Sunday, December 5, 2010

Explorer or Bucket Carrier?

Many intrepid women have been involved with African exploration - with just two being the subjects of my most recent blogs - but what does it say about a country which occupies almost an entire continent and has no major female figures connected with its exploration?
The Australian Women's Register does not list any female explorers at all, in spite of the extensive list of occupations in which one can find many inspirational and adventurous Australian women.
Emily Caroline Robinson, later Creaghe, then Barnett, is given a single line:
Creaghe was the only woman member of Ernest Favenc's exploring party across Northern Australia in 1883.
However, the Register does include a link to her diary in the State Library of New South Wales which provides a few more details.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography has 234 names listed under the occupation of "Explorer" and Emily Caroline Barnett is the sole woman!
The truth is that she only seems to rate a mention because of the rediscovery of her diary and its publication in 2004, edited by Peter Monteath. This was followed in 2007 by an expedition in Emily's footsteps by the artist, Gemma Lynch-Memory, who took inspiration from Emily's journey to produce a series of paintings. According to Gemma's website this came about:
"After finding a copy of Emily's diary in a second-hand bookshop, Gemma became the first person to retrace the outback journey of Australia's first female explorer, Emily Caroline Creaghe. ... The expedition was featured on the ABC 7:30 Report and Gemma was recognised by the International Society of Female Explorers [sic] * based in New York. The touring exhibition received critical acclaim and was also featured in Australian Art Review magazine."

* There is no such organisation - possibly should read the Society of Women Geographers based in Washington, DC.
So what exactly did Emily Caroline do to finally bust through the gender barrier of Australian exploration? Apart from the summary offered by the ADB, the best account of her travels is in this article written for the National Library of Australia news magazine in 2006 by Judy Cannon.
The newspaper reports of the time mostly ignored her or simply included her as some kind of afterthought, as per this entry from The Maitland Mercury in July, 1883:
"Creaghe and party arrived at Catherine Waters accompanied by his wife"
while the South Australian Register accords her a bit more credit as:
"... the first lady who has made such an adventurous trip in Australia."
But was she truly an explorer in her own right, or was she unfortunately an appendage - a cook, bottle-washer and bucket-carrier - much like Mary Livingstone and similar wives who simply went along with adventuring husbands rather than be left behind?  This review by Gillian Dooley on the publication of her diary is somewhat scathing, as it does not show Emily Caroline in any particularly brave or inspiring light that would qualify her for the title of "explorer".
Emily Caroline Creaghe Barnett had another adventure later in life when in 1899, she was interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald after an abortive trip to New Zealand during which the ship in which she was travelling lost its screw and subsequently spent seven weeks drifting and wallowing about the stormy Tasman Sea until rescue. Having to endure this discomfort with five children and a maid made two whole columns of print - considerably more than anything this first female "explorer" had accomplished in her crossing of the Outback in 1883.
It is rather disappointing that there are no other recorded important journeys by women across Australia during the exploration era. In the eyes of the Europeans of the time, the continent was seen to be unromantic and empty, with boring vistas and little of interest to discover either in the way of animals or people, even native plants were seen as prickly and unattractive. Australia certainly doesn't seem to have captured the imagination of wealthy adventuring women like May French-Sheldon or Alexine Tinne.  (Stories posted previously.)
So were all women tramping about remote areas of Australia in late 19th and early 20th Century mostly appendages and bucket carriers? It could seem that way, although this letter to the editor of the Northern Territory Times in 1921 hints that there were other women out there - tough, unsung pioneers who were probably too busy getting to where they were going by whatever route and means possible and had no time to bother with the frivolities of journals or diaries.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A trifle too seraphic ... Mademoiselle Tinne

Mademoiselle Tinne
Continuing with my current interest in female explorers, I note that this amusing bit of doggerel from Punch in June, 1893 has been included in a number of books and essays about the subject.

Lady an explorer? a traveller in skirts?
The notion's just a trifle too seraphic:
Let them stay and mind the babies, or hem our ragged shirts;
But they mustn't, can't and shan't be geographic.

Unlike women today who can grab a back-pack, jump on a plane and be in the remotest corner of the world within hours, the adventurous female who set off to explore unknown horizons in the 19th Century usually came from a privileged class. She would have had to have a certain amount of freedom and independence, financial security and a network of important connections. If she had children, she would probably have had someone else look after them anyway and any mending was always done by maids even when tramping about deserts. So it is hardly surprising when researching female explorers from this era to discover they were usually highly accomplished individuals, confident, well-educated and wealthy.
Alexine about to receive her death blows
 Alexandrine (Alexine) Tinne's father was a Dutch diplomat and entrepreneur who died in 1844 when Alexine was eight years old, leaving his wife and daughter one of the largest fortunes in the Netherlands at the time. From a young age, Alexine had a passion for the piano, languages and travel. According to some biographical articles, there seems to have been a brief romance that didn't amount to much. Together with her mother, and later an aunt, who became known as the Dutch Ladies Tinne, she travelled widely in Europe and later through Egypt and the Sudan. Alexine's mother and aunt both died from illnesses at Khartoum and Alexine herself was killed by Tuaregs on a subsequent expedition.
Various reports of Alexine's short life of 34 years are to be found on the Internet, many of them in Dutch or other languages. An English account appeared in Aramco magazine in 1983 although it conflicts somewhat with that provided by the Institute of Dutch History, particularly regarding Alexine's rather gruesome end.
 Like other female explorers of their age, the Tinne ladies did not travel "light". According to whichever report you believe, they had Dutch sailors and/or Irish porters to help them and Alexine took a heavy iron bed with her as well as porcelain china and silver tableware.
Apart from her exploring endeavours, Alexine has other claims to fame. She was also a highly accomplished photographer and some of the earliest photographs of The Hague were the work of Alexine Tinne.

