John Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Algeria and Tunis encompasses what would have been the ideal guide for a 20th century European seeking a North African getaway. Published by Murray's British firm (notable for publishing the likes of Austen, Byron, and Melville) and written by Sir R. Lambert Playfair, this guidebook intends to not only inform its audience, but furthermore provide them with the tools to engage and participate in nascent modern tourism. The fifth edition, “thoroughly revised” handbook supplements its lengthy histories and detailed routes with maps of Algeria and Tunis to orient the reader in this new continent. However, before even reaching this trip planning section the book has to offer, readers must wade through hefty cultural and environmental background segments frontloaded in the contents.
The first one-hundred pages range from topics beginning with “London routes to Algeria” to archaeological interests. In between are attempts to explicate Algerian history, government, and cultural practices such as sport and agriculture. These sections present the European audience with principles on how to conduct themselves abroad while simultaneously aiming to academically enrich readers. Sections on climate, seasons for travel, and railways are best suited to the pragmatic traveler. They answer how to get around, where to stay, what to wear -- all the basics of surviving abroad. The pitfall of these sections however is that they rely on readers having some semblance of English lifestyle, as most of the writing harkens back to the homeland as a means for preparing for Algeria. The following sections though offer a glimpse of Algerian culture. The historical section alone spans about forty pages, commencing with Roman-era events, which then segue into an elaboration on the various power struggles throughout Algerian history (primarily those pertinent to English historical events). The government background that follows is only three pages and pays little to no attention to the French colonization of Algeria and Tunis. It is only in descriptions of sport, zoology, geology, and essentially any aspects of Algeria and Tunis (which focus less on the people’s agency) that we return to the book’s earlier lengthy, drawn-out descriptions.
Tourists reading this at the time might have been inclined to think of natives as totally separate entities than the countries to which they belong. To the modern reader these descriptions potentially seem pedantic, overdone, and ultimately biased. It might be useful to note that modern tourism in its infancy bore more resemblance to intellectual pursuit rather than the relaxing vacations we tend to seek now. Because of this, we can trace a scientifically-driven curiosity interlaced with the content in the guidebook. Though this curiosity intends to be objective, the guidebook instead hinges on descriptions or notions that continually point back to England as a frame of reference, which in turn paints a less idealistic vision of Algeria, Tunis, and their peoples. In our continuing study of this guidebook, we should tread with an understanding that the roots of modern tourism were motivated by an imperialist vision that in turn shaped the way people wanted to travel, a vision that was inseparable from the guidebooks that contributed to them.
Contributors: Julia Barbano (JB), Henry Cousineau (HC), Bayliss Wagner (BW)