Shirley Graham Du Bois – Political Activist, Composer, Playwright, and Author

Shirley Graham, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

Shirley Graham, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

I wrote a short piece for the Facebook page last week on Shirley Graham Du Bois, but feel that this remarkable woman deserves more attention. Not only was she a well-established political activist before she married her famous husband, W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1951, she was also a composer , a published playwright, a lecturer and an author. Taught as a child to stand up to injustice, she wrote her first editorial when she was 13 and never looked back.

Born November 11, 1896, Shirley was the oldest of five children born to David A Graham, an African Methodist Episcopal minister and his wife Elizabeth Etta Bell Graham. The family moved frequently because of her father’s assignments. Living in both northern and southern states such as Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Colorado, they ended up in Spokane, Washington, where Shirley graduated from Lewis and Clark High School. Her father officiated at her first marriage to Shadrach McCants in 1918. The couple had two boys, Robert (1923) and David (1925), before obtaining a divorce in 1927.

After the divorce, Shirley left her two boys with her parents and traveled extensively, studying and teaching. She studied at Howard University School of Music, the Institute of Musical Arts in NYC, and at the Sorbonne before entering Oberlin College in 1931 where she received her undergraduate degree and a Masters in Music. She taught music and fine arts during this time to support herself. Later, she took classes toward a doctorate in English at Yale and New York University.

During her time at the Sorbonne, she met many people of African descent and developed a desire to express African and African-American themes through her music. In 1932, her opera, Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, premiered in Cleveland, Ohio to great acclaim, making her the first African-American woman to write and produce an opera with an all-black cast. It told the story of Africans’ journey to North America as enslaved people, their struggles, and finally their freedom.  It took place in a stadium setting and attracted 25,000 people to the first two performances. She wrote other musicals, as well as comedic and tragic plays, including Deep Rivers (1939), It’s Morning (1940), Track Thirteen (1940), and Elijah’s Raven (1941).

After her time at Oberlin, Shirley served as a director of a unit of the Chicago Federal Theater, the YWCA-USO Director at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and founded the Graham Artists Bureau in Chicago with her brother Bill to secure bookings for African-American artists. Dismissed after defending men who were protesting the deaths of three black soldiers at Fort Huachuca, she was hired by the NAACP as a field secretary to organize new branches across the country.

Shirley was a prolific writer having written her first editorial at the age of 13, after being barred from a YWCA swimming pool. She wrote in several genres, but is particularly known for her biographies for both adults and children. Her first book, George Washington Carver, Scientist, was published in 1944, followed by Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World (1946), and Your Most Humble Servant: Benjamin Banneker (1949), among others. She focused not only on famous African-Americans, but also on international individuals such as Gamal Nassar and Julius Nyerere. She also wrote two novels, Zulu Heart (1974) and a historical novel about the life of Frederick Douglass, There Once Was a Slave (1947) which won the Messner Prize.

W.E.B. Du Bois c. 1946, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

W.E.B. Du Bois c. 1946, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

Politically active throughout her life she wrote and delivered many speeches and published articles on a variety of topics related to minorities, women, and peace. Her focus was not confined to issues in the United States, but was global. In 1961, she was one of the founders of Freedomways, a civil rights magazine, and became its first general editor. She was also one of the founders of the Progressive Party and in 1948 gave the keynote address at the convention in Philadelphia which nominated former Vice President Henry Wallace for President.

Shirley’s second marriage was to W.E.B. Du Bois on Feb 27, 1951, about six months after the death of his first wife. Thirty years his junior, she had known him since she was a child and as an adult had worked as a colleague on many common causes.

After their wedding, he was indicted for “un-American” activities, but there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. For the next 10 years, they fought legal battles with the government and continued to be harassed by US officials because of their left-leaning stances.  Finally, they decided to emigrate to Ghana in 1961. They became citizens and even after W.E.B.’s death in 1963, Shirley remained in Ghana until the coup d’etat in 1966.