The Hague c. 1860, photograph by Alexine Tinne
A genus of plants have also been named after her plantae tinneanae, and a book was published with her discoveries. See Botanicus. Unfortunately, most of the specimens and artefacts from her exhibitions were destroyed during the war.
Alexine Tinne is much better known in Continental Europe than in English-speaking countries. A number of books have been written about her and she has also been included in various anthologies of female explorers. A book in English about the three Ladies Tinne was published earlier this year (2010) The Dutch Ladies Tinne, in the Sudan by Anna Maria Abushama-Rademaker.

Dutch Ladies Tinne at Khartoum

Miss Tinne at Gerard Rohlfs' camp Tripoli 1869 (British Library)
(Note: copyright of some images in this post have been difficult to etablish with certainty as they are on non-English websites.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bebe Bwana. A Woman in Darkest Africa

A curious snippet in The Launceston Examiner (Tasmania) of 7 January 1891 reads as follows
Mrs. Sheldon, an American lady, contemplates exploring Central Africa with a body guard of soldiers, who will be negresses
The images created by this report sent me scurrying to discover more. Who was Mrs. Sheldon and did she really have “negresses” as a bodyguard while exploring Central Africa?
Another slightly more accurate report in The Advertiser (Adelaide) of the same date states that Mrs. Sheldon, is “the widow of an American congressmen” and her body guard will include both “soldiers and negresses”. Six months later, another brief report in The Advertiser states:

Ill at Zanzibar.
June 19

Mrs. French-Sheldon, the American lady who recently undertook to explore Darkest Africa, is lying dangerously ill at Zanzibar. She sails for England at the earliest opportunity.
Further trawling of old newspaper reports revealed much more about this intriguing woman, that Mrs. Sheldon not only survived her illness at Zanzibar but went on to have many more adventures in Africa.
She was not yet a widow when she started out on her epic journey in 1891 and, most importantly, Mrs. Mary [or May] French-Sheldon, known to the Africans as "Bebe Bwana", in 1910, became the one of the first women to be appointed a Fellow of the Geographical Society.
She had already travelled around the world by the age of sixteen and later qualified as a medical doctor, ran a publishing company and wrote several books. She was friends with the explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, and was one of the few people not to condemn him over the atrocities with which he was reportedly connected in the Congo.
Mrs. Sheldon’s best-known work is a well-illustrated book about her first foray, called “Sultan to Sultan: Adventures among the Masai and other tribes of East Africa 1892”. From her book, it seems her ambition to take women porters wasn’t all that successful, as she says :
Although I had been strongly advised to take women porters to wash and for other duties, I found the few that I had were a perpetual nuisance. They were always inciting disputes among the porters, and resorted to all sorts of measures to win from them portions of food and other things which they coveted.
She goes to describe one tiny woman who ate so much she ended up “like a fatted pig” by the end of the safari and who was always in danger of being washed away when they crossed rivers so that Mrs Sheldon had to detail a male porter to look after her.

Unnamed female porters
However, I have this to say of the women porters, they compared admirably with the men both in staying qualities and strength, doing their day’s march with no more complaining, besides having superficial duties either incumbent upon them or volunteered, which the men had not.
One worthy addition to Mrs. Sheldon’s book is that unlike the books of most male explorers, she has taken the trouble to carefully list all 153 names of every porter or askari (soldier) who helped her.
Maybe there is some descendant in East Africa who knows what happened to some of the five women porters: Lidia, Beda, Suzzan, Burt Hamis and Burt Hamis Mzuria, but it is most unlikely as native people like them who helped white explorers are all long lost to history.
Mrs. Sheldon’s unique cane and bamboo palanquin was designed by her friend Henry S. Wellcome (founder of the pharmaceutical company that is now GlaxoSmithKline) and it was described in one newspaper report as containing all the comforts and luxuries of a Pullman palace car. There has probably been nothing quite like it in African safaris, before or since! On one occasion, a 15ft long python took a fancy to it and on waking up to discover this giant creature wrapped over her gave even the tough and redoubtable Mrs. Sheldon a case of the vapours!
Mrs. Sheldon's book can be found at the Internet Archive, and she is also the subject of a recent feminist biography "The White Queen" by Tracey Jean Boisseau, published by Indiana University Press.

All images from "Sultan to Sultan" and the Library of Congress.

Mrs. Sheldon's Guns

Sunday, September 19, 2010

From the cave to the pole?

This wonderful cartoon image by Australian illustrator Matt Davidson says something about the achievements of feminism since the days of the cave-persons. It is amusing, but also rather alarming. What would the sufragettes have thought about a generation of women who think that sliding around almost naked on a pole is some kind of achievement for female equality?  Are we in danger of joining a slippery slide back to the caves? The article by Ardyn Bernoth that accompanies the cartoon can be read here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Queens of Coal

There is currently a special exhibition on at the UK National Coal Mining Museum on the Coal Queen Beauty Pageant which ran in the 1970s and 1980s, but this seems such superficial objectification-of-women nonsense when compared to the backbreaking work of these girls' bucket-carrying female ancestors who are the true queens of coal and who worked in and around the collieries of Great Britain during the 19th century.

