SHE-LOGY: If you’re asked to name female explorers, can you name two more after Dora? I hope you fared better than me. This post celebrates 3 trailblazing female explorers in the Victorian era.
When I was asked to write a blog for Silverliningmama’s She-logy series celebrating women, my thoughts turned to how to link it to my blog theme. Although I do go off-piste quite a lot at the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I like to at least try and keep the main topics to posts with an expat or travel focus. I also wanted to choose an area where traditionally we know far more about the male achievers than the women. So linking these together I decided to focus on three female explorers and travellers. Each of these women are linked by a number of things –their sense of adventure, their ability to overcome the hurdles of being women in the Victorian era, and also the fact that they all died sadly young.
The first of these is a British woman born in 1862, MARY KINGSLEY. She came immediately to mind because she famously climbed Mount Cameroon (wearing full Victorian dress), the first woman to do so. My parents lived in Cameroon in the 1990’s and I can only imagine what a feat it must have been for Kingsley to get to the top of that mountain in her long dresses and corsets!
The remarkable thing about Kingsley, like other unsung women heroes of this era, was that they managed these amazing achievements at a time when most women of their class were encouraged to sit at home quietly doing their sewing or reading a book. We are familiar with the great male explorers of these years because so many of them have places named after them (David Livingstone being a good example). But despite the obstacles put in her way by the era she lived in, Kingsley still managed to canoe up the river Ogowe in Gabon, explore areas no white people had ever visited before, interact with local tribespeople, collect rare specimens of animals and plants on her travels, and set herself up as a successful trader. Despite having no formal education (even though her brother was sent to Cambridge University), Kingsley wrote the best-selling Travels in West Africa on her return to the UK.
Kingsley returned to Africa during the Boer War in South Africa, where she started working as a nurse. Sadly, she died here in 1900, of typhoid. She was buried at sea.
The second female explorer I chose (and there was a long list to choose from, once you started looking into it) was GERTRUDE BELL. Another Brit born into the Victorian era (1868), Bell was a traveller, mountaineer, archaeologist, cartographer and political officer. Known as the “Queen of the Desert”, Bell spent many years in the early 1900’s travelling alone in the Middle East, immersing herself in Arab culture. Her knowledge, which included the ability to speak eight languages, attracted the attention of British intelligence and during World War 1 she worked with the Arab Bureau in Egypt. This included working alongside one of the men from that era we’ve all heard of – TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.
After the war, Bell continued to work on Arab affairs, including drawing up the borders of the new nation of Iraq and helping to choose its first ruler. This was all despite the fact that even though she had gained a first-class honours degree in Modern History from Oxford University, she was unable to graduate simply because she was a woman.
Bell died in 1926 aged just 58 of an apparent overdose of sleeping tablets. It is unknown whether the overdose was intentional or accidental.
A film about Gertrude Bell, starring Nicole Kidman, is due out this year. I hope that eventually her name will be as familiar to us all as that of her male counterpart TE Lawrence.
My final female explorer is NELLIE BLY, born in 1864. An American journalist, Bly (real name Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) was known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. She was also famous for her ground-breaking investigative journalism work which included faking mental illness to write about mental institutions from the inside.
Bly’s remarkable around-the-world trip came about after she suggested to her editor that she try and emulate Jules Verne’s famous fictional character’s 80-day trip. Apparently she was given just two day’s notice before the start of her 24,899 mile journey, and carried most of the money she would need for the trip in a bag around her neck. Bly’s undertook her amazing journey by steamship and rail, travelling alone for much of the journey.
She later married a wealthy industrialist and, after his death, went into manufacturing herself and was for a while one of the leading industrialists in the US. She went back to reporting towards the end of her life, including covering both World War 1 and the Women’s Suffragette movement, but died at the age of 57 of pneumonia.
All three of these women should be household names, taught in history and geography lessons just like their male counterparts. But I doubt many people will have heard of any of them. It’s time we changed this. Let’s start telling our children about the women as well as the men.