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.


Mark Twain, “A Tramp Abroad” (1880): Part Two

“In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. Now that is a good idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous from its lonesomeness.” (379)

Something I thought about often while reading A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain was the fact that just because someone observing absurd customs is a foreigner and does not understand those customs, does not mean that those customs are not indeed objectively absurd. I am not here talking about the real oppressive aspects of foreign cultures that need to be struggled against, but the day to day absurdities that it sometimes takes a foreigner to point out. This can be true even if that observer is from a rising, arrogant, imperial nation.


It seems we live in a much more defensive age than Twain did, and, without a doubt, over a century of Europeans and Americans telling others how to live had contributed to this sensitivity. In some cases, it may even be justified. It seems Americans have little to teach the world about high finance, for instance, and should probably stop speaking on the question in order to avoid certain humiliation. But that aside, I find I miss the good-natured ridicule of foreign cultures we see in A Tramp Abroad. Germany, like the United States, was a rising imperial and industrial power in the 1870s, fighting for a place in the sun in a world crowded out by British dominance, yet significant enough to enjoy being part of the ruling civilization. If any two nations were equals at the time, it might have been Germany and the United States. This makes what I am trying to say a bit awkward. There is thus not the imperial overtones in A Tramp Abroad that there may have been in Innocents Abroad, when Twain toured parts of the decaying Ottoman Empire.


I wonder how an essay entitled “The Awful Chinese Language” would be received today (especially in China). Or take this bit from Twain’s comments on German journalism. “What can be found in [German newspapers]? It is easily answered: A child’s handful of telegrams, mainly about European national and international political movements; letter-correspondence about the same things; market reports. There you have it. That is what a German daily is made of. A German daily is the slowest and saddest and dreariest of the inventions of man. Our own dailies infuriate the reader, pretty often; the German daily only stupefies him.” (399) I choose this because it is a two-way ridicule, but I still wonder if set the critique elsewhere if we would read it the same way. This is one of the cost of empire, perhaps. After over a century of benefiting from colonialism and now global capitalism, the West lost the rights to ridicule.  It must be said, that one reason that A Tramp Abroad works so well is Twains honest attempt to understand the United States through his time in Europe. We see this through the many asides Twain writes on American folklore and customs (sometimes critical, often praising).

From "A Tramp Abroad"

From “A Tramp Abroad”

The second half of A Tramp Abroad covers more or Twain’s time in Germany, his travels through Switzerland and through the Alps, and finally his time in Italy. It also includes some appendices on aspects of German life. Twain is still fully in character as a humorist at this stage of his career, although this came of his (in some ways) more serious The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (That is, if endlessly funny, Tom Sawyer is completely serious about the meaning and actualization of freedom.)

Readers of A Tramp Abroad will find plenty of evidence of what it means to live in a still monarchical and hierarchical society. It goes beyond the conspicuous castles and enduring power of royalty. The Bavarian king’s ability to demand a private showing of Wagner’s operas is one examples. Other examples of the simply more democratic society in the United States includes the personal relations between people on the streets. In regards to women on the streets of Europe he writes: “[A] lady may traverse our streets alld ay, going and coming as she chooses, and she will never be molested by any man; but if a lady, unattended, walks abroad in the streets of London, even at noonday, she will be pretty likely to be accosted and insulted—and not by drunken sailors, but by men who carry the look and wear the dress of gentlemen. . . . Even the most degraded woman can walk our streets unmolested, her sex and her weakness being her sufficient protection. She will encounter less polish than she would in the old world, but she will run across enough humanity to make up for it.” (830–831) This is a nice thought, but perhaps runs too close to the nose of how Americans liked to think about themselves: vulgar, unrefined, but good-natured. Yet, throughout A Tramp Abroad runs a deep feeling that Twain is living in a class society (of the old rigid type that is remnants of slave societies, peasant societies, and monarchies).

An interesting thing about Twain’s approach in this book is that he often gets things wrong in an interesting way, in that he observes a phenomenon that is real enough (the higher death rate in European cities for instance), but then fumbles the explanation (European preference for ice water). The observation is correct and worthy of investigation and perhaps suggestive of something deeply wrong in European society. Hitting the solution too much on the nose would have moved Twain out of his comfortable position as a humorist.