The Story of Ida Pfeiffer - Ida Pfeiffer - ebook

Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-Vienna), was an Austrian traveler and travel book author. She was one of the first female explorers, whose popular books were translated into seven languages. She was a member of geographical societies of both Berlin and Paris, but not of Royal Geographical Society in London due to her sex.She was only in her tenth year, however, when he died; and she then passed naturally enough under the maternal control. Between her own inclinations and her mother's ideas of maidenly culture a great contest immediately arose. Her mother could not understand why her daughter should prefer the violin to the piano, and the masculine trousers to the feminine petticoat. In fact, she did not understand Ida, and it may be assumed that Ida did not understand her.Cannot imagine the bravery and endurance of this woman. No money, no internet, and well past middle age when she even began her travels. Ida Pfeiffer was pretty amazing.

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And Her Travels in Many Lands



“I’ll put a girdle round the world.”— Shakespeare



First published in 1879





Ida Pfeiffer, the celebrated traveller, was born in Vienna on the 14th of October 1797.  She was the third child of a well-to-do merchant, named Reyer; and at an early age gave indications of an original and self-possessed character.  The only girl in a family of six children, her predilections were favoured by the circumstances which surrounded her.  She was bold, enterprising, fond of sport and exercise; loved to dress like her brothers, and to share in their escapades.  Dolls she contemptuously put aside, preferring drums; and a sword or a gun was valued at much more than a doll’s house.  In some respects her father brought her up strictly; she was fed, like her brothers, on a simple and even meagre diet, and trained to habits of prompt obedience; but he did nothing to discourage her taste for more violent exercises than are commonly permitted to young girls.

She was only in her tenth year, however, when he died; and she then passed naturally enough under the maternal control.  Between her own inclinations and her mother’s ideas of maidenly culture a great contest immediately arose.  Her mother could not understand why her daughter should prefer the violin to the piano, and the masculine trousers to the feminine petticoat.  In fact, she did not understand Ida, and it may be assumed that Ida did not understand her.

In 1809 Vienna was captured by the French army under Napoleon; a disgrace which the brave and spirited Ida felt most keenly.  Some of the victorious troops were quartered in the house of her mother, who thought it politic to treat them with courtesy; but her daughter neither could nor would repress her dislike.  When compelled to be present at a grand review which Napoleon held in Schönbrunn, she turned her back as the emperor rode past.  For this hazardous manœuvre she was summarily punished; and to prevent her from repeating it when the emperor returned, her mother held her by the shoulders.  This was of little avail, however, as Ida perseveringly persisted in keeping her eyes shut.

At the age of thirteen she was induced to resume the garb of her sex, though it was some time before she could accustom her wild free movements to it.  She was then placed in charge of a tutor, who seems to have behaved to her with equal skill and delicacy.  “He showed,” she says, “great patience and perseverance in combating my overstrained and misdirected notions.  As I had learned to fear my parents rather than love them, and this gentleman was, so to speak, the first human being who had displayed any sympathy and affection for me, I clung to him in return with enthusiastic attachment, desirous of fulfilling his every wish, and never so happy as when he appeared satisfied with my exertions.  He took the entire charge of my education, and though it cost me some tears to abandon my youthful visions, and engage in pursuits I had hitherto regarded with contempt, to all this I submitted out of my affection for him.  I even learned many feminine avocations, such as sewing, knitting, and cookery.  To him I owed the insight I obtained into the duties and true position of my sex; and it was he who transformed me from a romp and a hoyden into a modest quiet girl.”

Already a great longing for travel had entered into her mind.  She longed to see new scenes, new peoples, new manners and customs.  She read eagerly every book of travel that fell into her hands; followed with profound interest the career of every adventurous explorer, and blamed her sex that prevented her from following their heroic examples.  For a while a change was effected in the current of her thoughts by a strong attachment which sprung up between her and her teacher, who by this time had given up his former profession, and had obtained an honourable position in the civil service.  It was natural enough that in the close intimacy which existed between them such an affection should be developed.  Ida’s mother, however, regarded it with grave disapproval, and exacted from the unfortunate girl a promise that she would neither see nor write to her humble suitor again.  The result was a dangerous illness: on her recovery from which her mother insisted on her accepting for a husband Dr. Pfeiffer, a widower, with a grown-up son, but an opulent and distinguished advocate in Lemberg, who was then on a visit to Vienna.  Though twenty-four years older than Ida, he was attracted by her grace and simplicity, and offered his hand.  Weary of home persecutions, Ida accepted it, and the marriage took place on May 1st, 1820.