A woman of many talents, after her husband’s death, Shirley worked with Ghana Television, developing studio space, training staff, and helping to develop the national infrastructure. In 1966, with the overthrow of the government led by Kwame Nkrumah, she moved to Cairo, Egypt to live with her son David who was working as a journalist.

In Cairo, Egypt, she traveled throughout the world speaking and promoting the cause of liberation for Africans, African-Americans, and women. In 1971, she also published her memoir of W.E.B., His Day Is Marching On. In 1977, Shirley traveled to Beijing, China, for cancer treatment, where she died on March 27th.

Shirley Graham Du Bois was a very talented and versatile woman who had a passion for justice that wouldn’t be denied.


Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

DuBois, Shirley Graham (1896-1944) at Black Past Remembered & Reclaimed

Shirley Graham Du Bois at Wikipedia

Helene Stöcker – Fighting for Women’s Control Over Their Lives

Helene Stöcker c. 1900 (source)

Helene Stöcker c. 1900 (source)

From time to time in women’s rights protests you see signs saying something along the lines of “Didn’t my Grandmother fight for these rights?” It’s true, the battles aren’t new, or confined to any particular country. One of the earliest champions for women’s rights, including control over their own bodies, was Helene Stöcker of Germany.

Born November 13, 1869 in Elberfeld, Germany, Helene grew up in a strict Calvinist household. She was the oldest of eight children born to Peter Heinrich Ludwig Stöcker and Hulda Bergmann Stöcker. Her father had wanted to be a missionary, but had to take over the family business, still Bible reading and daily prayer were part of the family routine. Helene eventually rejected her father’s religion, but acknowledged his influence on her values, including personal integrity, charity, and a sense of justice.

Her mother also influenced her future concerns. Like Margaret Sanger, Helene saw the toll that eight births had taken on her mother. Only five of Hulda’s children survived to adulthood, and when there were complications at the birth of her only son, Helene had to take on the responsibilities of the household. This (along with Gretchen’s situation in Goethe’s Faust, as she later said) led her to consider the consequences related to reproduction for women in traditional relationships.

Helene was a voracious reader and an independent thinker. She attended a girls’ school and in 1890 a teacher’s seminary, preparing to be a teacher. But, instead of following this path, she moved to Berlin and began to attend classes at the university in literature, philosophy and economics. At the time, the university didn’t allow women to obtain degrees, so she moved on to Glasgow and finally to the University at Bern where she received her doctorate in Literature in 1902, becoming one of the first women in Germany to do so.

In 1905, Helene became the head of the League for the Protection of Mothers (Bund für Mutterschutz) which had been founded in Berlin in 1904 by Ruth Bré. The change in leadership was due to a conflict over the direction of the organization. Bré was primarily concerned with the situation of single mothers and their children. In addition to promoting equality of illegitimate children under the law and establishing homes for unwed mothers, Helene also promoted sex education, access to contraceptives, and the legalization of abortion. In 1908 the League was renamed the League for the Protection of Mothers and Sexual Reform (Bund für Mutterschutz und Sexualreform).

The League was engaged in practical solutions, but also political activism and debate. It included many well-known intellectuals both men and women, including Lily Braun, Marie Stritt, Adele Schreiber, Max Weber, and Friedrich Naumann. Their activities and theoretical debate were publicized through two journals, edited by Helene, called Mutterschutz and Die Neue Generation. According to Allen, Stöcker was the intellectual leader of the group. One of her colleagues, Grete Meisel-Hess said that “Her personality expresses a calm self-confidence; no attack can intimidate her or deter her from her chosen course of action.”

One attack common to many feminist groups of the time was the accusation that they promoted “free love.” While the focus of the group was traditional heterosexual relationships, they insisted on the need for equality between men and women in marriage, but also legal recognition of what they called “free relationships,” which included not only support for single mothers, but homosexuality, and the right to divorce.

Beginning during WWI, Helene shifted much of her energy to the Peace movement. She had long been a pacifist having joined the Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft (German Peace Society, DFG) in 1892 while in Berlin. And in 1921, she was involved in the founding of the organization named Paco which later was known as the War Resisters’ International and is still in existence.

