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CLARENCE KING (1842 – 1901) White Geologist, Black Husband

In adventure, African-American women, American History, Civil War, Geology on June 17, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Clarence King

Clarence King’s ancestry went back to Alfred the Great, the Magna Carta, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  There was no doubt about King’s Anglo roots.  But people believe what they want to, and pale, blue-eyed King lived a double life as a white man and a black man, which spanned the breadth of New York society.

King’s mom was only 15 years old when she got married, and her 21 year old husband was already an established businessman.  King was born while his father was in China on business, and he was raised with the help of a colored nanny.  When King was only six his dad died in China.  The family also lost two baby girls leaving only mother and son.

A pattern of financial troubles and sickness that would follow King for the rest of his life started in 1856 in Canton, China when the family business was destroyed by mobs who hated foreign-owned businesses, and King’s mom was left almost destitute.  Three years later, 17-year-old King dropped out of high school before graduating, giving the vague reason as “illness.”  He moved to Brooklyn to work for a flour merchant.  He and his mother always remained close, but she remarried a widow and had a second family.

King might have been considered bi-polar.  He was prone to depression, a source of future illness, and yet very sociable.  His friends characterized him as smart, compassionate, well read, an excellent conversationalist and story teller, and a good writer.  Politically he was a staunch abolitionist.

THE CALL OF THE WILD             With the financial help of his step father, King went to Sheffield Scientific School which offered the best scientific training in the country.  He received a Bachelor’s degree in 1862.  After graduation, he and some buddies immediately set off for Lake Champlain to row from New York into Canada.  Not realizing that a draft had been instituted to fulfill the Union quota for soldiers, they were surprised to be stopped at the border as suspected draft dodgers.  They managed to convince the inspector that they were not avoiding the draft and finished their trip.  King was adamantly against slavery, but he was also a pacifist.  When the adventurers returned home, King headed to California to do some mountain climbing and feed his curiosity about geology, conveniently escaping his need to enroll in military service.

King, along with two friends, may have avoided the dangers of war, but he had some harrowing experiences that were equally as life threatening.  Near Fort Kearney, Nebraska King hired a guide to take him on a buffalo hunt.  After chasing a bull for almost two miles, King shot the animal, and it turned and charged King’s horse which fell on top of him.  A buffalo herd a mile and a half long rushed by him, parting just enough to avoid the horse which had King pinned to the ground, keeping him from being trampled.

King and his best friend James Gardiner found ways to earn just enough money to make their way to San Francisco, and King joined the California State Geological Survey as an unpaid assistant geologist.  King and the others on their expeditions worked in the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and named Mount Tyndall, Mount Whitney, Mount Gardiner and Mount Clarence King after themselves.

NOT FOR LOVE OR MONEY             After a trip to Nicaragua in 1865, where King got malaria, he stayed at mom’s house to recover before going west again.  He returned to New York a year later when his stepfather died, leaving his mom with three children to raise, several servants to support and no money.  King borrowed money from Gardiner to help with the immediate needs.

In 1867, King was appointed U. S. Geologist-in-Charge of the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, and he successfully lobbied for federal funds to conduct his survey.  His salary was $250 a month, and he hired Gardiner as a member of his crew.  Despite the rugged environment, King preferred to dress the part of boss by wearing linen with silk stockings and low shoes.  During their first season, King and his team surveyed 12,000 square miles and collected over 3,000 specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils.

In Virginia City, Nevada, both King and Gardiner fell in love, and in April 1868 King announced his engagement to Ellen Dean, a teacher.  But in September when Gardiner married Josie Rogers, something was wrong, and King didn’t even show up to his best friend’s wedding.  A few months later when they all convened back in Washington D.C. King was acting despondent.  He wrote in a journal that loyalty to mother and God trumps passion.

After a third season surveying along the Fortieth Parallel, King earned his reputation as a captivating storyteller.  He had essays published in the Atlantic Monthly, and in 1872 he published Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, tales of his adventure peppered with social commentary.  It was so popular that it went through nine printings in two years.

The book may have made King popular, but apparently it did not make him rich.  He needed money to help his family, so he testified as an expert witness for a California mining company for $5,000.  Then in late 1873, he ended up back in New York to set up the survey laboratory.  He was resigned to being city bound and would express his restless in a different way, the beginning of his double life.

