Grand tours: Mind your manners at the captain's table

Sir Henry Stanley takes a steamboat to the American West
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The Independent Travel

Although he helped to found the Congo Free State and fought in the American Civil War, Sir Henry Stanley is most famous as the man who discovered the missing David Livingstone on the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871. His 19th-century brand of stoic adventuring began early. He was born John Rowlands in 1841 in Denbigh, Wales, and spent most of his childhood in a workhouse before running away to sea. He later spent time in New Orleans where, aged 18, he was adopted by an American merchant called Henry Stanley, took on his name and became a journalist. Stanley reported on the parlous state of the indigenous Indian peoples of the American West and this extract, written in 1867, is from one of those dispatches. In 1892 he reclaimed his British citizenship, sat in Parliament between 1895 and 1900 and was knighted in 1899. He died in 1904.

Although he helped to found the Congo Free State and fought in the American Civil War, Sir Henry Stanley is most famous as the man who discovered the missing David Livingstone on the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871. His 19th-century brand of stoic adventuring began early. He was born John Rowlands in 1841 in Denbigh, Wales, and spent most of his childhood in a workhouse before running away to sea. He later spent time in New Orleans where, aged 18, he was adopted by an American merchant called Henry Stanley, took on his name and became a journalist. Stanley reported on the parlous state of the indigenous Indian peoples of the American West and this extract, written in 1867, is from one of those dispatches. In 1892 he reclaimed his British citizenship, sat in Parliament between 1895 and 1900 and was knighted in 1899. He died in 1904.

We took a steamer from St Joseph to Omaha, to join General Augur on his intended northern expedition. It has been generally conceded that travelling on a steamboat is far superior as regards personal comfort to any other mode of travelling. The western river steamers are famous for their luxurious fare, and consequently, in this region, are more patronised than any other means of transit from one city to another; though, to the disgrace of the builders and owners of these boats, be it said, they have thus far been rather careless of the personal safety of the passengers. The countless shoddy steamers which have been blown up and sunk in the capacious bosom of the Father of Waters, have contributed in a great measure to retard travelling in this manner. Delicate ladies and nervous gentlemen withhold their patronage, and shrink from entrusting themselves on board, preferring to undertake the fatigue of rail-road travelling. Still, on the late occasion, we found the steamer excellent, "barring" a little rudeness on the part of independent waiters, and a little grumpiness on the part of the upper officials towards the passengers.

The steamer groaned and gasped, and moaned and sighed continually. The cabin floor rose visibly at each pulsation of the engines as they drove the frail vessel. On account of the curious impulse of the captain to "pile on", I fear there will be a "fine bust-up" some of these days.

At the head of the long table at meal time sat the middle-aged, florid-faced captain. His office appeared to be to escort the old ladies to the table, and to smile condescendingly on the young misses. In our ignorance we committed an unpardonable breach of western etiquette by sitting down simultaneously with the captain. The waiters were excessively indignant, and looked horrified, and in more ways than one showed that their tender "feelin's" had been outraged. After the captain and ladies had sat down, the autocratic steward rang a second bell, and with a majestic wave of the hand, and a calm, benignant smile, signified his pleasure that we should sit down.

The clerk of the steamer, or purser, is the man of business, and the prime minister of the gay vessel. In his limited den forward, he is assailed by steward, waiters, cook, deck boys, cook's boy, captain, pilots, engineers, and passengers, who are continually asking questions. As he is responsible for the good name of the boat, he is expected to be invariably gracious and polite.

The pilot is aloft at the wheel, and oblivious to everything save his duty. With what skill he manages the craft! How gracefully he steers her through, and between the myriad snags – any of which might rip her keel open – around the tortuous banks, and up again straight on her course! With what care he approaches the treacherous shoal and sandbar! At one stroke of the bell the boat relaxes her speed; another stroke warns the leadsman of his duty, who instantly sings out... "By the mark twain," "Quarter less three," "Nine and a half," "Se-ven feet," the boat proceeding still slower till the cry is heard, "No-o-o-o bottom," at which the vessel plunges on her course again as if released of an incubus, to plough the reddish water till it rages around her bow in a thousand whirling circlets.

Our steamer was full to overflowing with travellers of every rank, age, sex, and condition of life, who were all bound to the Eldorado of the west – the Rocky Mountains – to seek new homes and new employment. During the daytime, the gaudy but commodious cabin presented a curious sight. At the after part of the saloon, which is styled the ladies' cabin, sat groups of "Muchly" crinolined farmers' wives and daughters, frowsy dowagers, and laughing maidens. Some ladies sat singly (doubtless old maids), who rocked their chairs in a very melancholy manner, or appeared absorbed in some novel. At the gentlemen's end was a motley assemblage of characters – divines, dominies, philanthropists, misanthropists, innocent youth, old sinners, ubiquitous "drummers," or commercial travellers, which last are the omnipresent agents for everything under the sun, from the newly invented shawl pin to the pill that cures every mortal disease in one-twentieth of a second, and from the lately patented, self-acting tweezer, to the magic double-performing, self-adjusting, anti-freezing force pump, which has been pronounced the "greatest wonder of the nineteenth century". All seem to be dragging a miserable existence, and constantly smoking, or indulging in agonising yawns. With their feet elevated to the level and attitude of their heads, these unfortunates contrive to pass the intervals between meals. At the first welcome sound of the bell, all unite in a grand rush to the table, gorge themselves with two dozen different viands, from fish, fowl, flesh, to pudding, cake and molasses, and in ten minutes and five seconds, they will be found around the stove, smoking away as energetically as ever. At night they stretch their dyspeptic bodies in two tiers the whole length of the cabin, and thus the passengers pass their days on board a western steamer.

Follow in the footsteps

Full steam ahead

Sir Henry M Stanley is most famous for uttering the words: "Dr Livingstone, I presume." But less known is the fact that he had a passion for steamboat travel, so much so that a vessel was named in his honour.

The river Missouri is known locally as the Big Muddy, which the locals say is "too thick to drink and too thin to plough", because it is laden with sediment. It passes through a varied landscape of undulating hills and vast flatlands, vineyards, canyons and forests.

Stanley regarded steamboat travel as "far superior, as regards personal comfort, to any other mode of travelling". These days only RiverBarge Excursion Lines ( www.riverbarge.com) has trips along the Missouri on a large hotel barge.

Unfortunately, the unpredictable nature of the river has caused the company to cancel this year's trip. You will have to wait until next year if you want to jump aboard. There is a trip scheduled for 15-23 August 2003, which will travel from Kansas City to Sioux City, stopping off at St Joseph and Omaha.

Alternatively, you can take the road and do the route by car. It's a lonely drive, passing through very few towns. The most direct route is to cruise along Interstate 29 from St Joseph in Missouri to Omaha in Nebraska. Car hire can be arranged through Trailfinders from £274 for 10 days (020-7937 5400).

Getting there

The nearest airport to St Joseph is Kansas City. American Airlines (08457 789789; www.american airlines.com) offers return flights from London, via Chicago, from £458.50. For more information about the two states visit www.missouritourism.org and www.visitnebraska.org

By Zoë Smith

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