Adventuress

05 05 nellie bly 1Today is the birthday of Nellie Bly, who was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran near Pittsburgh in 1864. She was a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism at a time when women did not even have the right to vote.

When Elizabeth was sixteen, an article appeared in her local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled ‘What Girls Are Good For’. Its author felt that women should not even attempt to have an education or a career. She was so incensed that she wrote an angry rebuttal to the editor. Her own mother worked to support herself after her second marriage ended in divorce so she had some pretty strong opinions to share. The Editor was so impressed that he asked her to write an article for the newspaper and then he offered her a full time job. She wrote under the pen name of Nellie Bly. Many of her early pieces highlighted the plight of working women and the poor factory conditions that they had to endure. She spent six months in Mexico, reporting on the lives and customs of the people there and also wrote scathingly about the Mexican government. Mostly though, she found herself relegated to the so-called ‘women’s pages’ writing about fashion and gardening and she left in 1887.

Nellie moved to New York and, after four months of unemployment, managed to land a job at ‘New York World’, a newspaper belonging to Joseph Pulitzer. She was given an undercover assignment which involved feigning insanity in order to have herself admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. There had been reports of neglect and mistreatment of patients and Nellie would be able to find out if they were true. She checked herself into a boardinghouse where she kicked up a massive fuss. She said she was afraid of the other boarders because they looked crazy and she refused to go to bed. By 05 05 an insanity expert at workthe next morning everyone was afraid that she was crazy and the police were called. Nellie was examined by several doctors who all pronounced her insane and she was taken to Blackwell’s Island. At first she was afraid of being found out as a fraud, but she soon began to think that the doctors were incompetent.

On the island she found out that patients were given terrible food, insufficient clothing and made to sit in silence for long hours. They were given cold baths in filthy water and were often punished by being beaten and strangled by the nurses. Once there, Nellie found that convincing people of her sanity was impossible. Furthermore she doubted the insanity of her fellow inmates. Some women were there because English was not their first language and simply hadn’t been able to make themselves understood. One lady had asked for help from the authorities because she was poor and, when she found herself in the asylum, she had assumed that this was where all poor people went. Nellie was released only with the help of her employers after ten days. The articles she wrote led to an official investigation into the care of patients at Blackwell’s Island and also an $850,000 dollar increase in the budget for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. Nellie’s investigative journalism made her famous and were later reprinted as a book called ‘Ten Days in a Madhouse’. Her experiences inspired the TV series ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’. But that is not all she did.

05 05 nellie bly 2In 1888 she suggested to her editor that she make a journey around the world in order to see if she could make the fictional story ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ into a reality. A year later, at 9:40 am on November 14, 1889 she set off on a steamer across the Atlantic, All she took were the dress she was wearing, an overcoat, one small case and £200 in a bag tied around her neck. She travelled to England, across to France, where she met Jules Verne (the author of Around the World in Eighty Days) to Egypt, Ceylon and Singapore. When she arrived in Hong Kong she discovered that a rival newspaper, ‘Cosmopolitan’, had sent another journalist, named Elizabeth Bisland, on a similar journey but in the opposite direction. She was now in a competition to see who would arrive home first. Nellie arrived in San Francisco behind schedule due to storms in the Pacific. Her employer, Pulitzer, chartered a special train and she arrived in back in New Jersey at 3.51 pm on January 25 1890. The journey had taken less that 73 days. Her rival had also been delayed, crossing the Atlantic, and arrived four and a half days later. For a little while, Nellie Bly held the record for the fastest journey around the world. Her trip also inspired this board game…

05 05 nellie bly game

Reluctant Traveller

11 14 elizabeth bislandOn this day in 1889 two women set off, in opposite directions on a round the world trip. They meant to prove that Jules Verne’s fictitious journey in his novel ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ was possible. Not only that, they were to try to break the imaginary record. Nellie Bly was an undercover reporter and all round adventurous person of some renown who I have written about elsewhere. Her opponent, Elizabeth Bisland was very different. She didn’t actually want to go at all. She was worried it would make her famous, and she certainly didn’t want that.

