Hilaire Belloc’s The Modern Traveller (1898): An Ironic Adventure and Boasting Satire

Dr. Robert Hickson

5 August 2022

Our Lady of the Snows (355-366 AD)


“I never shall forget the way / That Blood upon this awful day/ Preserved us all from death. / He stood upon a little mound, / Cast his lethargic eyes around, / And said beneath his breath: / ‘Whatever happens we have got / The Maxim Gun, and they have not.’” [The words of Captain William Blood] (See authors Hilaire Belloc with Basil T. Blackwood, Belloc’s good friend and gifted illustrator, in their work, The Modern Traveller (London: Edward Arnold, 1898), Page 41.)1


[G.K. Chesterton’s words in 1916 recalling his first meeting with Belloc in 1900, and it was also in a little restaurant in Soho Square in London:]

“When I first met Belloc he remarked to the friend who introduced us that he was in low spirits. His low spirits were and are much more uproarious and enlivening than anybody else’s high spirits. He talked into the night; and left behind in it a glowing track of good things. When I have said that I mean things that are good and certainly not merely bon mots, I have said all that can be said in the most serious aspect about the man who has made the greatest fight for good things of all the men of my time.

“We met between a little Soho paper shop and a little Soho restaurant; his arms and pockets were stuffed with French Nationalist and French Atheist newspapers. He wore a straw hat shading his eyes, which are like a sailor’s, and emphasizing his Napoleonic chin. [….]

“There were many other uses of his genius, but I am speaking of this first effect of it upon our instinctive and sometimes groping ideals. What he brought into our dream was this Roman appetite for reality and for reason in action, and when he came into the door there entered with him the smell of danger.” (G.K. Chesterton’s, 6-page Introduction to the following 1916 text: Hilaire Belloc: The Man and His Work, by C. Creighton Mandell and Edward Shanks (London: Methuen & Co Ltd., 1916, pp. vii and ix.))


When Hilaire Belloc in 1898 first published The Modern Traveller, he was a vivid twenty-eight years of age and of high-spirit. He had already publicly presented his sequence of comic and cautionary tales for children. Most of these tales also bore memorable, pertinent illustrations by his friend, Basil Blackwood, to include his presence in Belloc’s 1898 depiction of foreign travel: of a three-person varied piece of a largely fatal trip to Africa. The narrator (Mr. Rooter) of Belloc’s tale himself somehow survived the long-range trip, but his companions perished cruelly, both of them: Captain William Blood (the leader and a high financier); and Commander Henry Sin (of doubtful non-English parentage and of alien cosmopolitan heritage).

For example, here is a brief presentation from pages 7 and 8 out of the 1898 book’s 80 pages:

Poor Henry Sin from quite a child, / I fear, was always rather wild; / But all his faults were due / To something free and unrestrained, / That partly pleased and partly pained / The people whom he knew. / Untaught (for what our times require), / Lazy, and something of a liar, / He had a foolish way / Of always swearing (more or less), / And, lastly, let us say / A little slovenly in dress, / A trifle prone to drunkenness; / A gambler also to excess, / And never known to pay. / As for the clubs in London, he / Was Pilled at ten, expelled from three. / A man Bohemian as could be— / But really vicious? Oh, no! / When these are mentioned, all is said. / And then—Commander Sin is dead: / De Mortuis cui bono?

Soon thereafter the perceptive reader may also have a contrasting introduction to Captain William Blood:

Now William Blood, or, as I still / Affectionately call him, Bill, / Was of a different stamp; / One who, in other ages born / Had turned to strengthen and adorn / The Senate or the [Military-Strategic] Camp. / But Fortune, jealous and austere, / Had marked him for a great career / Of more congenial kind— / A sort of modern Buccaneer, / Commercial and refined. / Like all great men, his chief affairs / Were buying stocks and selling shares. / He occupied his mind / In buying them by day from men / Who needed ready cash, and then / At evening selling them again / To those with whom he dined. / But such a task could never fill / His masterful ambition….(18-19)

Moreover we now come to consider another doubtful contrast of character, as it is proposed by Mr. Rooter the Narrator, and sole survivor, as the third member of their ironical adventure in Africa:

Sin loved the bottle, William gold; / ‘Twas Blood that bought and Sin that sold, / In all their mutual dealings, / Blood never broke the penal laws; / Sin did it all the while, because / He had the finer feelings. (22)

