it."37 Even where Asians had the bicycle Stevens was anxious to point out the superiority of the West's models. In India, for example, he noted that "There is a mysterious bond of symmetry recognizable even between the old native-made boneshaker and its Punjabi rider and the pale-faced Ferenghi Sahib (westerner) mounted on his graceful triumph of Western ingenuity and mechanical skill."38 He always relished the opportunity to race a horse rider when he could. He relished reporting his victories as the horse faded on the dusty road even more. The 'feedless horse' of western ingenuity had once again proved superior to the transportation technology of the Orient.
The "Orient" would mean many things to Stevens. Most importantly it connoted a lack of development, a deficiency of modernization. As he ambled through the Bulgarian countryside on his way to Istanbul he noted that, "savagery lingers in the lap of civilization on the breezy plateaus of Bulgaria, but salvation is coming this way in the shape of an extension of the Roumelian railway…"39 Anywhere he saw a railway or a telegraph he associated them with the West and with progress. Riding through Persia Stevens wrote, "alongside my road runs a bit of civilization in the shape of the splendid iron poles of the Indo-European Telegraph Company." British lines, he recorded in a bit of western bravado, consisted of triple-wire lines on sturdy iron poles while the single strand Persian lines that ran parallel preferred to "nestle… under the protective shadow of the English line."40 Ditches and bridges along the Grand Trunk Road of India he interpreted as evidence of English enterprise no less than the road itself."41 The fact that the road had been a vital artery of South Asia dating back well before the time of the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century seems to be ignored by Stevens.
In Persia Stevens blamed the Orient's rejection of modernism on conservative Islam. In Tabriz, on his way to winter at the Persian capital of Teheran, Stevens met a prince, and one of several potential heirs to the Persian throne. He liked the man personally although he noted that "he is generally under the influence of the fanatical and bigoted seyuds and mollahs, who are strictly opposed to the Ferenghi (foreigners) and the Ferenghi's ideas of progress and civilization…"42
Steven's impression of the Shah himself once he arrived in Teheran was little better. "He seems to have a generous desire to see the country opened up to the civilizing improvements of the West, and to give the people an opportunity of emancipating themselves from their present deplorable condition; but the mollahs set their faces firmly against all reform, and the Shah evidently lacks the strength of will to override their opposition."43 Stevens seems to later contradict his own assessment of the Shah's attitude toward the West when he noted that the gas and electric lights he sees strung along a few of the streets in Teheran are only:
(Stevens would echo this theme of Orientals poorly aping western technology again when he traveled through Japan as we shall see.)
India clearly ranked as one of Stevens' favorite parts of Asia. Undoubtedly the smooth nature of the Grand Trunk road and its established tourist rest stops were major factors in that assessment. Indians as well seemed less intrusive and meddlesome and other people he had met enroute. "… their respectfulness and conservatism is something to admire; although they gather about the bicycle in a compact ring, not a hand in all the company is meddlesome enough to touch it."45 The reason that the Indians behaved better than people he met throughout the Ottoman and Persian Empires, he surmised, had to with the influences of the British colonialism in South Asia. When he complained to a fellow traveler about the harassment he had faced while making his way through Persia the man, Captain R____ , had said, "'You'll find, when you get to India, that a Sahib there is a Sahib,' and the strikingly deferential demeanor of the natives I have encountered on the road today forcibly reminds me of his remarks."46
Stevens' Orient, while "semi-civilized" was not as exotic as some who wrote about his trip made it out to be. The poem penned to fete Stevens on his return printed at the beginning of this article is a prime example. "To the East! To the East! Through strange wild lands, Where live fierce men with blood-stained hands, Where wander stealthy beasts of prey, Where dangers threaten and perils play."47 Only when he wrote about the "wild eyes" of Kurdish women did he take on such an exotic tone. More often his writings are best characterized by their tedium rather than their exotic embellishments. His writing holds little glory or fanciful language. The adventure is halting; there are few adjectives or adverbs. His read like a log. In short Stevens does not present literature, at least not along the lines of travel adventure literature of his time. Perhaps his writing style was a reflection of Stevens' character; he seemed to be a man of substance over style. This straightforward narrative could also be the consequence of Stevens' lack of professional training and grammar school education. After all, except for a few notes to a Wyoming newspaper he was as much a journalistic novice as a biking novice when he left San Francisco.
Stevens did hold assumptions of cultural superiority, he often called upon classic racist rhetoric like 'uncivilized, swindling, childlike, and dumb' that was common to much of the Western travel literature about the non-Western world of the nineteenth century. However, he also learned customs, spoke to peasants, played with children, and even flirted with a couple of girls without an immediate posturing of superiority. Whether consciously done or not, Stevens' narration was not typical of the time. He never came close to the revolting and embarrassing arrogance of Stanley and his contemporaries. While explaining how he organized his caravans of porters in Africa, for example, Stanley noted that "the dark brother, [was as] wild as a colt, chafing, restless, ferociously impulsive, superstitiously timid, liable to furious demonstrations, suspicious and unreasonable… the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision."48 Three young English cyclers who followed Stevens' example of circumnavigating the globe on bicycle likewise illustrate the difference in style and mind set. "The people were filthy. We sickened at the sores they presented. They were poor. They had nothing other than rice to present to us."49
A Pawn in the Great Game
Stevens traveled mostly alone, and, at least once he left Europe, often in remote pastoral lands. Nonetheless, politics were never far from him and imperial struggles played a significant role in shaping his trip. Throughout the northern and eastern stretches of the Ottoman Empire rivalries between the Sultan's government and the growing interests of Russia in the south led some to fear that the strange man on the stranger contraption may be a Russian spy sent in to reconnoiter forts and passes. In Persia and Central Asia the international rivalries of the Great Game dictated his routes and led to his arrest. The essence of the Great Game revolved around the declining strength of the Ottoman and Persian Empires and the growing imperial appetites of Russia and Great Britain. Russia hoped to benefit from the relatively weak Khanates of Central Asia to carve out their influence in that area. Great Britain sought to secure its 'jewel in the crown' India by protecting not only its water routes through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean but also the lands routes across Central Asia and Afghanistan. Beginning in 1838 they launched a series of ill-fated wars to secure Afghanistan and block a potential Russian bid to control the Khyber Pass. Both countries tried to curry favor with the Persian Shah as a way to strengthen their hand in the region. The two emerging empires squared off in Central Asia, right in the middle of Stevens' chosen route around the world.
