Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Full Steam Ahead: the Overland Route Home from India

by Caroline Warfield

Before 1830, travelers between England and India and the rest of East Asia had two choices. One way, the overland route known as long ago as ancient Rome, consisted of travel overland across the Ottoman Empire, through Persia and the Kingdom of Kabul (known today as Afghanistan), over mountains or through the Khyber Pass, and across the Punjab. Of limited use for trade in the 19th century, it appealed only to the most adventurous travelers.

But, of course, Britain ruled the sea. The primary route to India involved a four and a half to six month sail around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. That journey usually took closer to six months than four, depending as it did on prevailing winds, weather, ship design, tides, port conditions, time of year, and even skill. There were few, if any, dedicated passenger companies, and travelers booked passage on crowded merchant or East India Company ships. Conditions could be harrowing, and they didn't always make it!

Steam power came into use early in the century. Early efforts were impractical for ocean travel, however. Navies and merchants were reluctant to use steam engines for fear of fire, engine failure, and issues with fuel. In 1819 the Savannah, a hybrid vessel, crossed the Atlantic but only 1/8 of the voyage involved steam. In 1838 a ship of the British and American Navigation Company managed to cross the Atlantic in only eighteen days with forty passengers, but it ran out of coal part way and had to burn furniture. Still, by 1830 sufficient progress made the dream of a faster route between India and England possible.

Thomas Waghorn by Sir George Hayter, 1847. NPG 974,
National Portrait Gallery, London. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Thomas Waghorn, a former navy lieutenant employed as a river pilot in Calcutta, failed to persuade the government to support steamer service around the Cape in 1825. The Bengal Steam Fund had sent him to London for that purpose. Two years later, still in London, he obtained an interview with Lord Ellenborough, Chairman of the East India Company, in which Waghorn supposedly told the man he could set up a passenger and mail service that would take just 90 days. He envisioned steamers in the Red Sea and an overland route through Egypt to Alexandria. Ellenborough told him about the planned inaugural run of the steamship Enterprise through the Red Sea from Suez to Bombay and commissioned him to deliver a packet of dispatches to the Governor of Bengal. Ellenborough failed to mention that at least one other competing entity planned to make the run. The race to create overland service was on.

Waghorn left London in October 1829 determined to prove his point. He actually went by coach to Trieste, setting a record when he arrived in nine days. He delivered the London Times to the British Counsel, who soon was demanding to know why the mail typically took fourteen days. Speed had become a central issue. He then begged, borrowed, and patched together transport to Suez via Alexandria, the Nile, and Cairo, but arrived in Suez to find that the Enterprise had not arrived. It had broken down. He persisted, embarking down the Red Sea in an open boat. He arrived in Bombay four months and twenty-one days after he left London. It was a record, but not 90 days. He would not give up.

Waghorn lobbied for steam service in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, but both the government and the EIC were content to sit on the sidelines and watch private enterprise put together such a service. Neither wanted to deal with the political complications involving the Ottoman Emperor and Muhammad Ali Pasha, the governor of Egypt. There was concern about Ali, an ambitious Ottoman official originally from Albania, and fear that he could destabilize the Ottoman Empire, something the government very much wanted to avoid. The Eastern Question, concern about Russia's ambitions in the Middle East and India, dominated foreign affairs. The collapse of the Ottomans would cause a vacuum and chaos. When the chairman of the East India Company sent Waghorn a formal letter telling him to return to his position with the Pilot Service in Calcutta, he sent his resignation in reply.

 Mohammud Ali Pasha, 1805 artist unknown

Waghorn proceeded to form a partnership with the Pasha and lived with Arabs for three years, convincing all and sundry of the benefits of his scheme. Waghorn shipped coal for steamships from England to Alexandria, down the Mahmudieh canal to the Nile on native vessels and from there to Cairo where it went by caravan to Suez. It drove the cost of coal at Suez down from £20 to just over £4 per ton. He sent the mail—and eventually passengers—back the same way. His friendship with the Pasha benefited the local economy and enabled him to resolve myriad issues, from how to store and ship mail in that environment to how to feed and house passengers in the 84-mile journey from Suez to Cairo.

By 1835 the Company sent its mail via the overland route through Egypt. Waghorn's 90 days was a reality. The overland portion, involving as it did an 84-mile journey across the desert and tiny paddle steamers and barges from Cairo to Alexandria, wasn't particularly comfortable at first. Passengers needed rest stops. The mail didn't.

Care of Mr. Waghorn, May 2, 1839. via Wiki commons

In 1837 the company initiated steam packet service from Bombay to Suez and passenger travel became more of a reality. In 1840 the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Company won the Bombay contract and three years later began service from Calcutta as well. Passenger amenities improved. The storied Hotel des Anglais, later called Shepheard's Hotel opened in 1841, providing an oasis of England in the midst of Cairo.

Bivouac in the Desert, from Mrs. G.L. Dawson Damer. "Diary of A Tour in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and The Holy Land, Volume 2." (Henry Colburn, London: 1841). p f05

In the 1840s ads for passenger travel, parcel delivery, agents, and services "with regularity," via "The Overland Route" filled the journal Allen's India Mail. By the 1850s the P&O had 170 coal ships servicing the route and a herd of 3500 camels carried coal across the desert. In 1858 rail service from Alexandria to Suez superseded the beasts.

Other schemes abounded; one dominated. The Company tried service along the Euphrates. It failed. While Waghorn was working out details of his overland route, Muhammad Ali Pasha hired the Frenchman Linant de Bellefonds as chief engineer of public works. He almost immediately began a survey to create a canal at Suez. Concession to build such a canal took until 1854, but in 1869 the Suez Canal opened, effectively eliminating the overland route, and driving the Age of Steam forward. Speed indeed.

SS Farforshire, 1835


Caroline Warfield writes historical romance and contributes regularly to History Imagined, a blog at the intersection of history and fiction, and to The Teatime Tattler, a fictional Regency gossip news sheet.

The characters in her latest novel, The Reluctant Wife take The Overland Route, or as Meghal Wheatly age six called it "the way with camels" for their return to England. Sometimes doing the right thing results in failure in the eyes of others. Forced to take two daughters home and start over, Fred Wheatly, the hero of the book, knows failure is not an option this time. The book is part of Caroline's series, Children of Empire, stories of two brothers and their cousin torn apart by lies and deception, who struggle to find their way home from the far reaches of the Empire.


  1. I found this fascinating and also got invested in the race to shave more time off. That's good historical writing; making one care about long ago events. Thanks

  2. Thank you for the kind words. The entire episode fascinated me. The sails-to-steam development of the 19th century is interesting. Waghorn was a contemporary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel who pushed steam travel far forward.


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