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Around the World in 80 Documents: 19th-Century Publications on Europe, Africa and Asia in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Steve Daniel

Senior Editorial Consultant, Readex

Not only are American government documents not just about American government, they aren't just about America. Asked to highlight the U.S. Congressional Serial Set's richness for exploring the wider 19th-century world, I immediately thought of the fictional Phileas Fogg and his 1872 bet that he could travel around the globe in 80 days. I challenged myself to find remarkable and relatively contemporaneous documents on every country that Fogg visits in "Around the World in Eighty Days" (1873), Jules Verne's classic adventure novel.

Phileas Fogg, accompanied by his man servant Passepartout, departs London on October 2, 1872. Passing through France and Italy by train with little comment, Fogg leaves for the East on the steamer Mongolia from Brindisi on October 9. The steamer crosses the Mediterranean, transits the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and deposits Fogg in Bombay on October 20. He travels across India by train and elephant. On October 24 he and his rescued Indian noblewoman depart Calcutta on the steamer Rangoon, which takes them to Hong Kong after a brief stop in Singapore. The party is briefly separated at Hong Kong. Fogg travels on to Shanghai by a rented vessel, reuniting with Passepartout in Yokohama.

From Yokohama Fogg departs for San Francisco on the Pacific Steamship Mail Co. on November 14. In New York Fogg just misses his December 11 connection with a Cunard liner and rents another vessel to carry him across the Atlantic to Ireland. From there, following some final misadventures, Fogg travels back to London. With this quick summary of Fogg's itinerary, we can now try to mimic his course with Serial Set publications.

Our trip begins with an 1872 Senate publication, "International Congress on the Prevention and Repression of Crime, Including Penal and Reformatory Treatment" (S.Ex.Doc. 59, 42-2). This report by the American official observer summarizes the proceedings of this important European conference held in London and attended by representatives of western European powers and Russia. It gives every impression (however inaccurate it may be) of penal systems of the day being more enlightened than current ones.

Traveling across France, we are given a vivid picture of the Franco-Prussian War, the 1871 Prussian siege of Paris and the brief life of the Paris Commune in the pages of our ambassador's correspondence to Washington as reprinted in 1878 in "Franco-German War and Insurrection of the Commune" (S.Exec.Doc. 24, 45-2. 222 p.). Actually quite a good read, this document appears high on my list of top ten Serial Set items to take to the beach with you next summer. The events described here take place just before Fogg's trip, but would still have been fresh in everyone's minds.

From Europe, Fogg takes a Peninsular & Oriental Line steamship for Suez and Bombay. There are three publications in the Serial Set that deal with the P&O line, including two on the January 1870 tragedy in Tokyo Bay when the P&O mail ship Bombay sliced off the stern of an American naval vessel, the U.S.S. Oneida, which proceeded to sink in less than 15 minutes with the loss of 115 lives. For more beach reading, see the detailed "Loss of the United States Steamer Oneida" (H.Exec.Doc. 236, 41-2).

In addition to "The Maritime Canal of Suez, From its Inauguration, November 17, 1869, to the Year 1884" (S.Exec.Doc. 198, 49-1), numerous Serial Set publications discuss the Suez Canal. A brief but excellent description of the Canal can be found in "Report of the Board on Behalf of United States Executive Departments at the International Exhibition, Held at Philadelphia, Pa., 1876" (H. Misc. Doc. 20, 47-2). Apparently we sent agents to Philadelphia to gather intelligence from the world of information available at the exhibits, and their five-page description of the Canal's construction and operation includes a very nice map.

Fogg's assertion that the globe could be traversed in 80 days was based upon the assumed completion of the Trans-Indian Railroad. Upon discovering that it was not, he covered the distance on an elephant's back. Among several publications in the Serial Set on India is the interesting "Irrigation and Reclamation of Land as Now Practiced in India, Egypt, Italy, etc." 1875 (S.Exec.Doc. 94, 44-1). It also includes a number of nice maps and sketches.

Although there is little information on elephants within the Serial Set, there is a charming 1862 letter from the King of Siam to President Lincoln offering to send breeding pairs of elephants to America by means of which large herds of these useful beasts might be established in our "torrid zone" (S.Exec.Doc. 23, 37-2).

Written prior to the 1870s, one of the best Serial Set publications dealing with Singapore is the 1852 report to Congress from the President. This document reproduces 39 letters from one of our first diplomats stationed in Southeast Asia, Joseph Baslister, who opened the consulate in Singapore in 1850 (S.Exec.Doc.38, 32-1).

Fascinating from a variety of perspectives is "Consulate at Hong-Kong" (H.Exec.Doc. 20, 46-2). Among other things, this report includes the texts of 13 letters to and from Col. John Singleton Mosby, the Confederate guerrilla leader who after the Civil War turned Republican, became a friend of Grant and was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes as U.S. Consul in Hong Kong.

A valuable overview of the history and extent of slavery in China is contained in a report by the U.S. consul in Shanghai entitled "Expatriation and Slavery in China" (H.Exec.Doc. 60, 46-2). This document may not be another for the beach bag, given that I couldn't quite figure out what was meant here by "expatriation."

The most important publications on Japan in the Serial Set are the House and Senate editions of Perry's three-volume report on his expedition to Japan. If your library is fortunate enough to own these extremely pricey items, make sure they are in secure storage. However, for purposes of following Mr. Fogg, I will cite "Growth, Culture, and Preparation of Tea in Japan and China" from 1873 (H.Misc.Doc. 96, 42-3). Just how much tea was there in those two countries and how did they get so much?

Fogg and party take a Pacific Mail Steamship Co. packet from Yokohama to San Francisco. Among the 74 Serial Set publications that Readex has indexed to the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. is an 1872 document reporting on a Senate bill to increase funding for the trans-Pacific mail service, then provided under contract with the Post Office by Pacific Mail ( S.Rpt. 42-33).

Although there are many exotic locales in Verne's novels, he never traveled around the world; indeed he rarely left France. Notably, Verne makes much of the completion (more or less) of the Trans-Indian railroad in 1872, but makes no specific reference to the completion in 1869 of the American trans-continental railroad. Without the Trans-Indian railroad it should have been possible (by sailing around India) to still complete the trip in 80 days. However, without the American railroad it would have been impossible.

There are almost 4,000 19th-century Serial Set publications about railroads, 550 from the 1870s and 50 from Fogg's year of 1872. For our purposes, I will cite one from 1861. Not only is it one of my favorites, it is not nearly as well known as it deserves. "Pacific Railroad" is a memorial to Congress from the Central Pacific Railroad Co., authored by their chief engineer Theodore D. Judah. Judah explains in detail that a practical route exists for a railroad across the California Sierra Nevada Mountains, and his work leads directly to the legislation that funds the first transcontinental railroad (H.Misc.Doc. 12, 37-2).

In a matter of a few paragraphs Fogg lands near Cork and travels across Ireland to Dublin from which he takes a ferry to Liverpool and then a train back to London for the exciting end of his adventure. There are 15 interesting Serial Set publications from the 1870s on Ireland, including "State of Labor In Europe," which includes in-depth information on Irish labor conditions in the 1870s (H.Exec.Doc. 5, 46-1).

So, there you have it—nowhere near 80 documents, but clear proof that the U.S. Congressional Serial Set offers wide-ranging publications that reveal surprising aspects of world history.

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