Stevens first encountered the realities of these imperial conflicts as he made his way into the eastern regions of the Anatolian Plateau. Peasants were aware of history of Russian expansion into the mountainous region to their north and had heard of the ongoing struggle between Russian and Ottoman forces "The first question is—as is usual of late—'Russ or Inglis?'50 On this occasion some young men of the village did not believe Stevens when he answered that he was English, one of them snuck up behind Stevens and "commences playing a tattoo on my helmet with two sticks by way of bravado, and showing his contempt for the subject of the Czar." On another occasion when confronted by some locals "When I tell them that Russia is fenna (bad) they invariable express their approval of the sentiment by eagerly calling each other's attention to my expression."51
While Stevens' English heritage served him well while traveling through the Ottoman Empire it greatly hindered his abilities to complete his journey later. After wintering in Teheran in 1885 Stevens planned to head north into Turkestan and then into Siberia; it was the only route, he reasoned, that allowed him to avoid the treacherous mountains of the Himalayas and the incessant warfare of tribe and British that unsettled Afghanistan. Meetings with the amiable Russian Ambassador to Persia, General Melnikoff went well and on March 10, 1886 he took off on what he figured to be the last and most difficult stage of his trek. Following British telegraph lines north he made good progress but as he neared the Turkestan border a telegraph operator handed him bad news: the Russians had denied him permission to enter their territory. No explanation but the antipathy between the two powers seemed to be the reason.
Desperate to complete his trip Stevens turned east toward Afghanistan. British officials, now telegraphing him regularly, strongly warned him not to try. "In the first place," the British Charge d'Affaires' telegram said, "the Afghans would never allow you to come here; and if you should happen to reach here, you never would be able to get away again."52 Stevens was livid but, he concluded, "What, after all, are the ambitions and enterprises of an individual, compared to the will and policy of an empire? No matter whether the empire be semi-civilized and despotic, or free and enlightened, the obscure and struggling individual is usually rated 0000."53
Stifled by diplomats Stevens decided to ignore the British legation's advice and headed east. Amazingly, he made it into Afghanistan but not far across the border. Tribal leaders refused to guarantee safe passage, even when he pledged to risk his own life in order to be allowed to go on alone they escorted him back to the border. It seems that British officials' warnings about the dangers of Afghani tribesmen were unfounded; while Stevens was not allowed to continue across the lands he was not mistreated in his return.
With the borders of Russia closed and the passes of Afghanistan blocked Stevens had no choice but to return west to Istanbul in order to devise a new plan. A true circumnavigation of Asia was now impossible; Stevens took a ship to British India and continued his journey but the goal of riding from the English Channel to the shores of the Pacific now proved impossible.
Following in Stevens' path some six years later two recent American university graduates, Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben faced a similar dilemma. Like Stevens they had set out to circumcycle the globe.54 Like Stevens they made it safely to Persia. Having read of Stevens' troubles in Afghanistan they decided to head north toward the Turkestan border where they hoped for a favorable telegram from the Russian consulate would give them permission that Stevens never got, mainly the right to travel through Russian controlled territory. At Meshed, Persia, they got their answer—Russia would allow them to travel through their country. Why were they able to transverse Russia when Stevens' was not? We are not certain. It may have simply been different attitudes by different bureaucrats. It may have also been because unlike Stevens they carried American passports and the United States was not a player in the Great Game of Central Asia. Whatever the reason, while Stevens was forced back south they headed north did eventually did complete their bike trek across Asia. With his land route closed Stevens, with great reluctance, was forced to take to ocean steamers two complete part of his trip.
Stevens' Darkest Hour: China
On October 7, 1886, over two years since he set off from San Francisco, Thomas Stevens arrived in the city of Canton, China. China represented the most extreme isolation and foreign unknown, the Asiatic heart of darkness. "The consuls and others express grave doubts about the wisdom of my undertaking in journeying alone through China, and endeavor to dissuade me from making the attempt," he reported, 55 Although not stated Westerners seemed aware that their incursions along the coasts and rivers of China and their attacks throughout the nineteenth century to insure 'the free trade' of opium were engendering strong anti-foreign sentiment in the country. Many fans back home feared for their errant's well-being as communication became unreliable and his travel progressed slower than planned. "At the office of Outing fears are expressed for his [Stevens] safety, for unless he has met with foul play there is nothing that can explain the 70 days of time which have elapsed since he left Hong Kong."56 Indeed, China proved to be Steven's greatest challenge and his rugged tenacity an essential tool for survival.
In China Stevens confronted a land with few or no roads, extreme language barriers, and massive populations. It was a land bruised by recent civil wars and weakened and embittered by foreign intervention and extreme food shortages. While he had been gawked at and surrounded by curious locals throughout the Ottoman Empire and Persia in China Stevens was a "Fankwae" or "foreign devil". It was in rural China that he drew his loaded firearm twice, motivated by fear of injury and death. It is also in China where Stevens, despite the hardships he faced, proved to be a rare traveler who tried to understand, rather than simply judge, those he met.