Helene never married. In 1899, she spent one semester in school at Glasgow. There she met and fell in love with a German lecturer named Alexander Tilly. Tilly was married with children, but when his wife died in 1902, Helene briefly returned to care for him and his children. She found, however, that maintaining her professional life while being a wife and step-mother was too difficult and she returned to Berlin. In 1905, she met Bruno Springer, a lawyer with whom she had a relationship until his death in 1931. They never married, but kept separate apartments on the same floor to be near each other.

Helene’s written works were extensive, as was her political support for her ideas, including her anti-war efforts. For this reason, life in Germany became difficult during the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party. In 1937, she was stripped of her German citizenship and her doctorate degree. Her bank account was seized, her writings blacklisted, and her manuscripts burned. She first fled to Switzerland and then England. Attending a conference in Sweden when the war broke out, she decided to stay, but when Norway was invaded, she left Europe and eventually ended up in the United States where she died of cancer on February 24, 1943.

Note: Most of Helene Stöcker’s works don’t seem to have been translated into English, but the journal article in Signs by Ann Taylor Allen gives an excellent analysis of her ideas and how they contrasted with other men and women both in and outside of the League. If you’re interested in her ideas I highly recommend it.

Helene Stöcker (1869-1943) (link to pdf file)

Allen, Ann Taylor. “Mothers of the New Generation: Adele Schreiber, Helene Stöcker, and the Evolution of a German Idea of Motherhood, 1900-1914”. Signs 10.3 (1985): 418–438.(Behind a subscription wall at Jstor, but you can read three articles free every 14 days.)

Braker, Regina, “Helene Stocker’s Pacifism in the Weimar Republic: Between Ideal and Reality“, at Project Muse. (The full text is available only through institution subscription, but the summary has good information.)

Women in Law: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook by Rebecca Mae Salkar and Mary Volcansek (excerpt from Google Books)

Helene Stöcker, “The Modern Woman” (1893, at German History Docs

Maria Angela Ardinghelli – Italian Scientist and Translator (1730–1825)

During the time of Laura Bassi and Maria Agnesi, there was another learned woman of mathematics and science. Maria Angela Ardinghelli was well-known during her time, although she has been overlooked from a historical perspective, or known simply as a translator of works by Stephen Hales. In fact, she was the only woman whose letters were read at the meetings of the Paris Academy of Sciences on a regular basis. Bertucci describes her as a de facto foreign correspondent of the scientific activities in Italy. She sent them meteorological data, natural history information about Naples, and reports of unusual medical cases.

Engraving of the activities of the Académie des Sciences c. 1698 (source)

Engraving of the activities of the Académie des Sciences c. 1698 (source)

Ardinghelli’s family was one of the oldest and most distinguished in Italy, having moved from Florence to Naples when the Medici family came to power. But Nicola, her father, married against his parents’ wishes and was punished accordingly. He was denied his hereditary titles and was restricted to a very modest fortune. Nicola and his wife, Caterina Piccillo, had two children, but Maria Angela’s brother died young, so she was raised an only child. Her father provided her with the best available tutors for her education. She studied mathematics, natural philosophy, English, French and Latin.

In 1734, Naples gained a new king, Charles of Bourbon, and became an autonomous kingdom for the first time in centuries. Charles wanted to revive the university and cultural life of the city. Fernando Spinelli, prince of Tarsia, organized a public library and museum at his palace, and one of Maria Angela’s tutors was curator of the “physics cabinet” and a teacher at the new Academia Spinella. In 1747, to celebrate the opening of the library and birth of the crown prince, Spinelli dedicated a celebration to the king in which guests recited poems. Maria Angela was one of the ladies who spoke, and astonished everyone by composing her poem in Latin.

The Palazzo Tarsia was known for experiments with electricity and its association with Newton. It was also a place where Maria Angela could safely pursue knowledge and display her own talents. There she was seen as the protégé of Della Torre and her other teachers, rather than a woman “experimenting alone with men in the dark.” (I’m not really sure what the distinction is, because she is depicted in at least one image, while engaged in experiments, as the only woman surrounded by men.)

