Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 6, 2020

Cruising with Mr. Twain: The Innocents Abroad

In 1867, early in his writing career, Samuel Clemens — Mark Twain —received an assignment from a newspaper in San Francisco, where he lived.

The newspaper would pay Twain’s passage and expenses on an ocean voyage lasting several months. In exchange, Twain would post regular letters describing his experiences for publication in the paper. Already an inveterate traveler at 32, Twain had crossed America, piloted riverboats on the Mississippi River, ridden horses, mules and walked across a considerable amount of rugged country in the west. An earlier newspaper assignment had taken him to the Sandwich Islands — Hawaii — and his serially published letters had earned him considerable notice for his insightful, acerbic, ironic, iconoclastic and often-but-not-always humorous travel tales.

Twain was to sail from New York with approximately 60 other travelers on an ambitious tour across the Atlantic, visiting Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire), the Black Sea, the Middle East (much of it also part of the Ottoman domain), the Holy Land (then Palestine), Egypt, then back through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to New York.

In a later post, I’ll write about Mr. Twain’s description of his voyage. Today, I’ll focus on how radically different “cruising” was in 1867 from today.


Obviously, transportation technology has changed since Twain’s day. With the current stand-down of the world’s cruise industry, we’ve seen a steady stream of cruise ships at the nearby Port of Los Angeles, ships shutting down, then moving offshore, where some number of them are anchored: a scene replicated at ports all over the world.

Below, just two of these currently becalmed ships. First, Regatta, of a respectable size: 539 feet long, with a passenger capacity of 824 passengers.

Regatta cruise Brad Nixon 8388 680

In the same week, at the same berth, we saw Norwegian Jewel, somewhat grander.

Norwegian Jewel Brad Nixon 8292 680

965 feet, 15 decks, 2,376 passengers. Not nearly the largest cruise ship afloat, but eye-catching, even from half a mile distant.

Twain and his shipmates sailed on the Quaker City, a coal burning, steam-powered side-wheeler, also with masts and sails.


Built in 1854, she was impressive for her day: 244′ 8″ long. She’d been a U.S. naval vessel, enforcing the blockade of Confederate ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Converted to civilian status after the war, she’d carry the cruisers on a nearly 20,000-mile journey in relative comfort.

Ports of Call … and Beyond

The itinerary included a long list of port calls, including the Azores, Gibraltar, Marseilles, Genoa, Leghorn (Livorno), Civitavecchia (Rome’s port), Naples, Athens, Constantinople (Istanbul), Sebastopol, Odessa, Beirut, Joppa (Haifa) and Alexandria, before turning for New York.

While that’s an impressive list of what were then and are still exotic, appealing destinations, much of Twain’s 500-page narrative concerns not just the ports of call, but extensive trips inland.

Cruising then, as now, offered passengers opportunities for shore excursions. Today, they’re often organized activities provided by the cruise operator, with an occasional “day at large.”  They may be docent-led tours of local culture, historic/prehistoric sites, museums, cuisine, or snorkeling, cliff diving … a long list.

The onshore provisions for Quaker City’s passengers were different: nonexistent. At any port, passengers were welcome to disembark for however long they wished, and could rejoin the voyage at any port ahead. Ashore, transportation, accommodations, food — everything — were the passengers’ responsibility. Typically, interested groups would organize themselves with one or more destinations in mind, and set off.

In that way, Twain and one, three, even six other passengers (always male) set off on adventures that form the core of The Innocents Abroad. Traveling by rail, boat, carriage, horse, mule, donkey or camel, Twain visited Paris, Milan, Lake Como, Venice, Florence, Pisa, Pompeii on some of his European rambles. in Asia Minor, he and a changing cast of comrades visited Ephesus, Damascus and several weeks’ worth of sites in the Holy Land, culminating in the lodestar of every such visit: Jerusalem.

