Bishop, Isabella (1831–1904)

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Bishop, Isabella (1831–1904)

Travel writer, explorer, and one of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London, England. Name variations: Isabella Bird, Isabella Bird Bishop, Isabella Lucy Bishop, Isa, IB. Born Isabella Lucy Bird on October 15, 1831, in Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, England; died on October 7, 1904, in a nursing home in Edinburgh, Scotland; daughter of Reverend Edward (a barrister turned cleric) and Dora (Lawson) Bird; received no formal schooling but was given a broad education by her parents and continued to teach herself; married John Bishop (a physician), on March 8, 1881; no children.

After many years of illness, including a spinal tumor, traveled to Canada and North America on advice of her doctor (1854); as a result, traveled throughout her life and published many authoritative works on what she observed; major trips include Australia and New Zealand (1872), returning via the Sandwich Isles (now Hawaii) and the U.S. (1873), Japan (1878), Malaya (1879), Kashmir and Ladakh in northern India, and Tibet (1889), Persia (now Iran, 1890), Kurdistan (area of Middle East inhabited by Kurds which today includes parts of Turkey, Iran and Iraq, 1891), Japan, Korea, and China (1894–96), and Morocco (1901).

Selected publications:

The Englishwoman in America (John Murray, London, 1856); Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (John Murray, London, 1875); A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (John Murray, London, 1879); Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (John Murray, London, 1880); The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (John Murray, London, 1883); Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (John Murray, London, 1891); Among the Tibetans (Religious Tract Society, London, 1894); Korea and Her Neighbours (John Murray, London, 1898); The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (John Murray, London, 1899); Chinese Pictures (a book of photographs, Cassell, London, 1900).

In 1873, a small, soft-spoken English-woman, who had been a semi-invalid for most of her life, woke up inside her tent on the edge of the active volcano of Mauna Loa, in what was then called the Sandwich Isles (Hawaii). "The phrase, 'sleeping on the brink of a volcano,' was literally true," she wrote:

for I fell asleep, and fear I might have been prosaic enough to sleep all night, had it not been for the fleas which had come up in the camping blankets…. Creeping over the sleeping forms … I crept cautiously into the crevasse in which the snow-water was then hard frozen, and out upon the projecting ledge. The four hours in which we had previously watched the volcano had passed like one; but the lonely hours which followed might have been two minutes or a year, for time was obliterated.

This was only one of the early adventures of the respectable, religious, and, in many ways, typical Victorian Englishwoman. But travel was to prove her to be somewhat unconventional. The pleasure Isabella Bishop found in wandering drove her to extraordinary feats of endurance. Though she was always a sharp and critical observer of religion in all its forms, her deep interest in everything she saw was stronger than her Victorian sensibilities, and she took everything in her stride, from nakedness to opium smoking. She was also a gifted writer and her books are particularly important because it was the cultures of native peoples that she sought out on her travels, not Western-style comforts. However trying the circumstances, be it a vermin-infested inn or a howling snowstorm, nothing could detract from her enjoyment of the experience as a whole. It is this spirit of sheer pleasure and curiosity in the world around her, conveyed in the best of her writing, that is most inspiring about Isabella Bishop.

There never was anybody who had adventures so well as Miss Bird.

—Spectator (1879)

Isabella Lucy Bird was born on October 15, 1831, the eldest child of Edward, a zealous minister, and Dora Bird , a minister's daughter. Because Isabella was not a strong child and suffered frequently from ill-health, doctors recommended she have as much fresh air as possible, so for many years she rode with her father around his parishes, while he taught her the names of the wildlife and quizzed her on everything they saw. The family was respectable, devout, and upper-middle class, and her kin included many bishops and missionaries. She was also related to William Wilberforce, the campaigner against slavery. Biographer Anna Stoddart notes that several of Isabella's aunts refused sugar in their tea "as a sacred protest against slave-grown products." She had just one sister, Henrietta , known as Hennie, to whom she was devoted. Over the years, as Edward Bird moved from parish to parish, the family had many homes. Both daughters grew up with a strong sense of duty and became involved in parish work, Isabella taking Sunday school classes and instructing the choir. She was a very bright child, who enjoyed serious adult texts from an early age.

