Journals 2.1 – Journal of Travels by G.E. Winants (Part 1)

nativity churchGarrett E. Winants was one of the richest men in America. Throughout his life he amassed a fortune of around six million dollars, money that he made in shipbuilding and property investments. He chose to spend his money travelling the globe, and he wrote two journals, this being the first, published in 1872.

Winants seems to have been a man who was preoccupied with two main concerns, which he had difficulty reconciling: money and religion. Throughout both of his journals he detailed the costs of every journey he made and every hotel in which he stayed and even some items he purchased. To a man of his means, a billionaire in today’s terms, these costs were completely irrelevant. One could argue that he included these details as useful information for prospective travellers, although five years elapsed between his travels in 1867 and publication of his first journal in 1872. More tellingly, he seemed preoccupied with one very famous biblical quotation:

‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Matthew 19, 23-24)

Winants, who was the very epitome of ‘a rich man’, was so keen to explain this that he found two different locations for the ‘eye of a needle’, firstly in Jerusalem:

‘In these gates is a small door for foot passengers, called the needle’s eye, spoken of as a parable in the Scriptures, by our Saviour, who said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Hence the parable does not imply a cambric needle, as some have supposed; and yet it is impossible, in a literal sense, for a full-grown camel to pass through one of these small doors, which are intended for foot-passengers only.’

… and secondly in Spain, having seemingly forgotten what he wrote before! At the gates of the Alhambra he finds a small door for ‘foot passengers to pass through when the large gate is closed’:

‘This small door is spoken of by our Saviour: “That it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”’

The assumption that Winants was concerned about this parable is of course purely supposition, but one thing is certain: he was a man for whom Christianity was of the utmost importance. For much of its narrative, his journal becomes a pilgrimage, while he visits the Holy Land and searches for landmarks mentioned in the bible. The night of Christmas Eve, 1867, found him in the Church of Nativity, Bethlehem, reputed to have been built on the site of the birthplace of Jesus. This must have been a moment of great significance in the life of a dedicated Christian, although his austere writing style sadly gives little hint of the emotion of the moment:

‘This being Christmas-eve, and the 1867th anniversary of the birth of our Saviour, the service lasted all night. The furniture in the church and stable is very rich and elegant. It is adorned with gold and silver, presented by the different kings and sovereigns of the Old World. Here we see a large number of magnificent lamps, made of solid gold and silver. On the ceiling of the chapel is another star, which is said to be under that part if the heavens in which the star appeared, that guided the wise men of the East to the birth-place of the Saviour.’

It is difficult to know whether Winants’s fascination with gold and silver, on Christmas Eve, in Bethlehem, was a symptom of his emotionless writing style or a window into his soul. Wealth was certainly not all that life had to offer for him, as he came closest to expressing his emotions when faced with the wonders of nature:

‘Crossing over the Lebanons we meet with scenes in which nature displays beauty or grandeur, sometimes by a romantic wilderness, but there is always a variety. The sublime elevation and steep ascent of this magnificent rampart seems to inclose [sic] the country. At times we seem to be travelling in the middle regions of the atmosphere. Above, the sky is clear and serene, below, the thick clouds are dissolving into rain. On our gaining the loftier peaks, we are filled with delight by the immensity of the space which expands around us.’

It was at times like this that Winants allowed himself to lapse into a more poetic style of writing, our only connection with his emotional state at the time of writing. Its counterpoint can be found in times of sadness, such as his visit to the Lepers’ Hospital close to Jerusalem. Here his writing becomes a succession of abrupt, almost breathless clauses:

‘Their garments were old and torn; their voices were dry and husky; their faces were red like crimson; their eyes swollen and restless; their hair was gone; their lips and cheeks, nose and ears were corroded with ulcers, while the flesh of their hands and arms had been eaten away, leaving the bones red and bare.’

Such descriptive moments are rare, though. The majority of the journal is a simple report of where Winants went, what he saw and, where appropriate, how much it cost. For all its unfussiness, his journal still has plenty of useful information to offer. En route to the Holy Land, he took a tour of Britain and Europe, commencing in Ireland:

‘The farms in Ireland are all small, averaging from one to ten acres; the land is fertile, and rather mountainous. It is very well cultivated, but not as well as I anticipated. In some parts of the country the fences are out of repair; it is said that it is on account of labourers being scarce. There seem to be as many women as men working in the fields.’

Winants was witnessing the long-term results of the famine of the late 1840s that quite literally decimated the population, and the subsequent mass emigration. The country he visited had around two million fewer inhabitants than lived there twenty years previously, so it was no surprise that women were now toiling in the fields.