Elizabeth Bisland was literary editor of a new magazine called ‘The Cosmopolitan.’ Her job was to read newly published books and write reviews of them. She was pretty happy with that, she liked books. But then, on the morning of November 14th, the magazine’s owner, John Walker, read that Nellie Bly was about to set off alone around the world. She intended to not only equal but beat the eighty day journey of Phileas Fogg. He thought it would be a great idea, and good publicity for his magazine, to introduce a bit of competition. But who to send? It couldn’t be a man, sending a man to compete against a lady would have been very bad form. He thought of Elizabeth.

So at 10.30 on the morning of November 14th, Elizabeth received a message from her boss asking her to visit him in his office immediately. She had no idea what it was all about and wasn’t particularly curious to find out. Not being an early riser, she later remembered: “My appetite for mystery at that hour of the day is always lamentably feeble…” So, although the office was only a few minutes walk away, she didn’t get there until eleven o’clock. There, she says: “on arriving, the editor and owner of the magazine asked if I would leave that evening from New York for San Fransisco and continue from there around the world, endeavouring to complete the journey in some absurdly inadequate space of time.”

At first, she thought it was a joke and not a very funny one. When she realised he was serious, she said she didn’t wish to go, she said she couldn’t go because she had friends coming to tea. Then she said she wouldn’t go because she couldn’t possibly pack everything she would need in just a few hours. But it was all to no avail, Elizabeth was going. In the five hours remaining to her, she managed to visit her tailors to get a frock finished in time for the journey and pack two cloth dresses, half a dozen bodices, a silk dress for the evenings and plenty of hair pins.

By the time Elizabeth reached San Fransisco, she was already receiving more attention that she would have liked. She had to wait there for two days for her ship and was forever being visited by people who just wanted to look at her. It made her feel like: “ a sort of inexpensive freak show”. After a shaky start and a lot of complaining about the smell of opium in China, to her credit, she seems to have enjoyed her journey in the end and met a lot of charming and fascinating people. Unlike Nellie, a swashbuckling adventuress, she wrote more lyrically of her journey. In Singapore she describes: “Tall Hindoos go by leading little cream-white bulls with humped necks, who drag rude carts full of merchandise … Nearly all foot-passengers are half or three-quarters naked. It is an open-air museum of superb bronzes, who, when they condescend to clothe themselves at all, drape in statuesque folds about their brown limbs and bodies a few yards of white or crimson cloth, which adorns rather than conceals.” clearly quite a sight for a lady from 1880’s New York.

Elizabeth came quite close to beating Nellie but when she was about to leave England on the final leg of her journey she was told that the fast German steamer she had intended to catch had been delayed and she was forced to travel on a slower ship. Meanwhile, Nellie was speeding across the United States on a train specially charted for her by her editor Joseph Pulitzer. Nellie beat Elizabeth by four and a half days.

While Nellie was travelling the country delivering lectures about her adventures, Elizabeth quietly slipped off back to England and stayed there ’til the heat died down. Elizabeth didn’t want to be famous and she really isn’t, so that really worked out pretty well for her. But for a while she was the second fastest person to travel round the world.

Seasoned Traveller

10 27 ida pfeifferToday I am celebrating the life of Ida Pfieffer who died on this day in 1858. She had a fairly unassuming but difficult life until she was forty-five. Then she became an explorer, she journeyed alone and went around the world, not once, but twice. She travelled a total of 150,000 miles over sea and 20,000 miles over land.

Ida was born in Vienna in 1797 and grew up with five brothers. She enjoyed all sorts of sports and outdoor games and was allowed to dress in boy’s clothes and she dreamed of a life of adventure. When she was nine, her father died and her mother tried to make her wear dresses instead. She was so upset by the idea that she made herself ill. Her boys clothes were returned to her on the advice of her doctor. She didn’t really take to female attire until she was thirteen. Around that time her mother employed a tutor for her. As they later fell in love, these two events are probably not unconnected.