China's infrastructure in the late nineteenth century consisted mostly of paths, rivers, and canals. The lack of wheeled transport in the country accounted for the difficult roads Stevens encountered and was also the primary reason for his unexpected slow pace. Instead of roads there were narrow pathways whose topography, inconsistency, and texture made it nearly impossible for one man on foot, let alone a bicycle, to travel. He frequently described the infrastructure as "impassible stone-ways"57 and "wretched roads"58 and he even became degrading in his explanation of Chinese engineering, "one would naturally imagine that the Chinese enterprise would be sufficient to construct something like a decent towpath through this canon."59 His physical exhaustion from the arduous travel can be imagined after the more peaceful and uneventful distance pedaled along the Great Trunk Road in India. Stevens certainly considered China as less developed than India using the roads as a prime indicator.
Often Stevens noted that the poor roads hindered his movement and limited his progress to a few dozen miles a day. China is "hardly a cycling country,"60 he wrote. He recorded taking several headers and falls on the dicey roads and paths receiving all sorts of general physical injury along the way. Not since leaving the railway sidings of the American West had mentioned such problems. Compounding the infrastructure and transportation problems Stevens found little food to buy. When there was food people were often willing to sell or share but the undeniable hunger of the people seemed apparent. Meals, when he got them, consisted of a few peanuts, a dollop of white rice, and some citrus. Things got worse the further he got from the coast and rarely did Stevens get any protein to replenish his tired muscles.
It is due to these hardships and slow moving that Stevens ran over a month late in his plan to cross China. Furthermore, because of the isolation of the country, no one from his home country heard anything from him between October 4th and sometime after December 15th. He was due in Shanghai by early November but with no word from him fear and speculation that he had been slain by the "Oriental dragon" was widely reported by United Sates newspapers. On December 16th the New York Times ran an article entitled, Is Thomas Stevens Safe? in which it refuted a claim from a Philadelphia newspaper that Stevens had corresponded with them as late as October 22nd. While not wanting to alarm its readers, the Times said that it also did not want to give idle comfort to those anxious for news.61 Frank Lenz, who tried to replicate Stevens' success of riding a bike around the world a few years later said about China "God help the unfortunate cycler or traveler who crosses China, I could never do it again."62
Much of Stevens discomfort in the society and China as a whole resulted from the sheer density of the population and the way in which they reacted to the sight of a white man on such a contraption as the bicycle. "I am in the midst of a crowd of struggling, pushing natives, whose aggressive curiosity renders it extremely difficult for me to move either backward or forward…I must endeavor to protect the bicycle from the crush."63 Frequently the crowds made his travel through villages and cities difficult. On several occasions the masses developed into violent mobs that wielded sticks, threw stones, spit, and chased Stevens out of the area; "an immense crowd of people have hurried down the back streets and collected at this gate;…the mob came pouring through the gate, yelling like demons and picking up stones as they hurry after us." 64 Generally though, the villages meant no harm to the traveler and were often far more interested in the bicycle than the foreigner, "The bicycle is kept downstairs, where it performs the office of a vent for the rampant curiosity of the thousands who besiege the proprietor for a peep...."65
Stevens' glacial progress through China was made even more challenging by his cultural isolation. Throughout the Orient he had been able to find westerners, whether missionaries in the Kurdish regions, officials in Teheran, or British soldiers in India to talk and socialize with. When he prepared to enter southern China, however, some Portuguese merchants warned him "that I wouldn't see a European face nor hear an English word… ."66 As he traveled deeper into China this warning proved prescient. He saw only two westerners, a pair of two old English Presbyterian missionaries in a nearly unnoticed section of rural countryside. They told him they were planning to leave the area the next day because of rising anti-European unrest. They were the last Westerners he saw for a long time.
Beyond the feeling of cultural and racial isolation encountered in China Stevens found himself completely unable to communicate with the locals he depended on so heavily. Talking to a reporter after his return Stevens admitted that he had "found myself as helpless as the babes in the wood"67 from an inability to communicate. His three years of travel amongst foreign lands were dwarfed by the challenge of China and he was forced into linguistic ingenuity for survival, "[a]ll my experience of pantomime in the more than dozen countries previously traversed availed me little when I entered into the interior of the Celestial empire….Necessity is a faithful tutor, however, and I soon became proficient in the art of making myself understood by signs."68 Stevens had traveled halfway through the country before various hand and body signals sufficed to replace speech, "I had traveled hundreds of miles in China before I began to acquire proficiency in making myself understood." 69
Unlike most travelers Stevens carried no pre-written cards in the native languages he traveled through. He had no training in any language or any interpreter to aid him. The depth and totality of his language barrier compelled an extreme humility. After another challenging day of failed communication Stevens turned the blame upon himself rather than the Chinese, "Me a jackass incapable of the Fat-shan pronunciation." 70 The self-critique is a rare admittance for a Western foreigner of the time and his empathy and humanism for the difficulty of cross-cultural communication is apparent as he added "imagine a lonely Chinaman who desired to learn the road to Philadelphia surrounded by a dense crowd in the Bowery, New York, and uttering… 'phaladilfi,' and the reader gains a feeble conception of my own predicament in Fat-shan,"71
As Stevens inched through China his tone grew more cynical, his writing more narrowed. His inclusion of lengthy description or representation of international nuances decreased, more and more the piece narrowed to his daily actions. His isolation had become complete and his concerns extremely basic. For the magazine articles he no longer wrote about the country he was in, its politics, Europe's role, its future or its economy, like he had while trekking Central Asia. He was lonely and his narrative reflected his isolation.
