I'm trying to find out how long the sea journey took from England to East Africa in the period 1868-1877. One source I've found suggests something like 3 months earlier in the 1860s. It mentions a departure from Southampton in November 1863 and arrival at an inland mission station on 18 February 1864 (Sheffield Independent, 24 July 1876, page 3). In 1863 the route must have been around the Cape of Good Hope. But the Suez Canal was opened in November 1869. How soon after it opened were passenger ships able to use it? And how much shorter would the journey have been once they could?

I'm particularly interested in one Methodist missionary called Thomas Wakefield. His first wife had a baby at Zanzibar in 1870 when the couple were travelling from England to Mombasa. Given that Zanzibar is south of Mombasa, this suggests that they travelled via the southerly route around the Cape, even though the canal was open by then. So I'm presuming there was maybe a big price difference between the two routes and perhaps people who wanted to save money still took the Cape route. But I haven't been able to find any specific source which backs this up. Any help would be most gratefully received.

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    It makes no sense to close a question with an excellent answer; recommend we keep this question open.
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 20:39

2 Answers 2


We can find record of Thomas Wakefield's 1870 trip in the 1904 publication Thomas Wakefield : missionary and geographical pioneer in East Equatorial Africa at archive.org.

The ships and trips start is begun on pg 98

Passages were taken for the little company in the brig ‘ Emily ’ (268 tons register), bound for Zanzibar. In his diary of the voyage, Mr. Wakefield says : ‘For her size the arrangements for accommodation on board the “ Emily ’’ appear to be very good, but of course she lacks the conveniences of cabin and deck of a respectable passenger ship.

dating the trip, also pg 98:

On February 24, 1870, Mr. Wakefield writes: ‘We begin to move to-day, following our ship to Gravesend. Myself and wife, accompanied by her brother, the Rev. R. Brewin, left Woolwich Station at 9.40 this morning, and arrived at Gravesend at 10.40. A little while after- wards the following friends from London came to spend with us our last hours in England, and to speak words of comfort, and to say a kindly farewell

on pg 100, arrival at Zanzibar (emphasis mine).

On Thursday, June 2, after being ninety-seven days at sea, the south end of Zanzibar Island was sighted early in the morning, and the anchor cast about 1.30, before the powder magazine. After discharging her dangerous cargo the ^ Emily ’ moved into the harbour, and our weary travellers went ashore.

So this particular journey took 97 days, and since the arrival at Zanzibar specified the South edge of the island, we can safely assume the southern route around the Cape.

Concerning the aspect of the question about the Suez canal, @Stuart F in comments provides an excellent source , the NY Times article Passage East, which discusses the difficulties for a sailing ship such as the Emily traversing such a narrow region as the canal and indeed the entire Red Sea Region:

The Red Sea is narrow, with treacherous shoals along its eastern shore, and prevailing winds blow in opposite directions in the northern half and in the south. It was not practical to operate from end-to-end on a regular basis under sail.

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    Sailing ships could not use the Suez canal, as it was so narrow only steamships could navigate it. Hence the longer route (a brig such as the "Emily" is a sailing ship). There was a move towards use of steamships by the end of the 19th century, but there were considerable logistical problems with all the coal, and so soon after the canal's opening that would be less common. archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/m/…
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 16:42
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    @StuartF you should consider developing that as an answer, explaining the Suez issue mentioned in the interior of the question body.
    – justCal
    Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 16:45
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    As a confirmation of this, the Emily was encountered 48 days out, at 30° 4' S, 25° 16' W, on 20 April (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 4 Jun 1870). So that confirms the Atlantic route - and the position gives you an idea of the overall route, sailing well out into the ocean before turning east Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 19:40
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    @Andrew which puts it on the courses shown on this answer about a trip to South Africa a few years earlier.
    – justCal
    Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 20:21
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    Sailing ships could use the canal, but would require tugs for the aforementioned reasons; a significant added expense, not necessary for dry bulk goods (however dangerous) whose delivery isn't time-sensitive. So cheap passages (for passengers too) would be longer. Tugs were not unusual by that date but I don't know whether there were any for hire on the canal at the time. Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 16:45

Are you able to reach London (UK)? The Missionary society's financial committee’s minutes from that time are held at the School of Oriental & African Studies in Bloomsbury. They should contain the expenses and potentially the type of tickets purchased for the trip.

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