A BRAVE AND DARING WOMAN EXPLORER: ALEXANDRINE TINNÉ
To be in the unusual and fortunate position of inheriting early on all the wealth of a very rich older father and possessing an aristocratic mother, once lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophia of Württemberg, Dutch born Alexandrine Tinné was doubly graced by Lady Luck.
Rather than luxuriate in a life of sensuous pleasure, expensive restaurants, soirées, jewels and furs, she preferred to travel, as she had done with her merchant father when he was alive and when, as a girl, she accompanied him to Switzerland, France and Italy for his business dealings in sugar and ship building. She seemed to have been an independent individual who was educated at home and particularly liked the piano and the photography of those early times in the mid 1800’s. Being self-sufficient from a young age, her parents allowed her to travel by herself when she visited friends in France and England, showing at this stage that she was a natural linguist: she learned English and French with ease.
After her father died, when rumour has it that she became the wealthiest heiress in the Netherlands, she and her mother travelled to Scandinavia and toured extensively in Europe. In between, she spent time in the Royal Library at The Hague where they lived: here she studied archaeology, botany and geography, subjects which intensified her desire to travel and explore unknown territory.
Alexandrine and her mother then went to the Middle East, landing in Egypt, first in Alexandra and then Cairo. They stayed there for a year, during which time Alexandrine taught herself to read and write Arabic. They also hired a luxurious boat for a cruise up the Nile to various monuments, sailing as far as Aswan.
After both the cruise and Christmas in Cairo, she and her mother tried to sail up the Nile to Khartoum but were unable to go further than the second cataract. They returned to Cairo, left Egypt and enjoyed Europe for most of 1857 before returning to the Netherlands.
By now, bitten by the travel bug, she and Mama explored Europe once again for the next three years, going as far as Moscow. All the while, Alexandrine took photographs and honed her photographic skills. Both women then agreed it was time to return to Africa.
Africa lured them. Besides, Alexandrine felt free there from the restrictions of Victorian Europe, the corsets and the crinolines, the social manners and confines for women.
It took about ten months of planning before they left for Egypt in 1861, having also invited her aunt, Adriana van Capellen, to join them. The women planned to spend time in a little-known area of modern-day Sudan, so as to follow and map the White Nile and its tributaries in the west. Because of the white-water areas of the Nile, this part of the river was supposedly not navigable and had not previously been reconnoitred.
But first, Alexandrine rented a large house in Cairo, spending several months furnishing it comfortably and luxuriously, including her musical favourite, a grand piano. Some months later, accompanied by servants, pets, food supplies and any amount of luggage, she, her mother and Aunt Adriana left in three boats for Korosko, a settlement on the Nile, about 190 km south of Aswan. Here they disembarked in order to cross the Nubian desert on camels, arriving at Berber, where they waited for a few weeks for their three boats in order to sail from there to Khartoum.
News of the pending arrival of explorer John Hanning Speke via the White Nile made Alexandrine decide to sail south on the river in the hope of seeing Speke. The journey proved to be harrowing, the settlements along the Nile often sheltering slave populations, the river a mess of swamps and streams. She fell ill before finding Speke, decided to cut short the expedition and returned to Khartoum.
Not to be deterred by any setbacks, Alexandrine already started planning a second expedition, this time with professional help from German ornithologist, von Heuglin and the botanist Steudner, who was also a medical physician. She included the Dutch explorer, Baron Daniel van Arkel d’Ablaing. Heuglin had studied natural sciences and was interested in zoology. He had been to Cairo in 1850 where he, too, learned Arabic and he travelled in Ethiopia among other places, all the while collecting natural history specimens. Some years later, he met up with Hermann Steudner, detoured through Abyssinia to reach Khartoum, where the two men joined Alexandrine and her mother on their second expedition.
This exploration started out as a mammoth project, with Heuglin and Steudner leaving in advance to set up a base camp in south-Sudan. Alexandrine, her mother and Baron d’Ablaing left Khartoum with a procession of over two hundred people, including an interpreter, servants, ladies’ maids, mules, camels, horses, ammunition, provisions for ten months, crockery, cutlery, goods to trade, all accommodated in two passenger and two freight boats. Aunt Adriana decided to stay behind in Khartoum.
Having sailed south on the White Nile, they explored a large part of the Bahr-el-Ghazal
River in modern-day south-Sudan, sailing as far as the River Bahr-al-Hamr and finally on to Meshra-el-Rek in the most dire, rainy weather, through wet, filthy swamps, infested with mosquitoes. They lost equipment and supplies among hostile local tribes: as a result, Alexandrine and the Baron had to return to Khartoum for further provisions.
The German explorers had suffered badly. Steudner died of fever early on, before they reached Meshra-el-Rek and von Heuglin fell ill and could not continue with the expedition until he recovered. Fortunately, Baron d’Ablaing made a sedan chair for the sick man so that he could be carried with them.
When the two men caught up with Alexandrine, they found her in distress, having contracted the fever (probably malaria) and, moreover, having had to deal with a mutiny among the porters and soldiers of her party. It took her a month to recover, after which they travelled to Wau, where they appeared to have no choice but to stay in the protected area belonging to a slave trader named Biselli.
Alexandrine’s mother died here, a month after their arrival, followed by the death of many other members of the expedition, including Alexandrine’s ladies’ maid, Flora. After eight months of travelling, Alexandrine decided to cut things short and return to Khartoum. On the way back, they met up with the rescue team arranged by Aunt Adriana.
The return journey proved to be a nightmare of illness brought about by clouds of mosquitoes and hindrances to sailing as a result of the water plants which choked the river. The locals were uncooperative, unwilling to serve as porters and often stole their supplies.