Up until 1842, women and children worked underground for a pittance doing hard labour that even robust men avoided or would find difficult. Some women actually wielded picks, but most were just treated as beasts of burden. They carried coal in baskets on their backs as they climbed up stairs out of the mine and in some collieries, they even had chains around their waists in order to haul wagons through narrow passages on all fours. Conditions were abysmal, the working day was long and there were no occupational health and safety regulations, and women and children were almost considered dispensible by many colliery owners. The accident rate was high - from falls or encounters with machinery and railtracks - some of which might have occurred due to the cumbersome female clothing of the era. Testimony evidence given to the Ashley Commission makes for distressing reading. Some women endured miscarriages as a result of the work and even after giving birth they would be expected to be back at work the next day. Some examples of the evidence can be read on the Victorian Web here
After the 1842 reforms initiated by Lord Shaftesbury came into force, women and children were banned from working underground but they were given other surface jobs such as sorting and screening coal by hand. But this was also arduous dirty work and they still had to carry coal in baskets on their backs. 
A DVD has been produced by a local English history group about these often-forgotten women. To the men they might have been called the "Pit Brow Lasses", but they really were Coal Queens.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Pressgangs and Poetry

As often happens when going in search of women whose achievements have been obscured by history, the route can be an interesting and serendipitous journey in itself. After reviewing “A Merciless Place” in my previous post, I was intrigued to find out more about any individuals – men or women - who had endured and survived the late 18th and early 19th century tragedies and horrors of West Africa as so vividly described in that book. One diversion led me to the Royal Naval doctor in Sierra Leone, Dr Thomas Masterman Winterbottom, an early researcher into sleeping sickness and later founder of the South Shields Maritime College (now South Tyneside College), among his numerous achievements. Clearly he survived “the white man's grave” as he lived to the ripe old age of 93.
Photo courtesy Edward Kirton

But in the process, I stumbled upon a legendary woman whom I really ought to have known more about, given my own family links to Dr Winterbottom's home town of Arbeia (South Shields) but who was perhaps considered persona non grata by earlier generations of town councillors and has only in recent years come into her own right, being commemorated in a statue by Billy Gofton raised in 1987 on the Lawe Top overlooking what would have been her old haunts.
Dorothy (Dolly) Peel (1782-1857) has become part of Tyneside folklore and as inevitably happens in such instances, reports of her activities must be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. The following extracts from The Borough of South Shields, published 1903 by George B. Hodgson, are the main source of information about her. 
"... Dolly Peel, a fishwife, who in the days before free trade did not scruple to eke out a livelihood by hoodwinking the excise officers, and smuggling ashore brandy, tobacco, cigars, lace, scents— in fact, anything dutiable. She did quite an extensive trade in the contraband way, and would take - and execute - orders for any excisable article that might be required. She was a strong, muscular woman, and absolutely fearless, as the pressgang more than once discovered. A gang was one day in hot pursuit of her husband, who managed to reach home — an upper flat in Shadwell Street. Dolly, singlehandly kept the pressgang at bay until her husband got out of the window on to the roof. He was captured at last and sent on board a man-o'-war, where Dolly accompanied him. When he was in action Dolly was with him and rendered service in the cockpit*. She had a nerve of iron. Had she been an educated woman she might have made a reputation as a poetess. As it was, she was famous for her ability to rhyme extempore on any subject. She composed an address in poetry congratulating Mr. Robert Ingham (with whom she was a great favourite) on his return as the first M.P. for South Shields; also a song on the loss of the barque Dove of Sunderland, laden with Russian tallow, which came ashore on the Herd Sand on November 20, 1836. It was a very hard winter for the 'Townenders,' as the inhabitants living at the 'low end' of the town were called by Shields folk, and Dolly made it appear that the wreck of the 'Russian tallowship' as it was called, was a special dispensation of Providence to help them."   [* In this definition, cockpit means the compartment below waterline in old warships where the wounded were taken and treated during a battle.] 

"What is believed to have been the last severe 'press' in South Shields was made at the outbreak of the war with America in June 1812, when the most stringent methods were adopted to secure men. For instance, it was a regular practice, when the Tyne collier fleets made Flamborough Head, for the convoy to bring the ships up and board every vessel. It was during this press that the famous encounter took place in Military Road, South Shields, between the press-gang, locally known as 'Hunter's Gang' from the commander of the shore party, and one Ralph Peel, the husband of the still more famous Dolly Peel, who is said to have followed her husband aboard on one occasion when he was pressed, and served with him in the Navy. On this occasion the shore gang was reinforced by a detachment from the receiving ship in Peggy's Hole. A great crowd collected, and a serious disturbance ensued, during which it was alleged that a pistol was fired, the bullet passing through the lapel of an officer's coat. On another evening, a boat's crew from the receiving ship landed at the Coble Landing in Pilot Street, and, each armed with a cutlass, made a clean sweep of all the young and middle-aged men, wearing the bluejacket and trousers of the seaman, found in the Low Street, carrying them all aboard. At this time, when the whole Mercantile Marine and Transport service of Great Britain only employed 120,000 men, it was estimated that at least 40,000 British seamen were manning American vessels in order to avoid impressment."
Dolly's husband is called Ralph Peel in this account but, according to both the 1841 and 1851 Census Returns, he was a Mariner named Cuthbart, born in 1781, and the couple lived at addresses that certainly sound apt for smugglers – Ropery Stairs and Lookham Stairs respectively – neither of which exist in modern South Shields. Cuthbart died in 1856 and Dolly a year later.

As to the suggestion that Dolly nicked the cargo of Dove, the Marine Intelligence column of The  Newcastle Courant, 25 November 1836 doesn't mention it – or maybe the lesser part not recovered was Dolly's doings.
"The Dove, Adamson, of Sunderland from St Petersburg with hemp and tallow bound to London sprung a leak at sea and endeavouring to get into this port on Sunday last, got upon the Herd Sand at the entrance to Shields Harbour. The crew, with a great part of the cargo, is saved."
Another Courant report from June 1849, lists Dolly attending court as the aggrieved party in an assault by one Elizabeth Morton, “an old offender”, in which Dolly was awarded the princely sum of five shillings plus costs. Two fighting fishwives – one of whom was nortorious for taking on the pressgangers - was probably something to steer well clear of.