When she was 18, Isabella had an operation to remove a tumor from her spine, and she remained weak and in pain. Despite regular family holidays in the Scottish Highlands where her health improved a little, she nevertheless remained a semi-invalid. Finally, Bishop's doctor recommended that she take a long sea voyage, and, in 1854, with £100 from her father, she set off for North America in the company of relatives returning to Canada.

The freedom, independence, and stimulation of travel proved the cure for Isabella, who relished every moment of the journey which lasted several months. Even in the most unlikely situations, her pleasure is evident from her writing. On a train to Chicago, she found herself crammed in among a colorful collection of characters, including "prairie-men" complete with decorated boots, spurs, earrings, and pistols. Bishop noted their handsomeness and commented: "Dullness fled from their presence; they could tell stories, whistle melodies, and sing comic songs without weariness or cessation: fortunate were those near enough to be enlivened by their drolleries during the tedium of a night detention."

In England, encouraged by her friends, Isabella wrote up her travels and showed the work to John Murray, who was to become her friend and publisher for life. The book, An English-woman in America, was proof of Bishop's gift for writing and sold well. At age 26, the young author put some of her profits towards providing deep-sea fishing boats and tweed-making equipment in an area of great poverty in the West Highlands of Scotland. When her health began to suffer in 1857, doctors again urged her to travel, and she set off for North America for a second time, though little is known of that trip.

Shortly after her return, her father died. With her mother and sister, Isabella moved to Edinburgh where her mother's death soon followed. The two sisters then lived together both in Edinburgh and on the Scottish island of Null. Once again, Bishop devoted her time to charitable causes and in particular the plight of the Highlanders. She made several trips to America as part of a Highland resettlement project, but her health remained poor. Although she took holidays in New York and in the Mediterranean, she still felt no better. Nevertheless, at age 40, Isabella undertook a more demanding trip to Australia and New Zealand.

The journey started out badly because she did not like either country, and at first her health grew worse. She wrote to her sister that she hated the bluebottles, the heat, the dust, and the "colonial ladies afflicted with hysteria." But once on the ship home via California she began to feel better. While helping to nurse a passenger's critically ill son, Bishop was urged to disembark with them when the ship reached Honolulu in the Sandwich Isles. Enchanted by the islands' beauty and the generous hospitality of the people, Isabella was to stay six months.

It was in the Sandwich Isles that she learned to ride again. The problems with her back had made riding sidesaddle impossible, but here both men and women rode astride. This was made possible by a very respectable Hawaiian riding dress—special breeches that were hidden by the folds of a skirt when the wearer was not on horseback—and she was to take great offense when it was later suggested in The Times that she wore "masculine habiliments" when riding in the same style of clothing in the United States.

Bishop explored the island on horseback and climbed to the crater of the active volcano, Kilauea, at a height of 4,000 feet. She also took a perilous trip around the northeast coast of the island and then climbed to the summit of Mauna Loa at just under 14,000 feet, with a Mr. Green. Despite her lack of experience on such expeditions, Bishop proved to have extraordinary determination and physical strength. She also had a robust digestive system, which her husband was later to compare with that of an ostrich.

From the Sandwich Isles, Bishop headed to California and the Rocky Mountains around Denver, Colorado, where consumptives often went to seek a cure. As the American West was still being settled, the countryside was wild and sparsely populated. She rode up to Estes Park, a remote valley among the highest mountains of northern Colorado, where she stayed on the cattle ranch of a Welshman called Griff Evans.

It was while she was here that she came across a character whom many consider to have been the great, though most unlikely, romance of her life—James Nugent. Otherwise known as "Rocky Mountain Jim," he was a famous scout and drunken desperado with only one eye—the other, he claimed, he had lost in a fight with a bear. But he was also well-read, intelligent, and chivalrous.