The Spinella Academy was intentionally modeled on the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, and Maria Angela contributed to this association by dedicating her translation of Stephen Hales’s Haemastaticks to the former French ambassador, the marquis De L’Hôpital. However, her translations were much more than literary works; they were annotated texts where she added commentary in footnotes, the dedication and a section titled “To the Reader.” In this way she was able to evaluate the science without exposing herself to ridicule.

In the case of Haemastaticks, she worked with both the English original and the French translation by François Bossier de Sauvages, and even corrected the French translation. She translated De Sauvages’ footnotes, repeated his calculations, and wrote her own footnotes. She also bolstered her own credibility by corresponding with the author to clarify the text. She was careful not to overstep the boundaries of modesty by not presuming to take the same position as De Sauvage, who replicated Hale’s experiments with a view of challenging them, but still made her mastery of the concepts clear with her commentary. When she did report on her own experiments, she framed the discussion as an invitation to explore with her, by following her thought process, as opposed to a challenge to the authority of her male colleagues.

Maria Angela’s efforts were very successful. A positive review by Giovanni Lami in the Florence’s Literary News brought her to the attention of other Italians; Hale was enormously pleased and encouraged her to translate his Vegetable Staticks as well; even De Sauvages was pleased in the end because of the increase in his international reputation. She did translate Vegetable Staticks with the result of increasing her reputation in France as well as Italy.

Jean-Antoine Nollet (source)

Jean-Antoine Nollet (source)

Her family was also supportive, and she began to host conversazioni which were well attended by both local academics and visiting foreigners. This is where she met Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French Abbé and physicist. Nollet and the academics at Palazzo Tarsia were both eager to solidify connections between Naples and France, so Della Torre introduced Nollet to Maria Angela.

Nollet was very impressed and spent several evenings at her home attending her conversazioni. They began a correspondence in which they exchanged academic works as well as discussing more personal matters, but he also encouraged his colleagues to correspond with her and to visit when they were in Naples. Their relationship was misunderstood by at least one colleague, partly because people had difficulty believing that a relationship between a man and woman, based on an interest in the physical world,  could be without “suggestive overtones.”

Not only was Maria Angela’s family supportive, but she was devoted to them as well and had no desire to travel herself. She turned down a marriage proposal from a French architect as well as an invitation to become tutor to the princesses at Versailles. But she was happy to be a contact for visiting academics who wanted to experience the natural history of Naples. Over time, she became a mediator between scholars in Paris and Naples and was relied on to circulate papers and information coming from Paris.

In spite of this support, not everyone welcomed women into intellectual circles and at some point Maria Angela began to publish anonymously. Bertucci suggests that it is likely related to the death of her father which occurred sometime before 1765. Without a male protector, she ran the risk of losing her respectability. She didn’t give up scientific work, however she had to be more circumspect about her image.

Maria Angela did marry, sometime after the death of her mother, prior to 1777. Her husband, Carlo Crispo, was a magistrate in Calabria, in the south of the Kingdom of Naples. She continued her correspondence with scholars in Naples and France, and helped Crispo expand his own circle of contacts. She was able to help him advance in his career, eventually moving back to Naples where she helped him with his work and gave up science.

She left Naples during the revolution of 1799, but returned during the Napoleonic era. Over the years she had continued to teach privately and had a respectable income which sustained her during her 24 years as a widow, before her death in 1825.

Note: I couldn’t find an image of Ardinghelli in the public domain. There is a medallion which was sculpted of her that can be viewed here.

Bertucci, Paola, “The In/visible Woman: Mariangela Ardinghelli and the Circulation of Knowledge between Paris and Naples in the Eighteenth Century“, Isis, Vol. 104, No. 2 (June 2013), pp. 226-249.
Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century by Marilyn Bailey Ogilivie

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Isabella Bird Bishop: Travel as a Cure for Poor Health

Isabella Bird (source)

Isabella Bird (source)

As promised, more on the life of Isabella Bird Bishop. She was truly a world traveler, and although she loved it, her traveling life began out of necessity.

