India through the eyes of the first cyclist to circumnavigate the world

In his book From Tehran to Yokohama (1888), Thomas Stevens made an observation that may sound surprising today: the most magnificent road to bicycle on ran along the length of north India. The Grand Trunk Road was, Stevens wrote, “an unbroken highway of marvelous perfection, from Peshawar on the Afghan border to Calcutta.”

It was metalled for much of its length with a Stevens substance called “kunkah”, a kind of local limestone. When wetted and rolled, the kunkah cemented to form a surface of excellent wearing quality, as smooth and compact as an “asphaltum pavement”. On either side of the road were shade trees made lush green by the early monsoon.

Stevens, a cyclist of medium height, had arrived in India in early August 1886. By then he had been on the road for nearly two years, traveling through much of Europe. His bicycle tour of the world – that included, as circumstances warranted, voyages on ship and the railroad – had begun from New York in April 1885. His chosen ride for the journey was a “Columbia Ordinary”, known in England as the penny farthing ”, with its characteristic high front wheel that was three times bigger than the rear wheel. (For the rider to sit on the saddle on the high wheel, a perch was needed.) The Columbia Ordinary was a hardy cycle, an improvement on the earlier models with its “cast iron frames, solid rubber tires and plains bearings for pedals, steering and the wheels ”.

Stevens’s tour was sponsored by the Pope Manufacturing Company, a maker of cycles. On top of that, he was contracted to write regular pieces for the American outdoors magazine Outing. The hope was that the dispatches would give Americans a chance to learn about the world, especially the “Orient,” and additionally give a fillip to the nascent sport of cycling.

This was the first time anyone was circumnavigating the world on a bicycle. But to Stevens and his patrons, there were good reasons for the ambitious project. The moves to make the cycle popular in the US matched, according to historians such as Gladys Miller, the rise of leisure and sports in American culture from the 1870s. Between 1876 and 1889, Miller notes, several newspapers introduced a separate sports section. It was around this time, too, that sports associations were sprouting up: the first professional baseball organization appeared in 1876, the League of American Wheelmen (cyclists) in 1880, and the National Lawn Tennis Association in 1881. Coinciding with the rise of wheelmen associations in American cities was the Good Roads Movement, an initiative to replace gravelly roads with asphalt roads.

Early exploits

Stevens was born in Berkhamsted, northwest of London, on September 24, 1854. His father first moved to the US in 1868 to clear land for a farm in Missouri but was forced to return home because of his wife’s ill-health.

Stevens was 17 when he made the journey to the US on his own in 1871 with the money he had saved. For a while, he worked on the railroad in Wyoming, further west of Missouri, but then he was “hounded out” on the unproven belief that he was seeking a commission every time he brought a worker from England. From there, he moved to Colorado to work in its mines. Somewhere along the way, the cycling bug bit him.

Pages from an early Columbia Bicycles calendar.

Stevens first drew public attention with a five-month 3000-mile transcontinental ride from San Francisco to Boston in April-August 1884. On the way, he wrote, he encountered a mountain lion in the Sierra Nevada mountains and rattlesnakes in the deserts of Arizona .

His world tour began in April 1885, when he sailed from New York to Liverpool. The initial journeys across England and western Europe were relatively uneventful. Stevens noticed the soldiers amassed on the Franco-German border, the result of the lingering animus after the 1871 Franco-Prussian war. And in eastern Europe, he met other wheelmen, some of whom escorted him along the river Danube.

As he moved towards Asia, the expedition bumped into difficulties. He wasn’t allowed into Russia, whose southern parts he had hoped to traverse before entering China, and the British barred him from entering Afghanistan, which was always a volatile region.

On his way to Herat, Stevens was arrested and sent back to Persia. Undeterred and resolute, he adopted a convoluted route to India. He traveled up to the Caspian Sea, took a steamer to Baku in Azerbaijan, availed the trans-Caucasian railway to Batumi in Georgia, and then sailed down the Black Sea to Constantinople. From there, alternating between steamers and railroad, he traveled from Alexandria to Suez, Karachi to Lahore, after which he was on his cycle once again, ready to pedal across India.

