Thomas Cook, the travel agency of Britain’s far-flung 19th-century empire, is deadBreaking News
tags: imperialism, British history, travel
The British travel agency Thomas Cook, which announced its bankruptcy today (Sept. 23), was born with a railway journey that took place in 1841—the same year that Hong Kong was ceded to Britain, then at the peak of its imperial power.
The liquidation, which followed the collapse of last-ditch bailout talks over the weekend, has set off what the UK is calling the “biggest ever peacetime repatriation.” Britain’s aviation regulator is working with airlines to bring some 150,000 holiday travelers back home, bringing to an end a nearly 200-year history that kicked off the first age of tourism.
Historians often refer to the period between 1815 and 1915 as Britain’s “imperial century.” It was a time when Britain would come to control the lives of some 400 million people globally, as well as enormous swathes of territory around the world. While Thomas Cook, a cabinet-maker in his 30s, started out by offering short day trips by rail in England in 1841 initially for free, he soon began organizing for-profit trips. After successes that included bringing 150,000 travelers from rural England to London for the Great Exhibition of 1851, he expanded into offering trips to far-flung locales, taking his first party of British travelers on a trip to Egypt and Palestine in 1869.
“Tourists were part of the growing number of westerners—missionaries, teachers, traders, developers, bankers, messianic dreamers, and empire builders—who arrived each year in Jerusalem, Cairo, and other cities of the eastern Mediterranean,” wrote historian F. Robert Hunter in a piece on the agency’s Nile operations in the Middle Eastern Studies journal in 2004. “The tourist enterprise accompanied British armies to Egypt and the Sudan in the 1880s and 1890s. Tourism was inseparable from the west’s conquest of the Middle East.”