Private travel, in its beginnings, proved anything but private. In our primitive state, we humans ambled across the primordial plains rather publicly, in the company not only of our fellow tribesmen, but also in malodorous proximity to domesticated oxen, yaks, and asses. These indignities were but slightly mitigated by the cart and chariot, which placed a more decorous distance between the posteriors of our beasts and ourselves; and if we remained downwind from the former, we had at least the advantage of the open breezes. Yet we remained uneasily on display.
For centuries, true privacy in transit eluded even the most privileged. Napoléon Bonaparte, setting sail to conquer Egypt, found himself condemned to the promiscuous company of his fleet, which comprised 38,000 crew members and various academics (especially burdensome companions) who tagged along to expose the mysteries of the ancient world for the greater grandeur of France. Impressive though it may be, a fleet is an awkward means of getting from Sardinia to Egypt—especially by way of Malta, which the general stopped to conquer en route (diminishing his ranks by some 3,000 souls and enhancing his own privacy commensurately). Ships of the period tended toward untidiness even under the best circumstances, and one can but imagine, after several congested months at sea, with what combination of joy and relief the Corsican embraced the squalor of Alexandria and Cairo, both of which he proceeded to conquer, comme d’habitude.
Discreet travel came to the privileged rather late in the scheme: The enclosed carriage, the yacht, the private railway car, the automobile, and the airplane would all liberate persons of property from the ordeals of public transit, allowing them to retrace the footsteps of giants like Bonaparte, yet far less conspicuously and in much greater style. In 1882, when American financier J. Pierpont Morgan (a self-confessed “Egyptomaniac”) voyaged to the land of the Pharaohs, he did so aboard his yacht Corsair, which was aptly named in that era of colonial brigandage. The vessel was one of two ships deemed the most technically advanced on the waters, powered by compound 2-cylinder engines driving screw propellers and crowned by schooner rigs. The palatial 185-foot craft housed quarters to match its lineaments, including a massive main saloon swathed in black and gold silk upholstery and appointed with hand-carved furnishings, as well as a wood-burning fireplace. Morgan’s first voyage aboard the yacht took him from Nice past Ajaccio, Napoléon’s birthplace on Corsica, then to Alexandria, where his party received a far more enthusiastic, if less ostentatious, welcome than had the Little Corporal.
Departing from the Napoléonic agenda, which had begun with the slaying of Mameluks, the Morgan party lunched among the minarets before proceeding to Cairo. Rather than survey the monuments, they picnicked at Giza, climbing at one point to the summit of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. While this outing struck a certain Gallic note when the travelers dined in a pavilion that had been constructed for Empress Eugénie, the party’s departure from Egypt bore no resemblance to Bonaparte’s. The latter discovered upon his return to Alexandria that the British had destroyed his fleet, whereas the Morgans slipped quietly back aboard Corsair and sailed unobtrusively, yet triumphantly, from the harbor, out across the Mediterranean.
During Morgan’s lifetime, methods of mass transit would grow ever more massive, carrying the always-multiplying human diaspora farther and farther afield. With this change, private vehicles became all the more so. The open automobile gave way to the enclosed limousine, at times ingeniously armored; and the denizens of the private railway cars retreated to the sanctuary of private planes, which whisked them at pleasing velocities from the overcrowded realm of the mundane. But wherever these modern refugees went, teeming humanity followed. If voyagers of the past—whatever their vehicle of choice, be it steamer or stagecoach—suffered in passage from the propinquity of others, the remoteness of the globe’s most far-flung destinations still held promise of open space and anonymity at the journey’s end. Sadly, in this age of the Citation jet, aboard which peace and quiet abound, the only extravagances beyond the reach of private travelers are tranquility once they disembark—and undiscovered country left unconquered.
Senior Vice President, Editorial