Elizabeth Piper Ensley – Organizing African-American Suffragists

Elizabeth Piper Ensley c. 1900, Denver Public Library (source)

Elizabeth Piper Ensley c. 1900, Denver Public Library (source)

Yesterday, I posted an article on Facebook by Lynn Yaeger at Vogue entitled The African-American Suffragists History Forgot. It was a good, short article which gave names of a number of African-American women involved in the suffrage movement, including a couple I have never heard of. One of these is Elizabeth Piper Ensley, a woman who had extensive contacts in the east where the suffrage movement was bigger news, but who did her work in the west.

Not much is known about Elizabeth’s childhood. She was born around 1848 in the Caribbean Islands and was well-educated, probably to the level of a college degree. One source says that she received part of her education in Germany and France. Whether abroad or at home, when she moved to Boston in the 1870s, she made good use of her education by teaching school and helping to establish a library. She also got involved in suffrage and social reform groups active in Boston at the time.

In 1882, Elizabeth married Howell N Ensley and they moved to Washington D.C where they were both associated with Howard University, possibly as teachers. Some time before 1888, they decided to travel west and settled in Denver, Colorado. It was a period of economic depression in the area with a lot of unemployed miners moving to Denver with their families. Elizabeth got involved in reform efforts using her contacts in Boston and Washington to assist in relief efforts for the poor.

Around the same time, the Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association was reorganized with a desire to put women’s suffrage on the November 1893 ballot. The Colorado State Constitution of 1876  gave women the right to vote, but only in local school elections. The Equal Suffrage Association was originally founded at that time to work toward suffrage in state-wide elections, but had ceased functioning.

The Association reorganized with meager resources, just $25 and Elizabeth became treasurer. She took on a leadership role in two areas, first in developing the financial backing needed for the campaign, but probably more important to her, she organized black women. Together, they influenced the all-male electorate to vote in favor of the amendment and women in Colorado won the right to vote on November 7, 1893.

To Elizabeth, having the right to vote wasn’t enough. She soon organized the Women’s League to educate black women on the issues, why, and how to vote. During the next year, women helped to vote into the legislature a black man, lawyer Joseph Stuart, and three women, the first female state legislators in the country. She reported on the election in an article written for Women’s Era, the first monthly newspaper published by and for African-American women, founded and edited by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.

In 1904, she founded the Colorado Association of Colored Women’s Clubs with a focus on community and education programs. In her club work, she also served as the only black member of the Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Elizabeth died in 1919 and was buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. In 2005, Sheba R. Wheeler of The Denver Post reported on a project which examined burial records at Riverside Cemetery in Denver. Riverside is one of the oldest cemeteries in Denver and the records proved to be a goldmine of information about the African-Americans living in the area in the late 19th century. Among them were the records of Elizabeth and her family. Although sources say that the Ensleys moved to Denver in 1890, Elizabeth’s husband died in 1888 in Denver. The couple had two children, Roger G. Ensley (1883-1915) and Charlotte Ensley Britton (1885-1948) who are also buried at Riverside.

The history of African-American women may have been forgotten, or suppressed, in the past, but hopefully this is changing.


“The African-American Suffragists History Forgot” by Lynn Yaeger, Vogue
Elizabeth Piper Ensley, Autry National Center of the American West
Elizabeth Piper Ensley at Find A Grave
Elizabeth Piper Ensley, Women of the West Museum
Denver cemetery’s data “very valuable” to state” by Sheba R. Wheeler, The Denver Post

The Assassination of Empress Myeongseong of Korea

Empress Myeongseong of Korea (source)

Empress Myeongseong of Korea (source)

On October 8, 1895, Empress Myeongseong of Korea, known as Queen Min during her lifetime, was assassinated for political reasons. She was the first official wife of King Gojong, the King of Joseon and the first emperor of Korea. After the first Sino-Japanese War, Queen Min advocated ties between Korea and Russia in an attempt to reduce Japanese influence. Yi Ha-eung, the Heungseon Daewongun (King Gojong’s father and regent during his minority), orchestrated several failed rebellions in an attempt to remove her from influence before eventually achieving success.

