The world’s first cruise ship, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise, opened for business—but mostly for pleasure—in 1901. The Hamburg-American line vessel contained only first-class cabins, each of which was “brilliantly lighted by electricity,” outfitted with electric bells, steam-heated, and ventilated. At the time, these were luxury amenities even more impressive than the ship’s marine golf deck and floating photography studio.
The Victoria Luise traveled a route called the “Westindienfahrt” or “West Indies Journey,” that took the ship’s wealthy passengers to destinations all over the Caribbean. The cruise line was established only three years after the end of the Spanish-American War, an 1898 conflict that saw the U.S. military oust Spain from its colonies of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The war was predominately waged by local soldiers who had been fighting for independence, but after the Spanish defeat, only representatives from the United States and Spain were invited to negotiate the Treaty of Paris (1898) and determine their political futures. Ultimately, these territories remained occupied by the United States. Meanwhile, the Victoria Luise’s “West Indies Journey” functioned as a post-war victory lap for wealthy American tourists eager to explore the nation’s newest colonies.
Several Spanish-American War-themed board games are currently on view at the New-York Historical Society in our Liman Collection installation. These games, like War at Sea, playfully reenact battles to celebrate the nation’s status as a maritime superpower. In addition, a souvenir fan once available for purchase in the Victoria Luise’s gift shop is currently accessible in our digital collection. This fan shows a map of the ship’s route framed by a far larger chunk of the western hemisphere.
The Victoria Luise carried passengers to destinations in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, Jamaica, the Bahamas, St. Thomas, Curacao, Trinidad, Bermuda, and Martinique. Inspired by Christopher Columbus’ 1492 expedition to the New World, the “West Indies Journey” promised passengers the opportunity to rediscover the Americas at the dawn of U.S. imperialism. Ads for and coverage of the cruise line offered racist descriptions of maritime adventure. A Town and Country piece urged tourists to “vividly picture the savage deeds of lawless sea plunderers and the almost medieval character of life on the islands.” Disembarking at Caribbean capitals that had been the centers of indigenous nations and global trade for millennia, Victoria Luise cruisers found, according to Outlook magazine, “no great cities to explore, no museums and art galleries to visit, no cathedrals to study, no mountains to climb; nothing but a ‘long rest’ and dreamful ease.” Perhaps this was because the cruise line’s leadership broke strikes to ensure that passengers were insulated from local citizens’ protests, according to the New York Times. Their work proved effective—the author of the Outlook article marveled that travelers’ stress about “the race question, [and] labor and capital” magically disappeared.
Under U.S. occupation, Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were not offered the opportunity to become states. Instead, they were determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Insular Cases (1901) to be “unincorporated territories.” This meant that the people who lived there were not considered citizens, could not vote, had no right to claim protection under the Constitution, and weren’t even counted in the U.S. Census. Supreme Court justices and U.S. government leaders defended the position of Insular Cases using the eugenicist logic of racial difference. Reevaluating the decision in 2015, Judge Juan R. Torruella of the First Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that “the rules established in the Insular Cases (1901) were simply a more stringent version of the Plessy doctrine: the newly conquered lands were to be treated not only separately, but also unequally.”
These separate and unequal rules still persist in many ways. Cuba and the Philippines won independence in 1902 and 1946, respectively, and Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 through the Jones Act. But Puerto Rico and Guam are still territories of the United States, along with American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other areas. Citizens of U.S. territories cannot vote in national elections unless they establish residencies in one of the 50 states. They are not represented in the electoral college and can only send non-voting members to the House of Representatives. This means that, though they pay taxes and disproportionately send citizens to serve in the United States military, residents of territories cannot leverage power in government to participate in debates about important matters, like how their FEMA dollars should be spent or how their debt can be managed. It’s a colonial relationship that places like Puerto Rico are still fighting to change to this day.
The original Victoria Luise’s reign in the Caribbean was short-lived. The ship ran aground one night in 1906 near the port of Kingston, Jamaica, and was so badly damaged, it was declared a total loss. But in many ways, we still live with the legacy of those early pleasure cruises: The U.S. mainland continues to eagerly look toward colonized Caribbean islands when planning vacations, but ignores the citizens who live there in times of crisis. As the United States recently celebrated another Independence Day, we are reminded of the pain and injustice of colonial status and the many ironies of American colonial history.
For more information about the Spanish-American War, check out Patriotic Play: Spanish-American War Games in The Games We Played: American Board and Table Games from the Liman Collection Gift in the DiMenna Children’s History Museum, closing July 21.
Harris, Moira F. “Fan my Brow with a Feather: Fans: Form, Function, and Fashion in Minnesota.” Minnesota Historical Society, (Winter 2014-2015).
Torruella, Juan R. (2013) “Ruling America’s Colonies: The Insular Cases,” Yale Law & Policy Review: Vol. 32: Iss. 1, Article 3.
“A WINTER HOLIDAY IN SUMMER SEAS.” Town and Country (1902-1913) no. 3009 (Jan 16, 1904): 42.
“CRUISE AROUND THE WORLD.: HAMBURG-AMERICAN LINE BUILDING A MAGNIFICENT YACHT FOR TRAVELERS.” The Washington Post (1877-1922),May 20, 1900.
“Other 9 — no Title.” Scientific American (1845-1908) XCIV., (Feb 24, 1906): 181.
“The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War,” Hispanic Division, Library of Congress, 2011.
“TOOK SHIP’S WAITERS ASHORE.” New York Times (1857-1922), Mar 09, 1913.
“TWIN SCREW PLEASURE YACHT PRINZESSEN VICTORIA LUISE.” Marine Engineering (1897-1906) 6, no. 9 (Sep 01, 1901): 363.
L, A. “IMPRESSIONS OF A CARELESS TRAVELER.” Outlook (1893-1924) 83, no. 6 (Jun 09, 1906): 313.
Written by Sarah Gomez, Museum department assistant