Archive for the ‘Explorers’ Category

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


photo credit:

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.

JEANNE BARET (1740 – 1807) First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe

In Explorers, Feminists, French History, Sailing, Scientists on February 7, 2011 at 8:00 PM

Jeanne Baret

When Jean and Jeanne Baret had their daughter they did the obvious and named her Jeanne.  From a family of day laborers in the fields of Burgundy, France, she was destined to be poor and never venture farther than 20 miles away.  But Baret’s love of plants was her ticket to a worldly adventure that was at times more challenging than the life she left behind.

Baret came from a mixed family: her father was Catholic and her mother was Protestant.  Protestants tended to be more literate having learned to read the Bible on their own, and Baret’s mom taught her how to read.  Perhaps the freedom and ability to learn about the world also instilled in the young girl the curiosity and desire to discover more about it.

Baret’s broader education took place in the fields where she played.  She became an expert in the medical properties of plants.  As an “herb woman” she supplied druggists, physicians, dentists and veterinarians.  One day when she was picking and analyzing in the fields she met her future.

MEETING MR. RIGHT      Philibert Commerson was born near Lyon, France 12 years before Baret.  He appeased his father by studying law and medicine and then followed his heart and became a botanist, at the risk of losing his inheritance.  When he was 26 years old, this passion led him to explore and collect samples in the fields not far from Baret’s home where they had a fateful encounter.

Commerson was married to a rich heiress, but he spent a lot of time with Baret learning about the curative properties of the local flora.  When his wife died giving birth to their only child, Baret became more integrated in his life.  She moved into his house and assumed the duties of nanny, household manager, lover and assistant.

Baret became pregnant when she was 24 years old, which complicated their lives.  For Commerson marriage was not an option, so the couple had to deal with the fact that their lifestyle was unacceptable.  The best solution seemed to be to move away.  With the money Commerson inherited from his wife, they turned the need to escape the condemnation of their neighbors into an opportunity to broaden their horizons.

Commerson and Baret each did something to help facilitate a clean break.  It was mandatory for an unwed mother to have a certificate of pregnancy which named the father.  However, somehow Baret was able to make the appropriate connection which allowed her to decline to state who fathered her child, and she gave him her last name.  Commerson gave his two year old son to his brother-in-law, a priest, to raise.  The couple went to Paris to create a new life for themselves.

In December 1764 Jean-Pierre Baret was born.  Commerson, having already proven he did not have much paternal instinct, hated the inconvenience of having a newborn around.  Apparently Baret’s maternal instincts were not very strong either, and one month later she abandoned her baby at the Paris foundling hospital which then turned him over to a foster mother.  Less than one year later Baret received news that her son had died.

In a way, Baret had been relieved of one burden, but another one manifested.  Commerson had pleurisy.  Baret became the caregiver of her lover and his collection of plants.  As he healed he was able to write a book, but he continued to look for the perfect project that would really put his name on the map.

RUNNING AWAY TOGETHER         Britain, the Netherlands and Spain had already sailed around the world, and France wanted to get in the game.  The goal was to find a land mass in the southern hemisphere.  An expedition was planned, and Commerson was selected to be the naturalist on board who would discover and collect unknown species of flora and fauna.  It was the perfect opportunity for Commerson, but not for Baret.  Women were not allowed on French naval ships, but the couple came up with a solution: dress Baret as a man and have her work as the naturalist’s assistant since she had the experience to be convincing.  To facilitate the ruse, she started using the masculine spelling of her name, Jean.

The frigate La Boudeuse, under the command of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and the supply ship L’Etoile, with captain Francois Chenard de la Giraudais at the helm, set sail together on February 1, 1767.  Commerson and his assistant were on the Etoile.  Baret disguised her gender by wrapping her chest with linen bandages, so tight that she had trouble taking a deep breath, and wearing men’s clothing.  It was her job to carry onboard her boss’s bags and most of the extensive field equipment they brought along.  When captain La Giraudais saw how much they had, he knew it would not all fit in the small berth they had been assigned.  He offered the scientist and his assistant the 30 x 15 foot captain’s cabin.

Suspicions about Baret’s gender were aroused immediately.  It was very unusual for a servant to sleep in the same cabin as his master, and Baret was never seen relieving herself at the “head,” holes cut out of the protruding part of the forward deck.  Such a breach of regulations could ruin La Giraudais’ career, so he ordered Baret to sleep with the other servants.  She did not feel safe in that environment, so she slept with one of Commerson’s loaded pistols and threatened to use it one evening when she was maliciously approached by some curious men.

La Giraudais called Baret in for questioning, and she explained her situation by claiming to be a eunuch who had supervised a sultan’s harem in the Ottoman Empire.  While the captain may not have been totally convinced, it was good enough to be allowed back in Commerson’s cabin.  In addition, a previous dog bite in Commerson’s leg had become ulcerated.  The infirmity was another justification to allow her to reside in the master’s cabin so she could tend to his needs.

Baret’s life on the ship was not easy.  Living in such close quarters with Commerson made him quite moody.  The temperature was consistently in the 80s, and the sweat-soaked linen wrap chaffed at her skin giving her eczema.  They were both living for the day when they could get off the ship.

The first opportunity to disembark was a brief stop in Montevideo, Uruguay before heading up the eastern coast of South America to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  In mid July, five months after leaving France, the naturalists were able to go ashore and start the work they were commissioned to do.

