In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the word “communication” had several meanings. People used it to talk about both media and the spread of disease, as we do today, but also to describe transport—via carriages, canals and shipping.
Miranda Burgess, an associate professor in UBC’s English department, is working on a book called Romantic Transport that covers these forms of communication in the Romantic era and invites some interesting comparisons to what the world is going through today.
We spoke with her about the project.
What is your book about?
It’s about global infrastructure at the dawn of globalization—in particular the extension of ocean navigation through man-made inland waterways like canals and ship’s canals. These canals of the late 18th and early 19th century were like today’s airline routes, in that they brought together places that were formerly understood as far apart, and shrunk time because they made it faster to get from one place to another.
This book is about that history, about the fears that ordinary people felt in response to these modernizations, and about the way early 19th-century poets and novelists expressed and responded to those fears.
What connections did those writers make between transportation and disease?
In the 1810s, they don’t have germ theory yet, so there’s all kinds of speculation about how disease happens. Works of tropical medicine, which is rising as a discipline, liken the human body to the surface of the earth. They talk about nerves as canals that convey information from the surface to the depths, and the idea that somehow disease spreads along those pathways.
When the canals were being built, some writers opposed them on the grounds that they could bring “strangers” through the heart of the city, and that standing water would become a breeding ground for disease. Now we worry about people bringing disease on airplanes. It’s very similar to that.
What was the COVID-19 of that time?
Probably epidemic cholera, from about the 1820s onward. The Quarterly Review, a journal that novelist Walter Scott was involved in editing, ran long articles that sought to trace the map of cholera along rivers from South Asia, to Southeast Asia, across Europe and finally to Britain. And in the way that its spread is described, many of the same fears that people are evincing now about COVID-19 were visible then, like the fear of clothes. Is it in your clothes? Do we have to burn our clothes? People were concerned.
What other comparisons can be drawn between those times and what is going on now?
Now we worry about the internet and “fake news.” In the 19th century, they worried about what William Wordsworth called “the rapid communication of intelligence,” which was the daily newspaper. Not everybody had access to newspapers, but each newspaper was read by multiple families and newspapers were available in taverns and coffee shops. So if you were male and literate, you had access to a newspaper, and quite a lot of women did, too.
Paper was made out of rags—discarded underwear. Because of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars that followed, France blockaded Britain’s coast and there was a desperate shortage of rags to make paper, which had formerly come from Europe. And so Britain started to import rags from the Caribbean that had been worn by enslaved people.
Papers of the time are full of descriptions of the high cost of rags, how they’re getting their rags from prisons, from prisoners’ underwear, and fear about the kinds of sweat and germs that would have been harboured in those rags—and also discussions of scarcity, as people stole and hoarded those rags. It rings very well with what the internet is telling us now about a bunch of things around COVID-19.