Once at Khartoum, where Alexandrine opted to stay outside the city, she was accused of slavery by the Governor-General of Sudan since she had hired traders, local soldiers, merchants, etc. Fortunately, his seemingly illogical accusations were dropped through the intervention of von Heuglin who had a good relationship with the governor-general when he met him in his role as Austrian consul at Khartoum.
Exhausted and dispirited by the expedition’s failure, her mother’s death followed by that of Aunt Adriana a few months after their return to Khartoum, she decided to leave the city for Cairo where her half-brother, John Tinné, visited her in order to persuade her to return to the Netherlands and give up the madness of African travel.
With a great deal of courage and determination, which some may have regarded as foolhardy, Alexandrine refused to go back to the old country, though she gave John a large portion of her photographic and natural history collection, including specimens, materials and writings on the flora and fauna, geology and climate of the regions she had explored.
In order to regain her strength and peace of mind, she took an extended holiday. Retaining her base in Cairo, she sailed the Mediterranean on a yacht and eventually settled in Algiers about a year later.
There the Touareg people of the Sahara came to her attention and she decided to become the first woman to cross the Sahara from Algeria and Mali to Burkino Faso, moving in Touareg land. In her inimitable style, she first learned the Touareg language before finalising plans for an expedition, complete with sixty camels and three horses but the trip aborted after three months in which she made no progress and encountered many problems, which do not appear to be revealed in her diaries.
In 1868 she travelled to Malta and then returned to Africa and settled in Tripoli where, once again she met some German explorers, namely Gerhard Rohlfs and Gustav Nachtigal. Having learned Arabic in Morocco, Rohlfs had first-hand experience of the desert and the oasis in Morocco where he had been attacked and severely injured. When he later returned to Morocco to explore, he took the precaution of disguising himself as an Arab and became the first European to investigate Africa from Tripoli to Lake Chad and across the Sahara along the Niger River as far as modern-day Lagos. As a result, the Royal Geographical Society of London awarded him a Patron’s medal.
Gustav Nachtigal, a trained medical man and surgeon, also took part in an expedition to North Africa and learned Arabic. Having returned to Germany, he was approached by Rohlfs to go to the Bornu Empire (the present-day north-east Nigeria), during which time he travelled in central Sahara. Eventually, after a five-year period of previously unknown regions of African exploration, he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Gold Medal in 1882. That was thirteen years after Alexandrine’s tragic third expedition in 1869.
Rohlfs warned Alexandrine of the dangers of crossing the Sahara, both physical and as a result of hostile tribes who could potentially rob her. Unfortunately, he could not accompany her since he already had orders from the king of Prussia to join an expedition in Abyssinia. In spite of these warnings, she decided to go ahead with a large and costly caravan of fifty people including two Dutch sailors for protection, seventy camels, much luggage and some large drums of water.
They left Tripoli in January 1869, travelling slowly with such an unwieldy caravan to Marzug in southern Libya where she fell ill. It took almost six months for her to recover sufficiently to proceed. At this point, she hired a Touareg chief as guide across the desert but he wanted to delay the departure. Meanwhile a band of eight Touaregs arrived on the pretext that they had been sent by the chief. They followed the caravan to the next oasis where Alexandrine was forced to rest once more and recover from her illness.
At this point, the Touaregs attacked the caravan. They fought with the camel drivers, killed the Dutch sailors and slaughtered Alexandrine who came out of her tent to intervene in the fighting. They left her mutilated but alive in the sun to die which, according to the Arab witnesses, took seven hours.
Some of the caravan of camel drivers and servants saw the Touaregs ransacking their luggage, emptying the tanks of water, apparently looking for money and jewels, though nothing was found. Most of the servants were then released by the attackers.
About seven weeks later, news of Alexandrine’s death reached Tripoli. At this point, the Turkish governor sent an expedition to track down the perpetrators, some of whom were caught and put on trial. Her body was never found.
In spite of her bravado and conviction that she preferred an interesting life, there is no doubt she did not anticipate her long, agonising and tragic death. Moreover, unlike the male explorers such as von Heuglin, Steudner, Rohlfs and Nachtigal, she was never formally acknowledged or honoured for her work. She received no recognition, no accolades. Von Heuglin, for instance, who was primarily an ornithologist, had various birds named after him as well as the northwest point on an island in the Svalbard Archipelago, which was called Cape Heuglin.
Steudner had a plant genus and a dwarf gecko named after him and a monument erected in his honour in his home town of Görlitz.
Rohlfs was awarded the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London and Nachtigal received the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Gold Medal, after which, the Berlin Geographical Society presented a Gustav Nachtigal Medal in his honour.
It is some small consolation that at the time of her death at a young thirty-three years of age, Alexandrine Tinné had accumulated a great deal of information about unknown parts of Africa, including the Senna River, a tributary of the White Nile, as well as collecting specimens and taking photographs of Central African flora and fauna, unknown in Europe. Among her collections were articles of tribal clothing and household utensils, stuffed birds, antelope and rhino horns and weapons. She also recorded facts and customs of unknown tribes in south-Sudan. Her diaries and letters to relatives provided much information about her travels.
Fortunately, her half-brother, John Tinné, assisted in ensuring that her collections of specimens and all other items were displayed in various museums, herbariums, archives and libraries. The ethnographic collection he received from her of the Bahr-el-Ghazal region was housed in the collection archives of the World Museum in Liverpool, England. Botanical specimens were displayed in the Imperial Herbarium in Vienna and published by John Tinné in 1867 in a book under the title Plantes Tinnéennes, as an acknowledgment at least from a family member of her work.
There are also papers, photographs and artefacts housed by the family in the Royal Archives and the library of her home town, The Hague, as well as in the Tinné Family Archives in England.
Her story and her achievements belong with the heroic pioneer explorers of the Victorian Age.
Leave a ReplyWant to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!