Bacon, Walter C. [Manuscript] Extensive Notes of Travels

Bacon, Walter C. [Manuscript] Extensive Notes of Travels

"Extensive Notes of Travels in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, West Indies, Central America, and the United States.."


4to. 3 volumes. Approx. 1000pp altogether. Bound in contemporary dark brown morocco, titled in slightly dulled gilt to spines, ruled and decorated in blind to heavy bevelled boards. Some light wear to extremities, traces of repairs to spine ends, professionally and conservatively done. Strong, solid and handsome, eminently legible throughout, some diagrams and small maps, very good indeed. Internally clean, marbled endpapers, bookplates of W.C. Bacon and Charles Benson to front pastedown. A simply mammoth exploit, clearly transcribed and bound up from letters and notes with an eye to posterity, stemming in the words of its author from somewhat modest beginnings: “Messina, 31 Dec. 1868: In an idle hour after dinner I sit down to jot you a few notes upon my not very remarkable travels so far + and will fill up the pages with occasional insertions until such time as there may be enough as a mass to concentrate into a small essence of interest.” It strikes me that Mr. Bacon is too modest. His travels over the 7 year period spanned by the three volumes encompass several tours of the US including Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Yosemite Valley and Sacramento amongst other locations, in order to give a sense of chronology, the last tour of the US takes place a little before the death of Wild Bill Hickok, the West was still significantly wild, the Little Big Horn wasn’t until 1876, the ‘Indian Wars’ were still very much a thing. Our intrepid chronicler similarly visits India, China, Honolulu, New Zealand, Australia, The Middle East (the journals begin on a trip to Cairo), Siam, Java, Japan, Mexico and South America...Mr. Bacon (the notice of whose death in 1883 in London is laid in at the front of the first volume) certainly got around. He was not only an accomplished traveller of obvious wealth, but also a keen embracer of the cultures through which he voyaged: “Friday 29th Jun. I spent a couple of hours in the morning grinding up Arabic in fact, I usually devote my time till 11 am to this occupation + have another hour before dinner which is 6:30 + often another hour at night. This language is a regular stumper and as yet I have not been able to find any grammar...” He goes on to comment that “the only method appears to be to learn the dictionary by heart.” He camps with the Bedouin, commenting on their cooking flatbread in the ashes “This bread which is plain flour + water + salt is very much to my liking + is I imagine what the Australians call damper except that I have understood there they make a much thicker and consequently a tougher cake.” Bacon, who seems to have been quite the tycoon in the early chemicals industry (he owned W.C. Bacon & Co. of West Ham, London, a large and prosperous chemical works that flourished until World War One), and clearly wealthy enough to indulge his apparent obsession with going where few before him had been, learning the languages and eating the same foods (on one occasion during a storm, he invites his Arab guide to share his tent with him, lamenting that he has no spare room for the muleteers), and attempting to slake his seemingly insatiable desire to travel. There are a significant number of other, more mundane trips, he is impressed with the Coliseum in Rome (who isn’t), but his accounts of well travelled routes smack somewhat of bullet points, it takes the exotic jungles of Siam and Java (the volcanic island of Batjan apparently nearly erupting as he steamed past it) to really engage his interest. He wouldn’t be a Victorian businessman on the grandest of Grand Tours without holding at least some negative opinions, and Indonesia is one of those areas that bears the weight of his disapproval: “I certainly think the Dutch out here have degraded considerably by assimilating to native habits + customs and tho’ they allege the climate I cannot admit the excuse as all convenience in dress might be found in decent costume + naked feet are neither as clean nor as cool as those that are stockinged: in fine they eat abominably, the ship is a pandemonium for besides 11 children [Mr. Bacon does not approve of children] we have nearly 200 parrots and cockatoos as well as monkeys, a cassowari +and about a dozen dogs who fight once an hour and are always in everybody’s way. I have entered a protest against the children + kicked the dogs off the quarter deck + this has had a good effect to a certain extent but appears only to astonish other people...” An avuncular figure he is not. His adventures in Cuba railing against bureaucracy and fighting a monkey off his luggage with a leather strap have to be read to be believed. His observation of the export businesses and various tobacco related opportunities is also keen, and his depiction of Cuba is very much that of a thriving hub with easy connections to New Orleans and Baltimore. There’s an interesting side tour when he reaches San Francisco that involves an episode with a tame and slightly predatory seal on the verandah of the famous Cliff House. Bacon keeps records of mileage travelled, is an avid observer of shipboard habits and has a businessman’s eye for things being done either very well or, in his opinion, very badly. The sense of the world being enormous, exotic and exciting, and gradually throughout the latter part of the 19th century, getting ‘smaller’ is strong throughout this rather epic travel memoir, the proliferation of steam packets and organised guides, the beginnings of modern tourism at war already with the old, isolate world gives a clear indication that the colonial and industrial revolution that he helped build is in fact joint enabler of and anathema to his urge to explore and understand. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, dude. A deep, fascinating and entertaining epic travel memoir, kind of like if Flashman had chosen the chemical business instead of the military. Just gorgeous.

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