Women's journals, diaries, and letters

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Women's journals, diaries, and letters

Women's journals, diaries, and letters

Eyewitness accounts in women's diaries, letters, and journals provide details of empire building crucial to history. The four-year visit of Lady Anne Lindsay Barnard (1750-1825) among the Hottentots of Cape Hope, South Africa, introduced a privileged Scot to the downside of empire. In South Africa a Century Ago: Letters Written from the Cape of Good Hope (written 1797-1801; published 1901), she muses on the slave quarters at the manor of a British planter: “His house has generally a slavehouse belonging to it, which, alas!, is in place of that happier cottage at home where each Englishman has his wife, his child, his pig, and his cat or dog, as great within its four walls as any emperor within his palace… . At present unwilling drudgery toils, unthanked, for indolent apathy” (Barnard, 1901, 119). Like the later writer RUDYARD KIPLING, Barnard regretted the miscegenation of Europeans and people of color.

About this time, Anna Maria Norwood Falconbridge (1769-after 1794) of Bristol, England, traveled with her husband to the colony of Sierra Leone in an attempt to settle freed slaves in Freetown. At first, she abhorred SLAVERY as “a blemish on every civilized nation that countenanced or supported it” (Falconbridge 1794, 235). A journey to Jamaica, where she met Christian slavemasters, changed her opinion to relief that those blacks borne over the Middle Passage escaped “murdering, despotic chieftains” (236). The shift in attitude illustrates the naivete of travelers who based their thinking on superficial observation of slavery. Falconbridge described her experiences in a series of letters published in 1794 as Narrative of Two Voyages to the River Sierra Leone, During the years 1791-1792-1793.

Though often lacking entree into upper economic and court circles, female travelers unearthed details of colonial intrigues and shortcomings. In 1841, Florentia Wynch Sale (1790-1853) compiled A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, 1841-1842 (1843), a frontline commentary on the brutality of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), the first British attempt to win Afghanistan for the British Empire. Sale's narrative bristles at the barbarity of chiefs in Peshawar, who intend to seize women as war prizes. Terrorism reaches melodramatic heights with the plan to murder all men “except one, who is to have his hands and legs cut off, and is to be placed with a letter in terrorem at the entrance of the Khyber passes” (Sale 1843, 204).

Russians and Turks

To the north, the British traveler Lucy Sherrand Finley Atkinson (ca. 1820-63) delved into Russian political issues for Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants (1863). In February 13, 1848, she joined her husband, the architect and painter Thomas Witlam Atkinson, on a six-year sledge journey across Siberia, Mongolia, the Kirchis (now Kirghiz) steppes, and the region known as Chinese Tartary. They traveled under Cossack guard with a border pass issued by Czar Nicholas I. Atkinson interviewed P. I. Falenberg in Shush and M. I. Muravyov-Apostol and I. D. Yakushkin in Yalutorovsk, survivors of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, whom Czar Alexander II pardoned in 1856. Another Decembrist, V. L. Davydov of Krasnoyarsk, regretted “that we were betrayed by an Englishman … acting the ignoble part of a spy and a traitor” (Atkinson 1863, 319-320).

Islamic territory displayed its own perils. When Georgina Mary Muir Mackenzie (1833-74) traveled through Turkey with Adeline Paulina Irby (1831-1911) in the 1860s and early 1870s, they formed a poor impression of the Ottoman Empire that they reported in Travels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe (1877). At Scutari, Albania, they found “the same lamentable description— natural advantages unimproved, trade hampered, streets ill-built, and inhabitants ignorant and misruled” (Mackenzie and Irby 1877, 164). The two travelers departed the area in 1876, when the Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina began moves toward joining the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Traveling Feminists

Feminist issues appear often in the texts of women's diaries and journals. Anna Brownell Murphy Jameson (1794-1860), a Dubliner heading to Ontario, denounced white occupiers of Indian land for debauching the Chippewa and Menominee of the Great Lakes and blamed native men as well for using their wives as beasts of burden. In Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838), she charges “the refuse of the white population” with denigrating and cheating natives, introducing them to drunkenness, and corrupting females (Jameson 1838, 45). Of the maltreatment of women by their own people, she proclaims: “Barbarism!—the heartless brutality on one side, and the shameless indifference on the other, may well make a woman's heart shrink within her” (306).

The Irish feminist Mabel Sharman Crawford (1820-68) viewed the difficulties of Islamic women in Through Algeria (1863), a land that the French had conquered in 1848. Of inequities among Muslims, she comments that “The Koran does hold out the hope of a paradise to women … whilst entering into minute details as to the blessings reserved for the pious Mussulman” (Crawford 1863, 54). With stronger criticism of Great Britain, she denounced manhandling in “Maltreatment of Wives” (1893), a diatribe published posthumously in the Westminster Review against wife beating in a Christian land that winked at extremes of VIOLENCE against women, some of them pregnant.