The ebb and flow of Stevens' frustrations with the Chinese often correlated to the present condition of his own health. Part way through southern China he sprained his right knee and though his dedicated toughness restrained commentary to a simple "it becomes painful in the night and wakes me up," 72 the pain was palpable. After the injury his attitude toward the Chinese quickly became disagreeable. "The sentiments of pity and consideration for the sufferings of others, are a well-nigh invisible quality of John Chinaman's character," 73 he wrote after slogging all day on rugged paths with the ailing knee.
Throughout his trip, from the first day in Canton to the last days aboard the ferry that eventually carried him to Shanghai Stevens noted the presence of opium in China. However, as he descended into cynicism, as with the roads and people, his sentiment and commentary on opium and those who smoked the drug grew disdainful. Generally, at least once every written entry, opium in the form of "hitting the pipe,"74 was mentioned and many Chinese were described as "hallow eyed"75 by the drug's narcotic effects. There was no analysis of the drug nor were its political ties or origin mentioned but was presence is clear and the grip of lackadaisical haze it held over zombie-like addicts was noted with consistent nonchalance. Like most westerners Stevens never blamed the West for China's opium addiction. Many Chinese, by contrast, likely resented Stevens as yet another example of foreign intervention that degraded and denigrated their lands.
Stevens expected that after the extreme challenges he was facing in southern China things would get better as he moved north. Instead, his tribulations grew and he found a deepening anti-western sentiment as the days passed. By the middle of October Stevens passed through villages that were openly hostile towards him. Even women, who had often been shy and differential to him seemed if not hostile, certainly not overly friendly. "Unlike her timid and apprehensive sisters of yesterday," Stevens wrote of Chinese women, "she sees in me nothing to be afraid of." 76 It took him a while to figure out why. During this time in the 1880s France had been annexing more land to extend the northern border of their newly established territory, Indochine. The year following Stevens cycle through China, 1887, Indochine became an official colony of France with Tonquin as its northern capital. Using military might and coercion the French established their colony over the course of several years, their most serious Northern push came in the second half of 1886, each gained meter was insult and physical threat to the Chinese. Stevens noted the political unrest a number of times, referring to the situation in his articles as the "French Tonquin campaign."77
One night in particular the tension escalated to threat and conflict. An exhausted Stevens arrived in an unnamed village as darkness set in and quickly noticed something was wrong. There was a distinct tension in the air. He surmised that the colonial movements to the south created the unrest, "the Fankwae aggression in Tonquin…has happened to reach the little interior village this very day, and the excited people see in me an emissary of destruction, here for the diabolical purpose of spying out their country."78 He noted "it behooves me to be clearing out"79 so he left without eating and with no place to go in the darkness. He was followed by various bands wielding rocks and torches who searched for him upon the empty road for several hours. He spent the night in the dark, moist vegetation with nothing but mosquitoes for company; his discomfort and anger were poignant.
Hiding in the bushes outside the village deepened Stevens' misery and fear. As he snuck out of his hiding place at dawn he was on edge: "With revolver pulled round to the front ready to hand, and half expecting an occasion to use it in the defense of my life, I grimly speculate on the number of my cartridges and the probability of each on bagging a sore-eyed Celestial ere my own lonely and reluctant ghost is yielded up."80 This instance is one of the few times Stevens drew his weapon and alluded to violence. His words were dramatic, and more traditional of adventure writing that glorified confrontation with 'the native.' Such writing also solidified Stevens as a brave hero back in the United States with his Americana tough quality and hardened sentiment. It is this type of story that readers wanted and China finally gave Stevens the adventure that earlier parts of his travels lacked.
Days later and by now much more in need of cheer and assistance, Stevens came across "a substantial brick edifice surmounted by a plain wooden cross."81 His thrill and expectation of meeting a French Jesuit was quickly doused when he discovered "[t]he sole occupant of the building, however, is found to be a fat, monkish-looking Chinaman," 82 whose claim to the English language and Catholic faith were quite false. Through hand gestures Stevens learned the fate of the Jesuits. "I learn that they were compelled to flee the country, owing to the hostility aroused by the operations of the French in Tonquin."83
Dejectedly Stevens left the empty compound and walked his bike through the village. As he did the town's inhabitants started, "squealing in alarm upon seeing the Fankwae." Stevens commented that the exclamations "[remind me] very much of the monkey's notes of alarm in tree-tops along the Grand Trunk Road, India."84 As he walked further tension rose, "One would think that all the devils of Dante's 'Inferno' had gotten into the crowd and set them wild with the spirit of mischief."85 His two travel aides who he had hired to help carry his bike over the impassable roads were "quaking with fear"86 and soon the townspeople were chasing the cycler and his two men, throwing rocks and debris at their heads, "[f]ortunately for me…[my] head is pretty thoroughly hidden beneath the thick pith thatch-work of my Indian solar topee, otherwise I should have succumbed to the first fusillade of stones.…"87 The three sprinted away from the mob and eventually found shelter in the local governmental office after receiving some serious bruises. For the first time in his trip Stevens also reported that his bike was damaged when a rock broke a spoke. Once inside the building Stevens was ushered into the official's office and immediately asked whether his nationality was French. "Ying-yun,' I reply, feeling the advantage of being English of American, rather than French."88 In this case, unlike on the borders with Russia, his English nationality proved a benefit.