AS DIFFERENT AS NIGHT AND DAY             By day King worked hard at the tasks at hand, but at night, either alone or with a friend, he went “slumming” around the neighborhoods of the poor and ethnically diverse.  He was not looking for sexual experiences or to gawk or assert his superiority.  King saw especially the African American neighborhoods as a frontier to explore, and in the cover of darkness he could experience cultures forbidden to him in his mainstream life.

King was recognized for his contributions in geology when the United States Senate confirmed his nomination as the first director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in April 1879, a position he held for almost two years.  In 1881 King resigned in order to oversee several mining interests.  When most of them became losing propositions, he went to Europe to find investors.  He was nominally successful, but he did amass an impressive art collection which he either lent to friends or placed in storage in New York.

When he returned to New York in 1884, he rented rooms in various elegant residential hotels and belonged to several social clubs.  This arrangement allowed him the maximum freedom to come and go for long periods of time, often without telling his friends when he was leaving.  Although he had embedded himself in New York society, he was not at all attracted to the women of that class.  He preferred more “natural” women who were not obsessed with fashion, as he put it, with whom he could have a deeper conversation.  On one trip to California he had a relationship with a Native American named Luciana who came very close to his ideal.  Back in New York, King was haunted by her memory, and his friends gave up trying to find dates for him.

TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH             Sometime in late 1887, King met a woman named Ada Copeland, probably while he was slumming around New York at night.  There is no record of their meeting or courtship.  She was an African American who had migrated from Georgia to New York as a single woman and lived with a widowed aunt doing laundry in their home until she got a job as a nanny.  She was probably in her mid to late 20s when she met King, but she didn’t have a birth certificate to confirm her age.

The couple fell in love, but since interracial marriage was still illegal in most of the country, King introduced himself as James Todd, a Pullman car porter from Baltimore.  This was the only identity she ever knew.  King’s proficiency at storytelling served him well, and Copeland never doubted his veracity.  Despite his light complexion and eyes, by choosing that profession, it was assumed that he had black blood in him, and the presence of any amount of black blood, despite appearances, was enough to be considered Negro.

Ada Copeland became Mrs. James Todd in September 1888 in a small religious ceremony at Copeland’s aunt’s home.  Since they did not get a civil marriage license, they only had a common law marriage which had legal ramifications later in life.  There were only a few guests at the ceremony, and none of the groom’s family or friends attended or even knew about it.

Being married allowed Todd to move up in status and it allowed King to have a real home somewhere.  He set her up in an apartment in Brooklyn giving her an unusual amount of independence and privacy for a black woman.  But for King, supporting his mother’s household and a wife became very expensive, and the demands on his wallet were exacerbated when he and Todd had children.  There was a boy, Leroy, who was born only a year after they married and then died when he was about two.  By 1897 the family had grown to two girls and two more boys.  All of the children were called “colored” on their birth certificates.

Children made for a happy family, but it added to his burden of debt.  King borrowed money from John Hay, one of his dearest friends he met when he worked in Washington, D.C.  When they met, Hay was the assistant secretary of state, and then became President Lincoln’s private secretary.  King appealed to Hay for a loan, something he would do many times, and within the first year and a half of his marriage, King was $43,000 in debt.

FOR RICHER OR POORER, IN SICKNESS AND HEALTH             Both King’s private and professional lives were very full.  He received an honorary doctorate from Brown University, but he was unable to attend the ceremony because he was in Europe dealing with mining projects.  He had perfect alibis for whenever he wasn’t around.  His wife believed he was traveling across the country on a train working as a porter.  While he was gone, he wrote passionate love letters to her, and there were joyful reunions upon his return.  His friends and business colleagues thought he was with his mother or had disappeared for a while because of his depression.  When he did visit his mother, he kept the truth about his indebtedness from her.  When he confided his fears and feelings about life to his friends, particularly Hay, he talked about everything except his family.  He kept that a well guarded secret.