In 1863 when King Cheoljong of Joseon died, the Grand Royal Dowager Queen Sinjeong with Yi Ha-eung a member of an obscure branch of the Yi clan managed to have Yi Myeongbok, his son, crowned King Gojong of Joseon. Yi Myeongbok was only 11 years old so Yi-Ha-eung was given the title Heungseon Daewongun and power to act as regent. He proved to be a wise ruler, eliminating corruption in the government, revising laws, and reforming military techniques.

When Gojong turned 15, the search for a wife began. She had to be beautiful, healthy, and of only an ordinary level of education. It was also essential that she have no close relatives who could make a claim on the throne. The daughter of Min Chirok of the Yeoheung Min clan met these qualifications. Born on October 19, 1851, by the age of eight both of Min’s parents had died and she was living in the House of Gamgodang. She was also of sufficiently noble birth, both Daewongun’s wife and mother were from the same clan and it was also the source of two previous Queen consorts.

The selection process was exacting, but after a final interview with the Daewongun, Min married Gojong on March 20, 1866. At 16, she was so slight that a court lady was assigned to hold up the traditional wig worn by brides at royal weddings. But if they thought Min was weak because of her small stature, they were wrong. Officials soon found out that the new queen was an ambitious woman. Rather than participating in lavish parties and afternoon teas, she spent her time reading and furthering her education in areas such as history, science, and politics.

Eventually, Min began to take an active role in politics. She also gave birth to a son who sadly died four days after his birth. Seeing the danger that the Queen posed, Daewongun took this opportunity to accuse her of being unable to bear a healthy male heir and declared the son of a concubine, Lee Gwi-in, as the official crown prince. But Min had also been forming a secret faction against the Daewongun. With their help, she presented a formal impeachment to the Royal Council of Administration. By this time, Gojong was old enough to rule in his own right and the Council forced Heungseon Daewongun into retirement. Min also took this opportunity to banish Lee Gwi-in and her son, stripping them of royal titles.

During the 1870s, through various envoys and a show of Japanese naval force, Korean officials signed the Ganghwa Treaty in 1876 opening Korea to Japaneses trade. The balance of power was shifting in Asia with changes occuring in China, Russia, and Japan. Gojong and Min sent fact finding missions to Japan to determine its degree of westernization and plans for Korea. Min hoped to open Korea to western technology, but limit the control of Japan in the country. The majority of the Royal Council, however, was strictly isolationist.

Gyeongbokgung Palace where Queen Min died (source)

Gyeongbokgung Palace where Queen Min died (source)

In 1881, Min and Gojong sent another fact finding mission to Japan. As a result, the Queen reorganized the government, creating various bureaus to deal with foreign relations, commerce, and the military. One goal was to import western technology, specifically to modernize military weapons and techniques. This was met with opposition and in September of that year a plot was uncovered to overthrow the Queen’s faction and put one of Daewongun’s sons on the throne.

Over the next few years, there were several attempts to overthrow the Queen’s influence. She was pro-China and pro-gradual westernization. Others were in favor of immediate westernization and willing to use Japanese influence to achieve it. Twice Gojong signed treaties with the Japanese reimbursing them for losses during coup attempts. In both cases, Min countered by making agreements with the Chinese.

With peace established in 1885, Min began to achieve some of her goals. A palace school was established for children of the elite with courses taught in English. The first all-girl’s school was founded, giving Korean girls a right to an education for the first time. Both of these institutions were headed by Protestant missionaries as Min was much more tolerant of other religions than her father-in-law had been. Their success brought other missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, which introduced changes in the areas of medicine and music as well. Although Min never converted, she like many of the ideas that came with the western influence.

Military modernization continued with the help of the Americans, Trade became firmly established not only with the Japanese, but with China and other western nations, and the currency was stabilized. Modern agriculture methods and machines were imported and telegraph lines were installed between Korea, China, and Japan.

But there were external influences outside of Min and Gojong’s control. After the defeat of the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese war, Min sought help from Russia to block Japanese influence. Once again the Japanese reached out to Daewongun to attempt to remove her from power. This time they were successful.

