Travel isn’t just about checking off hot destinations on a bucket list. It’s about learning from cultures and stories to find rare moments that you can hold onto long after the journey home. Many don’t get the opportunity for extensive travel—be it for reasons of work, family, or income. History, however, presents an endless cornucopia of travel stories that one can always look back to for inspiration—these tales are exciting, curious, sometimes mysterious—and can reveal strange connections across the globe. Covering food, aviation, politics and adventure, here’s four travel tales worth coming back to, again and again:
The King of Pirates
‘Work smart, not hard’ seems to be the overarching theme when you read Henry Every’s exploits. With a piracy career that lasted only two years, Every was a British pirate who captured not only what would be history’s most profitable loot—£89.6 million (2019 equivalent) in precious metals and gems from a Grand Mughal convoy—but also public imagination, prompting many a sailor to mutiny in the 17th and 18th centuries. Commandeering the Fancy, Every managed an escape with this life-changing raid without arrest or injury. This set off the first international manhunt in recorded history, raised by England’s Privy Council and the East India Company, but it led to no fruition. Some of his crew eventually got arrested, but it’s said Every completely disappeared by 1696.
None can confirm what happened to him at the end of his life, or even when was the end of his life. Did he choose early retirement on an anonymous island? Or did he squander this newfound wealth until he wasted away? One thing’s for certain—a certain Jack Sparrow has nothing on his infamy.
How an Englishwoman Saved Sushi
Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker was a phycologist in Manchester—you know, that rare breed with a zeal for algae. Although she’d never visited Japan, her research on the edible seaweed Porphyra laciniata is the spine on which commercial nori farming survives in Japan today.
Let us explain. Drew-Baker taught at the University of Manchester, specialising in plants that reproduced via spores. At the time, botany was the only ‘appropriate’ STEM field for women. After her marriage, she was let go by the institution, but the lady stayed on as an unpaid research fellow. During this time, she discovered the curious life cycle of the Welsh Porphyra, a cousin of the iconic Japanese variant we know today. The algae grew in two distinct stages: a juvenile phase, where it clung in a pink layer to oyster and mussel shells on the seafloor, and a mature phase where it released spores that stuck to bamboo stalks and fisherman nets. Baker didn’t realise it, but her discovery that the juvenile algae was protected by the shells, was perfectly timed to rescue Japan from a nationwide crisis.
Seaweed had been a Japanese staple since the 1600s, but there was never a harvest guarantee. Nori was called ‘gambler’s grass’, with no place for food security. As pollution, typhoons and underwater mines dropped by the US wrecked its initial growth phase in the wild, biologist Sokichi Segawa happened to read Drew-Baker’s findings in the 1949 edition of Nature. A lightbulb naturally went off, and Porphyria’s undersea requirements were recreated on dry land. This led to undisturbed, industrial-level production, which dropped prices and allowed the average Japanese citizen to include nori in their diet.
The next time you order a maki roll, or enjoy a crackling sheet of nori with ramen, you know who to thank. The Japanese sure haven’t forgotten. On April 14, for every year since 1953, nori farmers have travelled to Uto city in Kumamoto to pay their respects at a shrine for Drew-Baker: Japan’s beloved ‘Mother of the Sea’.
The Ultimate Resume
Hélène Dutrieu is one of the most talented people that you’ve never heard of. The daughter of a Belgian Army officer, Dutrieu was a cycling world champion, an ace stunt cyclist and motorcyclist, automobile racer, aviation pioneer—and, interestingly, a theatre artist—who set several sports and travel world records in the 19th and 20th century. During World War I, she became an ambulance driver (who better than a stunt driver in a rush?) and after the war, a journalist.
The sportswoman had a sense of style befitting of this unmatchable aura, and was the first aviator to have wear a high fashion pilot suit, designed by a Paris couturier. Here’s a quick look at some of her feats:
In 1893 she set the women's world record for distance cycled in one hour.
In variety cycling, she invented her own stunt called ‘The Human Arrow’—it’s a 15 metre jump with a bicycle!
In 1910, she reputedly became the first female pilot to fly with a passenger.
Two years later, she became the first woman to pilot a seaplane.
In 1913 Dutrieu was the first female aviator given membership at the French Legion of Honour, the highest award for civil and military achievements in the country.
A Rare Snippet of Mao's China
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I first stumbled across this photograph on Reddit. Fast forward two years, and I’m yet to find copies anywhere else. As one forum user pointed out, it could well be a museum-level artifact. I won’t endow it with any meaning other than what the original poster (possibly a Canadian resident) shared. They titled the photo as Chairman Mao and various leaders of the First Five Year Plan - 1956. Here, in their own words, is how this rare picture made it out of China:
“..my grandfather is actually in this photograph, second row from the back underneath the 4th word of the banner from the left. He was what would be the Minister of Finance for Shan Dong province. My dad took it out of China in a tube of badminton birds, and I don't know if there are any other surviving copies of it.”
Smuggling items out of a communist regime isn’t something we’d ever recommend. But given the stature of this single image, it does make for a unique story. You can view the full panorama here.