Unfortunately, they were forbidden to marry and she eventually married a lawyer called Mark Pfeiffer when she was twenty-two. He was twenty-four years older than her and had a grown up son. Pfeiffer lost his job after exposing corruption amongst government officials. Then he managed to lose the money she had inherited from her father by lending it to someone who didn’t pay it back. She struggled to support herself, her two sons and sometimes her husband by teaching drawing and music. When her mother died in 1831, she inherited enough to give her sons a good education and have a little left over. Her husband died in 1838 and once her sons had grown up and left home, she started to make travel plans.

When she told everyone of her plans to visit the Holy Land, they thought she was mad. So, in 1842 she told them she was off to visit a friend in Constantinople. She set off there by way of the Danube and the Black Sea. But then she went on to Syria and Palestine, then back via Egypt, Sicily and Italy. She was gone for nine months. The book she published of her travels funded her next journey. Her style of writing is pretty straightforward and matter-of-fact. She can be a little judgemental sometimes but often she is surprisingly open-minded, considering the time she was writing. In Constantinople, she found the Turkish people more honest than the Europeans she met, which was not a commonly held opinion.

In 1845 she travelled through Iceland and Scandinavia. This time, as well as publishing her journals she also sold geological and botanical specimens that she had collected along the way. She seems to have found the people she met kind and helpful for the most part. Though in Iceland, she found the diet rather dull and admitted that it was her ‘misfortune not to be fond of fish’.

10 27 ida dressed for travelThe proceeds from that expedition funded a much grander plan. In May 1846, she set off around the world. She told her family that she was only going to Brazil. She did go to Brazil, but from there she went round Cape Horn, across the Pacific to Tahiti, then on to China, across India, Persia and Asia Minor, back to Constantinople and down to Greece, before returning to Vienna in November 1848. Her account of this journey was published as ‘A Lady’s Voyage Round the World.’ It was extremely successful and was translated into both English and French. Her journals are packed with details about her journey. We learn that monkey is much nicer to eat than parrot. At Cape Horn, when the captain told her that on one journey, the current was so strong that his ship: “danced, turning round in the passage at least a thousand times.” Far from being afraid, she was disappointed that the ship didn’t turn even once.

This was still not enough for Ida. In 1851, with a grant of £150, she set off around the world again, this time in the other direction. She travelled to Capetown, then on to Singapore and Borneo. Here, against the advice of others she visited the Dyak tribe, who were known to be headhunters. When she met them and saw their display of shrunken heads, she thought the Europeans had really done far worse things in their history. Ida found the Dyak to be good-natured and honest and said: “I should be inclined to place them, in these respects, above any of the races I have ever known.”

In Sumatra, again against the wishes of her advisers, she met with the Batak. They were known cannibals who had never let any Europeans into their territory. They treated her as an object of curiosity and passed her from tribe to tribe. She was uncomfortable, as they made it clear they might eat her. But she managed to persuade them that she was far too old and tough to make a good meal. From Indonesia, she recrossed the Pacific to California, travelled down to South America, then up to New Orleans, onward to the Great Lakes and Niagara, over to New York and back across the Atlantic, arriving in Liverpool in 1854. She travelled home via the Azores, where she visited her son.

Her last trip was to Madagascar in 1857. She accidentally became involved in a coup and was imprisoned for a time by Queen Ranavalona. On her journey home, she contracted malaria, from which she never recovered. She died in Vienna, a year later.

Ida Pfeiffer had dreamed of adventures and travelling the world as a child. Although she had to let go of those dreams for a long time, the financial hardships she endured during her marriage coupled with her boisterous upbringing gave her the confidence to face the many challenges she encountered. I love it when I come across a woman who, freed from the shackles of domestic responsibility, manages to build a whole new life for herself. Ida is all the more remarkable for having done it all in the mid-nineteenth century.

Choose Life

10 20 richard burtonToday I am celebrating the life of Sir Richard Burton, the Victorian adventurer and all round embracer of everything that life had to offer. He was born in Devon in 1821 and died on this day in 1890 in Trieste. He packed an astonishing amount of living into his sixty-nine years. He was a British explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, Orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, linguist, poet, fencer, diplomat and spy. He travelled extensively through Asia, Africa and the Americas and spoke at least twenty-nine languages.