King’s financial situation continued to worsen.  In 1886 he had organized the national Bank of El Paso and, as the main stockholder, he appointed a friend as the bank president.  In 1893, the friend’s bad management caused the bank to fail, and King lost everything.  The burden of living a double life and increased debt started taking its toll.  That fall, a disheveled, bearded King was arrested at the Central Park zoo for disorderly conduct.  He had gone into a wild rage, but he was released on bail posted by a former classmate who worked at the facility.  King was then examined by two doctors who diagnosed him as exhibiting acute symptoms resulting from a non-specific mental disturbance.  The doctors and three friends sought help in dealing with King, and a judge committed him to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane.  The cost of his treatment was paid for by two friends who visited him almost every day.

In January 1894, after two months in Bloomingdale, King was declared “recovered” from “Acute Melancholia.”  He had had no contact with his wife while he was institutionalized, and then almost immediately left for a business trip to the Caribbean.  He didn’t arrive back in New York until May before heading out to California again.  To help alleviate some of his financial burden, King started selling off some of f his art collection.

Life for the “Todd” family got easier while it got worse for King.  Todd spent the money she received on the family, moving up the ladder into more middle class neighborhoods and adding a nanny, music teacher, cook, maid and laundress to the payroll.  King had a mild heart attack in 1897 while in Colorado.  Perhaps he suspected that something would happen because in his correspondence to his wife he admonished her to keep their relationship a secret and to burn his letters.

King went to Arizona next where he contracted whooping cough, and the doctor found a spot of tuberculosis on his lung.  He kept traveling, exacerbating the condition, and when he went back to New York to visit his family and his mother, there was a feeling that it might be the last visit.  King told Todd to move the family to Toronto and to buy a house with the money he had gotten from friends, which she did.

Again King went to Arizona for the climate.  He had another heart attack and ventured to Pasadena, California to find a doctor who could help him.  He had lost 40 pounds and was plagued by headaches caused by fever.  Hay continued to send money to support his friend.  King, sensing the beginning of the end, started to evaluate his life, wondering why someone as intelligent as himself was such a financial failure, a question his friends had been asking themselves for a long time.

TIL DEATH DO US PART             King went once more to Arizona in a desperate attempt to recover.  He admittedly knew that was impossible, so he finally unburdened himself and wrote a letter to Todd revealing his true identity and the deception he had kept from her for 13 years.  He suggested she write his real name in her Bible in case she forgot it.

On December 23, 1901, Todd celebrated her 41st birthday in Toronto.  On December 24, King died in Arizona, one month before his 60th birthday.  He had told his wife that he had provided for the family after his death, but the only will he had was written before he got married, making his mother the beneficiary.  Because King and Todd only had a common law marriage, she was not entitled to anything.

For all of King’s accomplishments and failures, his life choices were a living illustration of what he believed: “People are looked at in only two ways, with the brain and with the heart.  If you take the former method you initially classify and judge people by their differences with other people usually yourself.  If you see them with the heart you have your conceptions on the similarities between them and some other people usually yourself.”1

QUESTION:  What do you believe in so strongly that you would have it influence your life choices?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

1Sandweiss, p. 173.

Sources:

Sandweiss, Martha A., Passing Strange, A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009.

http://books.nap.edu/html/biomems/cking06.pdf

http://www.summitpost.org/mount-clarence-king/150502  (A description of Mount Clarence King)

STEPHEN HOPKINS (1581 – 1644) Jamestown Colonist and Pilgrim on the Mayflower

In adventure, American History, Explorers, People from England, Sailing on February 24, 2011 at 11:00 AM

When the opportunity for freedom and independence brought settlers to the Jamestown colony, Stephen Hopkins, a merchant from Hampshire, England, missed the first two chances to go.  But, when the Virginia Company was looking for recruits a third time, Hopkins was ready.  At 28 years old, he left his pregnant wife, Mary, and three children to join the Third Supply expedition to the New World.  When a hurricane hit them and the colonists were forced to make a detour, Hopkins’ rebel spirit almost cost him his life.

When they set sail in May 1609, Hopkins was aboard the Sea Venture, the flagship vessel of seven ships. They were commissioned to bring desperately needed supplies and more settlers to the Jamestown colony.  He signed on as a servant

The Mayflower

who would receive free passage to the colony, lodging, food and ten shillings every three weeks to send back to his family in England.  After living in the New World for three years he would be free of his obligations to the investors and receive 30 acres in the colony.  Such an arrangement seemed like a small price to pay for someone as independent minded as Hopkins.