If she did not love her husband, she respected him, and their married life was not unhappy.  In a few months, however, her husband’s integrity led to a sad change of fortune.  He had fully and fearlessly exposed the corruption of the Austrian officials in Galicia, and had thus made many enemies.  He was compelled to give up his office as councillor, and, deprived of his lucrative practice, to remove to Vienna in search of employment.  Through the treachery of a friend, Ida’s fortune was lost, and the ill-fated couple found themselves reduced to the most painful exigencies.  Vienna, Lemberg, Vienna again, Switzerland, everywhere Dr. Pfeiffer sought work, and everywhere found himself baffled by some malignant influence.  “Heaven only knows,” says Madame Pfeiffer in her autobiography, “what I suffered during eighteen years of my married life; not, indeed, from any ill-treatment on my husband’s part, but from poverty and want.  I came of a wealthy family, and had been accustomed from my earliest youth to order and comfort; and now I frequently knew not where I should lay my head, or find a little money to buy the commonest necessaries.  I performed household drudgery, and endured cold and hunger; I worked secretly for money, and gave lessons in drawing and music; and yet, in spite of all my exertions, there were many days when I could hardly put anything but dry bread before my poor children for their dinner.”  These children were two sons, whose education their mother entirely undertook, until, after old Madame Reyer’s death in 1837, she succeeded to an inheritance, which lifted the little family out of the slough of poverty, and enabled her to provide her sons with good teachers.

As they grew up and engaged successfully in professional pursuits, Madame Pfeiffer, who had lost her husband in 1838, found herself once more under the spell of her old passion for travel, and in a position to gratify her adventurous inclinations.  Her means were somewhat limited, it is true, for she had done much for her husband and her children; but economy was natural to her, and she retained the simple habits she had acquired in her childhood. She was strong, healthy, courageous, and accomplished; and at length, after maturing her plans with anxious consideration, she took up her pilgrim’s staff, and sallied forth alone.

Her first object was to visit the Holy Land, and tread in the hallowed footsteps of our Lord.  For this purpose she left Vienna on the 22nd of March 1842, and embarked on board the steamer that was to convey her down the Danube to the Black Sea and the city of Constantinople.  Thence she repaired to Broussa, Beirut, Jaffa, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Nazareth, Damascus, Baalbek, the Lebanon, Alexandria, and Cairo; and travelled across the sandy Desert to the Isthmus of Suez and the Red Sea.  From Egypt the adventurous lady returned home by way of Sicily and Italy, visiting Naples, Rome, and Florence, and arriving in Vienna in December 1842.  In the following year she published the record of her experiences under the title of a “Journey of a Viennese Lady to the Holy Land.”  It met with a very favourable reception, to which the simplicity of its style and the faithfulness of its descriptions fully entitled it.

With the profits of this book to swell her funds, Madame Pfeiffer felt emboldened to undertake a new expedition; and this time she resolved on a northern pilgrimage, expecting in Ultima Thule to see nature manifested on a novel and surprising scale.  She began her journey to Iceland on the 10th of April 1845, and returned to Vienna on the 4th of October.  Her narrative of this second voyage will be found, necessarily much abridged and condensed, in the following pages.

What should she do next?  Success had increased her courage and strengthened her resolution, and she could think of nothing fit for her energies and sufficient for her curiosity but a voyage round the world!  She argued that greater privations and fatigue than she had endured in Syria and Iceland she could scarcely be called upon to encounter.  The outlay did not frighten her; for she had learned by experience how little is required, if the traveller will but practise the strictest economy and resolutely forego many comforts and all superfluities.  Her savings amounted to a sum insufficient, perhaps, for such travellers as Prince Pückler-Muskau, Chateaubriand, or Lamartine for a fortnight’s excursion; but for a woman who wanted to see much, but cared for no personal indulgence, it seemed enough to last during a journey of two or three years.  And so it proved.