While popular GOTHIC LITERATURE was full of titillating female abduction stories, sexual sadism infuriated feminist nonfiction writers. On a journey to Egypt and Syria in 1858, the diarist Emily Anne Beaufort (1826-87), author of Egyptian Sepulchres and Syrian Shrines (1861), draws feminist conclusions about the “barbarous” nature of concubinage and harems in the Ottoman Empire. She charges the theocratic state, Muhammad, the KORAN, and a male Islamic hierarchy with tyranny: “What source more direct, and what original nobler, than revelations, prophecies, and miracles” (Beaufort 1861, 233). She vilifies Muslims for “[consigning woman] to the rank of an instrument of vice and debauchery” (236). The text decries the absence of romance: “Wherever conjugal love does not exist, paternal love exercises but a feeble influence; family ties thus become an illusion” (236).

Mary Henrietta Kingsley(1862-1900), a British diarist and explorer, spent time among the Bantu and Fan of the French Congo. Her book, Travels in West Africa: Congo Frangais, Corisco and Cameroons (1897), looks beyond marriage by bride purchase in the Cameroons to widowhood. Because surviving elder brothers control the settling of estates, women and minor children have no voice in the distribution of goods. Kingsley implies that such patriarchy is the root cause of homelessness, child mortality, and poverty.

Direct commentary on imperialism among female authors is often forthright. Isabella Lucy Bird (1831-1904) of Tattenhall, Cheshire, became one of the 19th century's most respected travel writers. Surveying the indigenous Ainu of Japan in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), Bird declares the Japanese imperial concept a success story of “almost miraculous progress within ten years” because of the spread of civilization creating “freeholders out of a nation of serfs” (Bird 1880, 160). In an overview of the island chain, she lauds the educational system and the Japanese postal department, which compiled a directory to the empire, and she ranks samurai warriors as the best educated and most public-spirited of citizens. Her optimism, a hallmark of Victorian England, anticipates ongoing cordiality and cooperation as a result of “friendly criticism” and predicts a time when Japan will not need British services to maintain progress (314). Bird's brisk survey reveals the eurocentrism of visitors from Britain. She warns that the future depends on overcoming “a vast mass of ignorance and superstition” and a “superficial exotic culture” (336). Her judgmental prose included views of Kurdistan and Persia in Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (1891), the Himalayas in Among the Tibetans (1894), Korea and Russia in Korea and Her Neighbours (1898), and the Qing dynasty of China in The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899).

Similar to Bird, Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming (1837-1924), championed the association of imperialism with proselytizing. After the British colonized Fiji, Gordon Cumming's At Home in Fiji (1881) reports, “The position of Women in these isles has hitherto been as low, and their lot as hard, as in other uncivilised lands; but Christian teachers are now doing their utmost to raise them in the social scale” (Gordon Cumming 1881, 99). The narrative equates imperial governance with Christian education and moral inculcation as the most promising methods of turning imperial conquests into mirror images of Victorian England.

Imperial Pride

Female subjects of the British Empire honored Queen Victoria for her administrative skill and humanitarianism. Baroness Annie Allnutt Brassey (1839-87), author of the posthumously published The Last Voyage (1889), reported that the British felt affection and pride in their colonies. In a speech to the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, she declared, “National sentiment and enlightened self-interest will bind and keep us together, so that not one limb of the great British Empire shall be severed” (Brassey 1889, 467). In September 1890, another pro -imperial writer, Kate Marsden (1859-1931), a London-born volunteer with the Red Cross and veteran of combat nursing at age 18 in Bulgaria during the Russo-Turkish War, traveled over 11,000 miles under the queen's sanction to eastern Siberia. As she explains in On Sledge and Horseback to the Outcast Siberian Lepers (1891), the isolation of the sick posed a duty to the civilized world: “But the lepers in the far-off uncivilised regions of the world—who cared for them? … Cut off from their fellow creatures, avoided, despised, and doomed to a living death” (Marsden 1877, 304). Influenced by the Christian piety of 19th-century England, she took on the 11-month journey to look for a curative herb and to study the feasibility of a leper colony at Yakutsk in Siberia above the Arctic Circle, where temperatures fell annually to -92° Fahrenheit. Through the cooperation of the empress of Russia, Maria Alexandrovna, Marsden created a working partnership to fight a disease her text describes in social, economic, and physical detail. To scientists and general readers, her book marked an era of colonial benevolence and health care.

A common strand among female diarists and journalists was compassion for the underdog, an element of the writings of the Bermuda-born slave MARY PRINCE, the American evangelist NANCY GARDNER PRINCE, and the Jamaican herbalistnurse MARY JANE SEACOLE. In 1891, on a three- month safari taken by the American explorer May French Sheldon (1847-1936) through British territory from Zanzibar through Kenya to study the lives of East African women, she relied on 200 porters and soldiers, who revered Sheldon as BeBe Bwana (woman leader). As reported in Sultan to Sultan: Adventures among the Masai and Other Tribes of East Africa (1892), the bearers “proved faithful, uncomplaining, chivalrous, and marvels of patience, endurance, and consistent marching day after day” (Sheldon 1892, 131). A visionary suffragist, after a return trip in 1903 to the Belgian Congo, she repudiated reports of African savagery and told the press that the hope of the world required lifting women's status from drudge to first-class citizenry.

