When it sailed from New York in September 1926, the Floating University followed what had become the standard westbound route for round-the-world travel. From New York it sailed to Havana, Panama, and Los Angeles before crossing the Pacific Ocean to Honolulu, Japan, China and the Philippines, then the Dutch East Indies, Malay States, Siam and India, crossing through Suez to Egypt and Palestine, and sailing through the Mediterranean to Europe, Scandinavia and Britain before heading home across the Atlantic.
The 1926 voyage stands as a good example of the increasing vogue for ‘round the world’ high-end travel in the 1920s. From the turn of the century American (and other) tour companies began to offer escorted travel to small groups. But many of these trips were pieced together packages, entailing all the rigmarole of customs and passport checks and moving continually between different ships and hotels. Most travellers – as Joyce Chaplin comments in her recent book on circumnavigation –‘wanted to step onto a global stage that had been carefully cleaned of any dirt, strife, and toil, even when they had caused it.’ In 1909 the Frank C. Clark Travel Agency of New York sought to eliminate these inconveniences, when they promoted an around the world luxury cruise onboard the Hamburg-America Line’s Cleveland. Sailing westwards, the ship followed the same route in in 1912 and 1913.
After the First World War demand for travel boomed among middle-class Americans, spurred by a strong American dollar and reduced fares offered by steam-ship companies looking for new business following the introduction of immigration restriction. Most of these travellers sailed east across the Atlantic or south to the Caribbean, but the 1922-23 season witnessed the advent of four around-the-world cruises run by large transatlantic liners.
Sailing on one of these ships was a luxurious affair, and one only an elite could afford. The price of a ticket began at about $1000, rising to $25,000 for the best suite on the United American Lines (the average ticket price in the 1920s was probably about $2,000 – or $25,700 in 2011) but this didn’t include tips, special entertainments or shore travel. Every comfort was catered for – the liners were modelled on hotels with comparable numbers and ranks of staff and services. (By then sailing on a foreign owned ship also enabled Americans to escape the strictures of prohibition – during its voyage of 1923-24, the 353 passengers (306 American) on the Belgenland were reported to have consumed 60,800 bottles of liquor!)
The organisers of the 1926 Floating University played into and exploited this contemporary interest in circumnavigation, and the luxurious reputation of these high-end cruises may have done something to shape the expectations of the students on board. The cost of the 1926 voyage was $2,500, including tuition and shore excursions – which puts it well in the range of the more commercial ventures.
In the last few weeks I’ve been following the students as they travelled this route west, reading the Binnacle (the student newspaper published on board) and the diaries and letters of cruise members. I’m coming to the conclusion that the route they took was crucial. It mattered that before they encountered the rest of the world, they had been schooled in the expansive reach of imperial America (in Cuba, Panama, the West Coast and Hawaii). It mattered that before they encountered European empires in Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, India and Algeria, they had been taught the ways of America’s own progressive empire in the Philippines.
As I’m writing I’m trying to convey the process of travel and the various ways the students made meaning of what they were seeing progressively. In doing so I hope to give a rich account of the everyday life and practice of American liberal empire, of the tensions it raised and of the ways it was made.