Indian leg

Summer had set in the plains and the heat was oppressive. He described the khus-khus blinds on the trains and how he traded his army-issued helmet for a “sola-topee”. To him, India was a land full of color, where the women wore lots of trinkets and there was always music on the roads as carts full of passengers passed by.

He described the “Kootub Minar” in detail and the amazing views of Delhi it offered from the top. On his descent, he was treated to magic tricks and a nautch dance that made him rethink his preconceived notions of the form.

“An idea seems to prevail in many Western minds that the Nautch dance is a very naughty thing; but nothing is further from the truth. Of course it can be made naughty, and no doubt often is; but then so can many another form of innocent amusement. The Nautch dance is a decorous and artistic performance when properly danced; the graceful motions and elegant proportions of the human form, as revealed by lithe and graceful dancers, are to be viewed with an eye as purely artistic and critical as that with which one regards a Venus or other production of the sculptor’s studio. ”

He was amazed by the profusion of religious structures in Benares. In Allahabad, he said, the postmen had their own bicycles, but the wheelmen’s club was defunct because “the men were too lazy and the weather too hot.” In Bengal, clouds hung as low as treetops and when it wasn’t raining, it drizzled. Fate was on his side on this leg of the journey. People were dying at the time of the shivering sickness, or malaria, but Stevens survived despite the water he drank and the damp clothes he wore.

His luck didn’t hold as he reached China. In Tonkin, the northern region of present-day Vietnam, he arrived in the middle of the Sino-French war. In the From Tehran to Yokohamahe describes a time when he escaped a mob looking for him by hiding in a bamboo grove.

A depiction of Thomas Stevens in Japan, from a book about his travels. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Cutting short his journey through China, Stevens sailed from Shanghai to Nagasaki in Japan, where, after a three-week cycling tour, he left for San Francisco. He arrived in January 1887, having been away for nearly two years.

Life as a writer

Upon his return, Stevens became a regular writer for magazines. In his views about Asia, Stevens clearly subscribed to the prejudiced notions of his time. He credited the Grand Trunk Road to British ingenuity, even though it had been in existence for centuries. He said the cycle was an extraordinary invention to every Asiatic who encountered it.

In 1890, Stevens became a naturalized American citizen. The same year, he wrote about his adventures in Africa as he sought the whereabouts of fellow newspaperman Henry Morton Stanley, who had disappeared after discovering the explorer David Livingstone. A year later, Stevens exchanged his cycle for a horse and traveled across Tsarist Russia, where he had a memorable encounter with the writer Leo Tolstoy. In 1894, following a shorter journey across the Black Sea and rivers of eastern Europe, he made a second trip to India to uncover the secrets of Hindu yogis.

The exact details of Stevens’s second trip to India are unknown, though he did write a series of articles for American newspapers, recording his amazement at what some yogis could do. He described one yogi making an entire plant emerge from a pot placed on an apprentice’s head, and another floating a mid-air figure with no support.

In 1895, Stevens married Frances Barnes in London. Two of his stepdaughters, Violet and Irene, had a thriving career on stage, and his stepson, Kenneth Barnes, became a long-time director at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

After Stevens, several adventurers journeyed around the world, including Frank Lenz, a cyclist whose mysterious death in Ottoman Turkey was later ruled a murder. In the late twentieth century, as other explorers took on the world’s mountains and polar caps, Stevens opted for a far less perilous occupation: he managed a London theater in his later years until he died in 1935.

His many adventures made Stevens a celebrity. On his return from the world tour, poems were composed in his honor, and even his faithful Columbia Ordinary earned its fair share of praise. The Boston Globe of February 26, 1887, for instance, quoted these lines:

Back again old fellow? How are you!
Been around the world, they say,
Well, you look at it. Feel quite proud, eh?
Who can blame you, anyway,
You are a tough one. Not so shiney
As you were.

Stevens shan’t have all the glory,
Though you are but pulseless steel;
Your part too shall live in story:
“This was Thomas Stevens’ wheel.”

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