If you’re in your mid-40s and feel it’s too late to follow your dreams of hardcore, on-a-shoestring international travel for months on end, well, let us introduce you to Ida Pfeiffer, your new mentor, teacher, and guide. Pfeiffer was one of the most widely traveled and adventuresome people of the 19th century, possibly the most well-traveled woman on the planet before the turn of the 20th. She was not wealthy. She was not connected. She was not educated. She did not begin her travels until she turned 45. Pfeiffer, though, was tough, open-minded, resilient, and above all, curious and charmed by the world. Those are the sorts of qualities that serve all travelers well, especially a woman traveling alone through a world and a time in which when women didn’t travel very much at all. She endured decades of mundane, hard life, and once she hit her 40s, decided, to hell with it, I’m seeing the damn world. By the time her travels were over, she’d covered more than 150,000 miles by sea, more than 20,000 by land, had been around the world twice, befriended Bedouins and cannibals, and received medals of recognition from kings. Not at all bad for a middle-aged mom.
When her mother demanded she learn to play piano, Ida burned and maimed her own fingertips to get out of it
Pfeiffer was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1797. Her father was strict man, though, whether his intention or not, his austerity prepped his daughter for the unusual life she’d end up leading. He denied his children—Pfeiffer had five brothers—pretty much every material comfort, including an adequate diet, to toughen them, and “steel them for disappointment.” The one eccentricity he allowed was his daughter’s insistence that she dress and act like a boy. “I was not shy,” she wrote in her biography, “but wild as a boy, and bolder and more forward than my elder brothers.”
Her father died when Pfeiffer was nine years old, and her mother set about trying to turn her tomboy into a princess, buying her dresses and dolls, and cultivating a sensitivity Ida wanted zilch to do with. When her mother demanded she learn to play piano, Ida burned and maimed her own fingertips to get out of it.
That rebellious streak was curbed after Pfeiffer was arranged to be married to a much older widower.
Pfeiffer and her husband had two sons which she spent 20 years raising, sometimes in relative comfort, but more often in poverty when employment was difficult to come by. Once the boys were raised, her husband died, and suddenly, Pfeiffer was that rebellious little girl again, free to be and do whatever she liked. She’d saved money while working as a tutor, had a pittance of an inheritance from her mother who’d passed away, and an itch to move. She also had learned to steel herself for disappointment (thanks, dad) and was prepared to crawl over broken glass if she had to, in order to travel the world.
Pfeiffer spun the globe and landed on Jerusalem. At 45 years old, she told her family she was heading for Constantinople (a lie, though it was a safer, less exotic destination), boarded a boat on the Danube, and set off. She returned 9 months later, after indeed having passed through Constantinople on her return trip from Jerusalem, though only after wandering much of the Middle East. Pfeiffer wrote admiringly of the Turks and Bedouins she met, for their hospitality and willingness to make an outsider feel comfortable, which, she pointed out, was not exactly how Europeans treated foreigners. She also wrote of being dismayed by the rudeness and arrogance of European travelers she met on her journey, as she turned herself into something of a roving cultural anthropologist.
She kept a meticulous travel diary, which, at the time, was meant only for her, but she was convinced by friends in Austria that the reading world would fall in love with a travelogue from a woman traveling alone through foreign lands. They were right, and Pfeiffer’s published diary became a hit.
She next taught herself English and Danish, then embarked for Scandinavia. Pfeiffer collected unusual specimens of plant and animal life, sold them when back home in Austria for some extra traveling coin, and also found the time to write a book which further funded more and more travel.
Next stop: sailing around the world.
Pfeiffer headed for Brazil on a sailing ship, and then bounced around the globe for the next two years. She dined with Queen Pomare IV of Tahiti, went deep into the bush with tiger hunters in India, and rode camels through Iran, turning 50 on the journey, and not remotely slowing down, often leaving guides gasping for air in her wake as she strode through steaming jungles and freezing mountains.
Another book, and a few years later, Pfeiffer was off again, this time to even further removed an exotic lands. Her second around the world journey was capped off by being entertained by the Batak in Indonesia, a tribe known for practicing cannibalism, feared by Westerners who knew of them. But not Pfeiffer. By this time, she was convinced horror stories she’d read about foreign people were often embellished by xenophobic Europeans. The Batak were charmed by her, despite the impassable language barrier, and Pfeiffer’s notes during her time there were immensely useful for later anthropologists. She even dutifully recorded the recipes of the Batak, including human flesh.
Though Pfeiffer would occasionally pass surface level judgment when describing the strange cultures she found on her journeys (she called Arabs lazy, mocked how the people of Borneo walked, and described the Iranian women she met as uneducated and ignorant), she then would turn around and note that Europeans were no different, really, then some of the warring Indigenous tribes she met that, for example, mounted their enemies’ heads on spikes. “[Are we not] really just as bad or worse than these despised savages?” she wrote. “Is not every page of our history filled with horrid deeds of treachery and murder?”
At 61, Pfeiffer decided to visit Madagascar, which brought an end to her travels and her life. She became mixed up with a group of Europeans who plotted against the ruler of the island, a woman named Ranavalona. Pfeiffer was considered a criminal, and was marched through malarial marshes. She returned to Austria very ill, and passed away from disease two years later.
She died one of the most famous and celebrated travelers of her day, a decidedly non-wealthy counterpart to genteel lady trekkers in her time like Lady Hester Stanhope (another Historical Badass), who had endless piles of cash to support whatever flights of fancy they, well, fancied. Her travelogues were eagerly devoured by bored and astonished Europeans, amazed not only by a single woman of her age traveling, but how she wrote about it. Pfeiffer carefully recorded not just what she saw in a place, but how she felt there, her own physiological response to a strange environment, adding to the vicarious thrills of the sofa bound travelers reading her work by candlelight in their Vienna apartments.
Evident too, was her joy at visiting so much of the world.
Friedrich Hassaurek, U.S. Minister to Ecuador, wrote of his time spent with Pfeiffer in the Andes, specifically of their time crossing the South American continental divide.
“Here, too, is the dividing line of the waters; and Ida Pfeiffer, following the example of Baron von Tschudi on Pasco de Cerro, ‘climbed down the western side of the mountain till she came to water, drank a little, and poured the rest into a stream that fell down on the eastern side, and then reversing the operation, carried some thence to the western, amusing herself with the thought of having sent to the Atlantic some of the water that was destined to flow into the Pacific, and vice versa.'”
The King of Prussia awarded her an arts and sciences medal for her work in collecting specimens and describing foreign cultures. Alexander Von Humboldt praised her courage and her keen eye. Thoreau even included mention of Pfeiffer in Walden, as did Darwin in his book, Descent of Man.
Not bad for a tomboy told to steel herself for a lifetime of disappointment.
Wanderlust: The Amazing Ida Pfeiffer, the First Female Tourist, by John van Whye, was published last year.
Words by Justin Housman