We may now also contrast the ways Mr. Rooter presents both his text’s beginning, as distinct from the purported conclusion of his equivocal (if not mendacious) report to the invited interviewer who is coming in from the droll journal called the Daily Menace:

The Daily Menace, I presume? / Forgive the litter in the room. / I can’t explain to you / How out of place a man like me / Would be without the things, –/ The Shields and Assegais and odds / And ends of little savage gods, / …. And so the Public want to hear / About the expedition / From which I recently returned: / Of how the Fetish Tree was burned; / Of how we struggled to the coast, / And lost our ammunition; / How we retreated, side by side ; / And how, like Englishmen, we died. / Well, as you know, I hate to boast, / And, what is more, I can’t abide / A popular position. (5-6)

On the text’s final three pages, we discover our Narrator’s dubious presentation of his purportedly wondrous endurance in captivity, his patriotic singing under torture, and his overall display of (reported) trustworthy virtue:

The nails [inflicted by the tribal African natives] stuck in for quite an inch, / But did I flinch? I did not flinch. / In tones determined, loud, and strong / I sang a patriotic song / Thank Heaven it did not last for long !/ My misery was past; / My superhuman courage rose / Superior to my savage foes; / They worshipped me at last. / With many heartfelt compliments, / They sent me back at their expense, / And here I am returned to find / The pleasures I had left behind. / …. / Only permit me once again / To make it clearly understood [to “a busy journalist” (79) likely far too bored “to hear a rhapsody” (79) ] / That both those honorable men, / Command Sin and Captain Blood, / Would swear to all that I have said, / Were they alive; but they are dead! (77-80)

Captain William Blood had earlier consented to ambush (along with his two companions) a local Tribal King—during his customary morning walk alone. But they failed, despite their employed weaponry; and they were consequently captured and punished. Part of their merciful “Parole” (65) allowed their ransom, after the captives had sufficiently establish their “worth.” The King at first displayed his leniency, but then this called forth Captain Blood’s response, according to our surviving Narrator, Mr. Rooter:

The King—I really must confess— / Behaved uncommon handsome; / He said he would release the three / If only Captain Blood and he / Could settle on a ransom, / And it would clear the situation / To hear his private valuation. / “My value,” William Blood began, “Is ludicrously small. / I think I am the vilest man / That treads this earthly ball; / My head is weak, my heart is cold, / I’m ugly, vicious, vulgar, old, / Unhealthy, short, and fat. / I cannot speak, I cannot work, / I have the temper of a Turk, / And cowardly at that. / Retaining, with your kind permission, / The usual five per cent. commission, / I think that I could due the job / For seventeen or sixteen bob.” / The King was irritated, frowned, / And cut him [Blood] short with, “Goodness Gracious! / Your economics are fallacious! / I quite believe you are a wretch, / But things are worth what they can fetch.” (71-72)

Not long before this passage and event, Captain Blood had dealt with a mutiny. He even confidently promised a resort to an effective new weapon:

Whatever happens we have got / The Maxim Gun, and they have not” (41)

Later on, Commander Sin and Mr. Rooter the Narrator, pathetically separated themselves from Captain Blood so as to find and retrieve “a certain bag of gold” (72) for the Tribal King as Ransom for all three of our adventurers. “Poor William [Blood]! The suspense and pain / Had touched the fibre of his brain.” (72) Nonetheless, the King spoke firmly, though politely, of his captive’s probable fate:

The King was perfectly content / To let us find it [the known, remote “bag of gold”]; —and we went. / But as we left we heard him [the King] say, / “If there is half an hour’s delay / The Captain will have passed away.” (73)

Hilaire Belloc has so many shades of meaning and suggestion in his vivid narrative verse.

I hope that Belloc’s combinations of comedy, irony, swaggering bombast, and tragedy be especially appreciated in the audible nuanced reading of The Modern Traveller (1898)! G.K. Chesterton saw so much goodness and purity in young Hilaire Belloc, even when he habitually enters the room with the sense of reality and thus that “smell of danger.”


© 2022 Robert D. Hickson

1Further citations to the original illustrated 1898 book shall be placed in the main text above, in parentheses. The Complete Verse of Hilaire Belloc—but without the poetic and artistic illustrations—is a reprint of a 1970 version as edited by Gerald Duckworth & Co LTD 1970. It contains a few changes, to include a new introduction by A.N. Wilson in a Pimlico edition of 1991. The Modern Traveller is to be found on pages 165-204 of the 1991 reprint.

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