On Their Own

Every stage of travel, every hotel — or, in the desert of the Middle East, campsite —  meal, guide and manner of conveyance was bargained for, arranged and hired by the travelers, out of pocket. There were no prearranged bookings, Eurail passes, no travel vouchers, no docents or translators: only what they organized through sometimes arduous negotiation. Yes, there were guidebooks with recommendations. Still, the energy and ingenuity required in the world of 1867, with no email, fax, telephone, and rarely a telegram, is daunting to consider.

If difficulties arose — which they did, and if there hadn’t been at least a few, Twain would’ve had a much less interesting tale — it was up to travelers to extricate themselves, with only a rare opportunity to appeal to an American Consul in a nearby city.

A Contemporary Resonance: Quarantine

One aspect of the voyage of the Quaker City is familiar to the cruise industry at this moment. Cholera was epidemic across Europe and elsewhere. In many ports, the passengers were held in quarantine, prevented from disembarking for a certain amount of time by local authorities attempting to restrict the arrival of infections from other ports, other countries. It happens several times during The Innocents Abroad.

Interestingly, in one case, Twain and three companions came overland to Naples to rejoin the ship. The Quaker City and its passengers, however, were quarantined. While the passengers aboard were confined to the ship, Twain and his friends enjoyed themselves in Naples, visiting the famed Blue Grotto, touring Pompeii and — a bit of pure Twain — rowed out to the ship to assure those aboard they were missing a glorious time.

There’s a photo of Quaker City in the harbor of Naples, made during that voyage.


What have we travelers gained in the intervening 150 years? What may we have lost?

© Brad Nixon 2020. Quaker City photos are public domain.


  1. […] via Cruising with Mr. Twain: The Innocents Abroad — Under Western Skies […]


  2. Great visual comparison of the cruise ship, then and now.

    What have we lost? I was struck by the ability of Twain and his fellow passengers to follow their own interests and use their own resourcefulness to craft activities and adventures off board — and not have to rush back to the ship on the ship’s schedule.

    That free and footloose mode of travel appeals to me much more than today’s micro-managed cruise touring. Delightful that they embraced the opportunity, despite the rigors of doing so back then.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well observed. It’s fair to acknowledge that not all travelers would agree, and much prefer a more highly structured and “curated” mode of travel. But I’m with you. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Naples “was beautiful beyond all recognition. One might well say, then, ‘See Naples and die.’” MT, Innocents Abroad, 1867.

    I haven’t seen Naples. But for some reason I’ve never forgotten that quote.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He had more to say regarding that line. Since it’s fresh in my mind, I can say it’s one of his genuinely humorous moments. Already a well-known phrase in his day. Goethe cited it in his own “Italian Journey” in about 1816. It’s possible Twain had read that.


  4. EXcellent!


  5. What an interesting post, with several points of connection. For one thing, all cruise ships have left Galveston now; they’re off on their various journeys to allow as many of their crew as possible to finally disembark.

    You’ve also reminded me of interesting accounts of the quarantine procedures in force in Galveston during the 1800s, particularly in the years between the destruction of Indianola by hurricanes and the great storm of 1900 which destroyed Galveston just as it was developing as the primary point of entry along the coast, apart from New Orleans.

    I did smile at this: “Still, the energy and ingenuity required in the world of 1867, with no email, fax, telephone, and rarely a telegram, is daunting to consider.” That applied equally in the world of 1977, when I left Liberia and traveled overland to London, with the only firm plan to meet a friend under the big clock in Victoria Station on a given day. All of the modern conveniences of email and cell phone hadn’t yet arrived, and, honestly? No one thought much about it. I suppose that’s why I still travel with paper maps and very few reservations. After all — if you have a reservation, that’s where you have to be.

    One of my favorite Twain quotations is found at the beginning ofFollowing the Equator: “Be good, and you will be lonesome.” Jimmy Buffett, who narrates a double CD called Mark Twain: Words and Music, uses that line as an intro to one of my favorite Buffett songs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Every traveler should have the opportunity to meet someone under the clock at Victoria. At least once.
      And, true, when those other technologies simply didn’t exist, we didn’t know to miss them.
      I’m off to listen to Mr. Buffett.

      Liked by 1 person

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