Alexine Tinne – Intrepid Adventurer or Spoiled Tourist?

Alexandrine Tinne By Robert Jefferson Bingham (RKDimages, Art-work number 157161.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alexandrina Petronella Francine Tinne in this image gives us a hint of her strong will. They say our character flaws are our strengths in excess. This was certainly true of Alexine, whose strong will may have been the cause of her downfall. Her various biographers differ on whether she was a true adventurer or just a wealthy woman traveling for pleasure. In this article, we’ll look at both sides of the controversy and how she met her fate.

Alexine was the only daughter of Henriette Tinne, part of the Belgian court and the second wife of an extremely wealthy man in Belgium. Born in 1835, Alexine was certainly spoiled. She had the run of her father’s library containing many geographies and travel books, and she got the travel bug. After her father’s death when she was 9 years old, Alexine and her mother traveled – a lot.

And they traveled in style. A typical trip included “mountains of luggage” and servants. Neither of these ladies was willing to give up any comfort to travel. By the time Alexine was 19, they had turned their eyes on Egypt and the Nile River.

Travels in Egypt and on the Nile

On their first trip to Egypt, they rode camels, with Henrietta (in her 60s) on a chair carried by two mules. They stayed with the Viceroy, put on plays, went to a society wedding, and met important people. Not much adventure here.

Dahabiyeh 1800s By Charles E. Wilbour (Brooklyn Museum) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Always looking for more worlds to conquer, Alexine set her heart on another trip down the Nile. She had met some explorers (Speke and Grant) who thought they had found the source of the Nile, and she wanted to find it too. So she and her mother set off up the Nile, with the hope of getting to Lake Victoria.

On her third – and last – voyage down the Nile in 1863, she overspent on everything because of her trusting nature and the rogues she had to deal with and also because she had to take EVERYTHING. She knew little about the country she was going to travel through, so she didn’t take much that she needed (like enough food and goods to barter with).

Just to give you an idea of the scope of the expedition, she and her mother each had a boat, there were 10 months worth of provisions, 200 people, including 65 soldiers, 4 camels, 30 donkeys, and 12,000 cowry shells for bartering. The first captain they hired put a hole one boat in Khartoum because he didn’t want to go on the White Nile.

As you can see, Alexine was determined that she and her mother would go in comfort. They rode on sedan chairs or on their boats, never walking. They also had personal maids and pets with them. They didn’t get up early, taking their time in the morning, so they would only travel in the afternoon when the sun was hottest.

On the White Nile in an area called the Suud, they were in the rainy season, and were plagued by mosquitos, dysentery, and scurvy. Alexine had to deal with stubborn porters, at one point having to threaten them at gunpoint. Shortly after that, she was stricken with fever and had to be carried on a stretcher.

I could go on and on about the terrible conditions, but I’ll cut to the end. Harriet and her maid died. Alexine finally gave up after that and struggled to get back to Khartoum (bringing the caskets back with her).

After the Nile – and Her Death

After the disastrous end to her last trip, Alexine retreated to Cairo, where she lived for several years, alone with her grief. But then she began making new plans. She had no intention of returning to Belgium, where nothing and no one waited for her except the condemnation of society.

Public Doman from Wikicommons

She traveled “alone” in the Sahara in 1869(with a large retinue, of course), planning to travel from Tripoli to Timbuktu. Still naive, she traveled with the Tuareg tribe of nomads (and no European protector).

On August 1, she was killed when her camp was raided. There are differing accounts of the motive, and her body was never found. She was immediately hailed as a heroine and called “the first white woman to attempt to cross the Sahara.”

Differing Opinions on Alexine

Other explorers at the time had mixed reviews of her. Samuel Baker said, “…They must be demented! A young lady alone with the Dinka tribe…they must be mad!” (Of course, Baker was angry that they had taken the only steamer on the river.)

Dr. David Livingstone, famous explorer, wrote a positive review of Alexine saying that no African explorer was higher than she because she faced “the severest domestic affliction” and “nobly persevered in the teeth of every difficulty.” His estimation was influential and it affected Europe’s views of Alexine as a great explorer.

In 1907 William Wells wrote a short biography of her for Sunday School children, saying that her journeys were “done solely out of love to the cause….of exploring Africa and carrying intelligence to the poor [natives], and doing what lay in her power to abolish …the infernal slave-trade.” Of course, Alexine was appalled at the slave trade and she did her best to free some slaves to set them free, but he exaggerates. In addition, he says that she “seemed to have no love for fashionable and courtly society.” Really!?

More recent work gives us another view. Robert Joost Willink, the author of The Fateful Journey, spares no sympathy for her, saying that their journey was “far from successful.” He says they had no idea what faced them, especially in the Sudd,, their trips were terribly planned – they brought all the wrong things and nothing of the right ones. She was demanding, stingy to von Heuglin (a scientist going with them), making him pay his own way. Willink said she was “no intrepid traveler.” She drifted along on the tide, and she seemed to “be propelled by events that were beyond her control.”

Thoughts on Alexine

Alexine Tinne was brought up in a certain way, with specific expectations of how life was going to be. You know the type – nothing bad ever happened to her and she thought she could snap her fingers and everyone and everything would bend to her will. And then she came upon Africa and the Nile. The culture and climate were completely different from anything she had ever experienced. Running over everyone and making the world comply with her demands just wasn’t going to work anymore.

Her naivety and dominating personality caused her to take on an impossible adventure and to travel the way she had always done, not realizing she was up against an even more dominating place. The overwhelming heat, the disease, the natives, the animals, the Sudd, all combined to conquer her. Her mother joined her willingly, and Henrietta was the one who dismissed the warnings of John Speke, but the maids had no choice. Did Alexine cause the death of these women? I believe so, but do believe it was impossible for her to turn away. Joost says that “the traumatic impact of the journey would bring a radical change in her experience of travel.”

In her last journey, Alexine shows some maturity and bravery. By going into the Sahara on her own, she was just beginning to become a true adventurer and to become truly brave. But she was also foolhardy. Old beliefs die hard; she never really grasped how vulnerable she was. I was sad to read of her death. I believe she could have gone on for many more years, adventuring through the Sahara and who knows where else. But we’ll never know…



Travels with Alexine, by Penelope Gladstone, an even-handed biography.

The Fatal Journey,  by Robert Joost Willink, focuses on the final voyage and takes a negative view of Alexine, portraying her as dominating, thoughtless, spoiled. It does include some nice images of artifacts Alexine and von Heuglin brought back.


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