On November 4, 1838, a young lady in New York wrote exciting news to her sister in India. There was a new service that promised to deliver letters from London to India in 90 days, she wrote. "I believe it is called the Overland Route. A man named Waghorn is running it."
The young lady was quite right. Not long after, a letter stamped "Overland Route c/o Mr. Waghorn" sped out to India in the promised three months' time. For the sisters, who had previously had to wait up to two years for mail, it was almost as if they were holding hands. For the man named Waghorn it was the climax of a struggle that would eventually break his heart.
Thomas Fletcher Waghorn was one of those tough, tenacious Victorians who put the indelible stamp of Great Britain on so much of the 19th-century world. Born on the Chatham Naval Base in 1800, the son of a butcher who sold good English beef to the Royal Navy for good English prices, he went into the navy as a child and was commissioned a lieutenant at 17. By then he had grown to an enormous size—so big he once played a giant in a circus. He had also begun to develop the qualities that he was going to need in later years: tremendous energy, courage, a stubborn honesty of purpose, a handsome appearance and a forceful personality that commanded attention. His only flaws—the lack of formal education and a disjointed, somewhat exaggerated way of arguing his case—he waved away with the explanation, "I am a plain blunt fellow."
By the time he had won his commission, Europe had defeated Napoleon, the Royal Navy was going into dry dock and ambitious officers were looking elsewhere for employment. Waghorn chose the navy of the British East India Company, then having problems in Bengal. He did well, was decorated for bravery and as a reward was posted to the Bengal Pilot Service where he encountered his first steamship and learned for the first time what an important question steamship service to England had become.
Until the Industrial Revolution the leisurely sea route from England to India had been quite sufficient for the needs of the empire. But now England's mills needed India's raw materials, and fast transport was urgent. The means were at hand—in 1817, the United States steamship Savannah had made the first steam-propelled crossing of the Atlantic—but independent senior officials in India were not at all eager to employ them. By the long Cape route, two years could elapse before communications from their executive board in London could reach them and an answer be returned. The idea that their superiors could get orders to them within three months was terrifying. And even when events had made steamship service inevitable, the businessmen themselves could not agree on the route. Which would be fastest? Around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope? Up the Persian Gulf? Or the overland route across Egypt?
The challenge of solving the problem of the new routes to India was tailor-made for Waghorn. He soon presented a plan for the use of steamships on the Cape route to an organization called the Bengal Steam Fund, one of a number of societies set up by merchants to promote steamship service between England and India. Waghorn simply proposed that certain postage rates be increased to a point where steam service would pay. The Bengal Steam Fund members, who had raised £10,000, asked him to go to London and try to persuade the government to accept the idea. Waghorn obtained leave from the Bengal government and departed.
When he reached England in April, 1825, his hopes high, he learned that his scheme had been doomed from the start. Postal rates to India, the Post Office informed him coldly, had been set by an Act of Parliament and could not be changed. Since higher rates for better and quicker service were the key to profitable service, the Cape route plan was as good as dead.
Instead of giving up, however, Waghorn decided to return to India by way of Egypt's overland route. An ancient trade route, it connected Mediterranean and Red Sea ports and until 1498, when Vasco da Gama found a sea route to India, it had been very important. After 1498, it was virtually abandoned, and by the end of the 18th century was largely forgotten. With the Cape route eliminated for steamships, however, the overland route—to Waghorn at least—suddenly seemed more interesting. He decided to explore it, but before leaving England arranged for an interview with Lord Ellenborough, Chairman of the East India Company, to give his views. Waghorn assured Ellenborough that he could set up a passenger and mail service to India which would take only 90 days.
Ellenborough immediately responded. He told Waghorn that the steamship Enterprise was about to make her first trial run from India to Suez via the Red Sea. The ship would arrive at Suez about the 8th of December and then return immediately to India. Would Waghorn like to try to get to India in 90 days if he had a courrier's passport and orders to survey the route? Waghorn would indeed. He packed 20 pounds of luggage, collected some dispatches for the Governor of Bombay and set out.
What Ellenborough did not tell Waghorn was that a certain Mr. Taylor would also be catching the Enterprise at Suez. Mr. Taylor was the agent of a rival syndicate which was financing the Enterprise on her trial run. Although Waghorn didn't know it, the race to Suez was on.
Waghorn left London by coach on the 20th of October, 1829, and despite bad roads, washed-out bridges and even an avalanche, delivered a copy of the London Times to the British Consul in Trieste just nine days later. It was a record and the impact was immediate. Since letters coming via the regular London service took a minimum of 14 days the Foreign Office was soon inquiring why the mail took so long.
