History, we suspect, was written by a man. There are, literally, thousands of books about gritty, bearded men setting off on long voyages. A quick glance at the ‘Explorers section’ of the local library, or history textbook, will confirm this. But hiding innocuously between books about Marco Polo and Magellan, are stories of equally gritty women who did everything their male counterparts did, except, in a skirt. Sangeetha Sampath Pai combs through history to bring you a three-part series about women explorers through the three centuries.
PART ONE: Fearless Female Explorers From The 19th Century
They are the firsts. The pioneers. The women who braved choppy seas, hostile lands and scandalous whispers. 19th century attitudes and expectations required them to sit at home and be demure. They, it seems, did not get the memo.
Isabella Bird (1831-1904): The Restless Englishwoman
Isabella Bird had a peculiar illness. Whenever she was in Britain for extended periods of time, she would fall ill. It comes as no surprise then, that Bird lived a life of travel and adventure. She visited Hawaii, India, Persia, China, Iran, Kurdistan and Japan. She fell in love with an outlaw in Colorado, travelled with Berbers in Morocco and rode horses like a man, not sidesaddle as was expected of women then.
A few days shy of her 73rd birthday, Bird died in Edinburgh. She had been in Britain for an extended period of time.
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926): The Woman Who Crossed The Line
Gertrude Bell was not one to live a quiet life. She travelled the world twice; climbed mountains in Switzerland to become the finest woman mountaineer of her time; studied archaeology and learnt many languages. She travelled to the Middle East, stayed on and amassed an intimate knowledge of the region.
Bell’s lasting legacy to humanity is another set of lines. In 1921, she drew up the boundaries of the nation we today know as Iraq.
Jane Dieulafoy (1851-1916): The Lady In Pants
Jane Dieulafoy had a conservative childhood. Born into a wealthy family, she studied at a convent and was married at the age of 19. That was the end of conservative Jane. When her husband enlisted in the army, Jane donned a man’s uniform, cut her hair short and fought beside him.
After the war, the couple travelled to Egypt, Morocco, Istanbul, Persia and Spain. Jane’s unusual sartorial choices and haircut (for which she had to get special permission from the French Government) were widely questioned. She replied, saying ‘I do this to save time”. 21st century women would readily agree!
Marianne North (1830-1890): The Accidental Explorer
Most explorers never leave home without a compass and a map, but Marianne did. Taking with her a paintbrush, an easel and a sense of determination. Marianne’s greatest passion was painting flora, of different kinds, from different lands. That fuelled in her a desire to travel to the remotest corners of the Earth, find the most exotic of flowers and paint them. Japan, Ceylon, India, Brazil, Tenerife, Canada, Borneo, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Seychelles. At Charles Darwin’s suggestion, she went to Australia and New Zealand. Her scientific accuracy and the fact that several species of flora are named after her, give her work a permanent value.
Now if Marianne had been born in the 21st century, she would have easily amassed a planeload of air miles.
Mary Kingsley (1862-1900): The Conservative Adventurist
Mary Kingsley is a paradox of sorts. She travelled deep into African jungles, alone. She studied cannibalistic tribes. She laughed when people asked her why and how she was travelling without a man.
Yet, Mary detested being called a ‘New Woman’. She claimed vehemently she was not a feminist (she defended the tradition of polygamy practiced by many African tribes) and expressed shock at women wearing trousers and would only dress in Victorian gowns, even in the jungles of Gabon.She was the quintessential Victorian woman. With the wild heart of an explorer.
Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904): The Swiss Explorer
In hindsight, Isabelle Eberhardt’s quirky personality would never have been satiated by the pastoral charm of the Swiss countryside. Her desire to lead an unconventional life is best explained by her penchant for dressing up as a man, as this allowed her greater freedom in society. She moved to North Africa towards the turn of the century and converted to Islam. In order to move about freely in the male-dominated Algerian society, she dressed as a man and called herself Si Mahmoud Essadi. So successful was she at this, that she even joined a secret Sufi brotherhood that worked against the injustices of colonial rule. Isabelle wrote about her travels in several novels and French newspapers and even worked as a war reporter. In 1991, Hollywood immortalised her in a movie named after her.
Jane Elizabeth Digby (1807-1881): The Scandalous Desert-Dweller
Some women conquer continents, the beautiful Jane Digby (Lady Ellenborough), conquered men. Three marriages, countless affairs and five children later, at the age of 46, Jane Digby arrived in the Middle East. Here she fell in love with a Sheikh twenty years her junior and began a life of adventure and travel through the unforgiving deserts of Syria. She lived a largely nomadic life, staying in goat-hair tents and riding camels. Jane died of dysentery 28 years later—happily married, and very well travelled.
Harriet Quimby (1875-1912): The First Woman Pilot
The turn of the century saw birds of another kind in the sky—aircrafts. Harriet Quimby, tall, beautiful, with movie-star looks, made it her mission to learn to fly. This daredevil aviator and Hollywood screenplay writer, became not only America’s first woman pilot, but the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Though she lived only to the age of 37, she influenced aviation in a major way and paved the way for other women pilots.
Sangeetha Sampath has three recurring dreams: One: To visit every state in India. Two: To fill her passport with stamps. And three: That instead of 30 days annual leave, her generous company has given her 1 year (paid!) leave.
But then she wakes up and realises she has to go work as the Creative Director of an advertising agency in Bangalore. Long days indeed.
View all posts by Sangeetha →
Canada is an underrated country often forgotten by travellers when planning their world trip. Nevertheless, I thought me and my hefty back-pack would give it a gamble and without a doubt it paid off. There was no denying Canada’s wonderful, diverse landscape in which I had the privilege to travel across, complete with some of [...]