The Life of Isabella Bird

Isabella Lucy Bird was born in the English county of Yorkshire on October 15, 1831. Her father was an Anglican clergyman, and her mother was the daughter of a clergyman. Bird was physically small and frail, and she suffered from ailments throughout her childhood. In 1850, when she was 19, a tumor was removed from her spine. Because the operation was only partially successful, she suffered from insomnia and depression.

Bird’s doctor recommended that she travel to divert her attention from her poor health. In 1854 her father gave her £100, telling her she was free to do whatever she wanted with the money. Bird chose to travel to North America and stayed for several months in eastern Canada and the United States. On her return she used the letters she had written to her sister, Henrietta, as the basis for her first book, The Englishwoman in America.

When Bird’s father died in 1858, she moved with her mother and sister to Edinburgh, Scotland. During the following years Bird took several short trips, including three to North America and one to the Mediterranean. The turning point in her life came in 1872, however. She was on a ship that was headed for New Zealand when she decided to get off at Hawaii. She stayed six months. During that time she learned how to ride a horse astride, which ended the backaches she had suffered from riding sidesaddle. She also climbed to the top of Hawaii’s volcanic peaks. Later she wrote about her pleasure in “visiting remote regions which are known to few even of the residents, living among the natives, and otherwise seeing Hawaiian life in all its phases.” Bird recorded her impressions of her visit in Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, which was published in 1875.

Leaving Hawaii, Bird went to the West Coast of the United States. From San Francisco she traveled alone on horseback to Lake Tahoe, located on the California border with Nevada, and then to the Rocky Mountains and Colorado. During this extensive trip she had many adventures; for example, she rode alone through a blizzard with her eyes frozen shut, spent several months snowed in with two young men in a cabin, and was wooed by a lonely outlaw. All these tales she told in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, published in 1879. This book, along with her volume about Hawaii, made Bird famous in Britain.

Travels through Asia

Bird’s next trip was to Japan, where she hired a young Japanese man to be her translator. They traveled together to Hokkaido, the northernmost part of the country, where she stayed among members of the Ainu tribe, the original, non-Japanese inhabitants of the islands. Her experiences formed the basis for her book Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, which was published in 1880. Bird continued her travels throughout Asia, visiting Hong Kong, Canton, Saigon, and Singapore. From Singapore she journeyed to the Malayan Peninsula, where she stayed for five weeks visiting the Malay states.

Soon after Bird’s return to Edinburgh, her sister Henrietta died from typhoid. In 1881 Bird married John Bishop, the doctor who had taken care of Henrietta. They had a happy marriage, but Bishop died only five years later. Following her husband’s death, Bird made a trip to India. While there she established the Henrietta Bird Hospital in Amritsar and the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in Srinigar. Traveling to Kashmir and Ladakh, areas of northern India on the border with Tibet, Bird continued her daring excursions. During the trip her horse lost its footing and drowned while crossing a river. Bird suffered two broken ribs in the accident.

Journey to Persia

Bird returned to Simla in northern India, where she met a British army major, Herbert Sawyer, who was on his way to Persia (now Iran). She and Sawyer traveled together through the desert in midwinter, arriving in Tehran in a state of extreme exhaustion. After leaving Sawyer at his new duty station, Bird set out alone and spent the next six months traveling at the head of her own caravan through northern Persia, Kurdistan, and Turkey.

On her return to England, Bird spoke out against the atrocities that were being committed against the Armenians under the Ottoman sultan Abd al-Hamid II, who had ordered their extermination. Bird met with William Gladstone, the British prime minister, and addressed a parliamentary committee on the subject. Having by this time become a celebrity in her native land, Bird was made a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society; she also became the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society.

Journey to Korea

In 1894 Bird traveled to Yokohama in Japan and from there into Korea. She spent several months in that country, making an epic journey of exploration on the Han River, the Diamond Mountain and on to the East Coast before being forced to leave at the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, which would lead to the Japanese occupation of Korea. From Korea she went to Mukden in Manchuria and photographed Chinese soldiers headed for the front In August 1894. During her travels in Manchuria she witnessed devastating floods in which she nearly drowned. Amidst great chaos, she took a German boat from the Chinese coast headed for Vladivostok by way of Nagasaki and visited villages in Siberia where Koreans had settled. She then returned to Korea, arriving by boat at Wŏnsan and from there went by boat to 'Fusan' then arrived in Chemulpo (Inch’ŏn) on January 5, 1895. She arrived in Seoul just in time to witness the ceremony on January 8 at which the King renounced the tribute relationship with China and declared Korean independence. She went with Mrs. Underwood to meet the King and Queen, the first of several visits. Before she left Korea in February 1895 for a voyage in China, she saw by chance the heads and decapitated bodies of the leaders of the Tonghak rebellion outside Seoul's Small West Gate (Sosŏmun). She returned from China to Nagasaki in October 1895 and there heard reports that the Queen (oficially the Empress Myeongseong) had been murdered on October 8. She returned to Seoul and her account of the murder and its sequels is fascinating. In November she set off on her last long journey through Korea, through Kaesŏng to Pyŏngyang, which had been looted after the Japanese victory over the Chinese in September 1894. From there, despite the approach of winter, she continued northward before returning to Pyŏngyang and Seoul.

Early in 1896 Bird went from Korea to the Yangtze River in China, sailing by boat up the river as far as she could go and then traveling overland into the province of Szechwan. In Szechwan she was attacked by a mob. Calling her a “foreign devil,” they trapped her in the top floor of a house, which they set on fire. She was rescued at the last minute by a detachment of soldiers. Later in her trip she was again attacked. Refusing to be intimidated, however, she traveled through the mountains bordering Tibet before returning home in 1897.

Bird based her last book, The Yangtze River and Beyond, on her experiences in China. This unusual and daring traveler continued to explore the world until the end of her life. She made her first trip to Africa when she was 70 years old and traveled to Morocco in 1901. Upon her return to Edinburgh she became ill, dying shortly thereafter