Why she was a “great favourite” of the local MP isn't detailed and a little puzzling, even if politicians in those days could be less guarded about their friendships than modern ones.
Maybe she supplied him with favours in the way of cheap baccy and booze as, judging from her gummy photograph from the Newcastle Libraries collection, her attractions were unlikely to be of the more salacious variety!
If anyone reading this knows whether Dolly's poetry still exists and/or where it may be found, please contact me. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"A Merciless Place"

Most Australians will be aware of the background to the First Fleet of 1788 – that it was England's way of getting rid of her undesirables by sending them as far away from the mother country as possible. They may also know that prior to this, convicts were sent to America but that the practice was forcibly ended after the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
“A Merciless Place” by Emma Christopher tells the story of what happened to some of these men (and a handful of women) in the intervening years, and it makes for both powerful and disturbing reading. While the first years at Sydney Cove have often been described as hellish, they couldn't possibly have been as bad as West Africa.
The slave-exporting Gold Coast was feared by Europeans as one of the deadliest places on earth and became known as the “white man's grave”. Its intense heat and humidity were notorious. Diseases like yellow fever, dysentery and typhoid were rampant. Add the avarice, greed and brutal savagery of slave-dealing, plus superstition, tribal and racial conflicts, and it is inevitable that the worst of human behaviour will come to the fore.
Introduce to this already-deadly mix shiploads of harshly treated, poorly nourished men and boys from English cities who are forced to become convict soldiers rather than face the hulks or the gallows. Some of them are hardened criminals, others just innocent victims of fate and a cruel justice system. They are transported in slave ships, are expected to guard slaves, yet are slaves themselves - some even suffer the greatest indignity of all, flogging by slaves.
Most die within a few weeks or months of their arrival. Officers who survive become corrupt, dealing in slaves on the side. It is inevitable that mutiny threatens and discipline breaks down in the ranks, with even more suffering by way of starvation and punishment at the hands of guards who had themselves been thieves and murderers. The few who escape often do so by sheer luck, cunning or ruthlessness, by defecting to piracy or to Britain's enemies, the Dutch.
Emma Christopher's historical research is thorough, meticulous and detailed, but it is not light reading and the litany of disaster and inhumanity can numb the reader after a while. The impact of the book is best where she gives us insight into the stories of specific individuals such as the upper-class conman of many aliases, William Murray Mackenzie. He was transported first to Virginia, then Africa. His gruesome death at the hands of a relative and one of the scheme's founders, Kenneth Mackenzie, is particularly shocking even for the cruel age in which they lived.
A positive aspect to this enterprise - if there could be such a thing - is that the authorities were reluctant to send women convicts into this inferno of depravity and only a few women's names are mentioned. Another who had originally been sentenced to Africa was "Hell Fire Moll", or Mary Humphries. She was fortunate to be despatched to New South Wales instead where she later married another First Fleeter, John King.
This book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand more of the background to the origins of the First Fleet. It also expands on the even lesser-known history that when the African experiment was seen to be failing, convict ships were diverted to the Mosquito Coast of Central America and Honduras (Belize). An exploration was also undertaken as to a possible convict settlement at the mouth of the Orange River on the border of what is now Namibia and South Africa, but the land proved too barren to support a colony.
In sheer desperation to solve the convict problem for once and all the British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, took up the suggestion of Sir Joseph Banks and others to try Botany Bay, and thus it was that on 13 May 1787 the approximately 1,000 individuals destined to become Australia's founding fathers and mothers finally set sail for New South Wales.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Misplaced feminine zeal - Order of the White Feather

The 100th anniversary of the First World War is only a few years away, and there will no doubt be many memorial events when that occurs. From this historic perspective, we can find it difficult to understand the thinking of that era, that whole populations would accept their governments' decisions so readily and that nations would rush headlong into hell before exploring every possible diplomatic solution to avoid conflict.
That particular War is also well known for the devil-may-care attitude of many of the young men of the time who thought it would be a “lark” and went off on what they thought would be a great adventure only to be brutally maimed, gassed, sent mad, or have their lives cut short in the most horrific and barbaric of situations. Its repercussions flowed for decades afterwards.
The War was also a watershed in the advancement of women, in that many of them stepped in and took over male jobs for the first time and proved that they were far tougher and more resilient than the “feeble” stereotype so beloved of Victorian and Edwardian men.
However, not all women did their bit in practical and admirable ways and some became involved in a shameful organisation that caused untold psychological damage to not only the men who became its victims, but to subsequent generations of their families. It was known as the Active Service League and its “award” was the Order of the White Feather – white feathers being presented in public places to men who were perceived to be cowards.
Surprisingly, one of its founders was the Tasmanian-born and ardent anti-suffragist, Mrs Humphrey Ward (Mary Augusta), whose family included such famous literary figures as Matthew Arnold and Aldous Huxley.
It seems remarkable today that a woman of high intellect committed to social reform for women and children such as Mrs Ward could have thought that financial, military, constititutional, and international problems could only be solved by men!
Another prominent woman who was anti-suffrage and became involved was Baroness Orczy, the popular author of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" books, and she hoped to recruit more than 100,000 women to the cause of shaming men into volunteering for the War.
Eventually, the practice of presenting men with white feathers as a symbol of their cowardice at not being in uniform got out of hand and it became necessary for returned soldiers, often wounded or invalided home, and men in protected industries to be issued with special pins so that they wouldn't be accosted in the street by zealous females keen to show them up.

There aren't any really good websites detailing the activities of the League, but some basic information about the white feather movement and the distress it caused can be found here.

