Gertrude Bell and Sir Percy Cox, Mesopotamia, 1917
My students are usually pretty good at the why questions of history. Why did the French revolt against their King? Answers include “Peasant frustration.” “Anger at the monarchy.” “Expensive bread.” It’s the when questions that cause students trouble. Why did the French revolt in 1789? What particularities of this historical moment led to the great unraveling of the French Monarchy?
This pattern holds true for discussing women in history, or more specifically, the actions of women travelers and explorers. Why did Annie Peck climb the Matterhorn (1895)? Or Fanny Bullock Workman the Himalayas (1899-1912)? Why did Mary Kingsley canoe her way up the Ogawe River in Africa (1895)? Or Nelly Bly circle the globe in 72 days (1889)? Student answers usually come in some variety of “They had to prove something to the world.” Ok, fair enough. But here is the more interesting question: Why did they all feel the need to prove it at the same time?
Mary Wollstonecraft certainly felt she had something to prove. Enlightenment novelist and historian, philosopher and feminist, Wollstonecraft authored A Vindication of the Rights of Woman a full 136 years before Britain fully granted women the right to vote in 1928. But living at the end of the 18th century, Wollstonecraft is something of an outlier in women’s history, a person whose beliefs and actions were at considerable remove from the rest of society. Peck, Workman, and Bly, by contrast, were part of a large social movement that extended across the Atlantic, a movement that gleefully assaulted the idea of a “separate spheres” for men and women.
In this sense, Gertrude Bell was a women of her time: born in Britain, Oxford educated, Bell was an omnivorous learner and traveler, fluent in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and German. She voyaged around the world twice and took up a passion for mountain climbing in the Alps all before “settling down” in the Middle East as archeologist, author, and British political agent during the First World War. She collaborated with T.E. Lawrence to draw up the modern political map of the Middle East including Jordan and Iraq. Yet Bell remains hard to categorize. Sitting at the center of British political activity in the Middle East, Bell also served as honorary secretary of the British Women’s Anti-Suffrage League.
Bell left 1600 letters, 16 diaries, and 7000 photographs, all of which are in the possession of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Now the University Library has begun a four-year project to put these materials online. Here for example is Bell’s description of her ascent of the Aiguille du Géant in the Alps:
Demarquille was frozen. I gave him my big woollen gloves. My hands were warmed by the rock work, but I continued to shiver, though not unpleasantly, almost until we returned to the foot of the Aiguille. We crossed a bit of snow and turned to the left under the Aiguille where we found a hanging rope – it was just about here that a guide was killed a fortnight ago by lightening, after having accomplished the ascent by a new road up the N face said to be easier than the old. The first hour or so was quite easy. Straight up long slabs of rock with a fixed rope to hold by. Then a flank march which was rather difficult; the rocks from here to the top of the NE summit are extremely steep. At one point my hands and arms were so tired that I lost all grip in them. A steep bit down, a pointed breche and a very steep up rock leads to the highest summit where there is a cairn.
The Gertrude Bell Archive is a work in progress. Not all of the materials have been scanned. It does not have keyword or full-text search capabilities. Still it deserves to be filed as a bookmark in your growing list of exploration archives.
For more on women explorers, see posts on