Onboard the ship, Hopkins was characterized as a loud mouth who quoted the Bible a lot.  Even though he was not especially religious, he was very knowledgeable of the Scriptures and became the clerk to the chaplain.  It was his duty to read the Bible verses during the Sunday church services.

A DISASTER AT SEA           On Monday, July 24, two months after leaving England, the expedition was only about a week away from their destination when a hurricane out of the south proved to be more than they could handle.  The seven ships were scattered like autumn leaves, and they lost track of each other.  The planks of the Sea Venture were held together by oakum, fibers from ropes wedged between the boards and covered with tar.  The seal did not hold, and through the leaks, the ship took on water.

For four days Hopkins and the other male passengers were pumping and bailing water.  It was estimated that they dumped 6, 400 gallons of water every hour, but that was not enough to keep them from sinking.  They also had to throw overboard half of their guns and a lot of their luggage, food and supplies.

Determination and hope were barely outlasting exhaustion and hunger, and most of the passengers were sinking into the resignation that they would die very soon at sea.  On Friday, July 28, their efforts were rewarded, however, and land was sighted.  Energy was renewed, and the ship was able to precariously run aground at Bermuda.  Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured in the storm.

SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR            Landing at Bermuda turned out to be a happy accident.  There was plenty of food and since it was an uninhabited island, the castaways didn’t have to defend themselves against natives.  The worst that happened to most was getting sick from eating too many berries or drinking too much “bibby” made from the fermented fruit of the palmetto tree.

Despite the positive experience the castaways were having, the goal was still to get to Virginia.  The Sea Venture was destroyed in the storm, so they used whatever wood they could salvage and supplemented it with local cedar to build two boats to carry everyone on to Jamestown.

Hopkins, however, knew a good thing when he saw it.  He wanted to take advantage of the riches Bermuda offered and to colonize it.  He theorized that since they hadn’t made it to Jamestown they were no longer obligated to the Virginia Company.  Hopkins had to secretly try to enlist supporters because Sir Thomas Gates, who represented the Virginia Company as the incoming governor in Virginia, had already reminded the group that dissent would not be tolerated and that, traditionally, going against the commander’s orders was punishable by death.

Two men who entertained Hopkins’ proposal but then feared being associated with him reported the rebel to Gates.  Hopkins was tried on January 24, 1610 for mutiny.  After hearing condemning testimony against him, Hopkins had only one strategy to save himself.  He cried and begged that his life be spared for the sake of his family back in England.  He made such a dramatic plea that several men became sympathetic enough to hound Gates until he pardoned Hopkins.

YOU CAN GET THERE FROM HERE                On May 10, 1610, after nine months of relatively comfortable island living, Hopkins and the castaways set sail on two ships, Deliverance and Patience, for their original destination.  Both ships made it safely to Virginia, and they were greeted with good news: the other six ships in the original expedition had gone directly there, although the passengers were in very bad shape.

The bad news was that on their arrival at Jamestown on May 23, the newcomers found that the population of settlers had been decimated by a devastating drought, famine and harsh winter, and they had been forced to resort to cannibalism for survival.  The food and supplies the Third Supply expedition was to bring were lost in the hurricane.

Gates acknowledged that the only chance they had for survival was to go back to England.  Just as they were abandoning Jamestown, help arrived.  Lord Delaware and his convoy of three ships brought enough food for a year.  Delaware became governor and rebuilt the settlement into a successful community.

Hopkins’ wife died in 1613, and he made his way back to his homeland some time after that to be greeted by the news and to learn that his children were orphans in the custody of the Church.  He reclaimed his family and moved to London where he worked as a tanner.  In February, 1618 Hopkins married Elizabeth Fisher and had a daughter at the end of the year.

HEADED BACK TO THE NEW WORLD             Once again an irresistible opportunity came knocking.  A group of Separatists were going to the New World to establish a community free of religious ties to the Church of England.  They were interested in settling near a more tolerant Dutch colony near the mouth of the Hudson River.  In order to increase their numbers, they recruited some whose ambition was more for the economic opportunities than for religious reasons.  Hopkins was the perfect candidate, especially with his previous experience in Jamestown, and he signed on as a “Stranger.”  This time he packed up his family to make the voyage with him on the Mayflower, leaving on September 6, 1620.