Many writers and film-makers have used the symbolism since the 1902 novel by A E W Mason, “The Four Feathers”, up to the 2004 novel in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear entitled “Birds of a Feather”, which also uses this practice to construct an excellent plot that is both chilling and convincing.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Women's Melbourne" - a valuable publication and resource

Women's History Month may have just ended, but it is essential that female "herstory" continues to be brought to light, no matter the season.
There is a well-known quote by Myra and David Sadker in their salient 1994 work entitled Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls that has become almost a catchcry among those who feel passionate about how history is taught to new generations of girls: "Every time a girl reads a womanless history she learns she is worth less", and so it is wonderful to see that many historians, authors, academics and others are constantly striving to change this attitude.
A fantastic (and free!) publication was launched this week in Australia that will help to illuminate both famous and little-known women associated with the City of Melbourne. Published by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) and supported by the City of Melbourne Grants Program, Heritage Victoria, and the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust, it was a "labour of love" of the National Trust's Senior Historian, Celestina Sagazio, and is entitled Women's Melbourne.
The book is most entertaining, informative and well-illustrated, and gives suggestions for a series of self-guided walking tours of Melbourne streets that focus on the women associated with them. There are buildings that once housed world-famous Melburnians such as Dame Nellie Melba and Helen Reddy, while others are primarily best known to Australians such as soon-to-be Saint Mary McKillop and Caroline Chisholm.
It is fascinating to learn new and interesting facts about women from every walk of life from prostitutes and madams to socialites and sufragettes, from artists and architects to doctors and politicians, and no doubt some of the women I have personally discovered for the first time in the pages of Women's Melbourne will inspire future blogs. (A previous subject - Nellie Stewart - is associated with a number of the sites mentioned including the Princess Theatre and the demolished Melbourne High School.)
Congratulations to Celestina and all those who assisted her in this excellent work.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Boer War Florence Nightingale

Another woman who was also described as a "Florence Nightingale" (of South Africa and/or the Anglo-Boer War) is something of an enigma and considered to be a borderline "adventuress" which, in the parlance of the times in which she lived, meant that either her morality or social status was questionable and certainly the latter in the case of Melina Rorke.
She was born Melina da Fonesca in South Africa c. 1873. During that era, the colonising British were notoriously snobby and racist towards anyone with Portuguese ancestry so she would have already been marked as something "other" with her mother being a descendant of the famous 1820 Settlers who had unfortunately made the social faux pas of marrying a man who was at one time the Portuguese Consul to what is now Mozambique.
In 1887, Melina married an accountant, Frederick Niland Rorke, in Kimberley. According to the Western Cape Archives, the groom was 23 and she was 19, but Melina states in her memoirs that she was much younger, only 15, and admits to lying about her age to the Registrar. And that's not the only time she was guilty of doing so. She became a mother within a year and also alleges she was promptly a widow, which was total fiction. In fact, she, her husband and her brother, Sebastian, were among the early pioneers to Rhodesia in 1894, where they pegged gold-mining claims. It seems she then went to London in 1896 to complete a nursing qualification but that Frederick "shot through" to Western Australia in her absence. She later obtained a divorce in 1899 on account of his desertion. It is no wonder this is not mentioned in her memoirs as to be a divorced woman as well as of Portuguese extraction wouldn't have enhanced her reputation. 
Her 1938 memoir was originally published in New York by Greystone Press as The Story of Melina Rorke R.R.C. [Royal Red Cross] The Florence Nightingale of South Africa. In it, she tells us about her pioneering life, the Matabele Rebellion and Boer War, and name-drops many famous figures in Southern African history such as Cecil Rhodes, Dr Jameson, Barney Barnato and Robert Baden-Powell.
But Melina was unable to shake off a sceptical reception in Rhodesia where the book was declared to be full of historical inaccuracies and her own wild imaginings, with possibly even some plagiarised sections. However, on the plus side, it remains one of the few first-hand accounts written by a woman who lived in that region of Africa and witnessed important events during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and it is still worth reading today for that background - albeit with the proverbial pinch of salt.
The book was republished as part of the Rhodesiana Reprint Library in 1971 with an even more florid title of Melina Rorke. Her Amazing Adventures in the Stormy Nineties of South Africa's History. Told by Herself. 
Melina is reputed to have left Africa for the United States around 1908, where it is alleged she became an "actress" - not a choice career move for anyone wanting to avoid the dreaded "adventuress" tag. Her son Edgar was supposedly involved in the insurance industry, but what she was really doing those thirty years until she published her memoirs remains a mystery. This closing reference from the dust jacket of the 1971 edition:
"Melina carried on a correspondence with various members of her family in Rhodesia and South Africa until 1940 when a letter was returned marked "deceased". Her husband [Frederic Rorke] who went to Australia is said to have died there in the early 1920s.
During 1950 and 1960 a number of Rhodesians who visited Rhodesia House in London met a Mrs Margaret Meredith who claimed she was Melina Rorke and that she had remarried twice. She died in March 1964, aged 98. Available evidence does not support her claim which serves only to heighten the mystery surrounding Melina Rorke after her departure from Rhodesia."
Romantic, poetic or fabricated memoirs aside, there is no doubt that Melina Rorke was involved in nursing men under awful and challenging conditions during the Boer War, as the Royal Red Cross is not an award given without due merit, its first recipient being, of course, the real Florence Nightingale. (Image )
If Melina had to embroider or juicy up the facts of her life in order to sell a book at a profit many years later, she would only be doing what many people have resorted to since autobiography began.
Images are from Rhodesia Reprint edition (copyright Books of Rhodesia Publishing Co. (Pvt.) Ltd., Bulawayo.) The first shows Melina wearing her medal, with the caption, "As the author appeared in 1902 after receiving her decoration from Edward VII". The second is a Testimonial dated 17 May 1900 acknowledging her nursing efforts at both base and field hospitals at Mochudi, Gaberones, Lobatsi and Mafeking. Two of the regiments bearing signatures are British South Africa Police and Southern Rhodesia Volunteers. There are no signatures under the heading of Rhodesia Regiment, and again Melinda's veracity is drawn into question as although her caption informs us that "Not a single man was left alive in the Rhodesia Regiment to sign it," subsequent historians have debunked this as in fact the Regiment had been disbanded and all the men gone their separate ways by the time the Testimonial was prepared.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Russian Florence Nightingale

