The Cockroach in the Bottom of the Teacup
Three hundred years ago, in 1717, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lived for several months in Constantinople with her husband,who was there on a diplomatic mission. During the journey across Europe and then once settled in, this brilliant letter writer originated a women’s travel literature that would have come into being without her but which was thus launched in brilliance. From the most flamboyant (like hers) to the most informative (like those of the first women journalists around 1860), all their travel narratives contribute to the knowledge of divers societies; for if they speak of the state of the world at a given time, they speak as well of the way in which it was regarded by its contemporaries, women to be specific, contributing to the history of attitudes as well as to History with a capital H.
Although an early traveller, Lady Mary had been preceded on the highways of the world by a few 17th-century women writer-travellers, whose writings had not had the effect of hers as either reference or inspiration. Leaving aside the legendary Basque woman Catalina de Erauso of the late 16th century with her men’s clothing and rapier, who supposedly left a diary, there was the eminent Aphra Behn, born in England in 1640 and buried at Westminster, who after a stay in Suriname on a sugar plantation denounced the cruelty of slavery in Oroonoko, the first work on the subject by a woman. There was the Frenchwoman Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, born in 1630, who returned from Spain with France’s first women’s travel narrative, Relation du Voyage d’Espagne, published in 1691. And to end this short list, the Englishwoman Ann Fanshawe who, accompanying her husband to Spain in the service of the future Charles II in 1659, managed - between twenty lyings-in - to keep a diary; and the Swedish Anna Akerhjelm, who was in Greece in 1686 at the time when Venice was trying to chase the Ottomans out of that country, and a few of whose letters are extant.
Despite all the activity of colonial conquest, despite the intensive trade in overseas riches, despite the missions of exploration, research and evangelisation, the following century - the 18th at least up to 1790 - remained a period of little travelling on the part of women. Like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the travellers who described “the manners” of other lands were English: Lady Craven was also in the land of harems and their slaves in 1786; Jemima Kindersley was in India in 1764 as was Eliza Fay in 1779, accused on her return of abandoning her servant to the slave traders of St Helena; and lastly, two residents in slave-owning countries: Janet Schaw on American plantations in 1774 and Miss Tully from 1783 to 1793 in Tripoli, the marketplace for Christians captured by Barbary pirates.
As the 18th century wore on, women’s travels had reached such proportions that after 1880 the women whose names, destinations and dates of travel are known already numbered in the several hundreds. Generally connected to the diplomatic services, aristocrats - among them legions of Englishwomen - were the women who had the easiest access to travel, but a whole organisation of travel was being set in place, which gave women of modest means the opportunity to travel. Scientific research allowed members of scholarly missions to bring their wives along with them. The colonial economy put the wives of colonists, civil servants and military men, as well as nuns, on the move. Towards the end of the century there were many group tours joined by well-off if not wealthy women and pilgrims, “the Cooks and Cookesses”, as the independent tourists called these tour recruits. The tourist economy meant also middle-class women, often single, who undertook costly though not luxurious unconventional journeys, such as the personal expedition to the Himalayas of the French geographer Isabelle Massieu or the two round-the-world trips of the Austrian Ida Pfeiffer. Women of modest means also set off at their own expense to earn their living: minor actresses, merchants and seekers of gold or adventure. The culture economy, with the transmission of languages and good manners, fashion and the arts made the royal and aristocratic families of Russia, Vienna, Egypt, Siam or Brazil take charge of the journeys and salaries of English, French or German women. The variety of their destinations and projects, the multiplication of their writings and the evolution of their style, ranging from the travel “tale” inherited from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to the documentary, were so many factors allowing women’s travel literature to amply depict and even to paint in nuance the world of the time.
At the end of the 19th century, this type of women’s narrative constituted a literary current recognised chiefly in the English-speaking countries. The authoresses were highly enough esteemed to have at their command a base of editions, re-editions and translations, even preferential publishers such as John Murray in London, and they sometimes received awards and were admitted to the geographical societies; in short, they were listened to. It was a period of the dissemination of knowledge, of educational goals, and they knew how to write a literature of knowledge as well as entertainment, of instruction as well as adventure. As travel perhaps changed the women travellers - just as it perhaps did men travellers - though not transforming them so much that their observations no longer bore the stamp of the society they came from or the rank of their country, the accounts they published, born of the interaction of the World and their worlds, reveal their mentalities. By the same token, when some of them - to take some extreme examples - lamented the fact that lepers were allowed to have children or that the American Indians were not being exterminated quickly enough, the reader who reacts to their positions arouses and becomes conscious of her/his own positions. These are mirror effects - “the women travellers look at the world and s/he who sees them look at the world also sees her/himself look at them” - which render their accounts invaluable when they treat of social events to which our age is very sensitive. Nineteeth-century colonisation is a good example, richly documented by Frenchwomen for Algeria and by British women for India, South Africa, Canada and Australia. But the historical fact that left its greatest mark on women’s travels was slavery, from the setting out of the first women travellers and for about a century and a half until its abolishment. The Europeans, who unlike the Americans, lived in mainland territories where slavery did not exist, encountered it through travel. On September 24, 1836, for example, Julia Maitland, a young Englishwoman on her way to Madras, jotted down these few phrases in her diary: “Yesterday, at three o’clock in the morning, we met a French ship on her way from Madagascar to Rio. The sailors thought she cut a fine figure and it’s true she was particularly beautiful in the moonlight. I’d stuck my nose to the porthole to admire her and listen to the conversations, suspecting nothing. The next day the captain told us she was a slave ship. If we had been a warship, we would have had the obligation to stop and inspect her. We didn’t have the wherewithal and she carried away her poor slaves. The following day we saw two whales playing in the water; they swam, blew, dived and did pirouettes with the lightness of little fishes.
From the 18th century to the end of the 19th, slavery, whether Atlantic, intra-African or Muslim, whether long-standing or in the process of ending, was there before the eyes of all the women who went to the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Orient or Russia. A thread which would run through dozens of women’s accounts to denounce it, to disapprove of it, to note it or to deny it. For there were those who in the heart of slave country were able to concentrate on the cockroach at the bottom of their teacup: “I content myself with surfaces,” said the Comtesse Juliette de Robersart delightedly sailing down the Nile, “I leave it to others to lift the veil that conceals the profound miseries”; those for whom there were only the monuments or the landscapes, the archaeology or the pilgrimage; and those for whom writing also served to show the state of mankind’s fate in different places. These accounts and non-accounts are accessible today as a record of slavery and as a record of women’s attitudes towards it, pieces in the great jigsaw puzzle that is History.