On July 11, 1868, Isabella Bird left her home in Scotland a very sick woman. Problems with her spine had flared up; she was depressed and had trouble sleeping. The trip was uneventful as she traveled to Australia and then New Zealand, but on her way back home via the United States, she would be revived, by a hurricane. The raw power of nature filled her with life. From that point on, Isabella spent most of the rest of her life traveling, and making up for what she saw as a selfish life by doing good works.

Isabella was born on October 15, 1831 in Yorkshire, England, to Edward Bird and his second wife Dora Lawson. Edward was a minister and it was a stern, but loving, household where Isabella and her younger sister, Henrietta, were taught the Bible and the importance of charitable works.

From a young age, Isabella was a sickly child. The family doctor prescribed outdoor activity, so her father began the habit of taking her with him to visit parishioners. She rode in front of him on his horse from about the age of three, until she was old enough to ride herself. On these short trips, Edward taught Isabella to appreciate nature, identify trees and plants, measure distance, and how to be an excellent horsewoman. In addition to learning botany from their father, Dora taught Isabella and Henrietta, called Hennie, a mix of subjects and the girls became avid readers.

At the age of 18, Isabella had a fibrous tumor removed from her spine. The surgery went well, but she didn’t improve quickly and, as was common during Victorian times, her doctor suggested travel. So in 1854, her father gave her £100 and sent her off to visit her cousins in Canada. He told her she could stay away as long as the money lasted. After visiting her family on Prince Edward Island, she traveled west to Quebec, Chicago and Cincinnati, then back though New England and home.

Isabella’s letters home were so vivid and engaging that her family urged her to have them published. She had been publishing articles since she was 16, so a friend put her in contact with John Murray, who not only agreed to publish the book, but became her life-long friend. The book, The Englishwoman in America, was an immediate success, but it wasn’t long before Isabella’s health began to decline again and she was off back to the United States. This time, at her father’s suggestion, to investigate the current religious revival.

The next ten years were difficult for the sisters and kept Isabella close to home. Their father died in 1858, and their mother in 1866. Isabella used the time  to publish her second book, The Aspects of Religion in the United States of America, about her trip to the United States, believing it was what her father would want her to do.

Henrietta Amelia Bird (source)

Henrietta Amelia Bird (source)

The sisters settled into a routine. Hennie moved to Tobermory, a village on the Isle of Mull, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, where she kept the home fires burning while Isabella wandered. Isabella’s health was very bad at this time. In addition to her spinal problems, she was depressed and suffering from insomnia. She needed to take another voyage. Her first major journey after her parent’s deaths was to Australia and New Zealand, returning via Hawaii and the United States. It was during the passage to Hawaii that her vessel, the Nevada, was caught in the hurricane.

In Hawaii, Isabella discovered the ease of riding astride rather than side-saddle, a habit which she continued while exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains in the United States. There she visited mining camps and pioneer settlements where she joined in the work. She also met a man named Jim Nugent, “a man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry.” It was a romantic time, but Jim drank and was moody, so Isabella’s practical nature took over and she left for home. Six months later, Jim was shot and killed by a man on the ranch where she had stayed.

Back in Scotland, Isabella met a man with more sticking power. In addition to preparing two more books for publication, one about the six months she spent in Hawaii, the other about her time in the Rocky Mountains, she found time to take a botany class. There she met Dr. John Bishop, a physician ten years her junior.

John Bishop was very different than Jim. He was gentle, calm, and well respected as a physician. The kind of man who has a stabilizing influence on those around him. He soon became the sister’s physician. Intrigued by Isabella’s intelligence and boldness, it also wasn’t long before he fell in love with her.

Isabella Bird Bishop in Manchurian dress c. 1899 (source)

Isabella Bird Bishop in Manchurian dress c. 1899 (source)

When John proposed in 1877, Isabella told him that she wasn’t the marrying kind, but he wasn’t put off. She wanted to keep their friendship as it was and wrote that he “behaved beautifully” when she told him no. So, rather than commit herself to marriage, Isabella took another trip. This time to Japan, Singapore and on to the Malay Peninsula. There she rode an elephant for the first time and had an unusual dining experience with apes.