His family were pretty nomadic sort of people and while he was young he travelled with them through England, France and Italy and he quickly picked up French, Italian, Neapolitan and Latin. He attended Trinity College, Oxford where he studied Arabic and also learned falconry and fencing. Burton got into trouble almost straight away for challenging a fellow student to a duel for mocking his moustache. He was eventually expelled permanently and he went to India to join the army.

10 20 mizra abdullahIn India he picked up several more languages and became very interested in Indian customs and religious practices. He was considered rather unusual by his army comrades, and was accused of ‘going native’. He even kept a number of monkeys, in the hope that he could learn their language too. When he was sent to survey the province of Sindh, he began to disguise himself and call himself Mizra Abdullah, he managed to fool both locals and his fellow officers. That is when he first became a spy. I don’t know much about what he did because it was a secret. But I do know he was sent to infiltrate a male brothel in Karachi, that was attended by British soldiers, to find out what was going on. Everyone was shocked by the detailed report he produced and thought, perhaps correctly, that he must have been a participant in the practices he described.

10 20 in arabic dressIn the 1850s he undertook several journeys on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society. He went in disguise on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which was an incredibly dangerous thing to do. He also visited the city of Harar, in what is now Ethiopia, which no European had ever entered. After that he was wounded when his camp was attacked by 200 Somali warriors. One of the other officers was killed, a Lieutenant Speke was wounded in eleven places and Burton had a spear thrust through his face. He managed to escape, but with the spear sticking in through one cheek and out the other.

This did not put him off. It didn’t put Lieutenant Speke off either. In 1856 the pair set off in search of the source of the Nile, which was rumoured to spring from a large lake in the African Interior. It was an awful journey. They had most of their surveying equipment stolen and were horribly afflicted by tropical diseases. By the time they reached Lake Tanganyika in 1858 Speke was temporarily blinded and Burton could not walk. The source of the Nile was not even there. Speke later went on to discover it by himself at Lake Victoria after the two quarrelled and separated. As well as his geographical observations, Burton made extensive notes on the language, customs and even sexual practices of the tribes he met with.

In 1861 he married his fiancée, Isabel Arundell and almost immediately left for four years in West Africa. They were reunited in 1865 and spent four years together in Brazil, except for the times when he went to visit a war in Paraguay. Then he was posted to Damascus as consul. It was a troubled time and there was a lot of animosity between Christian, Jewish and Muslim populations. He did his best to smooth things over. It can’t have worked too well, because at one point he was attacked by a hoard of armed horsemen and camel riders sent by the Governor of Syria. He said: “I have never been so flattered in my life than to think it would take three hundred men to kill me.” In 1872 he was posted to Trieste in Austria-Hungary, which he found dull by comparison, but it left him with more time to write and travel.

10 20 kama sutraIn 1863 he had co-founded the Anthropological Society of London, with the intention of providing fellow travellers with information that would give them: “…curious information on social and sexual matters.” For all his adventuring, he is probably best known now as the man who provided the unexpurgated version of ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’ To these he added his own extensive footnotes exploring the nature of sexuality in the Orient. He wrote a particularly long passage about homosexuality. He also published the first translations into English of the Kama Sutra and the Perfumed Garden. The explicit content of these books was terribly shocking to Victorian Society and they would have fallen foul of the Obscene Publications Act, had they not been published privately and by subscription.

There has been some speculation over whether or not he indulged in the acts he described either during or after his extensive travels. He seems like the sort of person who grabbed life with both hands, so I think he probably did and good for him. We’ll never know for sure though as his wife, who was a staunch Catholic, burned all his papers shortly after his death including a new translation of The Perfumed Garden. It was a great loss to his biographers, but she believed she was protecting his reputation.