The heroic woman set out alone on the 1st of May 1846, and proceeded first to Rio Janeiro.  On the 3rd of February 1847, she sailed round Cape Horn, and on the 2nd of March landed at Valparaiso.  Thence she traversed the broad Pacific to Tahiti, where she was presented to Queen Pomare.  In the beginning of July we find her at Macao; afterwards she visited Hong Kong and Canton, where the appearance of a white woman produced a remarkable and rather disagreeable sensation.  By way of Singapore she proceeded to Ceylon, which she carefully explored, making excursions to Colombo, Candy, and the famous temple of Dagoba.  Towards the end of October she landed at Madras, and thence went on to Calcutta, ascending the Ganges to the holy city of Benares, and striking across the country to Bombay.  Late in the month of April 1848 she sailed for Persia, and from Bushire traversed the interior as far as legend-haunted Bagdad.  After a pilgrimage to the ruins of Ctesiphon and Babylon, this bold lady accompanied a caravan through the dreary desert to Mosul and the vast ruins of Nineveh, and afterwards to the salt lake of Urumiyeh and the city of Tabreez.  It is certain that no woman ever accomplished a more daring exploit!  The mental as well as physical energy required was enormous; and only a strong mind and a strong frame could have endured the many hardships consequent on her undertaking—the burning heat by day, the inconveniences of every kind at night, the perils incidental to her sex, meagre fare, a filthy couch, and constant apprehension of attack by robber bands.  The English consul at Tabreez, when she introduced herself to him, found it hard to believe that a woman could have accomplished such an enterprise.

At Tabreez, Madame Pfeiffer was presented to the Viceroy, and obtained permission to visit his harem.  On August 11th, 1848, she resumed her journey, crossing Armenia, Georgia, and Mingrelia; she touched afterwards at Anapa, Kertch, and Sebastopol, landed at Odessa, and returned home by way of Constantinople, Greece, the Ionian Islands, and Trieste, arriving in Vienna on the 4th of November 1848, just after the city had been recaptured from the rebels by the troops of Prince Windischgrätz.

Ida Pfeiffer was now a woman of note.  Her name was known in every civilized country; and it was not unnatural that great celebrity should attach to a female who, alone, and without the protection of rank or official recommendation, had travelled 2800 miles by land, and 35,000 miles by sea.  Hence, her next work, “A Woman’s Journey Round the World,” was most favourably received, and translated both into French and English.  A summary of it is included in our little volume.

The brave adventurer at first, on her return home, spoke of her travelling days as over, and, at the age of fifty-four, as desirous of peace and rest.  But this tranquil frame of mind was of very brief duration.  Her love of action and thirst of novelty could not long be repressed; and as she felt herself still strong and healthy, with energies as quick and lively as ever, she resolved on a second circuit of the globe.  Her funds having been increased by a grant of 1500 florins from the Austrian Government, she left Vienna on the 18th of March 1851, proceeded to London, and thence to Cape Town, where she arrived on the 11th of August.  For a while she hesitated between a visit to the interior of Africa and a voyage to Australia; but at last she sailed to Singapore, and determined to explore the East Indian Archipelago.  At Sarawak, the British settlement in Borneo, she was warmly welcomed by Sir James Brooke, a man of heroic temper and unusual capacities for command and organization.  She adventured among the Dyaks, and journeyed westward to Pontianak, and the diamond mines of Landak.  We next meet with her in Java, and afterwards in Sumatra, where she boldly trusted herself among the cannibal Battas, who had hitherto resented the intrusion of any European.  Returning to Java, she saw almost all that it had of natural wonders or natural beauties; and then departed on a tour through the Sunda Islands and the Moluccas, visiting Banda, Amboyna, Ceram, Ternate, and Celebes.