This confrontation effectively ended Stevens' bike trip. Afterward Chinese officials, apparently anxious not to have an international incident on their hands, demanded that he travel under armed guard aboard a boat heading down the Yangtze River to Shanghai. By now he was so exhausted and dispirited he did not challenge this plan. "It now becomes apparent that my bicycling experiences in China are about ending, and that the authorities have determined upon passing me down the Kan-kiang by boat to the Yang-tsi-kiang. I am to be passed on from city to city like a bale of merchandise, delivered and receipted from day to day.89
Stevens finally arrived in Shanghai on November 18, 1886. Upon reaching the English consulate there was a greeting party where Chinese nationals called out, "Are you from Canton?...Well, well, well! Nobody expected to ever see anything of you again; and you got through all safe eh?"90 He then met the consulate doctor who greeted him with a: "What's the matter? you look bad about the eyes…you look haggard and fagged out." Immediately after Stevens looked at himself in a mirror for the first time in months, "I can see that the doctor is quite justified in his apprehensions. Hair long, face unshaved for five weeks, thin and gaunt-looking from daily hunger, worry, and hard dues generally, I look worse than a hunted greyhound."91 His rugged tenacity had carried him through though, and with some good humor brought on by the completion of the China leg he wryly noted, "I look far worse, however, than I feel; a few days' rest and some wholesome fare will work wonders."92 He then sat down to a meal of duck, cheese, and Bass's ale.
Within an hour of his arrival in Shanghai Stevens jumped on a steamer headed for Japan. As the ship pulled away from the dock he mused, "I am at last bidding farewell to the hardships, horrible filth, the soul-harrowing crowds, the abominable paths, and the ever-present danger…."93 He had spent a month traveling through Chinese villages that lacked any degree of Western modernity and upon reaching the most modern city in the country, where Stevens' unique narrative view could have powerful glimpses and indications, the cycler spent only a matter of hours and gave no such narration.
Stevens' personal sentiments and degree of understanding of the Chinese vacillated. At points in his narration he is extremely insightful and sympathetic to the hardships of Chinese villagers yet his assessment of the Chinese could be as damning as any Westerner at the time:
By the end of his travels through China, despite having had a generally awful journey, Stevens had offered no sweeping judgment about the Qing Empire. He held to an air of superiority but he also made an open admission that he had little understanding of the country or its people. Not only did Stevens admit his inability to comprehend the Far East, he also wondered whether the West could, at all could, make sense of China. Stevens recalled after returning to Boston, "No greater truth has ever been told than Bret Harte's assertion that 'the heathen Chinese is peculiar.' Of a truth I found John Chinaman so peculiar that I doubt very much if it is possible for the Occidental mind to quite fathom the depth of his peculiarity."95
Japan: Orient or Emerging Occident?
After his long, challenging slog through China Stevens found Japan the antithesis of the Celestial Empire in almost every respect. "The change from the filth of a Chinese city to Nagasaki, clean as if it had been newly scoured and varnished, is something delightful. One gets a favorable impression of Japan right away; much more so, doubtless, by coming direct from China than the other way."96 Surely part of Stevens' affinity for Japan was a result of its straight, paved roads. "The road to Fukuoko is most excellent wheeling," Stevens noted.97
Japan's appeal was also because of the growing presence of western influence and accouterments. "One sees here," he writes, shortly after leaving the southern port of Nagasaki, "the gradual encroachment of western mechanical improvements."98 Telegraphs, which, as we have already seen, were a clear indication of modernization for Stevens, bordered the roads in the south. Japanese police officers Officials in European-style uniforms impressed Stevens with their professionalism. "It is difficult to imagine," Stevens mused early in his travel through Japan, "that thirty years ago one would have had more danger traveling through here than through China."99
Stevens also appreciated the affability of its people. Again, after some very rough circumstances in China, where political unrest and anti-foreignism imperiled him on several occasions Japan was quiet and welcoming. "Wonderful people!," he wrote, "they come nearer to solving the problem of living happily than any other nation." 100"The Japs [sic] are a wonderful race; they seem to be the happiest people going, always smiling and good-natured always polite and gentle, always bowing and scrapping."101
Stevens' reference to the deferential behavior of the Japanese recalls his appreciation for the British subjects in India who also displayed obsequies behavior toward him, yet his superior tone and mockery were not difficult to draw out amongst the flow of ease and compliments, "One still cannot help being impressed with the spectacle of several grotesque Japs bowing before one's seated figure like the Hindoos prostrating themselves before some idol.102 Here Stevens, even while appreciating the friendlier reception he received in Japan than China, still fails to accept this reception with any kind of mutuality. The Japanese are still less modernized, more tied to idolatry and ritual than western modernism and rationalism.
Stevens' comparison between Indians and Japanese is critical for his understanding of the Orient. While he admired aspects of India those positive elements he associated with British rule. In Japan, while he was also more complimentary of the country and its people he still questioned the ability of the Japanese, as Orientals to modernize along western lines. Unlike most of the Orient, where Stevens thought the 'eastern-mind' incapable of utilizing western technology Stevens considered that the Japanese were "intelligent" and it was only a matter of "a few years" before western innovations were commonly used in all parts of Japan.103 Yet, he emphasized, the Japanese were not there yet, and wondered if they ever truly would be. He lampooned their "serio-comical" efforts of manufacturers to produce western-style goods. Some umbrellas, a staple of Japanese travelers' outfits, "are sometimes a very grotesque mixture of native and European costume."104 As he approached Yokohama he noticed more Japanese with clocks but they do not "seem to have the vaguest ideas of what they are for."105
It was not only that the Japanese did not yet have the knowledge to properly utilize western technology but Stevens questioned whether the Japanese could ever become Western. They may desperately imitate western fashion, he wrote, but wondered whether they could ever take the challenges of modernization seriously. "Every village dandy aspires to some article of European clothing.… Bless their innocent Japanese souls!"106 He does not take the society's transition seriously "Had Shakespeare seen the Japs one could better understand his all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players;... They always impress me as happy-go-lucky harlequins, to whom this whole business of coming into the world and getting a living for a few years is nothing more nor less than a huge joke."107 Stevens' comments here seem to echo his assessment of the Shah of Persia who, while adopting western technology, did so only as an amusement and not as a tool of progress.