Going South

09 20 bellinghausenToday is the birthday of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen who was born in 1778 in what is now Estonia. In 1820 he headed the first expedition to sight mainland Antarctica. I’ve read a lot about explorers and sea voyages researching this blog and the nineteenth century seems rather late to find a whole new continent. But of all the discoveries I’ve read about, it’s really the only recorded instance of someone finding a major land mass that was uninhabited. I could argue that none of the other famous adventurers we know about really ‘discovered’ anywhere because the places they encountered already had plenty of people living there.

09 20 Ortelius World MapFor centuries people believed that there was a large land mass to the south of the equator. Aristotle had postulated that the Earth was symmetrical, so there must be a land mass to the south to balance out the northern lands of Europe, Asia and North Africa. Although the idea that the earth was spherical dates back to at least the 6th century BC, no one in Europe was completely sure that it was possible to cross the equator into the Southern Hemisphere until the fifteenth century. The unknown landmass to the south is marked on early maps as Terra Australis Incognita and it’s enormous. It was not until 1487 that Europeans knew that Africa was not joined to this land mass, when Bartolomeu Dias made it round the Cape of Good Hope. Ferdinand Magellan assumed when, in 1520, he sailed through the Straits of Magellan, that the land to the south of him was part of Terra Australis. This was not disproved until 1615.

In the seventeenth century, the newly found region called New Holland was assumed to be part of the large continent in the south, but then in 1642, Abel Tasman sailed around to the south of it, proving it was not the case. In 1773 James Cook sailed as far south as the Antarctic circle, but found only ice. He declared that there was no landmass there at all and the name Australia was given instead to New Holland.

09 20 antarctic mapIn 1819 Bellinghausen, a captain in the Russian Navy, was chosen to lead a Russian expedition to the far south. He had already distinguished himself as part of the first Russian circumnavigation of the world and had proved himself to be an excellent cartographer. His expedition was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle since Cook’s voyage. Bellinghausen sighted the coast of Antarctica on January 20th `1820. During his voyage he sailed right around the continent, proving that it was not connected to any other landmass. Belinghausen’s orders for the mission were to explore as far south as possible and to carry out ‘scientific work’. I haven’t managed to find out what the scientific work was, but he couldn’t possibly have fulfilled the ‘far south as possible’ part of his mission any better than he did. Yet the Russians seem to have been unimpressed on his return. It was ten years before his account of his voyage was published.

Around The World

09 06 victoriaOn this day in 1522 the ship Victoria returned to Sanlúcar in Spain. Her sails were in tatters and her small crew were constantly pumping water out of her to keep her afloat. This single ship and her eighteen crew were all that was left of the five ships and 270 men who had set out three years earlier with Ferdinand Magellan on the first ever round the world voyage.

At that time the world had been divided in two, half belonged to Spain and half to the Portuguese. Portugal had control of the eastern shipping routes that led to the Spice Islands, a valuable source of trade. The voyage was largely funded by the Spanish Crown and the intention was that they could gain access to the islands by sailing west. No European had ever sailed beyond the Southern tip of the Americas before, it was uncharted territory. The maps were blank. Magellan though, was confident that he knew of a way through.

They set off in September 1519 and reached the coast of Brazil in December and in January they reached the mouth of the River Plate. Magellan must have thought it was the route beyond the continent that he had been looking for and he must have been extremely disheartened to find himself in a fresh water river. They turned back out to sea and continued southwards down the coast. In March they anchored at a place they named Puerto San Julián in Patagonia. They overwintered there and we are told that they met with a race of giants. Antonio Pigafetta, who was one of the few survivors and chronicled their journey describes them as twice the height of a normal man. Probably they were a tribe called the Teluelches who were unusually tall, but certainly not that big. The idea that there were giants in Patagonia persisted for around 250 years and early maps of the New World often included the Region of Giants.

09 06 strait of magellanIt was a tough winter and supplies were scarce. Also Magellan had a mutiny to contend with. His crew had begun to think that his crazy obsession with trying to find the route to the east would lead them all to their doom. Three of the ships’ captains were against him. He had most of the mutineers killed. Their bones would be found years later by Francis Drake when he made the same voyage. As the search for a route through to the east continued, one of the ships was wrecked and another turned back for Spain. In October, the remaining three ships arrived at a place they named the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins, an odd name but it is named after a saints’ feast day. There they found a salt water channel that would later be called the Straits of Magellan. It took them more than a month to thread there way through the strait. When they reached the ocean on the other side the water there was so calm the Magellan named it the Pacific Ocean.

