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.
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.
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 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.
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.