Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.—Mark Twain
Despite Mark Twain’s excellent advice, a lot of people back in his day—like many people today—did vegetate in one little corner of the earth for their entire life. Of course the majority of people have never had a choice. To travel comfortably is a luxury reserved for prosperous people, but even among them, many people don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Fewer than half of all Americans have a passport.
Traditionally men have traveled while women stayed at home, but there have always been women who insisted on travelling just as their brothers and husbands did. One of the most notable woman travelers of the 19th century was Gertrude Bell. She traveled and learned about other cultures, studied languages, and had a major influence on the course of history.
Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in County Durham, England, in 1868. Her mother died when she was very young, but her father soon remarried and her stepmother, Florence Bell, was a strong influence on the girl. She even decided, eventually, that Gertrude was too restless and intelligent to be decorously educated at home as other girls were. She was sent to school and even attended a women’s college in Oxford where she was the first woman ever to receive a first in history. She was not, however, awarded a degree for that because women might study and excel in learning, but it was feared that an actual degree was a step too far.
Gertrude’s father supported her desire to travel and her interest in archeology and
supplied a generous allowance that made it possible for her to travel the world. She fell in love with the Middle East and spent much of her life there, learning languages, studying ruins, and getting to know the rulers and their wives. Despite looking like a staid Victorian schoolteacher, Bell was a fearless traveler.
In 1911, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the British Navy replaced coal fired ships with oil powered ones. Suddenly England became dependent on oil from the Middle East and the exotic countries where it was produced. Access to the oil was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed most of Mesopotamia, and the Turks were allies of the Germans.
British intelligence was very interested in what was going on in the Middle East and because Gertrude was recognized as an expert, she was summoned to Cairo to help map the area. Given the rank of Major—the first woman officer in the history of British intelligence—she caused consternation among other officers who couldn’t figure out how to treat her. But she managed build a comfortable relationship with the men, and she played a vital role in establishing the governments that ruled the Middle East for decades after the war.
Iraq was the country that was closest to her heart. While she was there she oversaw the establishment of the great National Museum to house antiquities of the country. She also started the library, which became the National Library of Iraq.
There have been many questions raised about the role Bell played in establishing borders for countries that no Westerner truly understood. She was not always right in her advice, but she respected the people and, unlike most of the English, she foresaw many of the difficulties that would arise. Perhaps before any of us make judgments about Bell’s work we should read the biography written by Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.
Now that we have so many ways of getting to know the world, maybe in 2018 more people can travel whether in person, by reading, or through the Internet. And remember the words of Confucius “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”
When we think of the great travelers and explorers of the past, we usually think of men—Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Stanley and Livingstone—but there are many women who feel the lure of travel too. Even in fairy tales when it was usually the prince who went wandering through the world seeking his fortune and/or a beautiful princess, there were also girls who went on journeys.
Do you remember the story of Snow White and Rose Red, who lived deep in the forest with their mother andwere kind to a bear that came asking for shelter one snowy night? These two sisters roamed through the woods and kept meeting an unpleasant little dwarf who got into terrible scrapes by having his beard seized by a fish in the river, or caught in a log the dwarf was trying to split. Each time they met, the girls saved the dwarf from harm, but he only screamed and harassed them for their trouble. Finally one day they came upon the dwarf looking over his collection of precious jewels in a quiet glade in the forest. The dwarf was angry that they had found him and started screaming at them but just then the bear came out of the woods and killed the wicked dwarf. Sure enough, as usually happens in fairy tales, the bear turned into a handsome prince ready to marry Snow White and his equally handsome brother married Rose Red. The moral being, I suppose, that sisters who travel together may come upon great treasure and happiness to share.
Real life sisters, of course, were rarely so lucky. Still, travel sometimes brought new adventure, professional growth, and even a loving husband. Louisa May Alcott and her sister May, traveled to Europe together after Louisa had found success with the publication of Little Women. Her sister May wanted to be an artist, but facilities for studying art were limited in the Boston of the 1860s, so the two set off for Europe. They traveled through England, France and Italy and for the first time had a chance to study the great European art they had only read about. When Louisa went back to America to help their ailing mother, May lingered in Europe to continue painting.There she met a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker who encouraged her art. The two fell in love and married, although their happiness was brief. May died in childbirth and never had time to become the great artist she dreamed of being. Perhaps she never would have reached that goal, but at least she had a chance at it, and she found love and happiness through the generosity and companionship of her sister Louisa who made her travel possible.
Traveling to Europe became much easier for American women as the years went by. When I graduated from college, my sister and I went on a summer-long student tour of Europe. Today I posted on my website the journal I kept during that trip in 1951. If you go to the top of this page and click on the link to “Europe Summer 1951” you will find that journal, including the black-and-white photos of a postwar Europe much less crowded and much less prosperous than it is today.