A rather curious form of posterity is having yourself named after an asteroid or minor planet, more so if you are not in any way associated with astronomy, astrophysics or the exploration of outer space. The Dictionary of Minor Planet Names by L D Schmadel is worth browsing, if only for its remarkable listing of people, places and things after which these planets are named, from ancient pharaohs to samurai, from HMS Bounty mutineers to B-grade actresses, and there is even Dr Who's Tardis.
Of relevance to this post is No. 3321, known as "Dasha", discovered in 1975 and named after Darya Lavrentevna Michailova, described as the first Russian army sister of charity during the Crimean War, and better known as Dasha Sevastopolskaya. There is little to be found - at least written in English - about Dasha (the woman, not the planet) even with the aid of all-knowing Google.
Her description as an "army sister of charity" is probably not quite correct according to the outline that Helen Rappaport gives about Dasha's achievements in her excellent book No Place for Ladies - The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. For anyone interested in learning more about numerous unknown women of all nationalities who literally carried buckets behind men during one of the worst military blunders in history, this book is highly recommended reading.
Dasha Sevastopolskaya is just one of them who deserves to be better-known and who can stand tall alongside far more famous women such as Florence Nightingale or Mary Seacole in her accomplishments.
In 1854, Dasha was aged about 18, the orphaned daughter of a Russian sailor. She worked as a laundress and needlewoman in the Russian naval garrison in the Korabelnaya district of Sevastopol. When the British invaded, she sold all that she had, including her chickens and her pig, bought a horse and wagon and loaded it up with barrels of water and food. In disguise as a naval apprentice, she headed into the Russian supply lines where she established the first nursing station of the war, cleaning the men's wounds with vinegar and dressing them with bandages made from strips of her own clothes. She was soon recognised by the sailors who knew her from Korabelnaya but she was allowed to continue her valuable voluntary work and together with other wives of Russian servicemen helped tend to wounded men during the siege. A memorial was erected to her, and Helen Rappaport further tells us:

"Dasha's selfless heroism soon became legendary... News of it reached Tsar Nicholas I in November 1854 and she was awarded 500 silver roubles and the gold medal 'For Zeal', becoming the only working-class Russian woman to receive the award. The following year she married and opened a tavern; imperial generosity responded with a dowry of one thousand silver roubles from the Tsarina."
Unlike Britain, Russia was much more generous in acknowledging the valuable service of all kinds of women, including ordinary army wives, in the Crimea. Rappaport tells us around 120 Sisters of Mercy, a semi-religious order founded by the Tsar's sister-in-law after the Battle of Inkerman, received both gold and silver medals for their work, and 'For Zeal' was also presented to women who carried supplies and ammunition to the bastions throughout the bombardment. Some even received higher award military medals 'For Gallantry'. (Image: Medal awarded to Russian participants of the Defense of Sevastopol in 1854-55.)
In 1855, Dasha married Private Maxim Khvorostov and continued to work at one of the city hospitals for the rest of her life. When she retired, the patients collected money to buy an icon of the Saviour and presented it to her. She died in Sevastopol in 1911.
In case you were wondering, yes, Florence Nightingale is also celebrated with an asteroid, No. 3122 discovered in 1981 at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales. It is classified as a "near-Earth asteroid and a potentially hazardous one". Sounds rather appropriate for the no-nonsense and determined Florence.
Some wonderful artwork and history about the Russian side of the Siege of Sevastopol and in which Dasha is mentioned can be found here.

Friday, February 19, 2010

But wait, there are more...

My previous post on ladies in lighthouses has led me to discover even more "Grace Darlings" around the world who could claim similar and far more impressive sea rescues than the original Grace. If anyone reading this knows of others I may have missed, I'd be really interested in hearing about them. My contact is regina.of.arbeiaATgmailDOTcom.

In Newfoundland, there was 17 year old Ann Harvey, whose first effort occurred in 1828, a decade before that of the more famous Grace, in which she helped to save at least 163 people, and on her second rescued another 25. Clearly, Ann just didn't have the right sort of journalist onside at the critical time in order to spread word of her deeds far and wide, as there would have been an added heart-tugging bonus as the rescue included the family dog (a Newfie, naturally enough!) Ann also has a Canadian coast guard vessel named after her (image from CCGS website) and she is even the subject of an opera.

Another Canadian, on which there is scant information, was Roberta (Bertha) Boyd of New Brunswick. A description of her feat in rescuing two men on St Croix River can be found here. Was her middle name really Grace, or did she receive it as an extra embellishment for her efforts?
"Her heroism didn't go unrewarded, she received an award from the Federal Government. It was a gold watch that had inscribed on it; 'in recognition of her humane exertions in saving life in the St. Croix River.' And the Department of Marine and Fisheries gave her a new boat with the words; Roberta Grace Boyd, Grace Darling of the Saint Croix on the stern. Grace Darling was, of course, the famed lifesaver of England’s lighthouse lore.
The incident surely did make Roberta(Bertha) Boyd famous but it didn't go to her head. she reportedly said in a later newspaper account; 'Please don't speak of it. Indeed, I did nothing worth describing.' Thats the true mark of a heroine there!"
Of course she would have said something like that as, in common with all lighthouse heroines, she would have been a practical, modest and self-effacing woman.

Although not a lighthouse keeper, Huria Matenga (Julie Martin) became New Zealand's Grace Darling after she helped in the rescue of the crew of the Delaware and the local press of the day went into the usual superlatives about a woman swimming “out through raging waters and, after a desperate struggle” bringing ashore the line. Like many of the other rescue stories, the actual truth of Huria's efforts might be a little more prosaic, but positive attention for achievements normally the province of men is always welcome. You can read more about Huria (Julie) here and here. Huria also sat for an official portrait, which can be seen at the Suter Art Gallery, Nelson, New Zealand.

