Nellie Bly And Elizabeth Bisland Raced Through Their Victorian New Year 1889

December 31, 1889—Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland had completed a little more than half their plotted courses around the world in opposite directions. Bly was aboard the Oceanic, somewhere between Hong Kong and Yokohama on her way to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Bisland spent the day in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before continuing on her westward course. Although in separate places, both celebrated their Victorian New Year on their roads to fame.

Nellie Bly’s Victorian New Year Celebration, 1889

The following passages about Nellie Bly’s Victorian New Year celebration are excerpted from Around The World In Seventy-Two Days by Nellie Bly.

For her Victorian New Year, Nellie Bly was on board the Oceanic, somewhere between Hong Kong and Japan.

“Instead of being the predicted failure, the Oceanic proved a great success. She became the greyhound of the Atlantic, afterwards being transferred to the Pacific in 1875. She is the favorite ship of the O. and O. line, making her voyages with speed and regularity. She retains a look of positive newness and seems to grow younger with years.”p.97

It’s no Victorian Secret that Nellie Bly also grew younger on her race, having lied about her age when she first landed in London.

“In November, 1889, she made the fastest trip on record between Yokohama and San Francisco. No expense is spared to make this ship comfortable for the passengers. The catering would be hard to excel by even a first-class hotel. Passengers are accorded every liberty, and the officers do their utmost to make their guests feel at home, so that in the Orient the Oceanic is the favorite ship, and people wait for months so as to travel on her.” p.97

Bly boarded the Oceanic with the monkey she had purchased from a family in Singapore. She had named him McGinty. Sailors blamed him for the storms they encountered along the way and threatened to throw him overboard.

“When I first went to the ship the monkey had been transferred from the Oriental. Meeting the stewardess I asked how the monkey was, to which she replied dryly:

“We have met.”

She had her arm bandaged from the wrist to the shoulder!

“What did you do?” I asked in consternation.

“I did nothing but scream; the monkey did the rest!” she replied.”p.97

“I spent New Year’s eve between Hong Kong and Yokohama. The day had been so warm that we wore no wraps. In the forepart of the evening the passengers sat together in Social Hall talking, telling stories and laughing at them. The captain owned an organette which he brought into the hall, and he and the doctor took turns at grinding out the music.” P.98  

“Later in the evening we went to the dining-hall where the purser had punch and champagne and oysters for us, a rare treat which he had prepared in America just for this occasion.” 

“What children we all become on board a ship! After oysters we were up to all sorts of childish tricks. As we sat around the table the doctor gave us each a word to say, such as Ish! Ash! Osh! Then when we were sure of our word, it coming in rotation around the circle, he told us to shout the words in unison when he gave the signal. We did, and it made one great big sneeze–the most gigantic and absurd sneeze I ever heard in my life. Afterwards a jolly man from Yokohama, whose wife was equally jolly and lively-spirited, taught us a song consisting of one line to a melody quite simple and catching.”

“Sweetly sings the donkey when he goes to grass, Sweetly sings the donkey when he goes to grass, Ec-ho! Ec-ho! Ec-ho!”

When eight bells rang we rose and sang Auld Lang Syne with glasses in hand, and on the last echo of the good old song toasted the death of the old year and the birth of the new. We shook hands around, each wishing the other a happy New Year.”

“1889 was ended, and 1890 with its pleasures and pains began. Shortly after, the women passengers retired. I went to sleep lulled by the sounds of familiar Negro melodies sung by the men in the smoking-room beneath my cabin.”

Elizabeth Bisland’s Victorian New Year Celebration, 1889

In Seven Stages: A Flying Trip Around the World by Elizabeth Bisland. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1891.

The following excerpts are taken from the “Sixth Stage” of a series of articles about the race. They were originally written for Cosmopolitan Magazine, which was owned by John Brisben Walker. Bisland considered racing unladylike and undignified. She was most opposed to the publicity she would undoubtedly receive.

Somehow, Walker managed to convince her to go. On the evening of the day Nellie Bly set sail on an eastward course, Bisland launched on her own westward course at then record speeds on an experimental mail train.

Elizabeth Bisland’s Sixth Stage-Victorian New Year Day

Elizabeth Bisland had travelled five days from Penang to the island of Ceylon, which is now called Sri Lanka. The passenger list had dwindled down to a few people and a menagerie of animals. Oddly enough, Bisland also kept company with a monkey. She called him a “tiny Methuselah-faced simian, regarding all his human cousins with loathing suspicion, but to be placated with raisins.”

