Isabella Bird and her travels

isabella birdIsabella Bird (1831-1904)

was one of the 19th century’s most remarkable women travelers. Her intrepid global travels and subsequent travel books made her famous at home and abroad.

Isabella was born in Yorkshire County, England, in 1831. She was a sickly girl but had a forward-thinking doctor who prescribed travel as an antidote to insomnia and blues she suffered after an 1850 operation. She traveled by steamer to the eastern United States and Canada, and upon returning, published her first book, The Englishwoman in America. She hated the title, but the gig—travel, then write—felt like a fit.

In 1875, after living in Hawaii for a time, she published Six Months in the Sandwich Islands. Her third book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains in which she details her time in the American West—and in Estes Park—in a series of notes to her younger sister Henrietta, was an international bestseller that let her spend the rest of her life exploring and reporting.

Between then and her death in 1904, she traveled to and wrote about the people, cultures, and mysteries of countries spanning from India and Tibet to Kurdistan and Turkey.

Overcoming poor health and the restrictions of a male-dominated society, Bird traveled extensively into her old age. She visited America, Hawaii, India, Kurdistan, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Tibet, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, and China.

These travels were full of danger and wonder. Bird climbed mountains and volcanoes. She saw palaces and slums. She made great friendships with the people she met but occasionally attacked and chased. An accomplished rider, she rode thousands of miles on horseback – and even a few miles on an elephant.

Bird recorded these adventures in her famous books. Her letters to Henrietta and John Murray IV are eloquent, insightful, detailed, and long. One written from the Malay Peninsula is a remarkable 116 pages long. Her later works were beautifully illustrated with her photographs of the landscapes, buildings, and people she encountered.

Isabella Bird Bishop’s Korean passport c.1894

Traveling in different countries often required Bird Bishop to have various passports and official travel documents. These were particularly necessary for Korea, where there was a lot of civil unrest when Isabella traveled there.

Korean passport 1894

Source: The John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland

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