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 19th century women explorers

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nordmann
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PostSubject: 19th century women explorers   Wed 07 Mar 2012, 21:04

We tend, largely because we have been conditioned that way, to assume that all the greatest explorers of the Victorian era were men. We may be aware of course that there were many intrepid women who, with resources enough to fund a venture and courage enough to take it on themselves, emulated these men in every respect and surpassed quite a few of them in terms of their contribution to our geographical, anthropological and scientific knowledge. Yet how many of these women's names roll of the tongue as readily as Livingstone, Burton, Park or Speke?

While not myself a fan of "positive discrimination" or other attempts to artificially promote in importance any person's achievement purely on the basis of their sex, it is difficult to read about the exploits and achievements of some of these women and fail to wonder why, in this so-called enlightened age of sexual equality, we still do not encounter their reputations in the mainstream media and, probably more importantly, in school history texts, with anything like the regularity with which we are invited to admire those of their male counterparts.

Maybe it is time that we therefore gave these women some belated consideration. I would personally nominate Mary Kingsley as a prime candidate for overdue recognition. With no formal education apart from an avid devoural of her father's extensive library at home, and then long delayed in her ambitions because of a sick mother who, social mores demanded, she must devote her time completely to for many years as fulltime nurse, Mary was 31 before she finally got to do that which she had set her heart on from an early age. Neither a christian nor a fellow of any scientific society, the two prevalent sponsors for such expeditions, she embarked alone and at her own expense to Sierra Leone, the start of a two thousand mile trek through the African heartland until she arrived at Luanda in Angola some months later. En route she made a point of learning from locals how best to survive, surveyed and recorded the route, collected medicinal plants and tested their properties, and also - probably uniquely for an explorer of that era - made annotations of the cultural and religious beliefs of the many hundred different peoples she encountered on the way.

The following year she was back in Africa, this time better prepared with supplies, and embarked on a gruelling itinerary in which she again made anthropological observations, travelled by canoe the length of the Ogooué River, identified new species of plant, insect, animal and fish, became the first European to climb Mount Cameroon, and even had time to team up with Mary Slessor, the Scottish missionary based in what is now Nigeria who also had travelled alone. Between them in the month they worked together they managed to persuade the local population to abandon the practise of killing one twin at birth, found and operate the area's first hospital and even mediate to stop a war.

Perhaps Kingsley's greatest achievement however was not her considerable scientific discovery, nor even that she managed this as a woman in a society and age when this represented a huge handicap in itself, but that she achieved huge popularity and respect amongst her scholar peers and indeed the general public while being openly ostracised by both the church and the political establishment of the day, the former because she spoke openly against the practise of "converting" Africans to a faith other than their own, and the latter because she questioned the morality of Britain's assumption that it could strip these people of their mineral resources just because it had the military means to accomplish it. Her book "Travels in West Africa" was an immediate success upon its publication however, this despite The Times and other newspapers refusing to allow it to be reviewed in their pages.

Kingsley died of typhoid during the Boer War having volunteered her services as a nurse, perhaps unsurprisingly (and even more to her great credit in my view) working to alleviate the suffering of Boer prisoners of war in the British concentration camps.

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Meles meles
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Thu 08 Mar 2012, 10:16

Maybe it is a symptom of male prejudice and conditioning in the teaching of history, but I do find it very hard to recall many 19th century women explorers in the same vein as Livingston, Burton, Park, Speke, Grant, Baker, Brazza, Humboldt, Bonpland, Banks, Douglas … Isabella Bird is actually the only one I can think of.

Certainly there were courageous and enterprising women working as missionaries who had penetrated deep into Africa and Asia by the second half of the 19th century. But although they often learned local languages and took admirable pains to fit into the local cultures, their prime reason for being there generally had little to do with exploring the regions, mapping, plant collecting, anthropological studies etc… and more about establishing Christian schools, and clinics, distributing bibles and generally evangelizing the “poor ignorant natives”. Mind you given the rough handling indigenous people sometimes got at the hands of (male) european explorers, the lighter feminine touch could well be considered preferable (I dropped Stanley from the above list of explorers for that very reason).

