Isabella Bird – free spirit and fearless explorer

“The tripod of my camera served for a candle stand, and on it I hung my clothes and boots at night, out of the way of rats…  With absolute security from vermin, all else can be cheerfully endured.”

Isabella Bird Bishop

When Isabella Bird’s doctor advised her to travel overseas for the sake of her health, this probably wasn’t the image he had in mind.

In the late 19th century, women with any kind of ailment were treated like delicate drooping flowers, likely to revive in clean air and the proximity of water.  But Isabella Bird, the highly intelligent and free-spirited daughter of a Yorkshire vicar, was bored by the fashionable resorts of her day.  Stifled by the society of her peers, she longed to escape into the wild and unknown territories that lay beyond the horizon.

And escape she did… on horseback, mule and yak;   down raging Chinese rivers and over snow-blocked Tibetan mountain passes;  through the bandit country of Colorado, across the deserts of Morocco and the Middle East, and into the humid forests of Malaysia.  Standing only five feet tall but with a will of iron, Isabella was an unlikely blend of frailty and ferocity, languishing amid the comforts of home but instantly revitalised by the first whiff of foreign lands.

It was on a battered vessel called Nevada, bound for Hawaii out of Auckland in New Zealand, that the thrill of travel first infected her soul.  The ship was tossed like flotsam by a hurricane, and the crew turned mutinous;  but Isabella was in her element.  She read some Tennyson, worked on her sewing, and helped to nurse a fellow passenger who was suffering from sea-sickness.  “In between while she joined heartily in killing cockroaches with a slipper and in playing quoits.”

Safely landed in Hawaii, Isabella found freedom – and it was exhilarating.   She abandoned convention and rode around the country at will, braving floods and fleas alike and camping on the slopes of Mauna Loa as the volcano crashed and roared like a sleepless dragon.  For her, there was no turning back:  vast regions of the world lay before her like an unopened book, and her mission was to write the chapters.

The Pau or Hawaiian Ladies' Holiday Riding Dress, by Isabella Bird (1875)

‘The Pau or Hawaiian Ladies’ Holiday Riding Dress’ by Isabella Bird.  It’s impossible to tell whether the lady is riding side-saddle or astride:  in fact, Isabella was relieved to find that women in Hawaii rode astride, a habit which would have caused outrage in Victorian Britain.  Her drawing, published in one of her books, gives just the right amount of detail!

In the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, still a dangerous bandit country of pioneers and fur trappers, Isabella found the love of her life.   His name was Jim Nugent, a rugged cattle rancher of Irish descent, with a chivalrous heart and a soul that was enslaved to liquor. At some stage in his life he had been mauled by a bear, and he still bore the scars.  Isabella was both repelled and fascinated:

“One eye was entirely gone, and the loss made one side of the face repulsive, while the other might have been modelled in marble.

Long's Peak - panorama showing Mount Lilly, Colorado

Long’s Peak, Colorado.  Photo (1873) by William Henry Jackson

In 1873 Isabella and Jim climbed Long’s Peak, which rises to 14,259 feet.   It was a supreme effort, made worse by the fact that she had not taken enough water. They wrote their names and placed them in a tin at the summit, and that evening she fell into an exhausted sleep:   

“When I woke, the moon was shining through the silvery branches, whitening the bald Peak above, and glittering on the great abyss of snow behind…  My feet were so icy cold that I could not sleep again, and getting some blankets to sit in, and making a roll of them for my back, I sat for two hours by the camp fire…  Jim, or Mr Nugent, as I always scrupulously called him, told stories of his early youth, and of a great sorrow which had led him to embark on a lawless and desperate life.  His voice trembled, and tears rolled down his cheek.  Was it semi-conscious acting, I wondered, or was his dark soul really stirred to its depths by the silence, the beauty, and the memories of youth?

Isabella Bird: 'My Home in the Rocky Mountains'

‘My Home in the Rocky Mountains’ by Isabella Bird

By day Isabella cooked and cleaned and helped to drive the cattle, often spending ten hours on horseback, and in the evenings she listened as Jim read his self-penned poetry.  But when he asked her to marry him, she knew what the answer must be.

“A man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry.”

Isabella steeled herself to refuse Jim’s proposal, and it tore at her heart.   This impossible desperado had touched her like no one else in her life, and she saw beneath his wounds, both mental and physical.  But whisky was his master, and his frank revelations about past crimes had shocked her to the core.   Stifling the tears, she packed her belongings and rode away.   She would never see him again:  just a few months later, Jim got himself into a brawl and was shot dead.

For most women, that might have been enough drama for one lifetime, but for Isabella the adventure was only just beginning.  If America had captured her heart, the Far East was now calling to her soul.  She journeyed into Tibet and China, taking just a few vital provisions and relying on local people to offer her transport and hospitality.   Excitement and exhilaration awaited her.

Isabella Bird: A boat on the Min River

‘A boat on the Min River, used for running the rapids’.  Photo by Isabella Bird

“When we reached rapids, five men pulled frantically with yells which posed as songs, to keep steerage way on her, and we went down like a flash – down smooth hills of water, where rapids had been obliterated;  down leaping races, where they had been created;  past hideous whirlpools, where to have been sucked in would have been destruction;   past temples, pagodas, and grey cities on heights;  past villages gleaming white midst dense greenery;  past hill, valley, woodland, garden cultivation… A pagoda or city scarcely appeared before it vanished.”