For a second time she traversed the Pacific, but on this occasion in an opposite direction.  For two months she saw no land; but on the 27th September 1853 she arrived at San Francisco.  At the close of the year she sailed for Callao.  Thence she repaired to Lima, with the intention of crossing the Andes, and pushing eastward, through the interior of South America, to the Brazilian coast.  A revolution in Peru, however, compelled her to change her course, and she returned to Ecuador, which served as a starting-point for her ascent of the Cordilleras.  After having the good fortune to witness an eruption of Cotopaxi, she retraced her steps to the west.  In the neighbourhood of Guayaquil she had two very narrow escapes: one, by a fall from her mule; and next, by an immersion in the River Guaya, which teems with alligators.  Meeting with neither courtesy nor help from the Spanish Americans—a superstitious, ignorant, and degraded race—she gladly set sail for Panama.

At the end of May she crossed the Isthmus, and sailed to New Orleans.  Thence she ascended the Mississippi to Napoleon, and the Arkansas to Fort Smith.  After suffering from a severe attack of fever, she made her way to St. Louis, and then directed her steps northward to St. Paul, the Falls of St. Antony, Chicago, and thence to the great Lakes and “mighty Niagara.”  After an excursion into Canada, she visited New York, Boston, and other great cities, crossed the Atlantic, and arrived in England on the 21st of November 1854.  Two years later she published a narrative of her adventures, entitled “My Second Journey Round the World.”

Madame Pfeiffer’s last voyage was to Madagascar, and will be found described in the closing chapter of this little volume.  In Madagascar she contracted a dangerous illness, from which she temporarily recovered; but on her return to Europe it was evident that her constitution had received a severe blow.  She gradually grew weaker.  Her disease proved to be cancer of the liver, and the physicians pronounced it incurable.  After lingering a few weeks in much pain, she passed away on the night of the 27th of October 1858, in the sixty-third year of her age.

* * * * *

This remarkable woman is described as of short stature, thin, and slightly bent.  Her movements were deliberate and measured.  She was well-knit and of considerable physical energy, and her career proves her to have been possessed of no ordinary powers of endurance.  The reader might probably suppose that she was what is commonly known as a strong-minded woman.  The epithet would suit her if seriously applied, for she had undoubtedly a clear, strong intellect, a cool judgment, and a resolute purpose; but it would be thoroughly inapplicable in the satirical sense in which it is commonly used.  There was nothing masculine about her.  On the contrary, she was so reserved and so unassuming that it required an intimate knowledge of her to fathom the depths of her acquirements and experience.  “In her whole appearance and manner,” we are told, “was a staidness that seemed to indicate the practical housewife, with no thought soaring beyond her domestic concerns.”

This quiet, silent woman, travelled nearly 20,000 miles by land and 150,000 miles by sea; visiting regions which no European had previously penetrated, or where the bravest men had found it difficult to make their way; undergoing a variety of severe experiences; opening up numerous novel and surprising scenes; and doing all this with the scantiest means, and unassisted by powerful protection or royal patronage.  We doubt whether the entire round of human enterprise presents anything more remarkable or more admirable.  And it would be unfair to suppose that she was actuated only by a feminine curiosity.  Her leading motive was a thirst for knowledge.  At all events, if she had a passion for travelling, it must be admitted that her qualifications as a traveller were unusual.  Her observation was quick and accurate; her perseverance was indefatigable; her courage never faltered; while she possessed a peculiar talent for first awakening, and then profiting by, the interest and sympathy of those with whom she came in contact.

To assert that her travels were wholly without scientific value would be unjust; Humboldt and Carl Ritter were of a different opinion.  She made her way into regions which had never before been trodden by European foot; and the very fact of her sex was a frequent protection in her most dangerous undertakings.  She was allowed to enter many places which would have been rigorously barred against male travellers.  Consequently, her communications have the merit of embodying many new facts in geography and ethnology, and of correcting numerous popular errors.  Science derived much benefit also from her valuable collections of plants, animals, and minerals.

We conclude with the eulogium pronounced by an anonymous biographer:—“Straightforward in character, and endued with high principle, she possessed, moreover, a wisdom and a promptitude in action seldom equalled among her sex.