From Trieste, Waghorn started out for Alexandria on an Austrian ship. When the ship was forced to turn back he embarked again on a Spanish ship and after bucking strong head winds for 16 days arrived in Alexandria. Learning that Mr. Barker, the British Consul, (and agent for the East India Company) was at his country house at Rosetta at the mouth of the Nile, 12 miles away, Waghorn, after a stop of only five hours, plodded off to Rosetta on the back of a donkey. Two days later he climbed down stiffly to shake hands with Mr. Barker. The consul greeted him warmly enough and agreed to give Waghorn an introduction to the Viceroy of Egypt. He did not tell Waghorn, however, that he was also helping Mr. Taylor and that Mr. Taylor had already come and gone.
From Rosetta, Waghorn took a boat up the Nile to Cairo. Halfway there the boat went aground and the impatient Waghorn left his luggage on the boat and finished the trip on another donkey.
In Cairo, things took a turn for the better. The Viceroy of Egypt then was Muhammad Ali, the wily Albanian army captain who boldly assumed the governorship of Egypt shortly after Napoleon's return to France and had since become the strongest ruler in the Ottoman Empire, not excluding the Sultan. Muhammad Ali immediately saw the value in the restoration of the overland route and was pleased to issue a "firman" (a permit and safe conduct) through Egypt. Waghorn thanked him, climbed aboard a camel and hurried on to Suez. He arrived three days later, December 5, to find that the Enterprise had not arrived and that Mr. Taylor had.
Shocked at finding an unknown rival already ahead of him and impatient at this new delay, Waghorn commandeered an open boat and set off down the Red Sea in hopes of intercepting the Enterprise and leaving Taylor behind. To attempt such a trip in an open boat was dangerous enough, but so impatient was Waghorn that he insisted that the boat sail at night too. When the local seamen objected, Waghorn drew his revolver on the captain and "persuaded" him to sail on. For six days, they sailed south without maps or compass, guided entirely by the sun and the North Star. At Corsseir, 620 miles down the Egyptian coast, they took on supplies and made for Jiddah and the final blow: a meeting with the officers of an East India Company ship at which he learned that the Enterprise had broken down. It was not coming. The heroic trip had been for nothing. Waghorn, exhausted and weak from his dash south, collapsed.
For the next six weeks Waghorn lay in bed a sick man. Then he went on to Bombay. By the time he limped into the office of Sir John Malcolm in Bombay with Lord Ellenborough's dispatches, the journey from London had taken four months and 21 days. It was a record actually, but it was still a lot longer than the 90 days he had said was possible, and no one seemed impressed.
Waghorn, however, was undaunted. He began to buttonhole every influential person he could find. He lectured in Bombay and Calcutta. He petitioned the authorities for help in organizing steamship routes and an official overland route across Egypt. But he got nowhere. He had no backing in high places, no money of his own and—unknown to him—strong competition. At last even the East India Company lost patience with him and ordered him back to the Bengal Pilot Service.
By that time, Waghorn was too firmly committed to give up. He resigned, went to Egypt and set himself . up as an independent agent for transporting mails, goods and passengers from England, via Alexandria, Cairo and Suez to India. "Without," as he wrote, "official recommendation, and with a sort of official stigma on my sanity."
For the next eight years ex-Lieutenant Waghorn traveled constantly from England to India and back, inspecting steamships and rest stations, experimenting here, improving there and constantly urging important people to support the work. His drive, enthusiasm and energy were boundless, and the results were soon seen in the efficiency of his service. By 1835, the 90-day trip to England, for either mail or passengers, was commonplace, thanks largely to the speed of the vital overland link between ships.
It was not an easy trip by any stretch of the imagination. Passengers disembarked at Alexandria and proceeded by barge down the Mahmoudieh Canal to Enfe, where the canal joined the Rosetta branch of the Nile. From there they sailed up the Nile to Bulac, the port of Cairo, first by ordinary Nile falucca, later on a small paddle steamer bought by Waghorn. To get into Cairo from Bulac they rode donkeys.
It wasn't until the third stage that the real fun began: the trip across 80-odd miles of sandy, desolate desert. It was made on camels or sand carts, primitive affairs designed for speed. The Overland Route had to maintain schedules between the arrival of mail ships at Alexandria and Indian naval ships at Suez.
And those were the early days. By the middle of the 19th century it took less than 40 days to get to India and the trip across the overland route was down to just three days, including a night in Cairo. By then it was also one of the most picturesque and romantic trips in the world.