DOING A MAN’S JOB           The sores on Commerson’s leg were turning into gangrene.  Baret’s treatments prevented amputation, but Commerson’s mobility was severely restricted.  He was able to take the rowboat but he was in no condition to wander around collecting plant samples.  It was up to Baret to do all the physical work.  She carried the food for the day, the wooden presses for preserving samples and all the field equipment which included a spade, glass vials for seeds, tiny boxes for insects, magnifying glasses, a telescope, a compass and a butterfly net.  Commerson lightly referred to Baret as his “beast of burden.”

The most well known discovery Baret made was a colorful vine native to South America.  Commerson respectfully named it after Commander Bougainville: Bougainvillea brasiliensis, or what we call bougainvillea.

The Boudeuse and the Etoile continued their tandem journey back down the coast of South America where they spent 38 days feeling their way through the perilous maze of the Strait of Magellan.  There were no charts for navigation since this was the first time French ships were in the region.  They stopped in Patagonia and started across the Pacific Ocean at the end of January 1768.  Whenever they stopped, Baret and Commerson went botanizing.

COMING OUT OF THE CLOSET        If Baret’s gender had been a secret up to that point, that changed when they hit Tahiti.  A native Tahitian named Aotourou, with previous experience with foreign ships, came onboard the Etoile.  He saw Baret standing with several other crew members, pointed to her and identified her as a girl.  Undoubtedly confused by the accuracy of the observation and visibly angry at being outed, she ran into her cabin.  Aotourou, unaware that he had said anything wrong, offered an explanation.  In his culture it was very common for some men to dress like and perform the duties of women (called mahu).  In fact, they held a respected place in the society as having the best qualities of men and women.  Aotourou believed Baret to be a mahu, someone who dressed and acted like a person of the opposite sex, with a specific purpose on the crew.  Now that Baret’s identity was revealed, she was afraid of being attacked and carried a pistol with her whenever she left the cabin.

After leaving Tahiti in April 1768, the conditions of the trip got progressively worse.  They sailed for three months without being able to find a suitable port.  They used up all the fresh water, and the cases of scurvy increased daily.  They couldn’t seem to catch any fish and had to resort to eating the rats onboard.  When they finally landed on the island of New Ireland (part of Papua New Guinea) Baret had a few days of successful collecting before her life became a nightmare.

Each day Baret went botanizing, accompanied by a pistol to protect herself from her fellow crew members more than the natives.  Several days after their arrival Baret joined the other servants who were doing laundry.  They had been plotting to confirm Baret’s sex for themselves, and she unwittingly gave them the opportunity they were waiting for.  They stole her gun and proceeded to rape her.  In relating the incident in his journal, the ship’s doctor justified the actions of the men by conveying the benefit to Baret: she no longer had to bind herself to hide her identity.  Back on board, Commerson feigned surprise at the news that Baret was a woman in order to protect his job.  For the rest of the journey, Baret secluded herself in their cabin.

After leaving New Ireland, the explorers traveled for six weeks without any real food, and starvation was a constant threat until they could get provisions on the Dutch island of Buru.  This posed a problem especially for Baret because she was pregnant.

In early November 1768 the expedition landed on the island of Mauritius, near Madagascar.  Commerson had known the civil administrator from Paris, and he invited the couple to stay in his home at Port Louis.  Baret was given her own room in the servants’ quarters, and she had some privacy for the first time in almost two years.  When the Etoile and Boudeuse headed back to France about a month later, Baret and Commerson stayed on the island.

When it came time to deliver the baby, Baret and Commerson went to a plantation in Flacq in the northern part of the island and stayed with a Mr. Bezac.  The new mom didn’t feel any more affection for this child than she had for her first one, and she left him to live with Bezac.

Baret and Commerson went to Madagascar for four months and collected 500 species of flora and fauna.  When they returned to Mauritius they had to find a new place to live.  They rented a house and lived together as a couple for the first time since leaving Paris.  The contentment of this arrangement did not last long, however, because Commerson was diagnosed with rheumatism and then dysentery.  Bezac welcomed them again in Flacq where Commerson died in 1773.

GOING HOME        Baret was ready to return to France, but she had no money and no place to live until she could get some.  She said goodbye to her son again and moved back down to Port Louis.  She worked as an herb woman and barmaid for survival.  While she was serving drinks she met a French soldier, Jean Dubernat, on his way back to France after serving in one of the colonies.  Whether it was for love or convenience we can’t be sure, but Baret and Dubernat were married on May, 1774.  Presumably to give herself a fresh start in life, the bride signed her name with a new spelling: Barret.

When Baret landed on French soil near the end of 1774, she became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.  But unlike the arrival of Bougainville and the crews of the two naval vessels five years earlier, there was no ceremony or recognition of her achievement.

The new couple set up house in Dubernat’s home town of Saint-Aulaye.  Commerson had provided for Baret before they left Paris, leaving 600 livres to her in his will which she collected when she returned to France.  That was about six times the annual wage of a servant.  She finally had the means to buy a house and give her life some stability.

Baret did receive recognition for her contribution to society as a naturalist.  Nine years later, the Ministry of Marine granted her a pension of 200 livres a year.  On August 5, 1807, at age sixty-seven, Baret died.  She left behind a legacy of plants, seeds, shells and insects that are housed in the Museum national d’histoire naturelle, giving future generations insight into the world around them.

QUESTION:  What would you like to be remembered for accomplishing when you die?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Ridley, Glynis, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, A Story of Science, The High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe.  New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

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


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.