Australia's Grace Darling was another one with the appropriate first name. She was Grace Vernon Bussell. A member of the Western Australia pioneering family who gave their name to Busselton, she lives on in various landmarks herself in Gracetown and Lake Grace, perhaps more for the fact that she became the wife of the Surveyor General than a way of commemorating her famous efforts on a horse (named, appropriately enough, Hero) in the raging waves, as shown in this engraving from the State Library of Victoria. Grace Bussell also was awarded a medal and featured in books and stories for years after.

Perhaps this poem by the Reverend C W Ray published in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1878, entitled "Grace Vernon Bussell, the heroine of Western Australia" sums up all the "Grace Darlings" who ever were, with its abundance of 19th Century sentimentality and poetic licence, plus the romantic novel ingredients of presentiment, doomed souls in a raging sea, a brave steed and an innocent lass of "classic brow", "dark, glistening eyes" and "golden ringlets streaming in the wind" who has a date with destiny:

The night closed in, and darkness like a pall,
The gaunt and creeping shadows overspread;
While clouds of blackness hoarsely growled their rage,
Illumined by the lightning's fitful glare,
Which, far away behind the mountain peaks,
Seemed dancing, as tho' beckoning on the storm,
And panting for the sight of coming woe!
The hills kept silence, as in breathless awe;
And trembled at the muttered threat of doom;
While Grace, from out the window, gazed entranced;
Till, startled by the cricket's sharp shrill cry
Which by the sultry air, and deepening gloom
Was coaxed in noisy march from out the wall:
Then, she arose; drew in and closed the blinds;
And wishing each “Good night, and pleasant dreams”,
She soon was kneeling by her own soft couch,
And breathing out her solemn evening prayer.
‘Ere she arose, the rising wind, in grief
Was sighing, moaning, through the forest trees;
And in a moment more, the howling blast
Burst overhead ; and made her heart stand still.
But, when at last the frightful din had ceased,
And rush and roar were followed by the rain.
Secure beneath the well-thatched roof, she slept!
How long, none knew. She slept, and dreamed and waked;
Waked with a cry of horror, loud and long,
That roused each slumbering inmate of the house.
The storm had passed, and through the rattling blinds
The moon sent kindly beams; yet, lingering winds
Seemed like the distant wail of breaking hearts.
At length, offended and reluctant sleep
Came slowly back, and softly kissed away
The whispered prayer upon her parted lips.
But, when the clock struck three, with sudden start,
With trembling, and with wildly throbbing heart
She woke again; and, to her fancy wild,
Excited by the thrice-repeated dream,
Each hammer-stroke seemed like a signal-gun
Of vessel in distress, far out to sea.
She dreamed that, in the darkness and the storm,
She saw a steam-ship thrown upon the rocks,
And terror-stricken sailors crowd the boats;
And heard a mother's frantic cry for aid;
Who, with a lovely infant in her arms,
With streaming eyes and wild imploring look,
Was clinging to the parting wreck for life;
While each mad wave struck at her frail support,
And coldly mocked her prayer and cherished hope.
So vivid and so real was the dream
That Grace arose, impatient for the light,
Resolved upon a visit to the shore
At break of day, although ten miles away.
No sooner did the twilight gild the East,
Than Ned, the drowsy stable-boy, was called
To feed the young and handsome dapple-gray;
A horse as fleet and tireless as the wind,
The pride of all the town and country round.
All things made ready for the rapid ride,
Grace paced the hall, with restless, anxious step;
With frequent sigh, that time dragged on so slow,
And with her hand upon her aching heart;
For still she seemed to see upon the wreck
The bloodless faces of that vessel's crew;
Still seemed to hear that mother's piteous wail,
And the low smothered sob of her sweet babe!
Just as the sun had crowned the highest hills,
The dapple-gray was neighing at the door,
As in impatient haste to be away.
With gentle words, Grace stroked his arching neck;
While Ned put on an extra linen girth:
Then, bounding to the saddle in a trice,
She bravely galloped down the forest path;
Nor slackened speed, till she had reached the cliff,
Which, high above the beach, o'erlooked the sea.
Then she beheld a scene that thrilled her through,
And dimmed her eyes with sympathetic woe!
Far out from shore, a ship was on the rocks;
And passengers and crew, upon the wreck.
With angry waves were battling hard for life.
Midway between the stranded ship and shore,
A capsized boat was drifting to and fro;
And to it mothers with their children clung;
While clear, above the breakers' deafening roar,
Grace heard a woman's cry, which chilled her blood:
And waiting not, she sought a rugged path
Down which the hardy wreckers sometimes climbed,
And down the fearful steep, with frightful leaps,
O'er trunks of fallen trees and ragged rocks,
As tho' upheld by angel hands, she rode!
Nor did she pause till her strong dapple-gray
Stood panting, on the rough and wreck-strewn shore.
Then, while the noisy waves broke round his feet,
She leaned upon his neck in fond caress,
And sobbed, "Now, Hero, comes the tug of war!"
Those mothers and their children must be saved,
Or friends will never welcome our return!
Then, raising her dark, glistening eyes to heaven,
Her hat was lifted from her classic brow;
Her cheeks were wet with mingled spray and tears;
Her golden ringlets streaming in the wind;
While from her livid lips burst forth the prayer:
“Thou who once didst walk upon the waves,
And to thy tempest-tossed disciples come
With words of cheer, and calm the troubled deep;
Hear me, and calm my wildly beating heart!
Give Hero strength; and give me nerve to guide;
That we may safely bring from threatened death
The helpless ones now struggling in the surf!”
A moment more, and drawing close the rein,
Grace and her fearless steed were in the sea,
And wrestling hard with the tumultuous floods!
With tearful eyes, and anxious, aching hearts,
They watched her from the distant trembling wreck;
And saw her rise from overwhelming waves,
When horse and rider both, at times, seemed lost.
And once, entangled in a broken raft,
Her princely steed seemed ready to despair.
And dropped his neck upon a broken spar!
But Grace's quick cry gave him new strength and life,
And bravely, with caress, she urged him on.
The second line of roaring breakers passed,
They reached the boat, and safely brought ashore
Each half-drowned woman, and with each her child;
And last of all, a half-dead sailor boy!
Then, while with hawser stretched from ship to shore.
The stronger helped the weaker ones to land,
To tell the news, and bring the rescued aid,
Grace whirled away, all dripping from the waves,
The sea-foam dropping from the flowing mane
And quivering flanks of her proud dapple-gray;
Nor did the noble fellow's courage fail,
Till he was standing by her father's door;
From whence, with needful stores, her startled friends
Were hastening soon, to wrecked ones on the shore.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Women in Boats - some Lighthouse Heroines