Nugent offered to guide Bishop and two young men up Long's Peak, the 14,700-foot mountain that overlooks the park. It was a dangerous scramble to the top, but she wrote of her achievement: "It was something at last to stand upon the storm-rent crown of this lonely sentinel of the Rocky range, on one of the mightiest of the vertebrae of the backbone of the North American continent." She would probably not have made it with a less determined or devoted guide than Nugent. "I had various falls, and once hung by my frock, which caught on a rock, and 'Jim' severed it with a hunting-knife, upon which I fell into a crevice full of soft snow."

Some weeks later, Bishop set off on a pony called Birdie to explore the region further. She visited Denver and Colorado Springs and wandered through the mountains, often following only the barest of tracks. Returning to Denver, she discovered that a banking crisis had left her temporarily without funds, so she returned to Estes Park where Griff Evans owed her money.

It was during this stay that Nugent declared his feelings towards her. In a letter to her sister, Bishop wrote, "He is a man who any woman might love, but who no sane woman would marry." Though she admitted to Henrietta that she felt deeply for him, she knew she could not trust her happiness to him because of whiskey. It was not without regret that she finally left Estes Park and Jim Nugent, and she continued to write to him until he was killed, shot in a quarrel with Griff Evans. Though there were many versions of this incident, none has proved conclusive.

When she returned to Edinburgh, Bishop edited the contents of her letters to her sister and wrote Six Months in the Sandwich Isles. Her adventures in the Rocky Mountains were serialized in a magazine and would be published in book form in 1879. She also became involved in a project to build a shelter and coffee house for Edinburgh cab drivers. But gradually her health began to decline, and once again travel was prescribed.

Her next trip was to Japan. This time she undertook a much more systematic and thorough study of the country than she had done on previous occasions. The area of Japan that interested her most was the island of Yezo (now Hokkaido) and its native inhabitants, the Ainu. It is believed that few Europeans had visited this island before Bishop, and the Ainu culture remained almost untouched by Western influence. Although the Ainu were looked down upon by the Japanese, Isabella was moved by the dignity of the people, and she stayed in an Ainu home where she received great hospitality. "Little acts of courtesy were constantly being performed; but I really appreciated nothing more than the quiet way in which they went on with their ordinary lives." It was her book of this trip, UnbeatenTracks in Japan, that established Bishop as a serious geographer and anthropologist. In a letter to John Murray, she noted that the book's reputation "vindicated a woman's right to do what she can do well."

From Japan, she traveled to Hong Kong, China, and the Malay States. Her book on this area, The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, includes a detailed and gruesome account of a prison she visited in Canton and also tells of her colorful experiences in the Malay States, which were part of the British Empire at that time. Bishop visited many of the British administrators of the different states, known as Residents.

The Resident she most admired was the diligent and original Mr. Low, in the state of Perak, who was away when she appeared, half-drenched, at his door. It seems that the elephant she'd been riding took a shower. The servants made her comfortable and later announced that dinner was served. Isabella, who had been looking forward to some solitude, was annoyed to see the table set for three, until she learned that her dinner companions were two apes and a retriever who was tied to her chair. "What a

grotesque dinner party! What a delightful one! My 'next of kin' were so reasonably silent; they required no conversational efforts."

Bishop returned home in 1879, only to be grief-stricken by the death of her sister Hennie, of typhoid, the following year. Though Bishop continued to write to friends about her later travels, her letters never again conveyed the pleasure or delight in all she did and saw that she captured in the letters to her sister. Some months later, Dr. John Bishop, who had looked after both Hennie and Isabella, and had proposed marriage to Isabella on several previous occasions, asked for her hand once more. This time she accepted. At the age of 50, Isabella was married, but she was still in mourning for her sister and insisted on wearing black. The couple settled in Edinburgh, but Isabella found married life difficult at first and continued to miss Hennie. It was not until John Bishop caught a serious skin disease from one of his patients that she realized her feelings for him. Though ill herself, she nursed him devotedly until he died, in 1886.

