I’ve become interested lately in women who are travelers and explorers. They have been motivated by different things, including adventure, exploration, study of cultures, or simply to exert their independence. I’m planning several posts about individual women, but in the mean time, here is a list of 7 travelers you may not know.
Jeanne Baré (1740-1807), possibly the first western woman to sail across the Pacific, was a member of a round the world expedition led by the French explorer Bougainville. She disguised herself as a man and went on board as the valet to a man named Philibert Commerson, a doctor and botanist. Baré, whose name is sometimes spelled Baret, turned out to be an excellent botanist, and years later was granted a pension by the French government for her work as Commerson’s assistant. It’s not clear whether or not Commerson knew of her disguise, was complicit, or was in fact her lover, but when they reached Tahiti, the natives had no doubt about her gender and exposed her. Baré left no record of her own, but Bougainville says that she finished her voyage “very agreeably.”
Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), after serving as chief of the household and hostess for her uncle, British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, set sail for the Middle East in 1810, never to return. After being shipwrecked on Rhodes and losing all of her possessions, she chose to dress like a man, possibly to avoid having to wear a veil. In 1815, she convinced the Ottoman authorities to let her excavate at Ashkelon, north of Gaza. Controversially, when they unearthed a seven-foot marble statue, she ordered the workers to smash it and throw it into the sea. She eventually settled in Sidon, on the coast of present day Lebanon, where she lived until her death.
Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858) was an Austrian traveler, author, and member of the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris. Her father allowed her to wear boys clothing and participate in sports; he also gave her an education typically given to boys. Her first long trip was to Palestine and Egypt when she was five years old, but further travel had to wait until she had raised two sons. Beginning in 1842, Pfeiffer traveled extensively, eventually visiting the Middle East, Scandinavia, South America, Tahiti, China, India, Persia, Greece, South Africa, North America, and Madagascar. She financed her travels by writing very popular books about her journeys and collecting specimens for museums in Berlin and Vienna.
“Many will perhaps believe that I undertook so long a journey from vanity. I can only say in answer to this . . . that nothing but a natural wish for travel, a boundless desire of acquiring knowledge, could ever overcome the hardships, privations and dangers to which I have been exposed.” ~ Ida Pfeiffer in A Woman’s Voyage
Rose de Freycinet (1817-1820) dressed in men’s clothes to accompany her husband, Louis de Freycinet, on a trip around the world, aboard the Uranie. At least initially. Her husband had command of the ship, but was commissioned by the French navy, and it was illegal for women to travel aboard French naval vessels. Once at sea, there was nothing the navy could do until they reached the next port of call. Even then, no action was taken and Rose continued her journey, becoming the first woman to document an around-the-world voyage, through her diary. Her journal wasn’t published until 1927 in France and the first English translation was produced in 1962.
Alexandrine Tinné (1835-1869) was a Dutch explorer and wealthy heiress. After her father’s death, Alexandrine and her mother traveled extensively in Norway, Italy, the Middle East and Egypt. In 1862, they traveled with Theodor von Heuglin and Hermann Steudner on an expedition, into what is today South Sudan, which produced important scientific results, but ended with the death of several of the party due to illness, including Alexandrine’s mother. Refusing to return to the Netherlands, she remained in Cairo taking short trips for the next several years. In 1869, Alexandrine attempted a journey into the Sahara toward Lake Chad. Her goal was to meet the Touaregs, nomads of central Africa. However, she didn’t make it, because on August 1st, she was murdered, struck twice with a sword and left to bleed to death. Her body was never found.
Annie Royle Taylor (1855-1922) was a British explorer, Christian missionary, and the first western woman known to have visited Tibet. She joined the China Inland Mission in 1884 and was stationed in Lanzhou on the border of Tibet. However, she was recalled due to poor health. Coming from a wealthy family, Taylor didn’t need the support of the Mission, so after recovering, she went on her own to India, then to Sikkim to study the Tibetan language at a Buddhist monastery. In 1889, she and a young man named Pontso, who had converted to Christianity, traveled to Tianshui in China, where they established a mission. Several years later, in 1892, Taylor and Pontso entered Tibet and attempted to reach Lhasa. The cold was bitter and there was dissension in her party, but they managed to get to within a three day journey of Lhasa before the authorities apprehended them. A year later, she organized her own mission, the Tibetan Pioneer Mission, but it fell apart within a year. Taylor was persistent however, and in 1904 joined the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet.
Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) was an explorer and writer who traveled extensively in West Africa. As with many young women during the 19th century, she was largely self-educated through her father’s library, where she preferred books on science and about explorers. After nursing both of her parents, who died in 1892, she was left with an inheritance which allowed her to travel. She chose West Africa, and during her initial trip to Sierra Leone and Angola, lived with local people and learned survival skills for the jungle. Her second trip was devoted to studying traditional religious practices and collecting zoological samples. On returning to England, Kingsley lectured frequently about African life and culture. She was critical of missionaries for their attempts to convert the African natives and force them to change aspects of their culture such as polygamy, and to some extent of British Imperialism, although her views are still debated today.
Forster, Honore (January 2000), “Voyaging Through Strange Seas: Four Women Travellers in the Pacific”, National Library of Australia News
West African Studies by Mary Kingsley at Internet Archive
On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller
Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis