A South American Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby

A South American guidebook from 1924, being republished by Footprint, was chiefly concerned with hunting, banana plantations and the location of shops selling briar pipes, finds Chris Moss.

Oh, to have visited South America in 1924! It was an age when great, largely British-built railway networks fanned out from many cities. When Elkington Plate cutlery from Birmingham could be bought in Montevideo and Valparaiso. When briar pipes and Webb’s Indian Tonic were available in Buenos Aires and – just to prove that trade was in both directions – yerba maté tea was sold in London EC2.

Travellers were encouraged not to forget certain essentials, including cocoa from Fry & Sons, Remington typewriters with “one SHIFT only”, and explosives from Nobel Industries.

These snippets are from some of the 60-odd advertisements in the first edition of The South American Handbook, which Footprint – the Bath-based company that grew out of the handbook – is republishing in a facsimile edition to celebrate the book’s 90th anniversary.

Intercontinental travel between the world wars was undertaken principally by those on business. The original publisher, South American Publications, had an office in the City of London, and based its handbook on research by a former wine merchant, William Henry Koebel, whose 1921-23 guides were sponsored by the Federation of British Industries, forerunner of the CBI.

“On tropical rivers: gloves to protect the hands against mosquitoes while on deck; high shoes to protect the ankles; and a gauze canopy for the face and neck should be carried. To ward off mosquitoes, oil of citronella, sparingly applied to the exposed parts of the skin, is very effective.”
“Coloured spectacles as a protection against sun-glare are items more necessary in certain parts of the continent than others.”

The 1924 guide covers all of South America, as well as Mexico, Central America, “Porto (sic) Rico”, Cuba and the Falkland Islands, and ports of call in Brittany, Galicia, Portugal, Madeira and Cape Verde. Steamships operated from Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Newport, the Tyne and Southampton.

The voyage from Britain took from about 20 days (Buenos Aires) to two months (Manaus). All journeys then were slow and arduous. The handbook warned prospective travellers: “In all the Latin American Republics, it is necessary to a greater or lesser degree to use mules, donkeys, burros and horses for certain journeys.” Those visiting Colombia were advised to use the fledgling domestic air services, which could knock eight days of “heat and mosquitoes” off a journey.

“Alcoholic liquors should be rigidly avoided until after sunset.”
“A panama hat is the most suitable headgear, but a soft felt hat should also be taken for high altitudes.”
“Afternoon tea, made as it ought to be made, is obtainable in all the principal cities.”
“South American ladies dress with elegance, and… lady passengers are well advised to take new and becoming clothes.”

Where modern guides highlight ways to spend money – restaurants, hotels, sightseeing – the 1924 text was mainly about ways to make it. Statistics were spattered throughout, so that the mainly monolingual, mainly male traveller knew not only the populations of countries – Brazil’s population was 30,635,600; São Paulo’s today is just shy of 20 million – but the wages of gaucho peons in Uruguay, how many egret feathers Venezuela was exporting and the number of hats and boots produced by Brazil over a 21-year period. One and a half pages were devoted to “Bananas in Costa Rica”.

 If the commerce that drew British travellers was colourful, the content of the first Handbook is drily functional. Cuzco is noted for its businesses as much as for its Inca fortifications, and Machu Picchu (above), discovered in 1911, is not even mentioned. After dining and drinking in members’ clubs, “sport” – as in hunting – was the chief leisure activity. Each country was adjudged by the potential it offered for bagging jaguar pelts and armadillo shells.

“This is the 21st annual edition of The South American Handbook. It has, that is, come of age. Five of its editions have been produced during a world war – no less than a quarter of its existence spent in wrestling with exasperating paper shortages and delay, to which must be added the constant threat to its lifeline of necessary information by U-boat pack, and of physical extinction by bomb.”

Tourist-orientated information expanded in later editions. In the 1932 edition we are told, “Trains twice a week… for the interesting ruins at Machupiccho [sic].” By 1945, visitors to Argentina were told that the “aristocratic thoroughfare of Buenos Aires is Florida Street, where there are important shops of every description”.

Ben Box, editor of The South American Handbook since 1989, notes the “huge shifts of emphasis over the years, besides the way people travel to and within South America. These have been dictated by the reasons why people travel and why they take guidebooks, from business to the ''Gringo Trail’ type of adventure to backpacker and gap-year travels to today’s shorter trips with a purpose, such as volunteering; by the way people research travel – using the internet; and by the growth in nature tourism and the shift towards environmentally aware tourism.”

Related Tags: Chris Moss, London EC2, Mexico, Central America, Brittany, Galicia, Portugal, Madeira and Cape Verde, Latin American Republics

Recommended News

Recommended Travel Agency

Recommended Travel Offers

Recommended Travel Packages

Photo Gallery