After a week of sightseeing in Scotland, Winants arrived in England and made straight for London, choosing not to linger more than a day in Liverpool. London, for Winants, was an opportunity to absorb the history of the city and do some shopping, much like modern tourists. His quest to purchase a new watch cost him two days, considerable confusion, and a remarkable amount of money; day one ended in disappointment, with Winants ‘at a loss how to make a purchase, as they are all so desirous to sell, and each one says that his goods are the best and cheapest, so finally I imagined that they were all dear.’ The following day he finally succeeded in making his purchase:

‘This forenoon we again devote some time to shopping. I succeed in purchasing a gold hunting-case watch with chronometer movement, No. 9,325, Barrow & Lund, makers, for which I paid £42 10s. Their price for the watch was £51, which I thought too high, so they concluded to take what I offered.’

It is difficult to quantify the value of forty-two pounds and ten shillings in today’s terms, but it would certainly be well in excess of £2000.

Winants visited all the usual attractions that London had to offer. At times he had only a tentative grip on the history of the landmarks he visited, perhaps led astray by local guides. He remarked that the Tower of London was ‘said to have been built by Julius Caesar in the eleventh century’, a muddled combination of two facts: the ‘White Tower’ was completed around 1078, but stands on the site of a Roman fortress. His confusion is perhaps understandable in an age when the history of the Tower was open to interpretation. Joseph Wheeler’s 1852 A Short History of the Tower of London throws some light on the subject of contemporary historical opinion:

‘The opinions of antiquaries have been somewhat divided as to the origin of the Tower of London; by some it is supposed to have been erected by Julius Caesar; but the majority have attributed the undertaking to William the Conqueror… But the short time that the Roman conqueror remained in Britain, together with his total silence upon the subject of any such work on his part, are circumstances which have been deemed sufficiently strong to throw considerable doubt upon the Roman origin of these poetically-styled “Towers of Julius:” indeed, antiquarians have become nearly unanimous in ascribing the foundation of this citadel to the policy of the bold Norman.’

‘Unanimous’, it would seem, except for the tour guide who gave Winants his information. However, if London was a confusing place, it was nothing in comparison with Paris. Upon his arrival, he encountered his first major problem: the language barrier. Unsurprisingly he found that the ‘people cannot understand our language, neither can we understand theirs’, but he managed to order breakfast ‘by the art of pantomime’. Communication difficulties were not just an inconvenience, but also disorientating: ‘culture shock’, in modern terms, with ‘a different dialect spoken [that] makes all things seem strange.’

There were more differences in Paris than language, though. Winants, ever the devoted Christian, was saddened by the French disrespect for the Sabbath. France, for Winants, was a country lacking in the moral core he had found in Britain:

‘The people of Paris have long considered themselves the head of civilization, and both in matters of dress and fashion they rank so by unanimous consent. They seem more noted for making an outside show than for stability and decision of character; vice and iniquity abound in every circle, from the highest to the lowest. They have but little regard for the Sabbath; there seems to be as much work done on the Sabbath as on any day of the week. Visiting theatres, ball-rooms, horse-racing, and many other vices, are common on the Sabbath; and the Emperor and Empress take the lead in these amusements of breaking the Sabbath-day. Paris, with all her beauty, to me is disgusting, on account of the frailty and customs of the people.’

Winants was also dissatisfied with the conduct of the Parisian businesspeople, and related two incidents of unfair treatment. The first concerned his wife, who was quoted twenty-two francs by ‘a fashionable dressmaker to have a dress made,’ but the ‘madame spoilt the dress in making’ and presented a bill for 125 francs. Undeterred, Mrs Winants searched out a superior dressmaker, who made her a dress of ‘silk which was selected and agreed upon’ for 350 francs, substituting a poorer quality silk in the process. Winants gives one further example of disappointing service in Paris:

‘I took a handsome blood-stone, which I had purchased in the city of Jerusalem, to a jeweller, to have a finger-ring made, the price for which he could not fix, but showed me a ring which he would duplicate, and would not charge more than from 40 to 45 francs for making; after 2 or 3 days, when I called for the ring, his charge was 55 francs.’

Winants can only conclude that this ‘is the way the Parisians deal with Americans,’ although ‘with their own people they are more honorable in carrying out their bargains.’

We will continue looking at Winants’s journal in a few days’ time.

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About Windows into History

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One Response to Journals 2.1 – Journal of Travels by G.E. Winants (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Blog News (13th July 2015) | Windows into History (Reblogs and News)

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