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Unsung Heroes: Isabella Bird

2011 July 26

It’s the middle of the 19th century, and you’re the daughter of an Anglican clergyman living in rural Northern England. You’ve spent most of your young life unwell (something described by one historian quoted, but not named on this site as “not uncommon among intelligent women of the period, who were thwarted by lack of formal education and oppressed by constrictive social conventions”), and you’ve just had a partially successful operation to remove a tumour from your spine, leaving you with insomnia and depression. The prospect of a life of quiet domesticity in the countryside bores you to tears. What do you do? If you’re Isabella Bird (1831-1904) you get a £100 allowance and set off to North America by yourself to do something more interesting.

Monochrome etching illustration of Isabella Bird, showing a youngish white woman with hair pulled back under an eastern-European style hat, with a shawl tied around her neck. Image via Wikimedia Commons, shared under creative commons licenceBird’s first journey abroad, in 1854, was not the most adventurous trip of her life: she travelled around the Eastern US and Canada, mostly staying with relatives for the several months she was in North America. However, the trip sparked off the two key interests that would come to define much of her adult life, travelling and writing. She composed daily journal entries throughout the duration of her journey which – along with letters written to her younger sister Henrietta – formed the basis for her first book, The Englishwoman in America.

Following her return to England and her father’s death in 1858, Bird moved to Edinburgh with her mother and sister. As well as several shorter trips to the Americas, Bird made several journeys to the Outer Hebrides during this period, writing articles on the plight of the crofters there. She used some of the royalties from these articles to help crofters emigrate to the US.

1868 saw the death of Bird’s mother, and her sister’s settling on the Isle of Mull. Loathing the quiet domestic lifestyle there, and finding it brought back her childhood illnesses, Bird planned a longer series of voyages. She set out first for Australia, and then in 1872 to Hawaii. There she climbed an active volcano and penned her next book. The money from that funded her travels on to Colorado, the most recent state to have joined the US. Her time in Colorado prompted another book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, perhaps her best known work. Her adventures there were rather awesome, reading like the treatment for a movie. She befriended a charismatic one-eyed outlaw, Jim Nugent, a fan of poetry and casual violence. With his help she climbed Long’s Peak and explored the Rockies. Bird caused some controversy by dressing in a sensible manner for her travels here, and riding astride instead of side-saddle, which ultimately lead to her threatening to sue the Times for accusing her of dressing ‘like a man’.

Her return to England after the trip followed the same pattern as before. Horrified by the idea of a quiet home life, and with an offer of marriage from Edinburgh-based doctor John Bishop, she once again arranged for a journey abroad. This time she voyaged around East Asia, writing about her experiences in Japan and Malaysia amongst others. Her trip was cut short by the loss of her sister to typhoid in 1880, leaving Bird devastated. She agreed to marry Bishop but found the experience miserable, and began travelling again when he died in 1886.

This time around, Bird decided she needed to do some good on her travels, and chose to travel to India as a missionary. Aged almost 60, she studied medicine, and arrived on the sub-continent in 1889. She roamed the area, visiting Tibet, Persia and Baghdad, taking with her a medicine chest and a revolver. (After all, you never know when it might be necessary to heal someone or shoot them.) She also established not one but two hospitals; the Henrietta Bird Hospital in Amritsar and the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in Srinigar. This is two more hospitals than most people ever get round to founding, and a pretty brilliant achievement.

Black and white photo of a woman sat astride a black horse in Tibet. She is accompanied by a local guide.

Chilling out on a horse in Tibet, as you do.

Her journeys and writing had earned Bird a deal of fame in England, and in 1892 she became the first woman to be granted a fellowship with the prestigious Royal Geographic Society (presided over at the time by the fantastically named Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff). She met with Prime Minister William Gladstone and addressed a parliamentary committee to discuss the atrocities being committed against Armenian people in the Middle East at the time. Of course, this wasn’t enough to sate her desire for travel and shortly afterwards she once again set off around the world.

She travelled to East Asia again, seeing the Yokohama region of Japan and much of Korea, leaving only when forced to by the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war. Rather than return home, she moved on to China. There, in addition to travelling up the Yangtze River and writing more, she was attacked by a mob and trapped in the top floor of a building that was then set on fire. Later she was stoned and left unconscious in the street. That’s the sort of thing that might put a lot of people off travelling, but when she died in 1904 Bird had been in the middle of planning another trip to China, due to set off just after her 73rd birthday in October. Because no one as awesome as Bird lets a little mob violence deter them from going where they want to go.

By the time of her death, Bird had circumnavigated the globe three times over, written over a dozen books and countless articles, and established herself as one of the most daring and best known travellers of the era. Many of her works can be found on Project Gutenberg here, all of them excellent reads. Pat Barr provides a detailed biography of her in A Curious Life for a Lady.

“Her work was both intimate and informative, combining personal insight and scientific knowledge of her destinations to provide the reader with an engaging, educational account of her travels. Among other themes, [Bird] wrote to challenge Western stereotypes of Eastern cultures, to critique the treatment of women in lower classes.”

Laura Gage

  • Unsung Heroes: spotlighting fascinating people we never learned about at school. Rob Mulligan also blogs at Stuttering Demagogue. Stay tuned for future Heroes, or send your own in to [email protected]!
5 Responses leave one →
  1. August 1, 2011

    Isabella Bird pops up in Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls. It’s a brilliant piece of theatre and (I think) required reading for feminists.

    • Miranda permalink*
      August 1, 2011

      Top Girls! Yes! I’d forgotten she was in it, actually… I saw it when I was doing my A Levels… I remember Pope Joan being fantastic. :)

  2. Gia Malik. permalink
    November 10, 2012

    I am studying Isabella Bird for my declamations, and this is really helpful

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