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E - 21 : Cruising in the 19th Century

Updated: Jun 26, 2021

When compiling everybody’s passport information and vaccine report for the Immigration Authorities in Malta, Italy, and Greece I wondered what happened to the Schengen agreement. We all know that crossing a border outside the EU is complicated. The three countries we travel through this year belong to the Schengen Area though. But border controls are still in place and actually intensified. Seems European governments sign lofty agreements in Brussels but actually do not trust each other.

Schedule of the P&O Cruise Ships Vectis and Malwa for summer 1909

It was not always like this. In the 19th century, when steamships and railways made longer distance travel possible, nobody needed a passport. Passports are an invention of the First World War. Controls were minimal and under liberal trade agreement, any foreign ship could transport passengers. Regulations were light and focused primarily on safety issues.

"SS Fernando I", the first steam ship in the Mediterranean in 1818, the Pride & Joy of Naples

The first steamship in the Mediterranean, the "SS Fernando I", was built in Naples in 1818. It had two big boilers which powered two paddle wheels and made 6.5 knots an hour. It sailed up and down the Italian West Coast, broke many speed records but was mainly used for postal services. It was 38 meters long and 6 meters wide thus comparable to our AFAET. Some big changes were in the wings.

Already in the 17th and 18th century, many young and wealthy aristocrats from England, France and Germany went on a “Grand Tour” at the age of 18 to deepen their classical education and knowledge of the Renaissance. Typical stations for these youngsters were Paris, Geneva, Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples, Pompeii and if they could hitch a ride on a sailboat, Sicily, Greece and maybe Istanbul. On the way home they passed through Venice and a few German towns.

The "SS Francesco" which created a sensation when

arriving in Istanbul in 1833

The change came with the building of the first steam cruise ship in 1831 in Naples. It was a fast ship for its time, travelling at 18 knots. Modern ferries do not travel much faster. Could not find out how many passengers the "S/S Francesco" carried. The ship left Naples in February 1833 and sailed to Taormina, Catania, Syracuse, Malta, Corfu, Patras, Delphi, Zakynthos, Athens, Izmir, and Istanbul where it arrived in May. By August, the "S/S Francesco" was back. On the long trip, the ship’s crew entertained its noble or wealthy passengers with land excursions and dinner dances. Sounds almost like our trip this summer.

The "SS Great Britain" was the first ship with an iron hull and a propellor screw to cross the Atlantic in 1843 - after 1851 she carried passengers to Asia and Australia

The door to early mass tourism was opened. Travel Agencies were set up in Naples to arrange tours to Capri and Pompeii. Naples’ best hotel already had 700 – 800 visitors a year – often staying for two months - and the numbers kept climbing. Italy was not the only country that built steam ships for passenger. They were busily built on both sides of the Atlantic since they reduced travel time considerably. Crossing the Atlantic by sail took at least 35 days at the time of Napoleon. By 1838, steamboats could do it in 18 days. By 1850 the time dropped to 10 days. By 1900 to 5 days. There were still plenty of sailboats on the oceans, but American and English steamers began rolling-up the field.

In the Mediterranean, several competitors joined Italy. Lloyd Austriaco, the Mediterranean’s first steam navigation company, was established in Austrian Trieste in 1836 and began offering regular services and cruises to Ottoman ports. France followed a few years later. Fraissinet & Cie was founded in 1843 and serviced the French territories in Tunisia, Algiers, and Morocco. After 1850 it also covered ports in Spain and Italy and began expanding in the late 1860s to the Eastern Mediterranean servicing Izmir and Istanbul. The construction of the Suez Canal (1867 – 1869) gave Fraissinet a big boost. Its steamship “Asie” was the first ship that crossed the canal from north to south. Greece had its own ambitions as well. In 1856 the Hellenic Steam Navigation Company (HSNC) was set up and finally provided regular services to the Greek islands and connected them to the the world.

One of the Greek HSNC's ship operating in the Mediterranean

During this revolution in maritime transportation, the coastline from Tripoli to Alexandria, Jaffa, Iskenderun, Antalya, Izmir, Thessaloniki, and Istanbul was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Travel formalities were simple. Not much changed when Cyprus and Egypt became British Protectorates in 1878 and 1882 respectively. England had assumed the debt of bankrupt Egypt in exchange for a controlling stake in the Suez Canal and now protected its vital link to India with territorial acquisitions. After Malta, the Royal Navy added Alexandria and Famagusta to their string of naval bases.

The Ottoman Empire in 1905 - it had already lost Tunisia, Egypt, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania

This political development was a boon for tourism. The “Grand Tour” could now include ancient Egypt and extend to India. It did not take too long for cruise companies to adjust their marketing and services. The fact that travellers were able to reach Naples by train by then made the proposition even more attractive. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the European Upper Middle-class had become sufficiently wealthy to afford such trips. They could afford it and they came/

Marketing for a leisure trip from London by train to Naples and then by ship to Bombay

The French Luxury Cruiser "Niger" operated from Marseilles - here seen in 1871

It was a floating First Class Hotel which spared no extravagance

Also, after the end of the Civil War in America in 1865, wealthy Americans returned to Europe –only this time in bigger numbers. There are funny Italian press stories about Americans flooding the City of Rome… Sounds kind of familiar.

The paddle wheeler Quaker City was a retired ship from the Cicil War - it was the first in 1867 to bring American tourists back to the Mediterranean

This homogenous and uncomplicated world was shattered by the Balkan wars of 1912/3 and the two World Wars. The Ottoman Empire fell apart and is now succeeded by 10 different nations. As of today, it is really impossible to sail to Libya, Syria, and parts of Lebanon. Getting to Egypt and Algiers by boat is complicated but at least possible. Of the great 19th century network of shipping lines, little survived. The Mediterranean is fragmented again. Try to find a boat trip from Syracuse to Alexandria - maybe a freighter takes you along. The cruise industry however recovered after WWII albeit today’s cruises are mostly confined to the northern shores of the Mediterranean. Once busy passenger ports like Izmir, Iskenderun and Tripoli became pure commercial ports. Alexandria and Benghazi are in a kind of eternal beauty sleep. And if the ferries from Marseille were not to arrive in Algiers and Oran, the same could be said of them.

The busy port of Smyrna (Izmir) - unknown date - photo taken before 1922

The past will not return. But the many wars that followed Turkey’s break-up in 1918 did not make this part of the world a better place – actually quite the opposite. The sense of unity of the Mediterranean is lost again

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