Isabella planned her next trip to Asia as a tour of medical missions—a movement that John had supported. She also took a three-month nursing course in London. Three years after her husband's death, in 1889, Bishop was 58 when she founded a mission hospital in Srinigar, in Kashmir, northern India, in his memory. Then, fleeing the English who came up to the cooler hills for the summer season, she took off for Leh, the capital of Ladakh, an area of northern India that is more Tibetan in its culture and climate. She rode on a wild Arab steed with an escort who was later arrested in Leh for murder.

She also teamed up with a member of the Moravian Mission to explore the area further to the north. At heights of 18,000 feet everyone except Bishop suffered from altitude sickness—even the horses, which had to be exchanged for yaks. It was a terrifying journey and Bishop nearly died crossing a furious river, escaping with just a few broken ribs. But she had no doubts that their exertions had been worthwhile and enjoyed in particular a visit to the remote Buddhist monastery at Deskyid. The book that resulted from this trip, Among the Tibetans, was not published by John Murray but by the Religious Tract Society. Though a valuable account of the area and its people, it is generally accepted as the least appealing of her works.

While in India, Bishop met a Major Sawyer from the Intelligence Branch of the Indian Army who was about to leave for a geographical and military mission of southwestern Persia—an area that was recognized to be key to the control of power in Central Asia by both Britain and its rival force in the region, Russia. It was also an area that greatly interested Isabella, but she had been told it was far too dangerous for her to travel there alone. She managed to persuade Sawyer to allow her to accompany him as far as Tehran.

It proved an arduous journey. It was midwinter and they faced gales and snowstorms, and once Isabella literally froze to her saddle. She had also gained the reputation for being a doctor, and wherever they stopped a crowd of sick people gathered to be cured. With only her nursing training and a basic medicine chest, there was little she could do although she tried. "Nothing is more painful," she wrote, "than to be obliged to say that one cannot do anything for them."

From Tehran, Bishop went south to Isfahan, where she again joined up with Sawyer to explore the area of Luristan. Although they made good traveling companions in many ways, Isabella was to disagree strongly with Sawyer on his rude treatment of the native peoples. It was spring and the countryside was wild and beautiful but the tribes of the region were at war, and on several occasions the party was fired upon. Once again, Bishop found herself acting as doctor to the crowds who queued up outside her tent. She was also called upon by Sawyer to help with his surveying of the area, when his regular assistant became ill.

For the last part of her journey, to Trebizond, Isabella traveled alone, riding on a large, fiery Persian stallion called Boy. Since the route she had chosen was particularly long and dangerous, she had found it difficult at first to get men and mules for her party. She enjoyed the trip greatly. On her first encounters with the Kurds, she found them a spirited and hospitable people, but she was to revise this opinion towards the end of her journey when she witnessed their persecution of Syrian and Armenian Christians.

Isabella now had no real home to return to, and felt restless in both Scotland and London. She wrote articles on the situation of the Syrian and Armenian Christians, and was invited to address a government committee on "The Armenian Question." She also wrote Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan and gave many talks.

Bishop was a member of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, so in 1883, when London's Royal Geographical Society admitted members of other societies to its ranks, it found itself with women members for the first time. When many of the male members, horrified at the new situation, wanted women excluded, the issue became one of public debate. Bishop refused to become involved in the matter. "She did not have enough faith in or sympathy for the great majority of womankind" to be any sort of suffragist, suggests biographer Pat Barr , although Bishop did write to a friend: "The proposed act is a dastardly injustice to women." In the end, it was decided that women such as Bishop, who were already members, should remain members, but that no new women should be admitted.

In 1894, at age 63, Bishop set off for Yokohama, in Japan. Her plan this time was to report on the work of missions in Korea and China. She also took photography equipment with her—a skill she had recently learned. From Japan, she went to Seoul in Korea, where she hired a sampan for a journey up the River Itan to the Diamond Mountains in the east. From the boat, Bishop took meticulous records of all she saw, even concocting an on-board dark room for developing her pictures. When the party could progress no further by boat, they took to ponies which carried them into the Diamond Mountains. Here she visited several Buddhist monasteries—some calm retreats, others bustling with activity. She then took a steamer around the Korean coast to Chemulpo, only to discover that the country was at war, being fought over for control by China and Japan in what was to be known as the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95.

