Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Isabella Bird Bishop ~ Explorer

Wearing Manchurian clothing
from a journey through China.
Isabella Lucy Bird (October 15, 1831 – October 7, 1904) was a nineteenth-century English explorer, writer and natural historian. She was born in Boroughbridge in 1831 and grew up in Tattenhall, Cheshire.  As her father Edward was a Church of England minister, the family moved several times across Britain as he received different parish postings, most notably in 1848 when he was replaced as vicar of St. Thomas' when his parishioners objected to the style of his ministry.

She was a sickly child and spent her entire life struggling with various diseases. Much of her illness may have been psychogenic, for when she was doing exactly what she wanted she was almost never ill. Her real desire was to travel. In 1854, her father gave her £100 and sent her to visit relatives in America. She was allowed to stay until her money ran out. She detailed the journey anonymously in her first book The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856. The following year, she went to Canada and then toured Scotland.

Time spent in Britain always seemed to make her ill and, following her mother's death in 1868, she embarked on a series of excursions to avoid settling permanently with her sister Henrietta (Henny) on the Isle of Mull. Bird could not endure her sister's domestic lifestyle, preferring instead to support further travels through writing. Many of her works are compiled from letters she wrote home to her sister in Scotland.

She left Britain in 1872, going first to Australia (which she disliked) and then to Hawaii, known in Europe as the Sandwich Islands. While there she climbed Mauna Loa. Her love for Hawaii prompted her second book (published three years later). In 1873 she traveled to Colorado, at that time the newest member of the United States, where she had heard the air was excellent for the infirm. Dressed practically and riding frontwards like a man (though she threatened to sue the Times for saying she dressed like one), she covered over 800 miles in the Rocky Mountains. Her letters to her sister, first printed in the magazine Leisure Hour, comprised her fourth and perhaps most famous book, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Isabella’s time in the Rockies was enlivened especially by her acquaintance with Jim Nugent, ‘Rocky Mountain Jim’, a textbook outlaw with one eye and an affinity for violence and poetry. "A man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry," she declared in a section excised from her letters before their publication. Nugent also seemed captivated by the independent-minded Isabella, but she ultimately left the Rockies and her "dear desperado." Nugent was shot dead less than a year later.

At home, Isabella again found herself pursued, this time by John Bishop, an Edinburgh doctor in his thirties. Predictably ill, she went traveling again, this time to Asia: Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. When her sister died of typhoid in 1880, Isabella was heartbroken and finally accepted Bishop's marriage proposal. Her health took a severe turn for the worse but recovered by Bishop's own death in 1886. Feeling that her earlier travels had been hopelessly dilettante, Isabella studied medicine and resolved to travel as a missionary. Despite her nearly 60 years of age, she set off for India.

Arriving on the subcontinent in February 1889, Bird visited missions in India, crossed Tibet and then travelled in Persia, Kurdistan and Turkey. The following year she joined a group of British soldiers traveling between Baghdad and Tehran. She remained with the unit's commanding officer during his survey work in the region, armed with her revolver and a medicine chest supplied – in possibly an early example of corporate sponsorship – by Henry Wellcome's company in London.

Featured in journals and magazines for decades, she was by now something of a household name. In 1892, she became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. She was elected to membership of the Royal Photographic Society on January 12, 1897. Her final great journey took place in 1897 when she traveled up the Yangtze and Han rivers which are in China and Korea, respectively. Later, she went to Morocco where she traveled among the Berbers and had to use a ladder to mount her black stallion, a gift from the Sultan. She died in Edinburgh within a few months of her return in 1904, just shy of her 73rd birthday. She was still planning another trip to China.

"There never was anybody," wrote the Spectator, "who had adventures as well as Miss Bird."

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