The Swiss-Algerian diarist Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), dressed as a male Muslim in 1897 during a tour of Algeria, the Sahara, and French Tunisia. In The Passionate Nomad: The Diary of Isabelle Eberhardt (published posthumously in 1988), she admires the beauty of Arab women, but mourns the constant whine of beggars: “Songs that sound infinitely sad, refrains turn into a curiously gripping obsession” (Eberhardt 1988, 28). The lyric survey of poverty echoes the comments of other female diarists who express altruism toward women, children, and the poor and handicapped.

With an eye toward the underclass, Gertrude Lowthian Bell (1868-1926) regretted the social and economic realities of the era of progress. A student of history at Oxford University and supporter of the Arabs, she produced 10 superb commentaries on travel, architecture, archeology, politics, and culture. In The Desert and the Sown (1907), her social survey preceding the birth of modern Iraq from the failing Ottoman Empire, she pities the Bedouin, who “live by bread alone … and for the whole length of their days they wander among the stones in fear of their lives” (Bell 1907, 120). She concludes her text with a native aphorism: “Men are short of vision, and they see but that for which they look. Some look for evil and they find evil; some look for good and it is good that they find, and moreover, some are fortunate and these find always what they want” (340). The statement leaves unsaid the destiny of the unlucky.

In 1871, a Hungarian expeditioner, Florence von Sass Baker (1841-1916), joined her husband, Sir Samuel White Baker (1821-93), on a journey through the Ottoman Empire to the source of the White Nile, a region that enriched the Arabs with sale of cattle, ivory, and slaves. At a slave market at Khartoum, she viewed the lewd groping of females by purchasers, the outcome of treating women as commodities. Ironically, Sir Samuel Baker had purchased her from an Ottoman slave market to save her from a similar fate. In a diary entry on August 24, she compares native Sudanese to dogs: “One tribe preying upon the other, and selling them into slavery; no honesty even in name; but idleness, sin, debauching, rapine, and murder … while every black revels in mischief up to his throat” (quoted in Shipman 2005, 118). She vilifies slave traders and pities bondsmen, including the Bakers' Abyssinian houseboy Amarn. Her diary, Morning Star: Florence Baker’s Diary of the Expedition to Put Down the Slave Trade on the Nile, 1870-1873 (1972), reported on her husband's leadership of a military expedition to abolish slavery in Sudan in 1869-72, a journey in which she shared the difficulties. British imperial authorities suspected the Bakers of supporting enforcement of antislavery laws.


Anderson, Monica. Women and the Politics of Travel, 1870-1914. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006.

Atkinson, Lucy Sherrand Finley. Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants. London: John Murray, 1863.

Baker, Florence von Sass. Morning Star: Florence Baker’s Diary of the Expedition to Put Down the Slave Trade on the Nile, 1870-1873. London: William Kimber, 1972.

Barnard, Lady Anne. South Africa a Century Ago: Letters Written from the Cape of Good Hope (1797-1801). London: Smith, Elder, 1901.

Beaufort, Emily Anne. Egyptian Sepulchres and Syrian Shrines. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861.

Bell, Gertrude Lowthian. The Desert and the Sown. New York: Dutton, 1907.

Bird, Isabella Lucy. Among the Tibetans. London: Religious Tract Society, 1894.

----- . Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan. London: John Murray, 1891.

----- . Korea and Her Neighbours. London: John Murray, 1898.

----- . Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. London: John Murray, 1880.

----- . The Yangtze Valley and Beyond. London: John Murray, 1899.

Brassey, Anne. The Last Voyage. London: Longman, 1889.

Crawford, Mabel Sharman. Through Algeria. London: Bentley, 1863.

Eberhardt, Isabelle. The Passionate Nomad: The Diary of Isabelle Eberhardt. Boston: Beacon, 1988.

Falconbridge, Anna Maria. Two Voyages to the Sierra Leone During the Years 1791-2-3. London: privately published, 1794.

Gordon Cumming, Constance Frederica. At Home in Fiji. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1881.

Jameson, Anna. Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada. London: Saunders & Otley, 1838.

Kingsley, Mary. Travels in West Africa: Congo Frangais, Corisco and Cameroons. London: Macmillan, 1897.

Mackenzie, G. Muir, and A. P Irby. Travels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe. London: Daldy, Isbister & Co., 1877.

Marsden, Kate. On Sledge and Horseback to the Outcast Siberian Lepers. New York: Cassell, 1877.

Newman, Louise Michele. White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Sale, Florentia Wynch. A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, 1841-1842. London: John Murray, 1843.

Sheldon, May French. Sultan to Sultan: Adventures among the Masai and Other Tribes of East Africa. Boston: Arena, 1892.

Shipman, Pat. To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.