When we last left Nellie Bly, it was November 14, 1889 (see blog entries for Feb. 11 and 12) and she had just departed New York for Southhampton, England, on an ocean steamer. In the next thirteen days, Nellie crossed the Atlantic, took a train to London, a boat across the English Channel to Calais, France, and a train through France and Italy. In Brindisi, Italy, she caught another steamer for China, the Victoria. Along the way, she wrote an account of her travels and cabled them back to her editor at the New York World for publication. The trip caused a sensation back home as readers followed her adventures with relish.
Thirteen days into her journey, the steamer Victoria anchored at Port Said, Egypt, to take on coal. Nellie and her fellow passengers gathered on deck and gazed out on a wide, sandy beach and a few uninteresting houses. They gladly welcomed a change of scenery, though, and looked forward to some time on shore. Here is her account of that experience as recorded later in the book she wrote upon her return, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days:
Before the boat anchored the men armed themselves with canes, to keep off the beggars they said; and the women carried parasols for the same purpose. I had neither stick nor umbrella with me, and refused all offers to accept one for this occasion, having an idea, probably a wrong one, that a stick beats more ugliness into a person than it ever beats out.
Hardly had the anchor dropped than the ship was surrounded with a fleet of small boats, steered by half-clad Arabs, fighting, grabbing, pulling, yelling in their mad haste to be first. I never in my life saw such an exhibition of hungry greed for the few pence they expected to earn by taking the passengers ashore. Some boatmen actually pulled others out of their boats into the water in their frantic endeavors to steal each other’s places. When the ladder was lowered, numbers of them caught it and clung to it as if it meant life or death to them, and here they clung until the captain was compelled to order some sailors to beat the Arabs off, which they did with long poles, before the passengers dared venture forth. This dreadful exhibition made me feel that probably there was some justification in arming one’s self with a club.
Our party were about the first to go down the ladder to the boats. It had been our desire and intention to go ashore together, but when we stepped into the first boat some were caught by rival boatmen and literally dragged across to other boats. The men in the party used their sticks quite vigorously; all to no avail, and although I thought the conduct of the Arabs justified this harsh course of treatment, still I felt sorry to see it administered so freely and lavishly to those black, half-clad wretches, and marveled at their stubborn persistence even while cringing under the blows. Having our party divided there was nothing to do under the circumstances but to land and reunite on shore, so we ordered the Arabs to pull away. Midway between the Victoria and the shore the boatmen stopped and demanded their money in very plain and forcible English. We were completely at their mercy, as they would not land us either way until we paid what they asked. One of the Arabs told me that they had many years’ experience in dealing with the English and their sticks, and had learned by bitter lessons that if they landed an Englishman before he paid they would receive a stinging blow for their labor.