Following her usual pattern, Isabella wrote two books about her journey, a two volume work on Japan and a book about her Malay adventures. These would be the last based on letters home to Hennie. In 1881, Hennie became ill and died of typhoid fever. Isabella was distraught, however, while still in mourning, later that year she married John.

Her biographer, Anna Stoddart, was of the opinion that Isabella would never have married had Hennie lived. Pat Barr suggests that she originally refused his proposal because of possible restrictions on her travel while she was still of child-bearing age. Regardless, their life together wasn’t long. Isabella was ill for most of the time, and when she recovered, she nursed John, who had developed pernicious anemia. He died shortly before their fifth anniversary.

Isabella was at loose ends. She had always had someone to make a home for her, but now she became transient. At one point, she took a nursing course in London, but when she tried private nursing, it didn’t work well for her. Finally, she settled on the idea of establishing missionary hospitals. Her books had sold well and Isabella was financially secure. Over the remaining years of her life, she donated money to found five missionary hospitals, one in memory of Hennie in Pakistan, one in memory of John in Kashmir, and three others in China.

Although Isabella gave money and left the building and administration of hospitals to others, this gave her an excuse to travel. So in 1889, she was off again to the East. This time she began in India and Pakistan, traveled up to Kashmir where she spent time with Tibetans, traveled with sheep caravans, and had one of her servants arrested as a murderer. (Isabella knew nothing of his past until he was apprehended. When asked to check her belongings to see if anything was stolen, she refused because he had behaved admirably with her, although he did have a tendency to scare the villagers.)

After descending from the Tibetan plateau, she made the acquaintance of a British major who was headed to Persia on a mission. He invited her to come along. This resulted in a 500 miles ride from Baghdad to Tehran and geographical survey of southern Persia. When they parted ways, she embarked on a 1000 mile ride through western Persia, Kurdistan and Armenia, finally returning home via steamer from Constantinople.

Isabella at Shàntóu, Guangdong province, China (source)

Isabella at Shàntóu, Guangdong province, China (source)

Isabella took one more trip to Asia. Between 1894 and 1897, she traveled to Japan again, then on to Korea and China. In China, she journeyed down the Yangtze River and once again to the border of Tibet.

Now in her sixties, she stayed active, taking classes, giving lectures, and of course writing books and articles. Almost all of her books were best sellers and she had become quite well-known, so she had considerable correspondence as well. As she neared her death, one of the most difficult things for her was not being able to hold a pen to write for any length of time. But, before that time came, Isabella had one more trip in her.

At the age of 69, Isabella surprised everyone by taking a 1000 mile trek through Morocco. She visited a number of cities and even met the Emperor, although it had to be “secretly managed,” and wrapping up the trip with a visit to the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains. She described the scene where she met the young Sultan, where he and his officials were all dressed in pure white.

“I standing in front below the steps of the throne, bare-headed and in black silk, the only European woman who has ever seen an Emperor of Morocco I as I am the first who has ever entered the Atlas Mountains and who has ever visited the fierce Berber tribes. When I wished the Sultan long life and happiness at parting, he said that he hoped when his hair was as white as mine, he might have a much energy as I have!”

That was in 1901, and Isabella’s energy began to decline. She reached the point where she couldn’t write, but her mind was clear and she received visitors and many letters from all over the world to keep her company. Isabella Bird Bishop died on October 7, 1904, having lived a very full life.

Isabella at Tangier in 1901 (source)

Isabella at Tangier in 1901 (source)

On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller
The Life of Isabella Bird (Mrs. Bishop) by Anna M. Stoddart, 1908, at Internet Archives
A Curious Life for a Lady: The Story of Isabella Bird by Pat Barr
“Obituary: Death of Mrs. Isabella Bishop”, Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, Volume 36, Jan 1904.