Mary Kingsley and Isabella Bird would appear to be a exceptions and their great accomplishments all the more impressive for that very reason. Later in the first half of the 20th century certainly there were more women explorers, Freya Stark immediately comes to mind, but we are really getting into the modern period by then.

EDIT : Or is it simply the case that, like poor Mary Kingsley, these women found it very difficult to get anyone willing to publish their accounts and reports, and so remain to this day largely forgotten?


Last edited by Meles meles on Thu 08 Mar 2012, 11:19; edited 2 times in total
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Thu 08 Mar 2012, 10:33

I was at the National Portrait Gallery a few years ago (great place) and they had an exhibition of women explorers (or perhaps women achievers with an emphasis on explorers, can't quite remember and it's too late tonight for me to try and check it).

I don't think I have ever read of any women explorers in early NZ history, though of course many women travelled to set up home in some pretty god-forsaken places. (Well, god might not have forsaken them, but everyone else had studiously and sensibly ignored them.)

It's hard nowadays to quite appreciate the mental courage these 19th century women explorers must have had to abandon all the social conventions of the time and depart for places not at all well known. Some of them were a little odd or at least unusual in their attitudes, I think, Gertrude Bell, for instance.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Thu 08 Mar 2012, 10:56

Well, if you take the Royal Geographical Society as a rather important example of how society regarded these women then you can readily see why we are generally ignorant of their achievements, even to the extent that we "assume" they were primarily missionaries! (Many were, but then so was Livingstone and he still rates for his geographical research.)

The RGS, unlike other similar societies, actually had no bar on women members when it formed. As with the absence of a law against lesbianism, it probably just never entered their heads when they founded the society that such a thing might be required. Between 1850 and 1890 however women began to turn up at meetings, apply for membership, and then - horror of horrors - request the facility to address the society in increasing numbers having conducted field work of their own. By 1870 they numbered 30 full members and were petitioning the society for funds to mount expeditions, conduct research, further their education, and basically do all that the men did. As geographers some of these members were recognised as equal in expertise and stature as the society's more eminent male members, and what they lacked in opportunity for field research they made up for with the development of advanced scientific theory and application. Some even succeeded in getting research subsidies and travelled.

It was Kingsley however who represented the straw that broke the camel's back. She, incredibly, managed to bypass any requirement for financial help from the RGS, and as her reputation amongst her peers grew this was regarded as something of an embarrassment. Upon her arrival home after her second expedition, there was a clamour from the "rank and file" that she be allowed address the RGS. The committee acceded, and in fact she packed the lecture theatre for a full week with her dissertations, each evening a different speech addressing a different discipline, thereby demonstrating her prowess not only as an explorer and geographer, but as a botanist, a diplomat, a doctor, a geologist and a zoologist amongst other skills, and all self-taught. The RGS responded by banning female membership, even banning female attendance at their public lectures, and so it remained until World War One.
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Thu 08 Mar 2012, 14:02

How extraodinary, I was about to frame a topic along similar lines. Mine would have inclded women who ventured into strange places - usually high ranking when accompanying menfolk. Their various progresses would have been less trepid than say Kingsley's but note worthy nevertheless because they kept useful diaries. Do you want another thread/ topic or can I expand in s one later to include them?
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Thu 08 Mar 2012, 14:31

Well actually in my view the women you refer to are also often victims of huge underestimation on our part as to what they were up to and how they went about it. Take Lady Ann Blunt, for example - Lord Byron's granddaughter and a daughter of the world's first computer programmer, Ada King (another great unknown). Conventional history assumes that she travelled with her husband and could not or would not have travelled without his patronage and protection.

In fact the reverse is almost definitely the case. In the portions of her journals which have not been heavily edited by her husband (they hated each other, but he who couldn't write a postcard - read his "poetry" - got final editing rights on all her published material) one can readily see that it was she who was the brains behind them both. He took most of the credit as she combined a lucrative Arabian horse-breeding industry in Egypt with extensive travels in the Middle East. When she threw him out in 1906 he found himself rapidly in a mess of debt, family feuding and sharp practise (a lot of it started by him) which only accelerated further after Ann's death. Despite unfairly acquiring four fifths of their assets upon separation it was she who died richer (the occasion for some unseemly behaviour on his part as he attempted to disown their own daughter to get his hands on Ann's loot).

