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Rebel with a cause - Three pioneering female travellers

8 March 2019

Ferdinand Magellan, Captain James Cook, Marco Polo, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

What do they all have in common? Of course, we all know they're famous explorers and we have a lot to thank them for, potatoes for one thing. They're also all men. This has left generations of schoolchildren thinking that only those in procession of a Y chromosome have what it takes to trek around the world in search of adventure and new discoveries. But we're here to teach you different! In honour of International Women's Day, we're celebrating the most under-celebrated female pioneers, those who blazed a trail long before the time of the Equal Pay Act, #MeToo, and the Representation of the People Act 1928 which allowed women to vote on the same terms as men for the first time in over 600 years.


1)      Lady Hester Stanhope (1776 - 1839)

She may not have led the most inclusive of lives, but as an heiress Lady Hester certainly knew how she wanted to blow her inheritance (left to her by her uncle who was none other than former Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger). In what could be considered a modern-day gap year, she headed firstly for Athens where, legend has it, Lord Byron himself swam out to greet her ship as it approached the Greek islands. But his romantic charm and dashing good looks didn't impress Ms. Stanhope, oh no. Instead she made her way to Egypt but made slow progress due to her vessel being shipwrecked off the coast of Rhodes. Like any sensible woman she didn't grieve for too long over her lost processions, instead kitting herself out with a brand-new Turkish-inspired wardrobe, all cut to a man's style of course, before heading to the Middle East fighting bandits as she went and setting up a tête-à-tête with African royalty.


2)      Ching Shih (1775-1844)

This is a tale of rags to riches, or more accurately, from prostitution to piracy. Ching Shih first appears in historical records in 1801, 26 years after her birth, when she married notorious pirate captain Cheng I (who had a penchant for women of the night). Cheng was already an established buccaneer but behind every great man is a great woman, as they say, and within a few years of their marriage, Ching Shih had ramped up operations of the Red Flag Fleet (pirate captain Cheng's merry band of marauders) to the point that when Cheng was killed by a Tsunami in 1807, his men unanimously decided that his boots should be filled by his widow - after she married the first mate for decency's sake. To really assert her authority, as many women in positions of power often have to do, she created a pretty strict code of conduct; 'If you stole from the pirate treasury, or she thought you were stealing from the pirate treasury, Ching would chop your head off with a battle axe and dump your lifeless body in the ocean. Raping any captured female prisoners was punishable by death, and if you had consensual sex while on duty you got your head chopped off while your bed buddy would be strapped to a couple of cannonballs and chucked off the side of the boat'.

Over the next few years, Ching Shih would do battle with a renegade group of mutinous pirates and face both Dutch and British warships. None of them were successful in defeating her. In 1810, after sailing the high seas throughout Asia, Ching did something no pirate had even thought of before and began preparing for her retirement. Later that year she successfully negotiated an offer of amnesty from the Chinese government, allowing her and her force of seventeen thousand men to sail their two hundred ships into port for the last time. They were permitted to keep their plunder and live out the remainder of their days in the Chinese countryside while Ching lived to the ripe old age of 69, returning to her roots by running a brothel.

3)      Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Nellie Bly (real name Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) was an absolute pioneer and yet you won't find her on any school curriculum. On the 25th January 1890, she stepped off the train at New York's Grand Central Station (which was only 19 years old at the time) a true trendsetter. Nellie had just become the first person - not woman - to circumnavigate the globe in just 72 days. As a journalist, Nellie was always looking for her next 'hook', and after reading Jules Verne's adventures about Phileas Fogg, and his 80-day, worldwide journey, she was pretty sure she had the idea for her next investigative piece. She approached her editor with the pitch; he, however, replied that he loved it but of course they'd need to send a man. So, what did ballsy Ms Bly do? She threatened to take her unique concept to a rival newspaper, quickly changing her editor's mind. She departed just two days later, taking only a small bag travelling bag with her (highly impressive during an age of bustles and corsets), which accompanied her throughout her time in England, France (where she met up with Jules Verne in Amiens), Italy, the Suez Canal, Colombo, Ceylon, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, before arriving back in America a record-breaking 72 days later.


This is far from an exhaustive list either. For further reading, give Jeanne Baret, Isabella Bird, Annie Smith Peck, Mary Kingsley, Gertrude Bell, Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, Harriet Chalmers Adams a Google, we promise you'll be surprised, impressed and motivated!