Forced to leave the country immediately, Bishop spent the next six months in China and Russia, then returned to Korea to find the country still at war. She became intrigued by the political situation and on several occasions met the Korean king Kojong (Yi T'ae Wang) and Queen Min . Once the king entrusted her with a top secret message for the Foreign Office in London, which Bishop asked her publisher to deliver.

Bishop went on to travel around China, and stayed briefly in Japan to recuperate from an illness. But learning that Korea was in fresh tumult, she returned there to discover that the Korean queen, who had been the power behind the throne, had been murdered by the Japanese. Bishop explored Korea further and found the country fascinating, but she was horrified by the terrible poverty and the devastation of the war.

In 1896, she went to Shanghai, in China. Though Shanghai was a bustling, cosmopolitan, Westernized port of little interest to her, it was also at the mouth of the 3,433 mile-long Yangtze River, which she was to use as a route for exploring inland China. She traveled the first 1,000 miles up river by steamer and continued by native boat. The journey involved the boat being hauled up over rapids that even Bishop had to admit, "fully warrant the worst descriptions which have been given them."

As the boat made its way further and further inland, Isabella found herself increasingly fascinated with the countryside around her. When the river turned away from the route she had chosen to the West, she left it to travel by road. She was carried in an open chair and was much more visible and exposed to any xenophobia among the people. Although she wore Chinese dress, her hat was Japanese which, though practical, served to provoke the Chinese. Entering one city, she was surrounded by a furious mob, yelling "Foreign devil" and "Child-Eater." Her bearers barely managed to force their way into an inn, but the mob surged forward. Just as they were about to set fire to the room she was hiding in, troops arrived to break up the riot.

Despite this incident, Bishop was determined to continue on her way. In the city of Paoning Fu, she was impressed with the work of the Chinese Inland Mission, whose members followed the local customs of dress and etiquette and did not believe in Western cultural superiority. Here, too, she financed the setting up of a hospital in the name of her sister Henrietta. Continuing further west, nearer to the Tibetan border, she could not resist the opportunity to go on into the mountains. This involved crossing a gruelling mountain pass at 12,000 feet, but she loved the wonderful position of the city of Somo beyond, and the charm of its people.

Back in England, Bishop worked hard at her books, first Korea and Her Neighbours, then The Yangtze Valley and Beyond. She also gave many talks. Again, she tried to make herself a home in several different places, in both England and Scotland, but was happy in none of them. She began to plan another trip to China, but her doctors would not allow her to go. Instead she went to Morocco. On a huge black charger, which required a ladder for her to mount and dismount, she headed for the Atlas mountains where she visited the Berbers. In Marrakesh, she met the young sultan of Morocco, and must have made quite an impression on him, for "When I wished the Sultan long life and happiness at parting, he said that he hoped when his hair was as white as mine, he might have as much energy as I have. So I am not quite shelved yet!"

In 1902, Bishop took seriously ill and went to Edinburgh, where she was to move from nursing home to nursing home for the following two years. Stoddart wrote that she remained "cheerful and uncomplaining" and received many visitors. Isabella Bishop died on October 7, 1904. In London, her bags were still packed for the trip she had planned to China.


Barr, Pat. A Curious Life for a Lady: The Story of Isabella Bird. London: John Murray, 1970.

Havely, Cicely Palser. This Grand Beyond: The Travels of Isabella Bird Bishop. London: Century Publishing, 1984.

Middleton, Dorothy. "Isabella Bird" in Victorian Lady Travellers. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.

Stoddart, Anna. The Life of Isabella Bird (Mrs Bishop). London: John Murray, 1906.

The works of Isabella Bishop.


Original letters held by John Murray, Publisher.

Francesca Baines , freelance writer, London, England