France knows very little of her great women travellers before Alexandra David-Neel. And yet, they were many before 1900 - adventurers, artists, expatriates, tourists, colonists, activists, pioneering women journalists, ethnologists in the field or missionaries - to take off for Siberia, Senegal, China, Brazil or Persia, often triumphing over extraordinary hardships.
Charlotte-Adélaïde Dard survived the wreck of the Méduse, and Louise Fusil, a French actress with the Imperial Theatre of Moscow, crossed the Berezina with Napoleon’s retreating armies. It was rare courage which allowed Jane Dieulafoy to carry back priceless archaeological treasures from Persia for the Louvre.
The narratives of the first French women travellers are part of the history of the 19th century, the century of the expansion of knowledge and territories, of cultural, social and religious proselytism. Destined as they were by law and by the mindset of the age to domestic life rather than adventure, these authors, modest as people but proud as travellers, are the foundation of our women’s travel literature, where we may discover true talents in the double quality of the writing and the viewpoint, as well as exceptional personalities
Between the accounts of the very first women travellers of the 18th century and those who were travelling in numbers around 1880, slavery had not only been maintained throughout the world but sometimes intensified, and then later abolished. During this period of almost two centuries, all the women concerned here witnessed scenes of slavery. Their accounts deny it, approve of it, or else condemn it. The diversity of information and attitudes according to country or period constitutes the wealth of this collection of commentaries gleaned from the writings of some fifty British women, as many Continental Europeans and a few American women.
The object, however, is not the history of slavery but the history of Western women’s thinking about slavery, a fragment of the overall history of slavery.
At first it was especially aristocrats who travelled or went off to live abroad, and for whom Oriental harem slavery or the serfdom of the great Russian landholdings seemed a condition natural to a part of humanity. Then came the women who found themselves exposed to the spectacle of slavery on the plantations in the Caribbean and in the southern states of the United States, torn between anguish and revolt and their fascinated discovery of the tropics, where slavery was perceived as one more aspect of exoticism. At the end came those who were rather within the sphere of abolitionist ideas, then those who commented upon the post-abolition situation with all its ambiguities