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This article is of particular interest to me since Thomas Jackson made his first voyage to Hong Kong via the Overland Route with P&O a year after this sailing. It is a list of complaints by passengers who arrived on the Oriental Steamer Salsette on October 27, 1863. The details are delicious. Their experience, less so.
Sharon Oddie Brown. September 5, 2014


Overland Route to India

The Times.  November 26, 1863, p.5.



Sir, – We are some of the unhappy hundreds who have had a sudden end put to their “Egyptian Railway Transit” by the late inundation of the Nile; and, as it is the second time that we have had experience of such a catastrophe, we venture to believe that you will not consider it out of place for us to tell your readers what it is like when it occurs, and how it may be guarded against.


Ladies and young children, and adult males of all ages, and various degrees of health, we were some thirty first-class passengers in number, who landed at 9 AM on the 10th inst., at Alexandria, out of the Peninsular and Oriental steamer Ellora, from Southampton, on route to Bombay. There were some ten others of the second class, of both sexes, and all ages; but, as we wish to confine ourselves to what we ourselves saw and experienced, we shall not again refer to these, and we now dismiss them with the observation that they accompanied us through all our sufferings, and all probability had the lion share of them.


Each of us had been provided, before leaving England, with an Egyptian Transit ticket, through the care of the Peninsular and Oriental Company. For this convenience – and it is one in its way – the bearer had to pay very nearly double the sum which would have cost to procure a similar ticket in Alexandria from the Egyptian Transit Administration itself, the excess (some 3l and odd) being supposed to be for value to be received, in the shape of greater punctuality and better dispatch than the holder of a locally acquired ticket might look for. In both cases the ticket is a “through” one and clears its holder from Alexandra to Suez, besides entitling him, or her, to what the “Administration” of his Highness the Pasha considers the daily “meals” of the English.


Let us here observe once and for all that the theory is false, and the excess of charge an extortion. It is so much clear gain to the Transit Administration of his Highness. It does not secure to the payer a single advantage over the local traveller. On the contrary, the canaille, who constitute the great mass of outside travelling across Egypt – Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, Italians, and Maltese, to sum up all in short, Levantines – are better treated in their several nasty ways than we can ever hope to be. They have the sympathies of the employees – men of their own stock, or perhaps of the own circles of acquaintance. They have the ear of the valetaille at the Inns and elsewhere, and for the same reason. They are served first, sit in all, the chief places, monopolize the best of the bad accommodations, and less liable to be fleeced than we, the wards of the Peninsular and Oriental Company, with our double cost tickets from Leadenhall-street. It was so especially with those who made the journey we are now about to describe. We repeat it; how the Peninsular and Oriental Company ever could have been drawn into this improvident bargain is to this day, the marvel of all Egypt. The Messageries Imperiales have profited by the example, and shunned the error of their elderly rivals.


We landed at 9 AM. Not a minute was allowed us for reflection or repose. Implicitly, following the direction of the Peninsular and Oriental Company’s Alexandria agent. We disembarked only to rush into the “special train” (it was nothing of the kind), which was awaiting us on the seaboard, for the purpose of catching at the Nile railway-bridge (to quote the agent’s own words), “one of the seven steamers, equipped by the Pasha himself, for the conveyance of passengers during the interruption of the railway traffic, which would take us to our destination (Cairo) in ten hours at the very utmost, and which we should find to be replete with every comfort that passengers can reasonably desire, except, perhaps, bathrooms, for the present.”


At three in the afternoon we were all on board of the only one of the seven which we found ready to sail. Considering the lapse of time since the present stoppage of the eight miles of railway began, and, above all, the fact that since the recurrence of such an incident has been ever since 1861, a matter of yearly expectation, there was no reason in the world by these steamers should not have deserved the character thus given them by our Peninsular and Oriental Company’s agent. The truth was far otherwise.


We did not reach Cairo until half past 1 in the afternoon of the following day. During the 22 wretched hours which we passed in the meantime on board of that the abominable steamer, (the Hadji Pasha they said she was called) there was no single responsible official on board to whom complaints might be addressed. There was a “pilot” and there was a “captain”, but both of them were Arabs and spoke nothing but Arabic. This, however, was of the less consequence, since we were informed by an interpreter, an Egyptian Greek in the Transit service, calling himself “Plodonas” (?) that the captain did not feel very confident in his skill in the river navigation, and moreover that he was not a man to whom our communications ought to be addressed. There was no one to represent the Transit Administration; for anyone who knows Egypt will smile at the suggestion that wretched “Plodononas” or any other Greek could in any sense be taken as the representative of his masters in that service. There was, by accident, among the passengers to Suez a servant of the Peninsular and Oriental Company; but he was only a passenger, as he assured us, and no way authorised to make or receive complaints.


Yet cause enough, we had to complain that frightful night, and more frightful morrow! We found, when it was too late (that is to say, after the steamer was off with ourselves on board), that it was not one specially reserved for the Indian passengers. Very far from that; it was crowded with outsiders of the kinds I have specified, shouting, lolling, eating and drinking, smoking, spitting, and snoring in every part of the vessel – especially the best parts – and all of them very dirty canaille  and very much better appreciated than the best of ourselves by their countrymen, the servants of the ship.


The sleeping cabins– four in number - were all public, and open to all. There is no lavatory on board, and until the energy of one passenger, after some hours of endeavour, compelled the production and cleansing of one close-stool in one of the cabins, no necessaries or urinals of any kind. Nature was relieved from the same corner of the rail whereat the water for drinking and ablution had to be drawn from the muddy river. But water could not always be got even in sufficient quantity to fill the solitary wash basin, which we passed from hand to hand. A young American lady, among others, was seen ineffectually trying, in default of servants, to draw the foul fluid for herself, and had to be assisted by some of our fellow passengers in that enterprise. There was one towel, but only a small one, and no more were to be had until the following day; but of soap, there was not a morsel but what some of ourselves had brought.