They finally docked in the port of Ceylon. The following passages describing her stay in Ceylon and her Victorian New Year of 1889 show a much-changed woman. The passages also show how different Bisland and Bly were.

“. . I linger a moment in the darkness to smell the fragrance of the night, moved by the vast flowings of a warm sweet wind. Seafarers of other days told of these perfumes of the Spice Island filling their sails far out at sea, but the coal smoke of the modern ship deadens the nostril of the modern traveller, and fills his heart with naughty doubts of the veracity of the Ancient Mariner.”

“It is very hot. The thermometer even at this hour (it is the last day of December) registers 80°; but it is less oppressive than at Singapore, where one seemed to be breathing tepid water rather than air.”

Bisland spent the day sight seeing with other passengers. Her article is well worth reading for a flavor of the British colony in the late 1800s. At one point, Bisland encounters a snake-charmer. She’s definitely not the same Bisland who left New York City a little over a month before. That version of Bisland was opposed to leaving town because she had guests coming to tea.

“. . . A snake-charmer is squatting in the dust before the hotel, performing feats of juggling: playfully depositing an egg in one ear, and in a moment picking it, with a sweet smile of surprise, out of the other – or seeming to do it.

Tossing into the air a cocoanut, which obviously he has no present use for, as it remains up there out of sight for a time while he goes on with his other tricks, until we are suddenly aware of its lying beside him, and cannot recall whether it was there from the first or not.”

She and her travel companions visited a cinnamon farm, a Buddhist temple and a tea plantation. She embraced all the sights, smells and sounds of the region. At one point she even tasted “a bit of areca nut with a pasted of wet lime in a leaf of betel pepper” that left her mouth red and lips stinging.

Bisland, who was known for her style and beauty actually parted with one of her precious hair-pins.

“The guide, a gentlemanly person in a skirt, has the usual mane of rippling hair bound in a sleek knot at the nape, and at my request he untwists this and lets it fall far below his waist in silky black waves – restoring it in a moment by a quick turn of the wrist to its former neat compactness. He has never seen a hair-pin, and the gift of one of mine childishly delights and amuses him. He thrusts it in and out of his hair, and finally fastens it upon a string of queer charms and fetishes worn in his bosom.”

Elizabeth Bisland’s Victorian New Year Eve Celebration, 1889

“It is the last night of the old year, and the dining-hall has been converted into a ballroom. The men, all in white, with gay sashes about their middle, are circling languidly with pretty English girls in their arms. A high, warm wind whirls through the veranda and flutters the draperies of the lookers-on.

“The woman from Texas, in a fearful and wonderful costume, that casts a slight but comprehensive glance at the modes of three centuries and muddles them all, is tossing her powdered head and flirting shrilly with the soft-voiced governor with the Cæsar face. A handsome ruddy old soldier with gray hair is moodily mounting guard over his three lank-elbowed partnerless daughters, whose plump and pleasing mamma is frolicking jovially about, clasped to the bosom of all Ceylon’s military ornaments. Wordsworth’s grandson, who looks as if designed to an order by Du Maurier, is waltzing, lazily graceful, with one of the smartly gowned blond girls. . . .”

“Faint rhythmic breathings of the music come to my chamber window. The night is hot and silent – full of musky perfumes, of vague ghostly stirrings, of “old unhappy far-off things,” that move one with poignant mysterious memories of the dense tropical darkness, with its silent, flitting figures – full of the glimmering, bewildered phantoms of passions and pains that perished centuries ago.”

Elizabeth Bisland Welcomes 1890

“Morning! – The new year is coming in a beautiful green dawn. A chrysoberyl sky, translucent golden green, a misty green sea, and an ocean of feathery green plumes tossing noiselessly, as with a great silent joy, in the morning wind.

I have sprung out of bed to receive a letter – my first one from home. A few lines, scrawled on the other side of the world, that I lean from the window to read in the faint early light. How beautiful they make the new year seem! – Whatever this coming year will contain of grief and rebuffs, at least it has begun with one good moment, and for that it is well to be grateful. . . .”

Happy New Year’s Eve and A Joyous 2018 to All!

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