Early on the morning of the 8th, troops loyal to the Daewongun attacked the Gyeongbokgung Palace, overpowered the royal guard, and admitted a group of Japanese assassins allegedly recruited by Miura Gorō, the Japanese Minister to Korea at the time. Three women were killed. When it was determined which one was Queen Min, her body was burned and her ashes scattered. The incident prompted international criticism, anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, and the recall of Miura to Japan. Miura and the military personal involved were tried in Japan, but found not-guilty on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

King Gojong and the crown prince took refuge in the Russian legation. After Daewongun’s return to power, with the encouragement of Japanese officials, he presented a proposal to lower Min’s status posthumously from Queen consort to commoner. Although it appears that Gojong was always swayed by others, in this case he took a strong stand and refused to sign. He supposedly said, “I would rather slit my wrists and let them bleed than disgrace the woman who saved this kingdom.”

Over the next two years, Japanese influence was reduced and in October 1897 King Gojong returned to the palace and proclaimed the founding of the Korean Empire. He had Min’s remains recovered and properly entombed in in Namyangju, Gyeonggi, South Korea. Instead of having her status reduced, Queen Min was declared Empress Myeongseong of Korea posthumously.

Funeral of Empress Myeongseong in 1897 (source)

Funeral of Empress Myeongseong in 1897 (source)

Further Reading
Empress Myeongseong at Wikipedia
Queen Min of Joseon Korea at About Education
Empress Myeongseong Assassinated at the Sword of Japanese Killers, Body then Burned: Will This Established Theory Be Overturned?“, The Kyunghyang Shinmum
Consort Profile: Empress Myeongseong of Korea, at The Mad Monarchist
The Sobering Truth of Empress Myeongseong’s Killing, The Chosunilbo

Dolley Madison: Life in Washington City

Dolley Payne Madison c. 1794 around the time of her marriage to James Madison (source)

Dolley Payne Madison c. 1794 around the time of her marriage to James Madison (source)

When Dolley Payne Todd married James Madison on September 15, 1774, it was somewhat shocking. Not that she remarried, but that she didn’t wait at least a year after John Todd’s death. She also married outside the Quaker faith, which of course meant that she was read out of Meeting. But, Dolley was practical. She knew that as a woman in the 18th century, she had very few options unless she was married, and she had a son to think about. On the day of her wedding, she wrote to a friend that she knew her “little Payne” would have a “generous & tender protector.”

She may have been somewhat ambiguous about the relationship. After signing the letter “Dolley Payne Todd”, she went back after the wedding ceremony and signed underneath, “Dolley Madison! Alass!” Nevertheless, Dolley and James were well suited to each other. James was considerate and even-tempered, as was Dolley, and they had similar backgrounds. If returning to the type of life she lived in her girlhood bothered her, we don’t know. Dolley, Payne, and her sister Anna soon moved to Madison’s plantation in Virginia. As the oldest son in his family, the plantation became John’s after his father’s death, but his mother was still living, so Dolley didn’t immediately have to become a slave mistress.

When Dolley married James, she knew he was a political man, but it wasn’t clear whether or not he would continue his career in politics. Not because he didn’t want to, but because the country was in such turmoil. The government without parties that George Washington envisioned didn’t exist. Republicans such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison feared a monarchical government with actions such as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. On the other hand, the Federalists feared mob rule as in the bloody French revolution. Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson easily won the election of 1800, and selected James Madison as his Secretary of State. Dolley was headed to Washington.

When Dolley moved to Washington, what she found was, what appeared to be, a group of little villages connected by muddy roads which became almost impassable when it rained. The city had been planned and eventually would be beautiful, but it would take time. Most congressmen didn’t bring their families and lived in boarding houses which clustered around the capitol building. The Executive Mansion and the Supreme Court Buildings each had their own little group of buildings, the separation mirroring the separation of powers as described in the Constitution.

Unlike New York City and Philadelphia, Washington didn’t have an existing social structure. There weren’t many year-round families, but there were a few who had, in most cases, moved there for the purpose of business. Dolley wanted to bring together these families with congressmen and foreign diplomats. But it was going to be a delicate process, because of the new President’s stand on society.