Lice and insects of all kinds, since the exodus, have been the plagues of Egypt. We found the parasites in plenty at Cairo. That we were not without them on board of the Hadji-Pasha, you may easily guess.


There was the food of the quotidian “meal” as are regulation – such stuff! Insufficient, even if good, it was filthy, course, Bill Cook. Besides, and all in the highest degree. Dirty – very dirty –  knives and forks were distributed at the rate of one knife and one fork to each guest of the administration, and he, or she, or it used these for all purposes, for there were no carving knives or carving forks.


Insufficient and bad also was the attendance, as we worry said; it even of that, such as it was, the canaille without obtained the preference and held it to the end.


To complete the sum of misery, it pleased our masters, the Arabs and the Greek, deprive us of the ambient air of heaven by suddenly bringing us to anchor close under and overjutting point of mud, and keeping us there from 7 in the evening till 5 in the morning of the next day, during one of the hottest nights of this sultry season in Egypt. There we lay, massed together – men, women, and children – Orientals and Franks, passengers and canaille without the means of repose, and without protection from the insects and miamata of the river, all that dreary night.


In one respect; and only one, there is truth in the representations on the faith of which we had embarked on that miserable voyage. The ordinary passage up the Nile from that railway bridge to Cairo was one of the eight to ten hours only. But the Alexandria agent knew, or ought to have known, that at least one out of every two steamers is in the hands of men too fearful of the dangers of a navigation but imperfectly known to themselves to venture on the prosecution of the voyage during hours of darkness. Thus it fared with ourselves. Our fellows from Marseille say that they were more fortunate. In their case, only two days after ourselves, the steamer was run up during the night, and the sum of misery was exhausted by their safe arrival in Cairo at the hour of 2 in the morning. But, surely, if one steamer out of two can do so much, why not the other also?


There have also been several very serious cases of fever and sickness among our fellow –sufferers of that horrible night. The writer of these lines is himself labouring under a relapse into dysentery, which he had tributes to that cause.


Are the “authorities” not responsible? Meagre the ethics of joint-stop companies, let us say they are. But who are these “authorities”? They are concentrated in the Pasha, per se Pasha. “Transit Administration” is all a farce; “Betts Bey” a chimera; the shareholders, all mayah (illusions); the “directors” children of a dream. It is the Pasha, and again it is the Pasha, and evermore it is the Pasha.


First, let us open and read our “transit ticket”, and there – after much that is idle and irrelevant – what find we?


This ticket entitles proprietor of it to the following privileges: – 1 to be conveyed in suitable carriages to and from the landing places, and railway stations, hotels, and by railway, in first-class passenger carriages between Alexandria and Suez at the expense of the Egyptian government. …They are recommended to avail themselves of the carriages and omnibuses provided by the transit administration, and decline the services of other carriage drivers, Arab porters, &c, which will subject them to imposition.


Surely, Sir, we unfortunates have fulfilled the recommendations in question, not to the mere letter, but the living spirit, and yet where were we?


But lastly, and above all, whom have we to thank, but his Highness himself and his worthy predecessor, Said Pasha, for the same yearly interruptions of the railway and obligations to assume the Nile navigation? Surely none!


It is well known to Earl Russell that for some years past the Nile survey has ceased to be a quiddity in Egyptian administration – that rightness of rotten administrations! The money being wanted for toys, which wise old Mehemet Ali had affected to the watching and repairing of the Nile banks, the engineers and staff needed for that essential service had long ago discharged, and salaries appropriated otherwise. To any observer who has even once travelled along the highways of the Nile banks the importance of this disgraceful fact needs no explanation, but to Earl Russell, and to most of your readers, it may be unknown that the highways and banks in question are one and the same. There are no other public, general roads in that valley beside the river banks themselves. The loose, friable soil, situated with the incessant traffic, disappears rapidly under the action of sun and wind, and the metal to repair them is now wanting, for the Pasha has confiscated the road funds. So passes the spring; so passes a summer; then comes the doughty autumn; and before that season, too, has passed away, the yearly inundation. It is notorious that against a very ordinary flood indeed existing banks of all the Nile are everywhere fallen into decay too complete to permit the hope of its being possible to contain the river within their lines. Breaches occur in all directions. The railway is reached with ease by the triumphant flood, and the embankments are submerged and washed away, and the traffic is interrupted for many months to come. All this because the Pasha of the hour prefers to spend on toys the sufficient funds appointed by the founder of his house for repairing the carriage roads of the Nile and keeping the banks in order!


Our Consuls are powerless in the face of Earl Russell’s dislike of Consular intervention, or the state of things would have long ago received a song protest and remonstrance in the proper quarter. France has protested, it is said, but faintly, and as beseems the patroness of the rival enterprise – the future Suez Canal.


If our noble Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs will only look into the matter from self, and then determine which course to take with this wretched Government, it will be perhaps the beginning of the end. But to that end, in spite of himself, sooner or later, he will have to come, if the great Highway from Cornhill to Calcutta is a thing worth striving for, and the observance of the existing conventions for its sustainment duty property be enforced, if necessary, upon the reluctant regards of a half effete Pashalie.


T. CHISHOLM ANSTEY, High Court, Bombay

C.H. GRIFFIN, 98th Regiment

H. RAMSDEN, Bombay

T.C. WHARTON, 97th Regiment.


L.RUSSELL, 16th Native Infantry

F.SMITH, Bombay,

Fred H SEGRAVE, 16th regiment

J.E. OLIPHANT, C.S. Ahmedabad.

On Board the Peninsular and Oriental Steamer Salsette, Bombay Harbour, October 27.






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