The Dark Side of Steam Travel

072115 Chris Banner

When the Great Britain launched in 1843, the steam ship was called “the greatest experiment since the creation.” It was hailed as a revolutionary step forward in technology. But that step forward helped launch the British Empire into a dark chapter in their history and the price for progress was paid in blood.


Queen Victoria had inherited an empire that spanned the globe, but her scattered possessions were separated by thousands of miles of ocean. Ships that depended upon wind power—the great sailing ships—took up to 3 months to cross the Atlantic and 6 months to reach India. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a successful inventor during the Victorian Era, sparked the interest of Prince Albert with his design of the SS Great Britain, an all-iron steam ship that doubled the size of any ship built in the past.



The Great Britain was arguably the most important steam ship ever built. A single-step revolution that once and for all changed ocean-going from a small scale thing of wood and canvas to a large scale one of iron and steam. It cut the passage across the Atlantic from 3 months to 15 days and shortened the passage to India an equal amount.

After the Great Britain debuted, world travel changed drastically. So much about the Great Britain was revolutionary that almost every powered ship to this day is a direct descendant. She was the world’s first all-iron, screw-driven ocean going steamer, the first to have what are now commonplace, a balanced rudder, watertight bulkheads and a double bottom (“The Story,” 2015).


With the shortened travel time, British women and children began to journey to India and establish households with their husbands in the “new” land. Young, unmarried women would also travel to India with older female chaperones in order to find a wealthy husband among the unattached officers of the East India Company. David Hardiman relates:

With the coming of the women, there was an increasing tendency to establish separate enclaves for Europeans, known as cantonments, which were usually on the outskirts of cities. And in these places, the Europeans were able to live in their own houses, they had their own social facilities — their own clubs, which were for whites only and males only, in fact. They would socialize together – endless rounds of dinner parties in which the same people would be meeting each other constantly. . . They wouldn’t even go into the town to do their shopping. Their main contact with the Indians was with servants, and these were people who they’d commanded as inferiors.  (“Interview with David Hardiman,” n.d.)


Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The influx of land speculators and missionaries also increased. Rather than recognizing the claim of the native people who lived in an area, the land speculators would “purchase” the property from the East India Company or lay claim to a territory, regardless of the fact that it was already occupied. The people of India were persecuted, warred upon, and cheated out of land and property.

Religion was promoted through missionary activity, “the Bible following the sword and creating in some areas a more satisfactory climate for doing British business” (“The Moral Crusade, n.d.). The fact that the Christian religion was a puzzling and culturally alien faith “posed no problems to missionaries and the churches that supported them at home” (“The Moral Crusade,” n.d.). Morris explains:

Not only were the countries waiting to be explored and exploited, the wars waiting to be fought, the savages waiting to be controlled. But also there was the aspect of religiosity that ran through the Empire, too…They had decided it was their Christian duty to do these things. So when [men] came along who [were] not only brave and handsome and full of initiative like the explorers, but…were also very holy men, religious men, that was the perfect Victorian ideal hero . . . Of course, often these Imperial activists were genuinely religious people. They believed in it themselves. They were brought up not only on the New Testament, but the old Testament, so that people in India — especially who swaggered around the frontiers you know, fighting wars and things — fought like Old Testament prophets. And they saw themselves, I’m sure, as Old Testament prophets. And they believed that the sword of God was a good God, was a good sword, too, and they were wielding him. (“Interview with Jan Morris,” n.d.)

Almost inevitably, a revolt occurred. Between 1856 and 1857, war raged in India. Atrocities were committed—particularly against women and children on both sides—and it took a massive influx of troops on the British side to reestablish British control. The British Government assumed total control of India, ousting the East India Company. However, the situation remained tense and, throughout the rest of Queen Victoria’s rule, there were many different rebellions by the people of India.

You can read more about the Great Britain and some of the miss-adventures of Prince Albert on the Pandora Society Here   POTENTIAL SPOILER: The Prince has trouble with champagne.

The Great Britain has been preserved and is open to the public for tours and special events. If you are interested in this type of steampunk destination travel click here

And if you would like to design your own 19th Century steamship, check out the free APP here


Interview with David Hardiman. (n.d.) PBS Empires: Queen Victoria. Retrieved from

Interview with Jan Morris. (n.d.) PBS Empires: Queen Victoria. Retrieved from

The Moral Crusade. (n.d.) PBS Empires: Queen Victoria. Retrieved from

The Story. (2015). Retrieved from





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