Once in the Pacific he assumed that they were close to their destination. He had no idea how big the Pacific was. It was more that three months before they sighted land. The men were forced to eat
rancid biscuit crumbs, leather hide and even the rats aboard the ship. Many starved.

09 06 elcanoWhen they arrived in the Philippines in April, Magellan became involved in a war between local kings that was really a result of his desire to convert everyone to Christianity. He was killed there, he never made it back to Spain. The remaining crew sailed on. In May they were forced to abandon another of their ships. They no longer had enough crew and one of the ships was so worm eaten that they set it on fire and left it. They arrived at the Spice Islands in November and loaded up with what seems to have been principally cloves. The Victoria was now under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano. It was he who decided to continue sailing westwards back to Spain. Magellan had never intended to sail right around the world. He had expected to sail back the same way they had come. The second remaining ship, the Trinidad, had to remain behind for repairs but the Victoria sailed across the Indian Ocean, around the cape of Good Hope and northwards back to Spain.

The ship carried 26 tonnes of spices which were worth more that their weight in gold. But all the crew had to eat on the last part of their journey was rice. Twenty of them starved to death before they reached home. The remaining crew were never properly paid for their service. The cargo was siezed by the crown as compensation for the lost ships.

Although Magellan is often credited as being the first to sail around the world, he did not complete the journey. He didn’t even get to the Spice Islands. The credit should more properly go to Elcano and the seventeen other survivors. You could even argue that the first man to sail right around the world was Magellan’s slave, Enrique, who had been with him since 1511 and was born in the Spice Islands. He completed his circumnavigation in 1521, over a year before the Victoria returned to Spain.

Monster

08 06 daedelusOn this day in 1848 a ship called the Daedalus was sailing home from the East Indies, between the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena when the ship’s captain, Peter McQuhae and several of his officers spotted a huge sea serpent. It was swimming with four feet (1.2 metres) of it’s head above the water. McQuhae estimated that the whole creature was about sixty feet long. He said that is was dark brown with a yellowish white throat. It had the head of a snake and it also seemed to have some sort of mane like a horse. It passed so close to the ship that McQuhae said: had it been a man of my acquaintance I should have easily recognised the features with the naked eye. He estimated that it was moving at a speed of between twelve and fifteen miles an hour and said that it remained in sight for twenty minutes.

This information appeared in a letter to the Times on October 13th 1848. While others came forward with their own reports of sea serpent sightings, the scientific community were more sceptical. The biologist Sir Richard Owen wrote a particularly scathing reply which was published on November 9th. Owen, who was the man who coined the term dinosaur, knew a great deal about fossil specimens. He thought that no such animal could possibly exist. No bones of such a creature had ever been found and no fossil evidence had ever been discovered. He was sure that what the sailors had seen was an elephant seal.

08 05 koch's sea monsterIt seems a little unfair to assume that seasoned sailors did not know what they were looking at or had never seen an elephant seal before but perhaps Owen’s scepticism was born of experience. Three years earlier he had identified as a fake, a sea serpent skeleton that was being displayed all around Europe by a man named Albert Koch. Koch had used the skeletons of six separate animals and also some whale bones and a few ammonite shells to fabricate a creature that was 114 feet (almost 35 metres) long. Koch’s biggest mistake was to use for the head of his leviathan, the skull of a Basilosaurus. A creature that Owen himself had helped to identify.

The evidence we have of the sighting are the testimony of seven sailors and a number of drawings that McQuhae had made when he returned home. He first joined the navy in 1803 and was made captain in 1835 so he had really spent a lot of time at sea. He didn’t have any reason to make up a story like this as it was inviting ridicule. On the other hand, there is still no physical evidence that such a creature exists. But the seas and oceans make up 97% of the earth’s habitable space. Also we once thought the same about the giant squid.