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Biography of Isabella Bird

Name: Isabella Bird
Bith Date: 1831
Death Date: October 7, 1904
Place of Birth: Yorkshire, England
Nationality: English
Gender: Female
Occupations: explorer, author
Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird (1831-1904) was an English traveler who made a remarkable series of journeys at the end of the 19th century. 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 a small woman and suffered from several ailments during her childhood. In 1850 she had an operation to remove a tumor from her spine. The operation was only partially successful, and she suffered from insomnia and depression. Her doctor recommended that she travel, and in 1854 her father gave her 100 pounds and told her she was free to go wherever she wanted. She used it 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, Hennie, as the basis for her first book, The Englishwoman in America.

Hawaii and the Rocky Mountains

Bird's father died in 1858 and she and her sister and mother moved to Edinburgh in Scotland, where she lived for the rest of her life. She took other short trips during the following years, including three to North America and one to the Mediterranean. However, the turning point in her life came in 1872 when she traveled to Hawaii. She had taken a ship from San Francisco headed for New Zealand, but decided to get off in Hawaii and stayed there for six months. During that time she learned how to ride a horse astride, which ended the backaches she suffered from riding sidesaddle, and she climbed up 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." She recorded her happy visit in Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, published in 1875.

Leaving Hawaii, Bird went to the west coast of the United States. From San Francisco she traveled alone by horse to Lake Tahoe and then to the Rocky Mountains and Colorado. During that trip she had many adventures, including riding alone through a blizzard with her eyes frozen shut, spending several months snowed in a cabin with two young men, and being wooed by a lonely outlaw. All these tales she told in her book A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, published in 1879.


From San Francisco Bird went to Japan, where she hired a young Japanese man of 18 to be her translator. They traveled together to the northern part of 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, published in 1880. From Japan she traveled to Hong Kong, Canton, Saigon, and Singapore. From Singapore she traveled among the Malay states of the Malayan Peninsula for five weeks.

When Bird returned to England she was famous for her books about Hawaii and the Rocky Mountains. However, shortly after her return her sister died from typhoid. Bird married the doctor who had taken care of her, Dr. John Bishop, in 1881. They were happy together, but he died only five years after the marriage.

India and the Middle East

Following Bishop's death, Bird set out again on her travels. In 1888 she left for India. While there she established the Henrietta Bird Hospital in Amritsar and the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in Srinigar. She traveled to Kashmir and to Ladakh in the far north on the border with Tibet. During her travels one of her horses lost its footing while crossing a river. The horse drowned and Bird suffered two broken ribs. On her return to Simla in northern India she met up with Major Herbert Sawyer who was on his way to Persia. The two traveled together through the desert in mid-winter and arrived in Tehran half-dead. After depositing the major 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 Iran, Kurdistan, and Turkey.

On her return to England, Bird spoke out against the atrocities that were being committed against the Armenians in the Middle East and met with Prime Minister William Gladstone and addressed a Parliamentary committee on the question. By this time she was extremely well known in her native land and was made a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and the first woman fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. However, she was not happy being still and in 1894 she set out again.

Bird traveled first to Yokohama in Japan and from there into Korea. She spent several months in that country and then was forced to leave at the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War that was to lead to the occupation of Korea by Japan. She went to Mukden in Manchuria and photographed Chinese soldiers headed for the front. She then went back into Korea to view the devastation of the war. From Korea she went to the Yangtze River in China in January 1896. She traveled by sampan up the river as far as she could go and then went overland into the province of Sichuan. There she was attacked by a mob that called her a "foreign devil" and trapped her in the top floor of a house, which they then set on fire. She was rescued at the last minute by a detachment of soldiers. At another place she was stoned and knocked unconscious. She then traveled into the mountains bordering Tibet before returning home in 1897.

Back in Britain she wrote The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, which was published in 1900. She made her last trip to Morocco in 1901. On her return she became ill and died in Edinburgh on October 7, 1904.

Further Reading

  • A collection of Bird's writings edited by Cicely Paalser Haveley is titled This Grand Beyond: Travels of Isabella Bird Bishop (1984). A biography of note is Pat Barr's A Curious Life for a Lady: The Story of Isabella Bird, a Remarkable Victorian Traveler (1970). There are chapters on Bird in Mignon Rittenhouse, Seven Women Explorers (1964); Dea Birkett, Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers (1989); and Marion Tinling, Women into the Unknown (1989).

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