At 9:40 a.m. on this date in 1889, and with just two days’ notice, New York World reporter Nellie Bly boarded the Augusta Victoria, a steamer of the Hamburg America Line, and began her 24,899-mile journey around the world in emulation of Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg who went Around the World in 80 Days. She completed the trip in 72 days. Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864 – January 27, 1922) was the pen name of U.S. journalist Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, who was also an industrialist, inventor, and a charity worker, widely known already for an exposé in which she faked insanity to study a mental institution from within. She was a pioneer in her field, and launched a new kind of investigative journalism.
She brought with her on her trip around the world the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some U.S. currency) in a bag tied around her neck.
The New York newspaper Cosmopolitan sponsored its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to beat the time of both Phileas Fogg and Bly. Bisland would travel the opposite way around the world. To sustain interest in the story, the World organized a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” in which readers were asked to estimate Bly’s arrival time to the second, with the Grand Prize consisting at first of a free trip to Europe and, later on, spending money for the trip.
On her travels around the world, Bly went through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. The development of efficient submarine cable networks and the electric telegraph allowed Bly to send short progress reports, though longer dispatches had to travel by regular post and were thus often delayed by several weeks.
Bly traveled using steamships and the existing railroad systems, which caused occasional setbacks, particularly on the Asian leg of her race. During these stops, she visited a leper colony in China and she bought a monkey in Singapore.
As a result of rough weather on her Pacific crossing, she arrived in San Francisco on the White Star liner Oceanic on January 21, two days behind schedule. However, World owner Pulitzer chartered a private train to bring her home, and she arrived back in New Jersey on January 25, 1890, at 3:51 p.m.
Bly arrived back in New York seventy-two days and six hours after leaving Hoboken. At the time, Bisland was still going around the world. Like Bly, she had missed a connection and had to board a slow, old ship (the Bothina) in the place of a fast ship (Etruria). Bly’s journey, at the time, was a world record, though it was bettered a few months later by George Francis Train, who completed the journey in 67 days. By 1913, Andre Jaeger-Schmidt, Henry Frederick and John Henry Mears had improved on the record, the latter completing the journey in fewer than 36 days.
Bly described her trip in Around the World in 72 Days. You can find the complete text here:
It’s a very terse account containing a few anecdotes and not much else. You can read the whole thing in an hour or so. I did not find much of interest, barring the strangely selected descriptions of people she met along the way who were rude, and such. For a writer by profession she is exceptionally telegraphic in places. I’ve been to most of the same places (many years later, of course) and so, with a little mental adjustment, I can fill in the blanks. If you are not a world traveler it won’t make much sense. Here’s the kind of thing she writes (an evening in Sri Lanka):
Lazily I sat there one sweet, dusky night, only half hearing my escort’s words that came to me mingled with the sound of the ocean. A couple stood close together, face bending over a face up-turned, hand clasped in hand and held closely against a manly heart, standing, two dark figures, beneath an arch of the verandah, outlined against the gate lamp. I felt a little sympathy for them as wrapped in that delusion that makes life heaven or hell, that forms the foundation for every novel, play or story, they stood, until a noisy new arrival wakened her from blissful oblivion, and she rushed, scarcely waiting for him to kiss the hand he held, away into the darkness. I sighed again, and taking another sip of my lime squash, turned to answer my companion.
Here’s her description of a curry in Sri Lanka:
At tiffin I had some real curry, the famous native dish of India. I had been unable to eat it on the Victoria, but those who knew said it was a most delicious dish when prepared rightly and so I tested it on shore. First a divided dish containing shrimps and boiled rice was placed before me. I put two spoonfuls of rice on my plate, and on it put one spoonful of shrimps; there was also chicken and beef for the meat part of the curry, but I took shrimps only. Then was handed me a much divided plate containing different preserved fruits, chuddah and other things hot with pepper. As instructed, I partook of three of this variety and put it on top of what had been placed first on my plate. Last came little dried pieces of stuff that we heard before we saw, its odor was so loud and unmistakable. They called it Bombay duck. It is nothing more or less than a small fish, which is split open, and after being thoroughly dried, is used with the curry. One can learn to eat it.
Here’s a serviceable recipe for Sri Lankan prawn curry that I use on occasion. I have often added Bombay duck once in a while. It’s easy to find online. As it happens I’m making something similar for dinner tonight.
Sri Lanka Prawn Curry
500 g king prawns, peeled
2 medium red onions, peeled and chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thin
3 cups coconut milk
3 small cardamom
1 cinnamon stick
8 fresh curry leaves
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp turmeric
salt to taste
4 medium green chiles, cut in half
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
In a large sized bowl mix the red onions, garlic, ginger, coconut milk, cardamom, cinnamon stick, curry leaves, chili powder, turmeric powder and salt all together. Leave this for a few minutes and then add the peeled king prawns and mix well all together. Let marinate for an hour or more.
Bring the prawn mixture to a gentle simmer and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring now and again to be sure it does not stick.
Add the green chiles and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the lime juice, and mix everything well.
Serve with plain boiled Basmati rice and Indian flat breads as well as assorted chutneys and sambals. Bombay duck can be crumbled over the dish when you have made it up. I find that it crumbles best and enhances the flavor if it is grilled lightly just before serving.