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