Mark Twain: “Following the Equator” Chapters 41–end: India and Africa

That was England, the English power, the English civilization, the modern civilization—with the quiet elegancies and quiet colors and quiet tastes and quiet dignity that are the outcome of the modern civilization. And following it came a picture of the ancient civilization of India—an hour in the mansion of a native prince: Kumar Schri Samatsinhji Bahadur of the Palitana State. (655)

Twain at the time of the publication of "Following the Equator"

Twain at the time of the publication of “Following the Equator”

There is a passage in Jurgen Osterhammel and Niels P. Peterson book Globalization: A Short History that helps put the realities of a world coming together into its proper perspective. World history tends to look at flows and by doing so cover-up questions of class and inequality and power. One of the powerful contributions of imperial history is that it reminds us that globalizations of the past were disruptive and often brutal. “It [network concept] tends to trivialize societal dimension, to flatten hierarchies and power differences, and to overlook the varying depth and intensity of relationships. The fact that networks cross or eliminate existing boundaries does not prevent them from creating new ones.” This is known (mostly) to students of empire, but often forgotten by students of globalization, especially its most eager supports in the historical profession, world historians.


Mark Twain’s Following the Equator is a powerful look this reformation of class boundaries in the global system created by mature European imperialism. Twain’s 1895–1896 tour of the world was really a tour of the Anglo-American empire. He first visited Hawai’i, then Australia and the South Pacific, then India, and finally Southern Africa. He was seeing worlds that were already heavily incorporated into the world system created by Europeans. In my first post on Following the Equator I focused on labor migration and the violence of empire. The situation changes a bit in the second half of the story, shifting to India and Africa, places where Europeans had to content with an existing culture that had deep roots and could not be easily supplanted, as in Australia. Twain devotes much of the second half of the book to understanding the culture and society of South Asia, but as the book makes clear, although the Hindu society was not at risk at being destroyed, it was under great stress and violent transformations as a result of British rule.  Chapter 41 is a good summarization of this, as he shows the local Hindu princes under increasing strain of the British modernization project. A century earlier they would have thanked the British for not overtaxing or for not “bringing famine upon them.” But, by the end of the nineteenth century the local princes’ powers were evaporated by “factories, schools, hospitals, reforms” and other institutions of colonial modernity. It was these institutions that did the job of reforming the class lines in colonial India and Africa.

In the process of these institutional changes, colonial India was becoming a progressively more violent and divided place. Twain digs up court trials, stories of American-style hucksterism, and—most significantly—a history of the rise of the Thug cult as evidence of how British rule destabilized Indian society. And while he points out that the inherent diversity of cultures in South Asia played a role in the rise of the Thuggee, he relishes in pointing out that the Thuggee were a mirror of European imperial barbarism. “We white people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization; Thugs who long ago enjoyed the slaughter of the Roman arena, and later the burning of doubtful Christians by authentic Christians in the public squares, and who now, with the Thugs in Spain and Nimes, flock to enjoy the blood and misery of the bull-ring.” (703) The best example of British imperialism disrupting Indian society is the Sepoy Mutiny of the middle eighteenth century, the scars of which still existed for Twain to notice and reflect on over a century later.


Another civilizing project of the British that piqued Twain’s interest was the eradication of wild animals. “For many years the British Indian Government has been trying to destroy the murderous wild creates, and has spent a great deal of money in the effort. The annual official returns show that the undertaking is a difficult one.” (776) The reader gets the feeling that the strategy employed by the British to regulate wild animals was not much different from the approach to the Thuggee or the Sepoys a century earlier. Twain confesses that animals do seem to kill many people in India. He cites that snakes kill 103,000 in six years, to which the British kill over 1,000,000 snakes in retaliation. I am not sure if the environmental history of empire has been fully written, but we can see the consequences of the logic of the extermination of nature all around us.

Twain’s stay in Africa is considerably less lengthy and covers only the last few chapters of the book. As with India we see the institutions of law, violence, institutions of power, and economic incorporation into a global capitalist economy devastating the lives of native people. If Twain is to be believed it was as brutal in South Africa as in Australia. “The great bulk of the savages must go. The white man wants their lands, and all must go excepting such percentage of them as he will need to do his work for him upon terms to be determined by himself. . . . The reduction of the population by Rhodesian methods to the desired limit is a return to the old-time slow-misery and lingering-death system of a discredited time and a crude ‘civilization.’” (868–869) This brief section on Africa ends with a look at the diamond minds and the semi-forced labor that worked the mines. As across the British Empire, intense labor regimens, depopulation, violence, and global capitalism worked hand in hand.


Other Travels

This particular volume ends with thirteen short selections under the title “Other Travels.” Some of these were published earlier by the Library of America in the collected short works of Twain. Others expand on themes explored in some of his other travel narratives. For that reason, I will not put up what may be a redundant post about more of Twains travels. I have covered all of his travel narratives earlier in this blog.

These assorted travel narratives stretch from 1873 until 1897 and are by and large about Europe. The first and one of the last of these narratives speak to the question of empire. In “The Shah of Persia,” Twain discusses the arrival in London of the Shah of Iran. We see that the British tried to apply pressure on the Shah to change policies (through an expat Parsee population), even as the Shah was arriving as a theoretical equal. In “Queen Victoria’s Jubilee” we see a celebration of the successes of the reign of Queen Victoria. Part of the celebration was putting the empire on display. “Then there was an exhaustive exhibition of the hundred separate brown races of India, the most beautiful and most satisfying of the complexions that have been vouchsafed to man, and the one which best sets off colored clothes and best harmonizes with all tints. . . . The procession was the human race on exhibition—a spectacle curious and interesting and worth traveling to see” (1050) In both of these cases, we see the empire from the perspective of London. Like the Shah twenty years earlier, the true horrific reality of Britain’s empire building is not on display, only its grandeur.


Twain used travel narratives to hack ideas of American exceptionalism. As I looked at in an earlier post, “The Cradle of Liberty,” Twain believed that Switzerland was a better example of a libertarian tradition than the United States. In a similar vein, “The Chicago of Europe,” uses Berlin as an example of rational urban development. “Some National Stupidities” does this in a more humorous way by contrasting some do the absurdities of daily life in Europe and the United States. “America could adopt this [German] stove, but does America do it? No, she sticks placidly to her own fearful and wonderful inventions in the stove line. She has fifty kinds, and not a rational one in the lot.” (1035) As Twain started to learn in the context of the American conquest of the Pacific the separation between the Old World and the New World may not have been as great as many American writers believed.


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