Hopkins’ party included his pregnant wife, three children and two servants.  Somewhere in the Atlantic the baby was born, and they named him Oceanus.

The journey was not as dangerous as the previous one, but it wasn’t a pleasure cruise either.  Elizabeth and children stayed in the dark gun deck in makeshift compartments.  Hopkins slept in a hammock wherever he could find a place to hang it.  They did encounter a couple of severe storms that drenched the passengers and their belongings and cracked a main beam of the ship.  Fortunately, some clever passengers were able to fix that and stop the leaking.

After 66 days at sea, on November 11 the Mayflower stopped in Provincetown, Massachusetts, north of their Hudson River destination.  There was a lot of discussion about whether they should continue on to find the Hudson or stay put.  Hopkins, despite almost being killed for his independent ideas in Bermuda, politicked for staying where they were so they would have less governing oversight and more freedom to do what they wanted.  He argued, again, that since they hadn’t reached their original destination they were exempt from obligation to their original agreement.

After much deliberation, Captain Jones made the safe decision, considering it was winter, to weigh anchor there.  Jones assembled Hopkins and the other male passengers into his cabin to determine how to proceed.  During that meeting it was decided that a set of laws was needed to unify the group and create a “civil body politic” for the good of the whole colony.  Hopkins was one of the 41 present to sign the document called the Mayflower Compact.

Because of his previous experience in the New World, Captain Miles Standish chose Hopkins and a few other men to explore the territory.  They were scouting for weeks to find a suitable location to establish their colony.  One morning they were attacked by Indians, and later they got caught in a storm that damaged their boat.  On December 11, 1620 they found “Thievish Harbor” where there was fresh water and no natives.  Five days later, the Mayflower landed there, and two weeks later they began construction on the common house, the first building of the Plymouth Plantation.  The settlers lived on the Mayflower until they could build houses for themselves.

Hopkins had one of the largest houses in the settlement.  It had the typical fenced garden, a barn, dairy, cowshed, and apple orchard.  There was enough space to accommodate the five children who were born after 1622.  He built the first wharf in Plymouth, a tavern, and a small store where Indians could trade beaver skins for English goods.

Having Hopkins in the community was a great asset.  He was adept at fishing and hunting, and because of his previous experience as a colonist, he acted as a liaison to the local Indians, often welcoming them into his own home to dine and even spend the night.  One native, Squanto, lived with the Hopkins family.  He had learned English when he was kidnapped by previous English explorers and taken to England for a while, and he was the sole survivor of his tribe which had been wiped out by disease brought to the New World by the foreigners.

Squanto’s association with the colonists was mutually beneficial.  He made possible a visit by Woosamequin ‘Yellow Feather,’ the chief of the Wampanoag tribe.  Both the Wampanoag and the settlers feared another tribe, the Narragansetts, and needed allies.  With Hopkins acting as host, Governor Carver and the chief negotiated a peace treaty that guaranteed support in the case of attack, a compact that lasted for 50 years.

LAW MAKER AND BREAKER           Although loyal to King Charles I, the citizens of Plymouth created their own laws and local government.  Hopkins was elected as one of seven Council Assistants who served as advisors to the governor and ruled in judicial matters.  Being one to help create the laws did not make Hopkins a model citizen, however.  In June, 1636 he was found guilty of beating John Tisdale and fined £5.  As the owner of a tavern, he was responsible for the behavior of his patrons.  Several times he was fined for serving drink on Sunday, for permitting servants to drink and play shuffle board at his place, and for allowing his friends to get drunk.  He was also guilty of price gouging.  He had to pay £5 for selling wine, beer and liquor for exorbitant prices, and he tried to sell a mirror for 16 pence that could be bought somewhere else for nine pence.

One incident landed Hopkins in jail.  His indentured servant, Dorothy Temple, was pregnant by a man who had been hung for murder.  She was whipped for having a bastard child, but then she had nowhere to live.  The court ordered Hopkins, as her owner, to be responsible for her support for the duration of her contract.  Hopkins wanted to resolve the matter on his own terms without a court order, and he was found to be in contempt.  He spent four days in jail until John Holmes agreed to take Temple and her son to live with him for the payment of £3, relieving Hopkins of his obligation.

