May French Sheldon

Born 1850

Name ID 1250

See also

Russell, Mary The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and their World
Page Number: 197
Extract Date: 1891

Do be reasonable

'Do be reasonable,' someone said to 41-year-old American May French Sheldon at Charing Cross Station as she was about to set off for Africa in 1891. 'Do be reasonable, and abandon this mad, useless scheme'

She didn't, of course. Instead, climbing down through dense forest to the edge of Lake Chala, a volcanic crater on the side of Mount Kilimanjaro, she punted her way round its previously unexplored waters:

"I found myself attempting to penetrate through a girdle of primeval forest trees, tossed, as it were, by some volcanic action against the rock base, and seemingly as impenetrable as any stockade. With bill-hooks and knives [the bearers] cleared a slight opening through which I managed to squeeze, on emerging to find myself standing on a boulder which was balanced upon another boulder, and every moment's tarriance seemed to imperil my equilibrium; and as I dared to venture on uncertain surfaces which presented a footing, it required cat-like agility to crawl or slide down, sometimes landing in a bed of leaves, which must have been the accumulation of centuries and into which I sank up to my armpits, and had to be hauled out by main force by my men . . ."

Had she listened to Reason, she wouldn't have found herself sinking waist-deep into mud, her long, full skirts heavy with evil-smelling sludge, but then nor would she have been able to wonder at 'the strange whirring of birds . . . the whisking myriad of monkeys . . . the hooting of white-hooded owls . . . the eagle whose feathers scattered like storm-flawn flowers from its beating wings'.

Extract ID: 3321

See also

Russell, Mary The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and their World
Page Number: 214
Extract Date: 1891

to study the native habits and customs

When, in 1891, the American May French Sheldon set out on her remarkable journey to Africa she disclaimed any scientific knowledge and said she was going 'simply to study the native habits and customs free from the influence of civilization'. This, however, was not good enough. The Spectator noted that since the journey had no scientific end it was motivated by a 'merely feminine curiosity . . . hardly a useful and laudable one'. Poor May! Even when she revealed that she had disciplined her recalcitrant porters by whipping them, the editor was unbelieving. Surely she wasn't strong enough to have punished the porters herself, personally? It was Catch 22. To have whipped the men herself would have been spirited but, regrettably, unladylike.

A book review in the same issue gives us an idea of the ideal woman. The heroine was '. . . graceful . . . pretty. . . sweet. . . and wholesome' and unlikely to have gone round whipping men, even if they were servants. There was also the fact that May was American and probably one of these New Women, for had she not left her husband in Naples while she went off on her own, jaunting through Africa?

'The horror,' continued the Spectator, 'is that the Lady Errant is not unlikely to encourage still further the feminine spirit of unrest and the uneasy jealousy that is forever driving the fair sex into proving itself the equal of the other. Isabella Bird Bishop has already shown what a woman is capable of in the way of pluck and courage.' Isabella by then was protected by the sober cloak of widowhood, was engaged in setting up a hospital in Srinagar and, best of all, was British.

But we should stay with May a little longer to learn what exactly the results of this 'feminine curiosity' were. Entertained by the Sultan of Zanzibar, she learned that his great regret was to have only three daughters and no sons. And he, in turn, discovering that she had no children, found it hard to believe that her husband did not have a few other wives hidden away who would provide him with the necessary family.

When travelling among the Maasai, she carefully noted the current market prices - five large beads for a wife but ten for a cow. In a playful moment, she showed a local chief how to cut a segment of orange peel into a set of teeth. Delighted, he withdrew and returned, bloody but smiling, to present her with one of his own teeth, just extracted, with a hole already bored through it so that she could string it round her neck.

May French Sheldon was a flamboyant dresser, suiting her garments to the occasion, for clothes are an important ingredient in the woman traveller's make-up, serving the dual purpose of helping her maintain her identity while at the same time giving out a clear message to those she meets along the way.

Extract ID: 3322

See also

Russell, Mary The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and their World
Page Number: 216
Extract Date: 1891

BeBe Bwana

May French Sheldon, though not of the stuff of empire-builders, nevertheless had her position as a lady to consider. In her baggage she included clothes which she felt would be sufficiently regal to wear when visiting local chiefs, including a sparkling ball gown and blond wig. A contemporary picture shows her dressed to pay a courtesy visit looking like an Edwardian Lady Maebeth, her waist-length hair crowned with jewels and a ceremonial sword hanging round her curving hips. One chief was so taken with this apparition that he asked - and received - permission to stroke her thick, blond locks.

Clothes therefore consolidated the authority of these middleclass women who travelled far from home, where social changes were taking place of which they could not wholly approve. Maintaining the old standards of dress was both a comfort and a confirmation that some things, at least, need not alter.

Despite the fact that they were very obviously ladies of social standing (Mary French Sheldon was in the habit of sending an advance party to announce that she was a 'great white queen of limitless power come to make friends . . . and bringing many beautiful tokens of peace'), the two were often addressed as if they were men, Mary Kingsley being known as Sir and May as BeBe Bwana - Woman Master. That Africans were uncertain about the sex of these strong-minded women is hardly surprising when one considers that a similar if more complicated confusion exists in the minds of some women travellers themselves.

Extract ID: 3323

See also

Russell, Mary The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and their World
Page Number: 218
Extract Date: 1891

A wild riotous performance by utterly nude fellows

We have seen how women, by virtue of their sex, were able to visit harems and report back to their eager but frustrated menfolk. While May French Sheldon was travelling towards Lake Chala, she entered a village where male rites, forbidden to women, were taking place. To her amazement, during the night she was approached by a senior woman of the village, wife of one of the elders, who took her under cover of darkness to a spot where she could witness '. . . a wild riotous performance by utterly nude fellows'. The sisterhood had extended its hand to the foreigner.

Extract ID: 3324

external link

See also

nTZ Feedback
Extract Author: Pilar Tejera
Page Number: 2008 10 16
Extract Date: 16-Oct-2008


Dear Friends: I am pleased to send you the link to the website 'GREAT WOMEN TRAVELLERS OF THE 19TH CENTURY' ( , written entirely in Spanish, acknowledging your cooperation in its circulation, and in which can be found, a reference to your website : MAY SHELDOM page- (AFRICA)

Kind regards and congratulations on your splendid work.

Pilar Tejera

Extract ID: 5849