Stevens thought the Japanese more capable than anyone people in Asia in adapting to the demands of western modernization but, in the end, he questioned the ability of the Japanese, and thus all the Orient to succeed in this essential task. Just as the bicycle was a Gordian knot that the Armenians could never figure out how to untie so too, it seemed, modernization was a challenge beyond the capabilities of the Oriental mind.
While Stevens' trip was thus a commentary on the virtues of western technology, and the inability of many to fully appreciate these western advancements, his final comments as he was leaving Japan seemed to question not the backwardness of the East but the values of the West. "Japan will get richer and more powerful in its pursuit of modernization," he thought, but then, startlingly, he asked, "Are the Japs acting wisely or are they acting foolishly in permitting European notions of life to creep in and revolutionize all? Who can tell? The buzz and rattle of machinery and commerce do not always mean happiness."108 It was a curious statement for Stevens to make but it did reflect larger debates taking place about the perils and prospects of technology in the late nineteenth century.
Stevens Returns Home
In 1885, as Stevens settled in Teheran for the winter, the New York Times updated its audience about Stevens' progress. The article effused excitement for the revolutionary prospects of the bicycle.
An assessment of Stevens' trip in the London Standard newspaper noted that while circling the world on a bicycle was a novelty that "as a method of seeing [the world] it is a great deal more effective than any other method."110 Shortly after he returned to the United States the New York Times hailed his trip as "the most splendid personal journey of this century." The Boston Globe proclaimed that, "so much has been written about the remarkable ride of Thomas Stevens that there are few who have not heard of him. Feasts in his honor were held by bicycle clubs around the US. Poems and odes for the intrepid cycler were written and read. A poem proclaimed him, "the wheelman's cycling knight."111 Some think that the wheelman's cycling knight inspired Mark Twain to put his knights on bicycles in The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).112
Outing, the magazine that had hired Stevens to write about his trip, quickly fashioned a hagiography of Stevens that traced his lineage to a once noble English family whose mysterious past led to the end of the family's fortunes. Stevens, borne of noble blood, grew up the humble son of an impoverished couple in the rural lands north of London. Pluck and determination marked his life. His father left to try and establish a new life for his family in Missouri. Young Tom worked as a grocer and support his whole family of mother, three sisters and two brothers. When his mother got sick his father returned to England. Tom was still certain that his family future lied across the Atlantic so, according to Outing, he announced to his father, "I am going to America next week." His father, while astonished recognized the determination and resourcefulness of his son (who had stashed enough money aside from his meager job to pay for a ticket) relented, "Go," he told his son, "young as you are; you are well able to take care of yourself."113
Outing fashioned Stevens into the quintessential American hero: an individual who by his own courage and determination could overcome any obstacle, whether it was the demise of the family fortune, or the untimely illness of his mother. Even his physical stature was no impediment. "It only remains to be said," the portrait concluded, "that our hero stands 5 feet 6 inches, is built like a compressed giant, bears the stamp of personal courage and chivalrous enthusiasm upon his handsome features." 114 He may not have been the heroic knight in stature but was in spirit and courage.
Stevens' bike was feted also. At a dinner sponsored by the Massachusetts Bicycle Club one ode announced that "Stevens shan't have all the glory, Though you are but pulseless steel;
Your part, too, shall live in story: This was Thomas Stevens' wheel."115 Ads for an international sports exposition held in London in 1888 announced that "bicycle exhibits will be prominent and among the most interesting in this category will be the famous 'machine" on which the well known Thomas Stevens rode around the world."116
The odes to Stevens, while not of high literary value, are a fascinating glimpse into the American construction of the meaning of Stevens' trip. The most insightful and interesting by far was the Welcome to Thomas Stevens by C.E. Cushing.117 Part Homeric Ode, part Orientalist exoticism Cushing presented Stevens ride as a heroic struggle through the wild, dangerous and exotic "East" in which Stevens traveled with the central goal of returning Home, to the West.
As we have seen Cushing's projection of Stevens' trip is quite at odds with Stevens' own reporting. There were a couple of dangerous encounters but Stevens never portrayed the people of the people of the East as blood-thirsty beasts, nor does he present the East as a land of dangerous and exotic animals. Like a New York Times article which claimed Stevens "rode over the Himalayas and climbed Mount Arat,"118 neither of which he did, Cushing seemed to not want to let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Stevens' success inspired others. F.A. Cloudman, A "prickly Yankee Captain" announced, shortly after Stevens' return, that he was going to do in a twenty-four foot skiff what Stevens did on a bicycle, namely go around the world alone. 119 In 1890 two students of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri Allen and Sachtsleben, slid on to their bikes the day after graduation and set off to one up Stevens by finding a land route across Asia. Like Stevens they hoped their trip would fashion a career as travel journalists. Unlike Stevens they did succeed in crossing Eurasia by land. In 1894 another American, Frank Lenz, tried to better the students attempt to go around the world on a bicycle solo. He never made it. After surviving China and traveling through Burma he was eventually murdered by robbers in the Eastern Anatolia Plateau region that Stevens had passed through a decade before.120 In 1890 a group of four Englishmen set off on their own around the world bicycle adventure. As far as we can determine, based on newspaper and publication records, they were the first non-Americans to attempt to do so.