However it is from the journals that one sees the true pattern behind their ventures, even when they were getting along. He enjoyed the "big fish in a small pond" stature he found in Egypt and rarely left the comfort of their manor there. She, on the other hand, used Egypt primarily as a launchpad to explore and understand as much as she could of the entire region and beyond. He pops up in the form of unsolicited advice extended to his wife in odd places, so obviously a none-too-skilful piece of editing on his part to make it look like he had accompanied her. Yet, had he bothered to actually read her own words, sometimes in the next sentence, he would have seen that she iterated the fact that she was proud to have achieved what she did alone. And most crucially, any scientific analysis - be it of fauna, archaeology or culture - is done by her. He simply "gives advice".
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Priscilla
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Thu 08 Mar 2012, 15:08

Interesting stuff, Nordmann - and interesting situations. Not only then but also a current truth. I know several women married and carried along in the slipstream of her husband's career who in their own pursuits outshone them in terms of enterprise and aptitude. His reposting often opens up her sudden surge for independence and sparks fly; to the benefit of lawyers usually.

I shall garner some material for this thread then.... eventually.
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Thu 08 Mar 2012, 15:16

This is proving to be a most interesting thread.

Having in the past been a member of the RGS myself and when at Imperial College was able to go to quite a few events there, I have always been brought up familiar with all the old school 19th Century British explorers (although my personal hero was always the German von Humboldt) and did actually, albeit fairly vaguely, know of Kingsley and Bird. But generally it is still the Grand Old Men who always seem to dominate the idea of explorer.

It has been very enlightening, this morning, mooching around on the internet looking for women explorers. They are not so easy to find as Baker, Speke, Livingstone etc... but they are there... I admit I have been much surprised, and have learnt such a lot in the past few hours!

I have always been impressed by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's travels around the Ottoman lands and her efforts to introduce smallpox innoculation to Britain in the early 18th century - after seeing it in use in Turkey. I wonder if she had it easier (or at least as equally hard as any other layman trying to tackle the blinkered medical establishment) simply because she lived a century earlier, and so strict Victorian ideas of a woman's place had not then become so entrenched?

EDIT : This is a bit off topic but I always get irritated when I see lists of famous explorers which include the likes of Cortez and Pizarro... it's a bit like calling the emperor Claudius or William of Normandy, explorers, because they "discovered" Britain! Although actually one could say that about so many other "explorers": Columbus didn't "discover" America - he just visited people who already knew exactly where they were in their world - and they certainly didn't think they were in China!.
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Priscilla
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Thu 08 Mar 2012, 17:55

Lady Mary was a woman I had in mind to make note of here.
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Thu 08 Mar 2012, 21:29

Priscilla, I too was wondering about a similar topic, having noted, like Nordmann, that all those influential people were men. ("Guys" at least in NZ now encompasses both sexes. Our female leader at the squa aerobics calls us 'guys' even though we are all women.) But I was thinking more about influential women - they may not have had as wide or important an influence as those men but some of them had long-lasting effects from their lives and careers.)

Back to explorers, many of the people known casually to the general public are known because they were first to discover something or go somewhere in a quite major way, and I suppose that hasn't generally been the case for most women explorers. Though I feel very miffed that Magellan is always thought of as the first person to circumnavigate the world, when he didn't complete the journey - why isn't the second/third/whoever in command that did complete the trip the one so honoured?

Livingstone has been kept in the public eye because of those famous words when he was found. This does bring another issue of why some things stay in the public consciousness and others don't. "Dr Livingstone I presume" may not be part of the modern school child's repertoire but it certainly was for a long time after his achievements. But other things and people just get forgotten quite quickly. Women explorers were sometimes very famous at the time, but their achievements have been lost along the way (not so with the women reformers though - Nightingale and Fry and the Pankhursts (there's a different set known as well here in NZ and no doubt in other countries) are still there.