Isabella Bird: The Mode of Carrying Oil and Wine
‘The Mode of Carrying Oil and Wine’. Photograph by Isabella Bird

If plunging up to her neck in snow-bound mountain passes and sleeping in flea-infested muddy barns wasn’t enough for her, Isabella soon had to confront troubles of a different sort.   She was penetrating far into western China, reaching places that had never been visited by Europeans, and the people were understandably suspicious.   On one occasion, her travelling chair was pursued by a howling mob of several thousand, hurling stones and threatening to overturn her.  Running for her life, she barricaded herself into a ramshackle hut as an army of would-be attackers hammered on the door.  She was saved only by the quick action of one of her porters, who pleaded with the local Mandarin to send his soldiers to the rescue.

Travelling across the Cheng-tu Plain towards Li-fan, Isabella was contemplating a leap into the unknown, because, as she told a rapt audience of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1897, “a foreigner going beyond Li-fan was a thing unheard of.”   She explained that the object of her journey was to trace the western branch of the Min River, “as well as an attempt to reach the source of the great Gold river, on the other side of what, she supposed, must be the water parting.”

Travelling by chair and accompanied by several ‘runners’ and baggage coolies, Isabella marvelled at the mountain corries with their exquisitely cultivated terraces;  she gazed at richly coloured temples perched high above her on rocky ledges, and saw farmhouses set amid cypress and cedar groves.  She was fascinated by the local industries, observing distilleries and mills for producing paper and flour.

Isabella Bishop - travelling party

Isabella’s travelling party;  Image source:  ‘The Life of Isabella Bird’ by Anna M Stoddart, 1908

Isabella revealed that in Sze-Chuan she was accompanied by an official guard of soldiers, but when she got to Mantzu the escort consisted “not of armed and stalwart tribesmen, but of two handsome laughing girls, distaff in hand, fearless and full of fun, who enlivened the way as far as Chute.  Before starting, each of the girls put on an extra petticoat.  Had any molestation been seriously threatened, after protesting and calling on all present to witness the deed, they would have taken off the additional garments, spreading them solemnly on the ground, there to remain till the outrage had been either atoned for or forgiven, the nearest man in authority being bound to punish the offender…”

“I very much prefer life in the East to life at home.”

Isabella Bird BishopWhenever Isabella returned home to Britain she succumbed to the vague but debilitating illness that she had suffered since childhood.   Amazingly, she found time to marry:  in 1881 she wed John Bishop, an Edinburgh doctor, who had been smitten with her for several years.   But by 1886 she was widowed.   She had no children, and her salvation, as always, was travel.   Photography became a new passion, and she strapped her camera to her travelling chair, developing her photographs under the dark night sky.   When she lectured to the London branch of the RSGS in 1892, and to the Society’s Scottish branches in 1897, Isabella captivated her audience with limelight views of towering mountains and vast rivers, fabulous pagodas and rich palaces.  She also gave them a first glimpse into the lives of people in remote Chinese villages, the shocking poverty and disease, the strange customs and the structure of their societies, as yet untouched by the western world.

Not surprisingly, Isabella Bird Bishop received “a very hearty reception”, and in 1891 she was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society – a well-deserved accolade for an extraordinary woman.

Quotes from:

  • ‘Isabella Bird’ by D Ireland
  • A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains‘ by Isabella Bird
  • ‘Victorian Lady Travellers’ by Dorothy Middleton
  • The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers‘ by Mary Morris
  • RSGS archives of transcripts and newspaper cuttings
  • ‘In the Footsteps of Isabella Bird’ by Kiyonori Kanasaka

For more on Isabella Bird, see Susan Ozmore’s excellent post on ‘Saints, Sisters and Sluts

Writer and editor at The Hazel Tree (www.the-hazel-tree.com). Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and writing a blog on great explorers at www.rsgsexplorers.com

8 thoughts on “Isabella Bird – free spirit and fearless explorer

    • I’m so glad you were inspired to find out more! I hadn’t heard of her, either – but what dauntless courage – and she was a good writer too, so I think you’ll enjoy her book! 🙂

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  1. Extraordinary, indeed. She must have been mentally very strong to make the decision not to marry Jim Nugent, and to endure the hostility she found in China. That would be enough to make most people turn tail and leg it out of there. It’s interesting that she fell ill whenever she came back to Britain. Perhaps it wasn’t so much the climate as the restraints of life at home. Do you know if she was ill on her travels too? Sometimes having something to take your mind off illness is as good as any medicine.

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    • I know – she seemed to be in command of herself at all times (in her writing) but you wonder just what she felt for ‘Rocky Mountain Jim’. It must have been heartbreaking. I believe that she was only truly ‘ill’ when she came back to civilisation – she lived in Tobermory at one time, and on one occasion, having returned from China, it took her several weeks just to gain the strength to walk from her house to the village. Ironically, on her travels she was often pursued by people demanding miracle cures which she used to dispense from her medicine chest. But I have yet to come across any real complaints of illness on her travels – her spirit at those times was quite dauntless.

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  2. Jo,

    Well done; you are shining a light on the travels of an extraordinary woman, who is an important part of the history of the Society.

    Barrie Brown

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much, Barrie. Isabella was an inspirational woman to write about – her character fascinates me, and she had enough adventures for several lifetimes. It would have been wonderful to hear one of her lectures!

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