Thomas Jefferson as President (source)

Thomas Jefferson as President (source)

Thomas Jefferson liked social functions, but he didn’t want to mix society with politics. He particularly wanted to avoid having women involved in politics. As the United States’ ambassador to France at the beginning of the French revolution, he blamed all of the excesses on the Queen. He also wrote home that all of the reforms would fail unless the men  controlled the “influence of women in the government.” He intended to do that in America.

Once in office, he immediately discontinued the weekly levees, opening the Executive mansion to the public only on July 4 and New Year’s Day. Instead he held small separate dinner parties for either Federalist or Republican congressmen and his cabinet members, and of course he excluded women.

Dolley had to tread lightly to avoid alienating Jefferson, but she set out to make the Madison home the center of Washington society. As soon as she moved in, she began to make calls on the other women in the city. Then she began to hold small parties where she invited a mix of people, men and women, Federalists and Republicans, locals and foreign diplomats. She combined elegant food with good conversation, but was careful not to be too extravagant. And, she remained non-partisan whenever possible. Margaret Bayard Smith, an author and prolific letter writer, said that Dolley extended to both parties “cordial attentions” and “undistinguished politeness.”

She was truly brilliant in the social realm, and Jefferson always liked her. But not everyone did. During the eight years before Madison became President, she was the subject of her share of gossip and slander. It was rumored that James “pimped out” Dolley and her sister, Anna, to foreign visitors, that she had an affair with Jefferson, and that she and James had no children because Dolley was too “hot.” I don’t know how “hot” she was, but of course it had nothing to do with their childlessness, and there was no truth to the other rumors. Even the fact that John Todd returned to Philadelphia when he became infected with yellow fever in 1793, to protect the family, got turned around on Dolley. It was said that she “banished” him to die alone.

This last rumor was particularly hurtful, and Dolley had other personal griefs to deal with during this time. Her mother died, then two nieces, followed by their mother, Dolley’s sister Mary. Also, Dolley was deprived of the person who was possibly her closest confidante;her sister Anna got married. Anna had lived with Dolley for her entire life. When Dolley married John Todd, Anna moved in with them, and had continued to live with Dolley and James.

Engraving of James Madison by David Edwin dated 1809-1817 (source)

Engraving of James Madison by David Edwin dated 1809-1817 (source)

Dolley poured all of her grief out privately in letters to family, but to the public she showed a smiling face. She kept her hurt feelings and griefs to herself, and made every effort to rise above it, avoid pettiness, and appear bipartisan. And it worked. By the time Jefferson’s two terms were coming to an end, the Madison home had become the primary place for political activity in Washington.

Dolley was a serious political partner to James from the beginning of their marriage. She often acted as a secretary for him, even after he became President if his official secretary was ill. So when it became clear that Jefferson was going to abide by the two term precedent set by Washington, it was time to go into campaigning mode.

While James may have been the obvious choice for the next President, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion. He had challengers from his own party as well as the Federalists. Of course it would have been unseemly for James to campaign, but Dolley had laid the groundwork. They had relationships with everyone that mattered in Washington and all James had to do was be present when she invited them over.

Dolley had honed her skills over the last eight years, in addition to building the social structure of the city, and it paid off. By the time of the election, any serious challengers from within the Republican party had dropped off and James defeated Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the Federalist challenger, by an electoral vote of 122 to 47. And Dolley’s contribution didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, Pinckney said that he had been beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison, and famously added, “I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”

Dolley is widely recognized as the woman who defined what the role of a First Lady should be, but what I wasn’t aware of is that the work began eight long years before she reached the Executive Mansion. Also, her impact was about much more than society and campaigning. She understood that for the young nation to survive, the men in government had to work together, and often that is much easier to do when people can meet on neutral ground.

19th century lithograph of Montpelier (source)

19th century lithograph of Montpelier (source)

First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789 – 1961 by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor
The History Chicks podcast on Dolley Madison
CSPAN First Ladies Influence and Image

Further reading
Feather Schwartz Foster: Presidential History Blog has a number of excellent posts about Dolley.

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