At Alexandria passengers boarded large houseboats which were fully equipped with lounges and bars. At Enfe they transferred to swift Nile steamers which did the 120-mile run to Cairo in 10 hours, and which offered cabins, good food and wine. Donkeys and carriages awaited the Nile boat to take the travelers to one of Cairo's new hotels for a bath—European or Turkish—and a night's rest. At dawn, in specially-built carriages drawn by four Arab horses, they set out across the desert. It took 20 hours but there were no hardships, thanks to seven small rest houses where they could get rooms, meals and drinks ranging from European mineral waters to iced champagne. It was even possible to have a haircut. In Suez they went directly aboard ship to find that their heavy luggage, the great trunks of our grandmothers' day, was already stored in their cabins.
In 1835 the number of passengers Waghorn had handled totaled 275. By 1845 the number reached 2,100, and ten years later more than 3,000. The number grew year after year. The cost, per person, London-Calcutta, First Class, all inclusive, was £230 for a lady's single cabin and £250 for a gentleman. Why there was a difference in rates was never explained. Perhaps the gentlemen ate and drank more.
The guidebooks—Waghorn wrote the first one—make quaint reading. Ladies were instructed, for example, to provide themselves with baskets having a cross handle and two flaps, to hold their toilet requirements. Another, Captain Barber's Guide Book, had good advice to travelers about their luggage:
"One trunk, or section of the drawers should contain three weeks' linen and be arranged for use between Southampton and Alexandria. On the day previous to the steamer's arrival at Alexandria, the trunk should be re-packed with foul linen, and at the same time such articles as are required during the journey through Egypt should be placed in the carpetbag. On embarkation at Suez the other trunk will come into use."
For 30 years the route pioneered by Waghorn provided a regular service for mail and passengers and the impact on Egypt was enormous. The luxurious new hotel of Samuel Shepheard was opened in Cairo and others were opened in Alexandria and Suez to cater to the new trade. Sight-seeing tours in Egypt were organized by a Mr. Thomas Cook. Muhammad Ali's international reputation was enhanced. Egypt again became an important factor in world politics.
All that, however, came much too late to benefit Thomas Waghorn. For Waghorn's success had also been his undoing.
By 1835 Waghorn's service had become so efficient that the English Post Office was obliged to officially recognize it as the fastest and safest way to send mail to India. On the 7th of March, 1835, the Overland Route was authorized to handle the English mails. Even more significantly, perhaps, businessmen were beginning to grumble that it was too efficient; they could no longer blame slow communications for their failure to pay bills.
In the meantime, rivals had begun to contest Waghorn's monopoly, the strongest being two Englishmen named Hill and Raven. With backing from India, Hill and Raven opened a hotel in Cairo and a competing service and soon were cutting into Waghorn's business. Waghorn fought back but in 1841 had to merge his company with his rivals under the name of J. R. Hill and Co.
The next blow came when the East India Company stepped in and helped form the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Co., better known today as 'P. & O.' Steamships were soon running on regular schedules. Finally, Muhammad Ali, quick to realize that the time of small interests was over, bought out J. R. Hill and Co. and put the future development of the Overland Route into the hands of a government department called the Egyptian Transit Company.
For Waghorn, then, success meant defeat. From 1831 to 1842 he had single-handedly fought for and developed the Overland Route into what Palmerston later called "the world's most important trade route." He had also rendered incalculable service to Muhammad Ali. Yet at the moment of triumph the system he created was taken from him.
Years later, to be sure, Waghorn would receive the homage due him. The citizens of Chatham, his birthplace, put up a bronze statue. A fine portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. For the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 Ferdinand de Lesseps erected a statue to Waghorn with an inscription giving him full credit for having pioneered the route that eventually led to the canal. And in his book, 'From Cornhill to Grand Cairo,' William Thackeray gave him the honor he deserved:
"But what are his (Napoleon's) wonders compared to Waghorn? Napoleon massacred the Mamelukes at the Pyramids; Waghorn has conquered the Pyramids themselves; dragged the unwieldy structures a month nearer England than they were and brought the country along with them ... Be ours the trophies of peace! Oh my country! O Waghorn!"
But by then it was too late. In 1851, in London, lonely, sick and bitter, Waghorn had died. His only legacy was a few thousand letters stamped "The Overland Route c/o Mr. Waghorn," of which a mere 121 have survived—to become, ironically, rare treasures sought after by stamp collectors around the world.
John Brinton, a Beirut bibliophile, spends his spare time searching for—and reading— rare books having to do with the Middle East.