Home Feature A Brief History of Travel – 1

A Brief History of Travel – 1


All Around the World with the Most Travelled India

By Nitin Gairola

One day I asked myself a profound question (or one that sounded profound to me). I asked what is the history of travel, as in when did we as humans start travelling the world actively, mindfully and why? So, I did my research, built upon the history of mankind and civilisations and put together some thoughts. I figured before I take you through my personal travel experiences and stories around the world, perhaps an article like this would help set the context of why we humans are restless and addicted to exploration – in any capacity that we can.

The fact is that the history of mankind is in a large part the history of travel itself, but at times we think of travel as packaged tourism and that, of course, is a relatively new 150 year old concept. Now, if we were to go way, way back right to the dawn of hominids or anatomically modern humans (our Homo Sapiens species), then we moved out of Africa around 100,000 years ago (give or take a few thousand), and we walked generation after generation through the ‘fertile crescent’ which is the current Middle East and crossed the present day Indian sub-continent some 60,000 years ago. Then humans branched out north towards today’s China and south towards South East Asia. The South East Asia branch migrated all the way to Australia and had settled down under around 50,000 years in the past, whereas the China branch went through Siberia and onto present day Alaska-Canada some 15 to 20 thousand years ago (The current Bering Strait between Siberia and North America wasn’t there as the water levels were lower in a colder Ice Age world back then, hence there was a land bridge joining Asia at the far east with North America’s present-day Alaska). After crossing into North America, they then moved southwards crossing the mountains, plains and finally the jungles in Meso-America before reaching South America. They, in fact, were at the southern-most tip of South America (Cape Horn) as early as 13,000 years ago. A lot of these global movements would be due to climatic or environmental conditions in a very dynamic world that shifted between glacial and inter-glacial stages. At the core, it was of course driven by hunger and the need for shelter on a planet which was in a state of flux.

Finally, around 10,000 BC (or 12,000 years ago) we were at the end of the last great Ice Age. If we are to be more specific about the possible reasons for travel at this time in human history, then one of the primary reasons was the need for a constantly moving food source as we were mostly hunter-gatherers then. All this was just before the boom of the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution, when a large portion of humans started settling down into a more sedentary lifestyle to raise livestock and do farming, which many centuries later allowed us to transform these small communities into towns, cities, mega-cities and civilisations, starting sometime around 3000 BC. It is at the dawn of civilisations, empires and kingdoms that we travelled to trade and not before long, armies travelled to conquer lands. (Yes, Alexander was an explorer as much he was a conqueror.) At the changeover of BC-AD (2000 years in the past), new religions were emerging and man travelled to spread the word as well.

It is around 1200-1400 AD when some pioneers and intrepid travellers like Marco Polo from Venice (Italy) and Ibn Battuta from Tangier (Morocco) travelled to learn about new lands and people in the Orient (China) and South Asia (India). By the late 1400s and all the way to the 1700s, we had the great ‘voyages of discovery’ with Columbus, Cortez, Cook and others from the ‘old world’ (which included Europe-Asia-Africa) discovering the ‘new world’ (Americas and later Australia) and this kick started what we now call globalisation and, later, the industrial revolution. Mind you, these Europeans ‘discovered’ fully populated continents (inhabited by natives who had reached America 20,000 and Australia 50,000 odd years ago), so at best it can be called the scientific discovery of new lands and not actual discovery by man. And since these were mostly bloody takeovers from Native Americans, one uses the term ‘scientific discovery’ very loosely as well.

By the 1800s, David Livingstone and many other European explorers were venturing into the heart of Africa. Some like Livingstone can be said to be well meaning explorers whereas many had only one mission – to slice the African pie for their respective country’s governments. King Leopold of Belgium took it to the next level by declaring all of present day Congo for himself, in one of the cruellest reigns in history. At the same time in South America, however, one man in particular (named Charles Darwin), did indeed scientifically explore these parts and most famously the Galapagos Islands, which are far off the Pacific coast of Ecuador. It is from this came one of the greatest theories propounded by man – The Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection.

Around and after this time of the African land grab, two significant things happened. The first was the rise of exploration funding scientific organisations or societies such as the Royal Geographical Society in London, the National Geographic in Washington DC or the Explorers’ Club in New York City. This was the time when the last of the geographic exploration ‘firsts’ on land were being set, such as the record for being the first person to reach the North and South poles, scale the highest point on Earth (Mt Everest), reach the deepest depths of the Oceans (Mariana Trench) and set records for such extremities on the planet. The second was the rise of organised tourism, which was first the domain of the ultra-wealthy and the aristocratic who could both afford the price tag and the time to be out on such multi-month long tailor-made adventures. The travel for pleasure or leisure on a more mass scale (but still for the so called upper middle class) came with the entry of Thomas Cook in the mid-1800s, whose first itinerary was in England, then came Europe by rail and also a tour to the exotic land of Egypt, with travel brochure, transport, accommodation, guide and the kitchen sink. All this was aided by the expansion of the rail network throughout Europe as now tours could be shorter, more compact and less risky.

Towards the fag end of the 19thcentury, smack middle in the age of industrialisation, the automobiles had also arrived. The first flying machine took to the sky, courtesy the Wright Brothers in 1903 and, in 1919, the first scheduled passenger airline flew between London and Paris.  Transportation naturally played the deciding role in travel and tourism that was to explode in the second half of the 20th century. The first half, however, was wasted in two bloody and costly World Wars (1914-18 and 1939-45), the great economic depression of 1929, and the Spanish flu that ravaged the world for half a decade from the end of the First World War in 1918.  Once World War II ended in 1945 and the economies and lives started to heal and memories started to fade, tourism too made a comeback. This last 75-plus year period is what can be referred to as the golden age of travel, from the end of World War-II to today. This last phase of globalised and democratised human travel is what I will bring to you in part-2 of ‘The Brief History of Travel’.