Hopkins again outlived his wife when Elizabeth died in 1640.  Four years later he prepared for his own passing.  He wrote his will on June 6, 1644 and died sometime shortly thereafter, although the exact date is not known.  He was 63 years old.  He was considered wealthy by local standards and bequeathed to his children his house, many animals and “moveable goods” such as books, rugs, flannel sheet, a frying pan, fire shovel, butter churn, two wheels, a cheese rack, scale and weights and four skins.

QUESTION:  Do you think it’s more important to stand up for what you believe at all cost or to find a way to compromise to fit into a group?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes all Rights Reserved

Sources:

photo credit: http://ed101.bu.edu/StudentDoc/current/ED101fa10/reillys/content1.html

Woodward, Hobson, A Brave Vessel, The True Tale of The Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest. New York: Viking, 2009.

Philbrick, Nathaniel, Mayflower, A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006.

http://www.mccarterfamily.com/mccarterpage/stories/stephen_hopkins/intro.htm

http://www.mayflowerhistory.com/Passengers/StephenHopkins.php

http://pilgrimhopkins.com/site1/Newsletters/AC_su07.pdf

http://www.usconstitution.net/mayflower.html

http://www.mayflowerhistory.com/PrimarySources/MayflowerCompact.php

http://www.histarch.uiuc.edu/plymouth/ccflaw.html#Ic

http://www.mayflowerhistory.com/PrimarySources/WillsAndProbates/StephenHopkins.php

GERTRUDE BELL (1868 – 1926) Explorer, Instrumental in Founding Iraq

In adventure, Biography, Explorers, Feminists, People from England, Victorian Women on January 12, 2011 at 10:27 AM

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell followed where her curiosity led in ways no woman had before.  She broke the ultimate glass ceiling by becoming a friend and confidant to numerous sheiks in Mesopotamia, with enough influence to be considered one of the founders of the country of Iraq.  The literal heights she scaled and emotional low she felt bookmarked her remarkable professional life as someone who intimately understood that home is where your heart is.

Bell had an upper class upbringing near Newcastle, England.  Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, inherited a fortune from the Bell Brothers Ironworks, but education was a priority, and he studied in Edinburgh, at the Sorbonne and in Germany.  He married Mary Shield, but she died three weeks after Bell’s younger brother, Maurice, was born.  Sir Hugh was devoted to his children, but he was lonely and knew the children needed a mother.  He married Florence Olliffe who was easily integrated into the family.

Bell’s commanding, adventuresome spirit manifested itself early on, and she took it out on her little brother.  One time when she led the terrified boy along the edge of the greenhouse roof, she crossed handily but he slipped and fell, and it was his turn to break through the glass ceiling.

Formal elementary education was traditionally reserved for boys, so while her brother was at boarding school, Bell spent lonely days devouring books from the family library.  When she was 16, she was sent to Queen’s College in London and excelled in every class except scripture, declaring herself an atheist because she did not believe a word of the Bible.  Ironically, as an adult she would carve out a life for herself in the cradle of the world’s three most important religions.

She matriculated at Oxford University, and Bell’s confidence and intellect had prepared her for the rigors of such a demanding education.  During her oral final exam, when the professor, a distinguished historian, asked a question about Charles I, Bell had the audacity to say that she held a different opinion of the monarch.  Then, when another professor asked about a German town that was on the left bank of the Rhine, Bell casually contradicted him before answering, saying that she was positive town was on the right bank because she had been there.  Her assertiveness did not blight her evaluation, and she set her first record as a woman by becoming the first female student to receive the highest grade possible in Modern History.

Bell came out as a debutante in London and was presented to Queen Victoria.  But if the goal of the formal debut was to find a husband, no one suitable presented himself.  Without romantic prospects or many career options, she jumped at the opportunity to go with her aunt and uncle to Persia.  Sir Frank Lascelles was the British ambassador to Tehran.  Six months before leaving, Bell started learning Persian and was able to understand the locals when she arrived in June 1892.

This was the beginning of two great love affairs.  First, she was totally captivated by the people and culture of Persia, her introduction to the Middle East.  Second, she was smitten by the British legation secretary, Hon. Henry Cadogan.  Finally she had found someone to give her heart to and who returned her affections, and they got engaged.  When her parents heard of the impending nuptials, they didn’t approve because Cadogan didn’t earn enough money in foreign service to support their daughter well enough, and he was a gambler.  Bell was heartbroken, but she obeyed her parents and returned to England.  One year later Cadogan died of pneumonia.

