Monday, April 11, 2016

Isabella Bird, Explorer, Writer

Isabella in Manchurian clothing from a journey
through China. Copyright 1899, G. P Putnam's Sons
Isabella Bird was a formidable world traveller and British writer who went far beyond the boundaries explored by other Westerners.

"Everything suggests a beyond." ~ Isabella L. Bird, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

Isabella Bird was born in the English county of Yorkshire on October 15th, 1831, to a family of clergy. Her father Ernest was a clergyman and her mother Dora was the daughter of one, and she educated Isabella at home.

Not much is known regarding Isabella's upbringing and background that would explain her insatiable proclivity towards travel. Descriptions from her youth tell of a small girl, about 5 ft in stature (as if that were somehow damning) who suffered various ailments. At 18, she had an operation to remove a tumor near her spine.

Hoping the change would be good for Isabella's recovery, the family started spending their summers in Scotland. When Isabella did not thrive but complained of insomnia and depression, it was seen as perplexing. Wrote friend Anna Stoddart in her biography of Bird, "Some sorrow, over which she brooded in the early fifties, was already sapping her nervous strength, already impaired by the operation."

By this time Isabella would have been in her early 20s, and given the adventurous spirit and keen mind revealed in later journals, it can easily be seen that she might indeed have been suffering from depression, perhaps as she contemplated the stifling life that faced her and any intelligent woman in the late 1900s - in fact, later comments in her writing about the oppressive nature of society's expectations would support this link.

In what was perhaps the best advice Isabella could have received at that time, her doctor suggested she travel.

Her father gave her £100 and sent her to visit cousins in Canada, encouraging her to stay as long as she liked. It was her first taste of travel and from Canada she moved down to the United States, passing through Toronto, Chicago, Boston, and New York.
Isabella in a portrait for one of her books
From these adventures she published a book in 1856 called The Englishwoman in America, and it sold very well (though Isabella found the title, selected by her publisher, to be pretentious). The money she made from her writing would fund her journeys for the rest of her life, and she continued to write as she traveled.


Back at home in 1858, her father passed away. They had been very close, and Isabella's health deteriorated once again. She moved with her family to Edinburgh and became largely house-bound; she would stay in touch with friends and had a great companion in her sister, Henrietta, but she avoided large gatherings and social functions as they tended to exhaust her.

By 1964, Isabella worried privately that her health had allowed her to cocoon herself away, out of the path of life's troubles but also its curiosities. She wrote:

"I feel as if my life were spent in the very ignoble occupation of taking care of myself, and that unless some disturbing influences arise, I am in great danger of becoming perfectly encrusted with selfishness, and... of living to make life agreeable and its path smooth for myself alone."

It was an insightful statement, but she continued to stay put. Isabella kept writing in England, but did not feel better. In 1866 her mother, Dora Bird, passed away.

Australia and Hawaii

At the urging of both her doctor and Henrietta, in 1872 Isabella ventured out to Australia, which she did not enjoy, then Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands), which she enjoyed considerably more. By this time she was nearly forty.

She found fascination in the volcanos, the poi, the warm waters. She explored lava beds and slept on the slopes of the Mauna Loa, an active volcano. She rode horseback, thrilled to find that the women in Hawaii did not ride sidesaddle, which was painful to her, but sat astride the horse as a man (and any sane person) would.

"The Pau of Hawaiian Ladies Holiday Riding Dress," by Isabelle Bird
For a woman from England, sitting on a horse in such a way would have been scandalous, so in an illustration for her 1875 book Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, it is perhaps no mistake that it is unclear exactly how the woman is sitting.

These experiences revived Isabella, who wrote to Henrietta that "I saw myself looking so young in a glass that I didn't know it was me - just as I have been startled in Edinburgh sometimes by seeing an anxious, haggard face and seeing it was me."

Her writing also indicates some of the things that might have troubled her at home, or at least, that she appreciated about being gone.

"It is pleasant to be among people whose faces are not soured by the east wind, or wrinkled by the worrying effort to ‘keep up appearances;’ who have no formal visiting, but real sociability; who regard the light manual labor of domestic life as a pleasure, not a thing to be ashamed of," she wrote.

And when it came time for her to be going: “Every step now seemed not a step homewards but a step out of my healthful life back among wretched dragging feelings and aches and nervousness.”

Colorado and Long's Peak

From Hawaii, Isabella ventured west to the United States. From San Fransisco she travelled to Lake Tahoe, then to the Rocky Mountains and Colorado. This would be the setting of her most popular book, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains.

It was here that she met Jim Nugent, a grizzled cattle rancher with one eye and a thirst for liquor. He had lost his eye in an encounter with a bear that had left one side of his face badly mauled.

Isabella seemed quite enchanted with him, as one can glean from her detailed description:

"He has pathos, poetry, and humor, an intense love of nature, strong vanity in certain directions, an obvious desire to act and speak in character, and sustain his reputation as a desperado, a considerable acquaintance with literature, a wonderful verbal memory, opinions on every person and subject, a chivalrous respect for women in his manner, which makes it all the more amusing when he suddenly turns round upon one with some graceful raillery, a great power of fascination, and a singular love of children.

"The children of this house run to him, and when he sits down they climb on his broad shoulders and play with his curls."

Together Isabella and Jim would climb Long's Peak, an elevation of 14,259 feet. It was an arduous climb, made worse by not taking enough water. They wrote their names on a paper and placed them in a tin at the summit, and when evening came they fell asleep.

By day Isabella would cook, clean, and drive the cattle, then at night she and Jim would talk by the fire and he would read poetry he had written. By the time he asked her to marry him, she knew too much about his love of alcohol and self-confessed outlaw history to give any other answer than no - "A man any woman might love, but no sane woman would marry," she noted to her sister.