Allen and Sachtleben rode "safeties," bicycles with tires of equal size. (The 'safety' is much more like the current bicycles.) They were equipped with better brakes and greater carrying capacity. They had chain drives and the students' bicycles even had reversible hubs for different gearing for the flat road and hills. Without the fifty-inch front wheel falls were considerably shorter when they occurred. Their bicycles were also equipped with pneumatic tires which made travel more comfortable and faster. The coming of the safety meant the end of the Ordinary that Stevens had ridden.
Colonel Pope hoped that Stevens' ride would popularize his product but it did not. It was the safety that revolutionized the bicycle industry in the 1890s. It was a decade of tremendous growth in the industry. Factory level manufacturing replaced artisanal production and by the end of the decade the bicycle industry was one of the largest in the country. As one historian noted, "the cycle craze reached its high point in 1896 when the bicycle industry produced about a million vehicles."121 Women began to ride in greater numbers.122 Author Stephen Crane announced that, "Everything is the bicycle."123
The 1890s was the apogee of the bicycle industry. By the beginning of the twentieth century the bicycle craze was fading. By 1900 bicycle production was a quarter of what it had been only a few years before. With much less effort motorcycles and cars promised the freedom of movement first offered by the bicycle.
Bicycles were still used for commuting but the New York Times' prophecy of "tricycles parties to Tibet and bike tours to Pekin" never materialized. The age of global bicycle travel seemed to fade away. It could be this was because it became so common that newspapers and magazines no longer felt compelled to write about it. It could be that aspiring adventure journalists had already moved on in search of new firsts to make their name. It could also be because the bicycle proved to be an inefficient technology for global adventure. When Stevens arrived in Chicago in 1884 The Chicago Daily News summarized the significance of his trip thus: "When it takes a bicyclist seventy-two days to wheel from San Francisco to Chicago we are inclined to the opinion that he has more time on his hands than wit in his head. This man's experience does not demonstrate that the bicycle has any advantage over a first-class ox team on such a trip." Even Bicycling World which, while a rival of Outing and a strong proponent of the bicycle, concluded that Stevens ride across the United States, that his "trip possesses no significance whatever."124 An article in Sporting Life penned, as Frank Lenz was getting set to best Stevens' record for miles pedaled around the world, concluded that even if Lenz succeeded it would hardly be an endorsement for the feasibility of global bike travel. "The bicycle is essentially meant for pleasant places and good roads. When it is taken out of that sphere it ceases to be a thing of pleasure and becomes rather one of particular hardship." 125 Interestingly the article was entitled, "The First and the Last," an allusion to the fact that the author thought that Lenz trip may be the end to global travel by bicycle.
Stevens' trip did lead to the fame and fortune he sought. Outing ran at least twenty of his articles about his trip. Upon returning he worked his notes into a series of articles that appeared in the popular magazine, Harper's. These articles were later compiled into a two-volume book that was well reviewed by newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. Outing hired him to be their outdoor editor and gave him "a substantial share of the stock of the magazine for the great services he had rendered the bicycling interests of the country."126 A year later the New York World hired him to be their correspondent in Africa assigned to search for Henry Stanley, who had been missing in East Africa for a good while. Stevens' found him and wrote another book about that experience.127 Shortly after that he rode a horse across Russia and wrote yet another travelogue. (Why the Russians let him travel thorough the Empire then not and earlier is unclear.) In 1895 he left his travel days behind. He returned to England, settled down and raised a family. He died in 1935. During World War Two the Ordinary that carried him around the world was melted down to aid the war effort.
Stevens' trip had been for many a symbolic parade of the possibilities of western technology and, as we have seen, Stevens' often extolled the bicycle as the symbol of western progress that so clearly distinguished his world and the ones through which he rode. Yet, when he was in Japan even he seemed to question whether western progress really led to human betterment; in this sense his trip was a metaphor for the larger debates taking place in many cultural and intellectual circles in the late nineteenth century about what the rapid pace of change meant for mankind's future. As Eugene Weber notes in his study of Fin de Siècle France it was both a time of optimism as people looked forward to the possibilities of technology to improve their lives and a time of nostalgia as others lamented the world that would be lost by the new race for progress and change. Similar debates took place in the United States, Japan, and almost every country adapting to the modern world. Stevens' trip was both a manifesto of progress and a cautionary note about the ability of new technology to alter the human condition.
Gabrielle Porter is a recent graduate of SeattleUniversity in International Studies and Environmental Studies, both of which she anchorsthrougha study of history. Her developing area of research interest is African History,particularly East Africa's history of land conservation, conflict withindigenous peoples, and the great role travelers have always played in sculpting global events and perspectives. Gabrielle can be reached email@example.com.
Tom Taylor is an Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at Seattle University. He also directs the College of Arts and Sciences Global Awareness Program and currently holds the College's Gaffney Endowed Chair in Jesuit Studies. He is currently completing a comprehensive world history text that uses traveler's narratives to highlight central themes in world history. Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 "Thomas Stevens: The World's Navigator on a Cycle," The Boston Globe, 26 February 1887, 5.
2 The North China Herald (November 24, 1886), 551.
3 "Thomas Stevens' Bicycle Journey," New York Times, 3 October 1885.
4 Susan B. Anthony, interviewed by Nellie Bly, New York World, 2 February 2 1896.
5 "Thomas Stevens' Bicycle Journey."
6 Eugen Weber, France: Fin de Siècle (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986), 195.
7 "The Arrest of Thomas Stevens," "Editors Open Window," Outing (July 1886).
8 Thomas Stevens, Around the World on a Bicycle, (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001), 2: 285.
9 Tonio Andrade, "A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys, and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory," Journal of World History 21:4 (December 2010): 574.