During the ensuing years, Bell studied Persian and Arabic.  Ultimately she would become fluent in both languages as well as German, French and Italian.  She continued to travel, following her personal philosophy of the pursuit of personal happiness coupled with the moral responsibility for the welfare of others.  She became proficient in horseback riding, hunting, dancing, shooting, fishing, gardening and mountain climbing.

AIMING FOR THE TOP      In 1899 Bell made her first major ascent, climbing to the top of the Meije in the French Alps, over 13,000 feet.  There were no proper clothes for female climbers then, so Bell took off her skirt when she and her guides roped up together and continued in her underclothes until they descended back to the glacier.  After more hair-raising, confidence-building ascents, Bell decided to be the first person to climb all the peaks of the Engelhörnerrange in the Swiss Alps.  She accomplished her goal during two weeks in 1901 wearing a blue climbing suit with pants, although she always changed back into her skirt at base camp.  Of the nine peaks, she was the first person to summit seven of them.  One mountain top was named after her, Gertrudspitze.

After her record-breaking mountain climbing adventures in Europe, Bell headed east to a warmer clime.  When she was 31 years old she went to Jerusalem at the invitation of friends.  Her days were filled with language lessons (Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish), horseback riding and socializing.  Bell rode “astride” the horse for the first time, and the sisters at the local convent stitched a long, split skirt so she could still be ladylike.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE JOURNEY      From Jerusalem, Bell took extensive journeys into the desert on horseback accompanied only by cooks, muleteers and her guide, all local men.  During her first expedition she painfully learned the need to protect herself from the severe desert environment.  From then on, she wore the traditional keffiyeh (scarf) over her hat and around her face and a lightweight veil with eye holes.  She covered her feet with cloth so the sun wouldn’t scorch them through her boots, and she made a muslin sleeping bag to protect against sand fleas while camping at night.  To help pass the time while crossing the vast landscape, Bell learned how to read and nap on horseback.

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, age 41 (photo: University of Newcastle)

In addition to learning survival techniques for traversing the desert, Bell had to learn the protocol of presenting herself to the sheiks of the tribes as she passed through their territories.  Her knowledge of history and languages and the fact that she was a woman traveling alone impressed and endeared her to most of the sheiks.  Because of the style in which Bell traveled, her small entourage became a substantial caravan.   She earned the respect of the local rulers, and they referred to her as Queen.  In camp she always had two tents for herself, one that was erected immediately with a writing table and comfortable chair.  The other had her convertible bed and a bath, which was prepared for her as soon as a fire was built and hot water was available.  In her trunks she packed clothes for every occasion.  When she was in a city she had evening dresses and fur coats.  She carried linen skirts, sweaters, scarves, boots, hats veils, parasols, lavender soap, hair brushes, Egyptian cigarettes in a silver case, insect powder, maps, books, and blankets.  For dining she had a Wedgewood dinner service, crystal glasses, linen tablecloths and silver candlesticks.  She had binoculars and guns to give as gifts to the important sheiks, and she carried her own weapons, cameras and film hidden under her petticoats.

Bell’s curiosity about the Middle East went way beyond tourism.  She took courses in archaeology and cartography, and she was an accomplished photographer.  It became her mission to document ancient ruins and the current landscape, and she published numerous books of her work and experiences which, in many cases, became the definitive reference for the region and influenced policy decisions.

LOVE AND LOSS        Despite a deep affinity for the people and places of the Middle East, Bell’s heart and mind were distracted by the growing affections for an Englishman, Major Charles (“Dick”) Doughty-Wylie, a decorated war hero.  Unfortunately, Dick was married.  The pair shared a common view of the world and enjoyed each other’s company, but the time they could spend together had many limitations.  The couple’s correspondence from various foreign lands evolved from conversational to include the passion and angst of distant love.

Bell wanted to serve her country in World War I, so in November 1914, she went to France to work for the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Department.  She took the initiative to create a workable system to keep accurate records of the wounded soldiers.  Surprisingly, despite her apparent restlessness, she found she loved the desk work.

