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.


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.


Isabella Bird – Rocky Mountain Adventurer Falls in Love

Isabella Bird. Public Domain. On Wikicommons.

Isabella Bird Bishop was feminine, dressed in women’s clothes and rode side saddle (only in town). She also was an experienced traveler who wasn’t afraid of anything or anyplace. Miss Bird, as many called her, was a world traveler, but I have been especially interested in her travels in the Rockies in the 1870s, in part because it was here that she met her “dearest desperado,” who was the love of her life.

Isabella is probably the best-known woman adventurer, next to Gertrude Bell. I talk to people about the Women Adventurers series, they will often mention her. This article focuses on her trip to the Rockies in 1873, with a focus on her travels in the mountains and her relationship with Jim Nugent.

Isabella’s Early Life

Isabella Bird was born in Yorkshire, England, on October 15, 1891. Her father was a clergyman who had trouble keeping a position, so they moved often. From childhood, she was frail, with spinal issues, nervous headaches, and insomnia. Because of her illnesses, she was taught at home. A fibrous tumor was removed from her spine, but she still continued to have problems, and the family spent summers in Scotland to see if it would improve her health.

She was an outspoken child, bright, curious, and a great reader. Her father taught her botany and she enjoyed looking for specimens on her travels.

Isabelle’s first trip was a family trip to the U.S. in 1854, and her letters back home were the basis for her first book, An Englishwoman in America (1856). The book was well received and she was on her way to becoming a celebrity.

Off to the Rockies

In 1872 Isabella started a long journey. She found that travel invigorated her; she wasn’t prone to seasickness and she enjoyed much better health when she was traveling.

Fall River @ Estes Park. Ewing Galloway [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This trip began in Australia (which she disliked) and New Zealand (she liked it), and then she went to the U.S, with the aim of seeing the Rocky Mountains.

On her way to Estes Park, she stayed with two couples, and her time with them reveals the types of people who were living in Colorado in the 1870s. The first couple, the Chalmers family from Illinois, were “in all ways hard.” In A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella described their faces “like granite,” their meanness, suspicion and ill humor.

They were also “simply incompetent.” When Mr. Chalmers offered to lead her to Estes Park, she had clear evidence of this: On the way, their horses took off because he forgot to tether them. And he lost his way and couldn’t find the trail; he even forgot the way home! Isabella, of course, took charge.

She also stayed with the Hutchinsons, a “more agreeable” young doctor and his wife. They were from Britain and not used to the ways of rough citizens of Colorado. The settlers “shamelessly” cheated them and they had no farming or domestic skills. Isabella again took charge.

Isabella was at her best and healthiest when traveling, and she was “enchanted” with the mountains, with the brisk air and beautiful scenery.

Isabelle and Jim Nugent

Mountain man. Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
When Isabelle reached Estes Park in 1873, she saw a “rude black log cabin” with a dog out front and “a broad thickset man, about middle height. He wore an old cap, a ragged hunting-suit, and mocassins on his feet. He had only one eye and “‘Desperado’ was written in large letters all over him.” * He actually kicked the dog as he raised his cap. This was Jim Nugent, “Rocky Mountain Jim, AKA “The Mountainous One” “because of the extraordinary altitude of his lies.”

But she was shocked when he began to speak, because, she said, his manner was that of a chivalrous gentleman, “easy and elegant” and cultured. “I hope you will allow me the pleasure of calling on you,” he said to her.

I wasn’t surprised to hear he was Irish, born in Canada; this was a complex man. He had run away from home because he couldn’t marry his first love. He had been a fur trapper and Indian scout (he was about 45) and he did trapping and guiding and stock raising to get money to spend on “orgies of drunkenness and ruffianism.” But he also wrote poetry and was vain about his reputation. He was gentle and children adored him.

He offered to guide her through Estes Park and a spark was quickly lit in their relationship as they traveled and talked. She said Jim was “cultured, erudite, delightful.”

Long’s Peak from Mont Alto CO, Library of Congress[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The description of their attempt to climb Long’s Peak (14,700 ft) was comical. Picture Isabelle, who described herself as  a “short, plump, devout, high-minded English spinster of over forty…” (she was 45) in cumbersome Victorian dress and petticoats. She wanted to prove her bravery and courage by climbing the mountain, but her physical state wasn’t up to the challenge. She had to be “half-dragged” by Jim to the summit, as he tied her to himself and basically climbed with her on his shoulders. At times she crawled on her hands and feet.

Continental Divide / Bureau of Land Management [CC BY 2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Toward the summit, the last 500 feet was a “perpendicular crawl up a smooth cracked face of pink granite.”

After this adventure, she stayed in a cabin (not the same one where Jim was) and enjoyed his company and that of his friends. She knew she was falling in love with him and didn’t know what to do. So she went on a trip to Denver and Colorado Springs and was able to find her way to the Continental Divide.

She was running out of money and came back to the cabin, where their relationship became more and more complex and “emotionally charged.” She knew, she said, that

“He is a man whom any woman might love but whom no sane woman would marry.”

Although she doesn’t come right out and say it, it appears that he declared his love for her and asked her to marry him. Finally, after a good deal of soul-searching, she wrote to him saying “there can be nothing but constraint between us…It is my wish that our acquaintance should at once terminate. Yours truly, ILB.”

Pat Barr, who recounts this story in A Curious Life for a Lady, suggests that Isabella had a strong sense of self-preservation and her Victorian upbringing wouldn’t let her tie herself permanently to the man she called her “dear ragamuffin desperado.”

She left Colorado to avoid being stuck there all winter. She found out about a year later that he had been killed in a fight.

Somebody should do a movie about this adventure. It reminds me of The African Queen, with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, only their story ended more happily. Just for fun sometime, try the original of The African Queen, the book by C.S. Forrester.

Isabella had more adventures in many countries and she did marry a Scottish gentleman who hated traveling. I’ll be writing more about her story in a future article.

* The quotes from this article are by Isabella, quoted in Patt Barr, A Curious Life for a Lady.


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.