Mark Twain: “Following the Equator” Chapters 1–40: The Pacific

“In Captain Cook’s time (1778), the native population of the islands was estimated at 400,000; in 1836 at something short of 200,000, in 1866 at 50,000; it is to-day, per census, 25,000. All intelligent people praise Kamehameha I and Liholiho for conferring upon their people the great boon of civilization. I would do it myself, but my intelligence is out of repair, now, from over-work.” (443)

The last of Mark Twain’s great travel narratives, Following the Equator, was published in 1897. It is also his last major book published during his lifetime. It shows the same growing pessimism about civilization that we see in much of Twain’s later writing. It is certainly the most critical of the travel narratives. While the previous narratives tended to make fun of the tourist or “the tramp abroad,” Following the Equator is an important attack on a world system driven by greed and exploitation. It is also one of the most important anti-imperialist documents of the turn of the twentieth century. The book documents Twain’s 1895–1896 lecture tour across the Pacific, Australia, India, and Africa. It is a lecture tour through the zones of nineteenth century empire building. The result is a work that hits most of the major points of contemporary scholarship on empire.


It is not a bleak, ponderous text. It maintains much of the lively musings that made Twain’s earlier travelogues so enjoyable, but these are less frequent and are marginal to his larger goal: the exposure of the exploitation of people at the heart of empire. Like the declining population of Hawai’i shows, the rise of Europe accompanied a massive death toll. Intra-European wars of the twentieth century may have maximized the technological capacity to kill, but in many ways the cost in lives of the nineteenth century was just as great. (See Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts to see how empire devastated traditional famine relief structures leading to tens of millions of deaths.)

Twain is aware of the role unfree labor migration played in empire, both the expulsion of excess populations of criminals and the economically excessive to the colonies and the migrations of semi-forced labor to work the plantations and the ships. Twain includes hard numbers on the wages, the costs of contract labor, and the profits of sugar plantations to quantify the extent of exploitation.  It is summed up: “It is easy to understand why the Queensland sugar planter should want the Kanaka recruit: he is cheap.” (463) The labor migrations caused by the growth of plantation in the Pacific had a deep history in the transportation of working class convicts.


Another observation Twain made that was new at the time but would not surprise any historian today is the important role of the missionary in empire building in the Pacific. He exposes the missionaries as an adjunct of the capitalist exploitation of the Pacific, benefiting—like capitalists—from the openness forced on the Pacific by capitalists. They worked to enforce class discipline, bringing just enough education to prepare worker for the needs of the capitalist class, and, most dangerously, advertised the idea the European civilization has something to offer outside of terror and exploitation.

And money.

And money.

Finally, for Twain, the global system created by empire is profoundly unstable. A rather funny anecdote suggests this disorder. It is about a child who was born just as the ship was crossing the International Date Line. This child will grow up never knowing its birthday (there was debate whether it was on a Sunday or a Tuesday). This is a problem that is only possible in a world force together through incredible powers. There are many other examples of this type of disorder—cultural and economic—in this book. “The child will never know its own birthday. It will always be choosing first one and then the other, and will never be able to make up its mind permanently. This will breed vacillation and uncertainty in its opinions about religion, and politics, and business, and sweet-hearts, and everything, and will undermine its principles, and rot them away, and make the poor thing characterless, and its success in life impossible.” (457)

Through his tour of the Pacific, Twain was able to reflect on the history of global capitalism in the Pacific, intertwining as it did with empire, and revealed its most vicious consequences. By just travelling through the empires and honestly describing social realities, Twain produced one of the most important political critiques of his era.



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