With his wife in Europe, Doughty-Wylie sent word to Bell that he would be in London for a few days before being deployed to the front lines.  Bell jumped at the opportunity to be alone with him.  They spent four days together, and this time, there was only one limitation that imposed itself.  Bell’s Victorian morals would not allow her to consummate the relationship since Doughty-Wylie would never get a divorce.

Bell returned to France, and Doughty-Wylie was deployed to Gallipoli.  He was killed heroically in a battle with Turkish troops.  Bell had been called back to London to set up a new office for Wounded and Missing.  She found out her lover’s fate when, at a party, someone casually mentioned what happened in Gallipoli.  For the second time in her 47 years she was devastated by losing the love of her life.

A NEW HOME       Since Bell had spent almost two years in the Arabian Desert as an explorer, cartographer, photographer and archaeologist and was an expert in the policies and personalities of the region, she was summoned to Cairo, Egypt with the rank of Major.  She was the first woman officer in the history of British military intelligence.  The British agenda included fighting the Turks to retain access to oil and preventing India from annexing Mesopotamia.  Bell’s desire was for a unified Arab nation, but she acknowledged that that would be impossible and worked to establish independent Arab states.

Bell moved to Basra and was given the title of Oriental Secretary with status as an Assistant Political Officer.  She was instrumental in establishing order in the Basra vilayet (province).  In April 1917, Bell was 49 years old, and she moved to Baghdad to continue her work.  This would be her permanent home for the rest of her life.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION          In Baghdad, Bell became active in nation building.  The British occupied Iraq, fighting the Turks for rights to the oil, but mistakes were made, and the occupation was becoming very expensive for Britain.

In 1918, the incoming Judicial Officer, Sir Edgar Bonham-Carter, after conferencing with Bell, took the first steps toward creating an independent nation by setting Arabic as the official legal language of Iraq and establishing a new court system for civil and Sharia law in an effort to appease Sunnis and Shia.  Five new schools for girls were opened with female faculty.

Eventually boundaries were agreed upon to divide Mesopotamia into individual countries, and Bell and her colleagues lobbied to have Faisal ibn Hussain, a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Sharif Hussain ibn Ali, installed as the first ruler of the self-governed new Iraq.  Faisal officially became king in 1921, and Bell’s dreams of Arab independence were realized.

Bell knew Faisal personally, and he enjoyed her company and relied on her as a confidant in political matters.  He commissioned her to help design the first flag and his personal standard.  Because of Bell’s extensive archaeological expertise, Faisal appointed her Director of Antiquities.  Her first duty was to write antiquities laws that would balance the rights of the host nation and excavators.  Bell established the Baghdad Museum, maintaining that Iraq had the right to own its past.*  The principal wing of the museum was named after her.  Bell continued to go on many archaeological digs, and she won a coin toss for a Semitic statuette from 2800 BC.

LEAVING GRACEFULLY        When Bell was 55 years old, she had a third love interest, but this relationship never matured beyond a friendship.  For all her physical activities, she was sick a lot during her life.  She was a chain smoker, and she suffered from malaria twice, jaundice and bronchitis.  In 1925 Bell went to London for a visit.  Her family had lost their fortune and was forced to give up their mansion, which was demolished.  Bell’s doctor advised her not to return to the oppressive climate of the Iraqi summer, but Baghdad was her home, and she could not stay away.  When she returned she contracted pleurisy.

With her ill health, financial troubles, no husband and reduced political responsibility, Bell became depressed.  On July 11, 1926 she came home exhausted from the heat after a swimming party.  She told her maid to wake her up at six am and went to bed early.  Her maid dutifully checked in on Bell after a couple of hours and found a suspicious bottle of pills on the bed stand.  Bell died in the early hours of July 12 of an overdose, two days before her 58th birthday.

The British government duly honored Bell for her work.  In October 1917 Bell was made a Commander of the new Order of the British Empire, and five months later she received the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.  When she died, King George V sent his personal condolences to Bell’s parents.

*  This is the same as the National Museum of Iraq that was looted during the war in 2003.

QUESTION:  Do you agree with the saying, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?”  Why?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Howell, Georgina, Gertrude Bell Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Wallach, Janet, Desert Queen The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia.  New York: Nan A. Talese, 1996.

Winstone, H.V.F., Gertrude Bell.  New York: Quartet Books Inc., 1978.