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.)

BRITISH RESIDENCY, KWALA KANGSA, February 16.

“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.

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

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