It broke her heart to leave him, but she knew she must move on. She did so tearfully and would never see him again; he was killed in a brawl over land just a few months later.


From San Francisco, Isabella travelled next to Japan. Included in her 1880 book Unbeaten Tracks in Japanis a list of the items she carried, which is impressively sparse:

"I have a folding-chair… and air-pillow for [rickshaw] travelling, an india-rubber bath, sheets, a blanket, and last, and more important than all else, a canvas stretcher [for sleeping] … I have brought only a small supply of Leibig’s extract of meat, 4 lbs. of raisins, some chocolate, both for eating and drinking, and some brandy in case of need. I have my own Mexican saddle and bridle, a reasonable quantity of clothes, including a loose wrapper for wearing in the evenings, some candles, Mr. Brunton’s large map of Japan, volumes of the Transactions of the English Asiatic Society, and Mr. Satow’s Anglo-Japanese Dictionary."

Now 47, Isabella hired a young man to be her translator and deliberately embarked towards the northern district and Hokkaido, areas that had been previously unexplored by Westerners.

Isabella surprised her interpreter by being keenly interested in talking with the people of Japan so she can learn their customs - he was far more scornful of them, and failed to understand why she would bother. Through these interactions she was left believing the views of the Japanese were relatively simple, with such evidence as the following: when she asked for their ideas regarding life after death, one man gave the response, "How can we know? No one has ever come back to us!"

A scene from Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, 1885
From Japan, Isabella travelled to Hong Kong, Canton, Saigon, and Singapore. She then followed her heart once again back to England, the country she dreaded going home to, but could never seem to cut ties with for good.

New Love and New Loss

Upon her return to England, Isabella found that she had become famous in the interim for her books about Hawaii and the Rocky Mountains, but that her sister was doing poorly. Isabella cared for her sister while she was ill and asked God to spare her "last treasure," but in 1881 after a feverish bout that lasted for days, Henrietta died of typhoid.

Isabella was devastated, and described in private notes that "she was my world."

In an interesting twist, the doctor who had been caring the Henrietta, Dr. John Bishop, had been asking Isabella to marry him for years, and she finally relented. She wore a black dress to her wedding, giving the impression to at least one friend that she was "marrying under protest" and that her "real self was buried then in her sister's grave."

The couple was actually quite happy together for a while, but only five years after they were married, John died. Isabella mourned his death then as a widow with no children, she did the only thing that made sense: she started traveling again.


This time, Isabella had a new focus. Perhaps inspired by her late husband, she completed nursing classes and at the age of 57 set out to provide missionary medical care. While in India, she established the Henrietta Bird Hospital in Amristar and the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in Srinigar.

She travelled to the far north, to the border with Tibet. During her travels, her horse took a bad step when crossing a river and drowned; Isabella would escape with two broken ribs. Further along she would encounter Major Herbert Sawyer making his way towards Persia, and the two travelled together across the desert in the middle of winter. They barely made it to Tehran alive.

Undaunted, after bidding the Major farewell, Isabella set off alone and spent the next six months traveling at the head of her own caravan through Iran, Kurdistan, and Turkey.

The Royal Societies

Upon her return to Britain in 1892 the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) in London asked Isabella to speak, but they did not allow women to be members and she declined, choosing instead to speak at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (which did allow female members, and promptly made her one). She captivated her audience with her descriptions and photographs, providing a portal to world they had never imagined.

This turn of events embarrassed the RGS, and they just as promptly voted to accept women members. Once that was agreed, they elected Isabella as their first female Fellow. Five years later they would again ask Isabella to speak, and that time, she would indulge them.

Korea and China

With no family tying her to England, Isabella departed in 1884 to go one again to Japan, then travelled to Korea, taking pictures of the Sino-Japanese war and the occupation of Korea by Japanese soldiers as she went. From Korea in 1886 she followed the Yangtze river to China, traveling upriver as far as she was able, until attacked by an angry mob calling her "white devil."

"The Mode of Carrying Oil and Water," Isabella Bird.
Having never seen a European before, the mob trapped her in in the top floor of a house and set the house on fire, but she was rescued by a detachment of soldiers. In another town, she was stoned and knocked unconscious.

Throughout it all she charted unknown territory and summited mountains, handing out medicine and advice on common ailments and helping hundreds of people who were ill, even when she herself was physically exhausted. In 1887, she returned home to Britain.

Portrait by Sir John Benjamin Stone, July 1899, National Portrait Gallery.
I just love the expression she has in all of her pictures.
Once back in England she wrote The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1900), Chinese Pictures (1900) and Notes on Morocco (1901); the latter being penned after a short trip to Morocco.

The trip to Morocco would be her final one. Isabella died in Edinburgh on October 7th, 1904.

Just a few more excepts too good not to share:

Upon waking in the night after summiting Long's Peak, CO:

“When I woke, the moon was shining through the silvery branches, whitening the bald Peak above, and glittering on the great abyss of snow behind…; My feet were so icy cold that I could not sleep again, and getting some blankets to sit in, and making a roll of them for my back, I sat for two hours by the camp fire… Jim, or Mr Nugent, as I always scrupulously called him, told stories of his early youth, and of a great sorrow which had led him to embark on a lawless and desperate life. His voice trembled, and tears rolled down his cheek. Was it semi-conscious acting, I wondered, or was his dark soul really stirred to its depths by the silence, the beauty, and the memories of youth?"

"Yet, after all, they were not bad souls; and though he failed so grotesquely, he did his incompetent best."

"There is also a dog, but he does not understand English."


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