The First World Cruises, from 1891 to 1923, And Beyond

Contrary to what most sources say, world cruising did not start with Cunard Line’s Laconia in 1922, but actually got its start way back in 1891 when Canadian Pacific took delivery of the first of three new Empresses, the 5,920-ton Empress of India.

Built at Barrow-in-Furness, in the shipyard where BAE Systems is to-day building seven “Astute” class nuclear-powered fleet submarines for the Royal Navy, the Empress of India was launched on August 30, 1890. After fitting out, she departed Liverpool on Sunday, February 8, 1891, on Canadian Pacific’s first world cruise, one in which it offered a voyage in the Empress of India from Liverpool via the Suez and Hong Kong to Vancouver, a journey across Canada on its famous trans-continental railway and a Transatlantic liner crossing back to Liverpool.

World Cruises - Empress of India (colour)On Tuesday, April 28, 1891, after a voyage of 79 days, the Empress of India thus became the first White Empress to arrive at Vancouver, whereupon her world cruise passengers continued their journey across Canada and the Atlantic Ocean to complete their trip around the world. Within less than six months, Canadian Pacific offered two more such cruises, with Empress of Japan leaving Liverpool on April 11, 1891, and the last of the trio, Empress of China, sailing from Liverpool on July 15. These ships, the first twin-screw liners on the Pacific, had been ordered by Canadian Pacific to fulfil a new mail contract that connected the UK and Hong Kong by way of its recently-completed transcontinental railway, over which the first train had run between Montreal and Port Moody in July 1886, with the line reaching Vancouver in May 1887.

While these were really positioning voyages to get the new ships from Liverpool to Vancouver, this was not the end of the story for Canadian Pacific. More world cruises would follow when new ships were ordered for its Transpacific service and in the 1920s and 1930s, Canadian Pacific would become one of the best-known names in world cruising, with several of its Empresses offering world cruises, and most particularly the 42,348–ton Empress of Britain (ii) of 1931, the first ship to be designed to cross the North Atlantic by summer and offer a world cruise every winter. Three famous Cunard ships would later follow this pattern, including the 34,274–ton Caronia of 1949, the 65,863-ton Queen Elizabeth 2 of 1969 and the 148.528-ton Queen Mary 2 of 2003, which is celebrating ten years of service this year.

World Cruises - Cleveland 1909After the delivery voyages of Canadian Pacific’s Empresses, the next stage in world cruising occurred in 1909, when a new world cruise routing was offered by Frank C Clark of New York, an early organizer of cruises, who chartered Hamburg America Line’s 16.960-ton Cleveland to offer two world cruises five years before the Panama Canal was opened.

The Cleveland left New York on October 16, 1909, and took 108 days to proceed across the Atlantic to ports in the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, India and the Far East before finishing her world cruise in San Francisco on January 31, 1910. Passengers then returned to their homes from the West Coast by train while the Cleveland operated a second world cruise in the opposite direction, returning from San Francisco to New York by way of Suez. More ships soon followed on similar routings.

Cunard Line’s claim that its 19,680-ton Laconia made the first world cruise in 1922-23 is correct only insofar as this was the first complete circumnavigation of the world by a cruise ship, something that obviously could not be done before the Panama Canal opened in 1914. The first full circumnavigation by Laconia thus left New York in November 1922, took 130 days and called at twenty-two ports on her way around the world.

World Cruises - Laconia 1922In fact, world cruises boomed in 1922-23, with the Laconia being only the first of four ships to leave New York on world cruises that winter. The others, booked either by Frank C Clark or by American Express, were United American Line’s 19,653-ton Resolute, Canadian Pacific’s 18,481-ton Empress of France and Cunard Line’s 19,602-ton Samaria, which sailed in the opposite direction from the other three, proceeding from west to east. The rest, as they say, is history.

Considering a modern-day World Cruise?  With offices in Europe and North America we are perfectly suited to booking your trip of a lifetime.  Start your journey now by calling The Cruise People Ltd in London, England, on 020 7723 2450 or by e-mailing us at