Women as Cultural Emissaries

Consider 19th/Early 20th Century Travelers


The mid to late 19th century and early 20th witnessed an extraordinary number of European and American female travelers who wrote of their adventures. Industrialization had increased women’s mobility and women more easily could travel by train and streamer. As important, by end 19th century, European imperialism had made many areas of the world “safe” for women travelers. Annie Taylor, first European woman to enter Tibet, stated after she was captured, “I am English and do not fear for my life!”

While many female travelers were married, a significant number were not, a situation very different from the women in most of the world where single status and the right to live and travel alone would not be tolerated.

The reasons women offered for their explorations varied. Some revealed their relief from the strictures of family life, noting the “freedom” of traveling. Most gave socially acceptable reasons, such as a desire for missionary work or some scientific endeavor. Few relinquished their status as “ladies;” for example, refusing to assume clothing that might be more appropriate to the regions they visited.

Women’s writings and general observations about cultures new to them inevitably were not very objective. As “cultural emissaries” they tended to reinforce accepted prejudices at home, and their impact on the visited cultures were minor. Still, women’s observations often touched upon areas ignored by men, and in some cases offered more detailed information about a culture and behavior than did diplomat dispatches and scholarly writings. Above all, there was an audience for whatever publications or lectures women traveling to “exotic” lands produced, giving them the status of “cultural emissary” in their own countries.

Of the many possibilities for study, the lives of three women offer easily accessible and differing views.

Example #1:  Gertrude Bell. The observations of this lyrical writer powerfully influenced British decisions regarding the creation of nations in the Middle East. She is considered one of those who helped found modern Iraq. Bell, unmarried and fearless, exhibited enormous ability to mix rather easily in the Arab world as she explored the region , mapped, and was suppose to be conducting archaeology. During World War I, she became a political officer, and after, was named to the post of Oriental Secretary. Of her journals, letters, and books, “The Desert and the Sown,” offers a particularly fine account of her 1905 journey through Syria from Jericho to Antioch.
Example #2:  Mary Kingsley’s writings about West Africa are wonderfully chatty and humorous. The popularity of Kingsley’s books and lectures gave her an influential platform for imparting her often controversial views of West African culture. “Travels in West Africa,” published on January 21, 1897, was her most famous.

Exhibiting a stiff upper lip, Kingsley never ignored danger and adventure during her explorations in 1893 and again in 1895. Penetrating worlds few white men and no white women had seen before, she expressed sympathy for the peoples she encountered. “A certain sort of friendship soon arose between the Fans and me. We each recognized that we belonged to that same section of the human race with whom it is better to drink than to fight.”...“The Fan also did their best to educate me in every way; they told me their names for things, while I told them mine, throwing in besides a few colloquial phrases such as: ‘Dear me,’ ‘Who’d have thought it’....They also showed me many things; how to light a fire from the pith of a certain tree, which was useful to me in after life.”

Ctenopoma kingsleyae.
(One of the new species of fish that were
discovered by Mary Kingsley and named after her.)

Upon her return to England, Kingsley criticized the paternalistic attitudes of British laws and statements. She had great scorn for "stay at home statesmen, who think the Africans are awful savages or silly children - people who can only be dealt with on a reformatory penitentiary line."

Example #3:  Mary Seacole’s autobiography, “The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands,” published in 1857, describes her love of travel, her adventures in the Isthmus Canal during a cholera epidemic, and her care and feeding of British soldiers during the Crimean war. “As I grew into womanhood, I began to indulge that longing to travel which will never leave me while I have health and vigor. I was never weary of tracing upon an old map the route to England; and never followed with my gaze the stately ships homeward bound without longing to be in them, and see the blue hills of Jamaica fade into the distance.  At that time it seemed most improbable that these girlish wishes should be gratified; but circumstances, which I need not explain, enabled me to accompany some relatives to England while I was yet a very young woman...”

As a woman of color, a mulatto from Jamaica, and a well liked nurse, she is credited with introducing many medical personnel to the practice of using herbal medicine. Even so, she notes the times people treated her badly because of her color. “ My experience of travel had not failed to teach me that Americans (even from Northern States) are always uncomfortable in the company of colored people, and very often show this feeling in stronger ways than by sour looks and rude words.”

Seacole’s descriptions of Crimean war personalities and scenes of the battlefield are valuable resources. Seemingly better liked than Florence Nightingale, who rejected her services, she was called “Mother Seacole” by the soldiers. “I have never been long in any place before I have found my practical experience in the science of medicine useful....And in the Crimea, where the doctors were so overworked, and sickness of was so prevalent, I could not be long idle; for I never forgot that my intention in seeking the army was to help the kind-hearted doctors, to be useful to whom I have ever looked upon and still regard as so high a privilege.”

ource: Mary Seacole,
"Wonderful Adventures of
Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, " 1957


1) Gertrude Bell, Desert and the Sown excerpt:  

2) Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa. 1897

3) Mary Kingsley, West African Studies, 1899

4) Mary Kingsley, The Story of West Africa, 1900

5) Letters to Major Matthew Nathan, 1899.

16) Mary Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of
Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

Web Resources

Patricia Lorcin, “Women’s Travel Writing

Women’s Travel Writings: 1830 - 1939

Women’s Travel Writings: a question of gender

Women and Travel: 19th Century




“Diplomat Brides”



Wandering Aesthetics

Wives of Diplomats

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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