Isabella Bird Bishop: Riding Elephants and Dining With Apes – In Her Own Words

Isabella Bird (source)

Isabella Bird (source)

Isabella Bird Bishop was truly a world traveler. During her life she visited places as diverse as New England, Australia, and the jungles of East Asia. In 1878, she left Scotland for a trip to Japan, moved on to Singapore, and then spontaneously decided to go to the Malay Peninsula. The excerpts below are taken from her book The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither. (The Golden Chersonese is an old name for the Malay Peninsula.)


“This is rather exciting, for I have had an unusual journey, and my circumstances are unusual, for Mr. Low, the Resident, has not returned, and I am not only alone in his bungalow in the heart of the jungle, but so far as I can learn I am the only European in the region.”

Riding an Elephant

“Before I came I dreamt of howdahs and cloth of gold trappings, but my elephant had neither. In fact there was nothing grand about him but his ugliness. His back was covered with a piece of raw hide, over which were several mats, and on either side of the ridgy backbone a shallow basket, filled with fresh leaves and twigs, and held in place by ropes of rattan. I dropped into one of these baskets from the porch, a young Malay lad into the other, and my bag was tied on behind with rattan. A noose of the same with a stirrup served for the driver to mount.”

“This mode of riding is not comfortable. One sits facing forward with the feet dangling over the edge of the basket.* This edge soon produces a sharp ache or cramp, and when one tries to get relief by leaning back on anything, the awkward, rolling motion is so painful, that one reverts to the former position till it again becomes intolerable. “

“Certainly I always dreamed that there must be something splendid in riding on an elephant, but I don’t feel the least accession of dignity in consequence.”

“One time the driver went off to gossip, the elephant “turned into the jungle, where he began to rend and tear the trees, and then going to a mud-hole, he drew all the water out of it, squirted it with a loud noise over himself and his riders, soaking my clothes with it, and when he turned back to the road again, he several times stopped and seemed to stand on his head by stiffening his proboscis and leaning upon it, and when I hit him with my umbrella he uttered the loudest roar I ever heard. My Malay fellow-rider jumped off and ran back for the driver, on which the panniers came altogether down on my side, and I hung on with difficulty, wondering what other possible contingencies could occur, always expecting that the beast, which was flourishing his proboscis, would lift me off with it and deposit me in a mud-hole.”

Eventually, the elephant refused to go any farther and Isabella had to walk the remaining distance to Mr. Low’s house at Kwala Kangsa. The driver told her it was a “wicked elephant”, but others later told her it was sick.

Isabella's first elephant ride (source)

Isabella’s first elephant ride (source)

An Unusual Dining Experience

“I was received by a magnificent Oriental butler, and after I had had a delicious bath, dinner, or what Assam was pleased to call breakfast, was “served.” The word “served” was strictly applicable, for linen, china, crystal, flowers, cooking, were all alike exquisite.”

“My valise had not arrived, and I had been obliged to redress myself in my mud-splashed tweed dress, therefore I was much annoyed to find the table set for three, and I hung about unwillingly in the veranda, fully expecting two Government clerks in faultless evening dress to appear, and I was vexed to think that my dream of solitude was not to be realized, when Assam more emphatically assured me that the meal was “served,” and I sat down, much mystified, at the well-appointed table, when he led in a large ape, and the Malay servant brought in a small one, and a Sikh brought in a large retriever and tied him to my chair! This was all done with the most profound solemnity. The circle being then complete, dinner proceeded with great stateliness. The apes had their curry, chutney, pineapple, eggs, and bananas on porcelain plates, and so had I. The chief difference was that, whereas I waited to be helped, the big ape was impolite enough occasionally to snatch something from a dish as the butler passed round the table, and that the small one before very long migrated from his chair to the table, and, sitting by my plate, helped himself daintily from it. What a grotesque dinner party!  What a delightful one! My “next of kin” were so reasonably silent; they required no conversational efforts; they were most interesting companions. “Silence is golden,” I felt; shall I ever enjoy a dinner party so much again?”

A map of the Malay Peninsula from James Low, 1836 (source)

A map of the Malay Peninsula from James Low, 1836 (source)

More to come about Isabella’s life and travels in another post.

The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither by Isabella Bird Bishop at Internet Archive