10 "Round the World on Wheels," The North China Herald, 24 November 24 1886, 555.
11 "Thomas Stevens Outing's Portrait Gallery–No 1," Outing Magazine X:2 (May 1887), 183.
12 Stevens, 1:2.
13 See David Herlihy, Bicycle: the History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004).
14 Mark Twain, "Taming the Bicycle," in What is Man and Other Essays, (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/70/70-h/70-h.htm#2H_4_0017 , accessed March 25, 2012).
15 "Cowboy and Cyclist," Boston Post, 5 August, 1885, 4.
16 Quoted in Herlihy, 28.
17 For an overview of American attitudes toward the world in this period see Robert Divine, T.H. Breen, George Frederickson, R. Hal Williams, The American Story (New York: Longman, 2002), 671–674.
18 Stevens, 2;125.
19 Stevens, 2:222.
20 Cited in Thomas Pauly, "Introduction," in Stevens, Around the World, xiii.
21 David Scott, "Kipling, the Orient and Orientals: 'Orientalism' Reconsidered?" Journal of World History 22:2 (June 2011): 299–328.
22 Stevens, I: 367.
23 Ibid., 155.
24 Ibid., 358.
25 Ibid., 2:63.
26 Ibid., 1:247.
27 Ibid., 258, 356.
28 Ibid., 348.
29 Ibid., 258.
30 Ibid., 1:304.
31 Ibid., 303.
32 Ibid., 187.
33 Darwin H. McIlrath, Around the world on wheels for the Inter ocean: the travels and adventures in foreign lands of Mr. and Mrs. Darwin McIlrath (Chicago: Inter Ocean Publisher, 1898), 114.
34 Stevens, Around the World, 1:324.
35 Ibid., 1:187.
36 Ibid., 207.
37 Ibid., 371.
38 Ibid., 2:285.
39 Ibid., 1:187.
40 Ibid., 484.
41 Ibid., 2:286.
42 Ibid., 488.
43 Ibid., 518.
44 Ibid., 521.
45 Ibid., 292.
46 Ibid., 287.
47 C.E. Cushing, "Welcome to Thomas Stevens," Outing IX:6 (March 1887): 538.
48 Henry Stanley, Through the Dark Continent, vol. 1, (New York: Dover Publications, 1988). 56.
49 Fraser, John Foster, Round the World on a Wheel (Futura Publications: London, England, 1899), 308.
50 Stevens, Around the World, 2: 411.
51 Ibid., 358.
52 Ibid., 2:105.
54 Thomas Gaskell Allen, Jr. and William Lewis Sachtleben, Across Asia on a Bicycle: the Journey of Two American Students from Constantinople to Peking (Seattle, WA: Inkling Books, 2003).
55 Stevens, Around the World, 2:365.
56 "Fears for Thomas Stevens," New York Times, 14 December 1886.
57 Stevens, Around the World, 2:392.
58 Ibid., 400.
59 Ibid., 379.
60 Ibid., 396.
61 "Is Thomas Stevens Safe?" The New York Times, 16 December 1886, 5.
62 Quoted in David Herlihy, The Lost Cyclist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), 155.
63 Stevens, Around the World, 2:366.
64 Ibid., 420.
65 Ibid., 374.
66 Ibid., 392.
67Stevens, Thomas. "Talking By the Signs, Some Experiences of the Bicyclist Thomas Stevens," The Ohio Democrat, 20 October 20 1887.
70 Stevens Around the World, 2:366.
71 Ibid., 367.
72 Ibid., 377.
74 Ibid., 372.
75 Ibid., 392.
76 Ibid., 417.
77 Ibid., 380.
80 Ibid., 382.
81 Ibid., 418.
85 Ibid., 419.
88 Ibid., 422.
89 Ibid., 429.
90 Ibid., 430.
94 Ibid., 374.
95 Stevens, "Talking By the Signs."
96 Stevens, Around the World, 2:433.
97 Ibid., 442.
98 Ibid., 438.
99 Ibid., 437.
100 Ibid., 447.
101 Ibid., 436.
102 Ibid., 435.
103 Ibid., 438.
104 Ibid., 442.
105 Ibid., 465.
106 Ibid., 443.
107 Ibid., 441.
108 Ibid., 450.
109 "Thomas Stevens' Bicycle Journey."
110 Cited in Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg, "Ten Thousand Miles on Bicycle" (Self-published, 1887), xcvi.
111 "Thomas Stevens: The World's Navigator on a Cycle."
112 Pauly, "Introduction," 1.
113"Thomas Stevens Outing's Portrait Gallery," 184.
116 "The Sportsmen's Exhibition," Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper, 12 February 1888, 5.
118 "Thomas Stevens' Bicycle Journey."
119 "Round the World in a Yawl," The Galveston Daily News, 28 November 28 1886, 10.
120 See Herlihy, The Lost Cyclist.
121 Richard Harmond, "Progress and Flight: an Interpretation of the American Cycle Craze in the 1890s," Journal of Social History 5: 2 ( Winter 1971), 250.
122 See Sue Macy, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) (Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 2011).
123 Cited in Herlihy, Bicycle, 263.
124 Cited in Charles Meinert, "From Sea to Shining Sea: Nineteenth Century High-Wheel Rides Across America," The Wheelman, accessed 26 July 2011, http://www.thewhelman.org.
125 "The First and the Last," The Sporting Life 21:7 (13 May 1893): 7.
126 "Thomas Stevens Outing's Portrait Gallery," 184.
127 Thomas Stevens, Scouting for Stanley in Africa (New York: Cassell Publishing Co., 1890).
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