How do you know how far you’ve travelled?

‘It’s a small world’ – nay, a positively ‘shrinking’ one. How often do you not hear these words used in order to praise the newest communication and transport technologies? Or, equally, to condemn mass tourism?

(‘The world is getting too small. Nowadays, every Tom, Dick and Harry flies to the other end of the world as if it’s the shop around the corner.’ (People who fear that the world is shrinking typically speak from an economically comfortable position.))

The truism can be found in sales and politics, journalism and academic research alike: since we no longer have to walk in order to get from A to B, or sit on a horse, or even drive a carriage, our bodies no longer feel how great a distance we are covering. Trains and planes have annihilated space. Our journeys have become ‘disembodied’.

What is more, we have stopped noticing the landscape we are travelling through, because we stow ourselves away in cabins and compartments that isolate us from the trees and the rocks and the waves that surround us. We therefore no longer register the journeys we are making: the only things left now are departure and arrival.

Modern technology captured in a Blue-Riband-winning ocean liner: RMS Etruria, built in 1884, as shown on a postcard. Bavinck would have sailed on a roughly similar ship. Wikimedia Commons.

Economically speaking this is true: the cost of carrying people across the globe has been on the decrease for centuries, as ships and roads and other transport technologies have become ever more efficient.

But is it equally true when we consider how we feel about distances? Do we no longer notice that Cape Town is further from Budapest than it is from Kinshasa, simply because we might take a plane (rather than walk) to go to either place? And does the ocean literally feel narrower now than it did a hundred years ago, because we have boats that take us across faster?

With this question in mind, my work as an historian led me to scrutinise dozens of historical travel narratives and the titles of many more. In the end, I had to conclude that at least European experiences have not in fact changed so much.

However up-to-date and speedy their mode of transport, people could not help keeping a physical sense of distance.

There were many factors which contributed to this: the work that went into every step of the journey, and its many discomforts, even if just that of sitting still for any length of time; complicated communications with the home-front; cultural differences between place of departure and arrival…

This photo of RMS Etruria already gives a better impression of the lonely situation of ships like these when under sail or steam. Before 1910. Wikipedia.

Another major factor was the landscape. A nice example is offered by Herman Bavinck, a Dutchman who in 1892 made a three-month journey to America. Over the course of the preceding century, sailing times from Europe to North America had been vastly reduced, from several weeks at the start of the century to just 130 hours in Bavinck’s days. 130 Hours were therefore comparatively quick in the eyes of his contemporaries, and his journey would also have been relatively comfortable. We are talking the time of the Titanic, and on his own ship, Bavinck would certainly not have travelled third-class.

And yet, he writes that

130 hours [. . .] is quick to say, but one feels the length and the cost first, when one sees nothing but water — infinitely wide, everywhere — day after day, night after night’

For Bavinck, the transatlantic distance was vast, the voyage boring and America ‘far’ and ‘distant’. This is because what mattered to him was not the objective duration of his journey – a little over 5 days – but the insistent repetition of a single landscape type: water, and nothing but water.

A ‘wondrously large’ space: Niagara Falls used for its water power. Photo published in 1890. Wikimedia Commons.

Distances felt long to him within America as well, even though he only travelled in the area close to the Great Lakes and used all the most modern means such as steamers and railways. Again, this had to do with his relation to the landscape: he was impressed by the sheer size of America’s natural phenomena, such as its rivers and falls. He therefore found the country

wondrously large […] We do not understand its expanse.

Bavinck is just one example of the many travellers for whom their own bodies and the landscapes they travelled through continued to give them a pronounced sense of distance – or proximity – with no hard and fast relation to the ever shortening lengths of time it took to get somewhere.

This post is based on my article ‘Trains, Bodies, Landscapes: Experiencing Distance in the Long Nineteenth Century’, published in The Journal of Transport History (2019), which contains many more stories about distance in travel writing.

Quotes are from James Eglinton’s translation of Bavinck’s ‘My Journey to America’ which appeared in the journal Dutch Crossing, 41 no. 2 (2017).

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2 thoughts on “How do you know how far you’ve travelled?

  1. Pingback: Coming from afar (Or: watching trains go by) | Historian at large

  2. Pingback: Coming from afar | The Hakluyt Society Blog

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