Old lighthouses can be spectacular and awe-inspiring, located as they so often are in remote and dangerous locations, and one can only have great admiration for the men who had to design and construct them in the first place, as well as those who came after and operated them: the keepers, their assistants and families who had to keep the light burning every night for untold years on end.
Before writing about lesser-known lighthouse heroines, one simply cannot avoid the first one to grab the headlines: Grace Darling who was, according to a florid poem much beloved of teachers in the British Empire days, "... an English maid, pure as the air around her, of danger ne'er afraid ..." and whose actions "... tell the wide world over, what English pluck can do ..."
The story of Grace and her rescue of passengers from the Forfarshire is too well-known to repeat at length here, although the bare truth is that she was just commandeered at short notice to assist in the rescue due to the absence of her father's assistant. She simply did what all able-bodied family members of lighthouse keepers were expected to do, and that was row the boat in an emergency. At first, Grace was not even mentioned in news reports but then somewhere along the way a hack journalist spotted a good yarn and he went into hysterical hyperbole about this virginal flower of English womanhood who boldly braved the fury and tempest of the turbulent seas to rescue near doomed souls with skill and dexterity that had no match, etc. blah etc. After she was awarded a couple of medals for bravery, the Darling family nearly went nuts with the ensuing publicity and being hounded by voyeurs and the paparazzi of the day, not to mention a proliferation of romantic portraits that looked nothing like plain Grace, as well as poems, songs, and product endorsements.
As with all good celebrity stories, there is nothing like dying young to ensure tabloid immortality, which Grace did at the age of 27, and the legend kept growing until it imploded under the weight of its own Victorian sentimentality. Even today, however, there are still tourists sucked in by the romantic and tragic story and drawn to Grace Darling's grave in the churchyard in Bamburgh, Northumberland.
Image: 19th Century engraving of children at Grace's tomb.

The Americans can boast a large number of rescuing lighthouse heroines, some better known than others.
Joan Druett's excellent book "She Captains" devotes an entire chapter to these women and there are several more works that can be searched via such as "Women Who Kept the Lights - an Illustrated History" by  M L and J C Clifford.
One was Maebelle Mason, daughter of the lighthouse keeper on the Detroit River, who launched a small skiff and rowed a mile to rescue a drowning man. She was able to pull him aboard the skiff and row back to Mama Juda Island with the overturned boat in tow. Maebelle was awarded the Silver Life Saving Medal plus a gold medal from the Ship Masters Association for her heroics. More detail click here (scroll down to Mason).

A woman with a more impressive rescue haul than Grace Darling, was Kate Moore of Fayerweather Light, Connecticut, who was reputed to have saved 21 lives in her long years at the lighthouse. Kate didn't die young or beautiful enough to have become a legend like Grace Darling, but the nature of her hard life is reflected in her portrait, and her own summary of the lonely life of a child of a lighthouse keeper of the time.

"You see, I had done all this for so many years, and I knew no other life, so I was sort of fitted for it. I never had much of a childhood, as other children have it. That is, I never knew playmates. Mine were the chickens, ducks and lambs and my two Newfoundland dogs."
Image: Kate Moore (Bridgeport Public Library Historical Collections)

Not all lighthouse heroines were destined for a lonely, virginal existence. Abbie Burgess Grant who had sole responsibility for her father's light at the age of 17 during a terrible storm at Matinicus Rock, married another lighthouse keeper. In later years, she wrote:
"It has almost seemed to me that the light was part of myself. ... Many nights I have watched the lights my part of the night, and then could not sleep the rest of the night, thinking nervously what might happen should the lights fail.
I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn out body. If I ever have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or beacon."
Abbie had her wish, or near enough, as a US Coastguard Buoy tender was named after her.

Another woman recognised by having a tender named after her and with an even more formidable rescue rate of 50 is that of Kate Walker, keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse for over 30 years and second only to "Lady Liberty" herself, as the most famous woman in New York Harbour.

Although not strictly a lighthouse heroine, Canadian Abigail Becker was a regular rescuer from the shores of Lake Erie and is an exemplary example of the tough, pioneering 19th Century woman. Not only did she save 11 individuals in total (including one who had fallen down a well), she also managed to raise 17 children on her own. Her life story is available to read online at Internet Archive.

Image:Abigail Becker in old age

Perhaps the most famous American heroine of all was Idawalley Zorada (Ida) Lewis, who had a brief stint at marriage, but decided the solitary life of a lighthouse keeper was preferable. She was feted by presidents, popularised in the press and in song and dance, and awarded medals for rescuing upwards of 18 or more lives in the 39 years she was keeper at Lime Rock, Rhode Island, for which she was called "America's Grace Darling" and "Bravest woman in America".
Not only does she also have a buoy tender named after her, but she received the ultimate recognition in having the light she had looked after being renamed the Ida Lewis Light and her name also lives on in the Ida Lewis Yacht Club of Newport, RI.