Caro.
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ferval
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Thu 08 Mar 2012, 21:47

Do you think one reason might be that the female explorers were less obsessed with the discovery of major geographical features, natural resources for exploitation and trade routes and more interested in the people, ethnography rather than geography? Not at all what an expanding and entrepreneurial empire is concerned with.

The Victorians had great difficulty with accommodating the concept of these 'spinsters abroad', travelling without a guiding male and being frightfully transgressive in lots of ways. The 'memsahib', spreading the benefits of English civilisation to the poor benighted natives was a much more acceptable ideal. Those terms came from a really interesting piece about Victorian women travellers in the context of colonialism, I must try to find it again.
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Priscilla
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Sat 10 Mar 2012, 08:16

Believe me ferv, the hands on memsahib did great things in places and in such conditions as we would find hard to bear. I think you are right about the women exporers who we indeed far more interested in the people and their lives than in the potential of new places. There again I think I do many men an injustice because they just had to see over the next hill. It was not always for gain. It was the keen man in the audience at the later talks who did that, I imagine,
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ferval
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Sat 10 Mar 2012, 11:00

P, I've found the article but it needs a personal or institutional login, here it is anyway http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/27794902?uid=3738032&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=47698741600057

It's less of an assessment of the women than the attitudes and values that shaped the Victorian attitude to them and how those values impinged on their own self view, opinions and writings.
I'd never heard of Harriet Martineau, these women were truly formidable.

I once again wish that there was the facility to attach a document to these posts but I know that there's a big copyright problem.
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Sat 10 Mar 2012, 11:27

Harriet Martineau was - briefly - very friendly with Charlotte Bronte. The two fell out after Martineau published some pretty harsh criticism of Bronte's masterpiece, "Villette". She wrote this:

"...the book is almost intolerably painful...All the female characters, in all their thoughts and lives, are full of one thing, or are regarded by the reader in the light of that one thought - love...It is not thus in real life. There are substantial, heartfelt interests for women of all ages, and under ordinary circumstances, quite apart from love."

Bronte stayed with HM at her cottage in Ambleside, but was rather put off by Martineau's enthusiam for cold baths and "starlit" walks in the middle of the night.

Mary Taylor, Charlotte's great friend, also seems to have been exasperated at times by CB's devotion - not just to unattainable and unsuitable men - but also to her father. She described the Rev. Bronte as "that selfish old man". Taylor was not an explorer exactly, but she bravely took off for New Zealand and tried to start a business there. It failed.

Bronte meanwhile continued writing about love.
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ferval
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Sat 10 Mar 2012, 11:40

Thanks T, it's too many years since I read 'Villette', I must do so again soon. I chose it as a prize at school, a lovely edition bound in pale blue leather, but it disappeared somewhere over the years. I wonder if I would now agree with HM rather than concurring with my adolescent self who just plunged delightedly into all that emotional turmoil?
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Sat 10 Mar 2012, 17:11

Hi ferval,

I'm glad I'm not the only one out there in the virtual world who loves "Villette". When it was published in 1853, George Eliot wrote in awe: "Villette! Villette! Have you read it? It is a still more wonderful book than "Jane Eyre". There is something almost preternatural in its power."

She was right.

Paul Emmanuel was based on M. Heger, the professor who taught both Charlotte and Emily Bronte during their time in Brussels. Charlotte fell hopelessly and humiliatingly in love with Heger: Emily (who was also always right) considered him to be a right little shit.

I hope I'm not too off topic - many Victorian women never ventured into deserts and jungles, but were intrepid explorers of a different sort. Those Bronte girls certainly were. As EB - more a heroine of mine than CB (although the whole bloody family - the useless Branwell included - continues to haunt me) - wrote:

"No coward soul is mine

No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere..."

SST.
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Vizzer
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PostSubject: Re: 19th century women explorers   Tue 22 Nov 2016, 21:46

@ferval wrote:
The Victorians had great difficulty with accommodating the concept of these 'spinsters abroad'

There was an engaging television documentary broadcast a month or so ago about the fabulous botanical artist Marianne North, her extensive travels around the globe and eponymous gallery at Kew exhibiting her prolific work. Here it is for anyone who missed it:

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