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

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