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Ida Pfeiffer’s dad probably didn’t intend for his despotic parentage to lead his daughter to hang out with Indonesian cannibals. But it did. It just took a while.
The seeds for Ida Pfeiffer’s late-life globetrotting exploits — which were so infamous as to earn her a cameo in Thoreau’s Walden — lay in her childhood. Although her father was fine with her dressing as a boy and playing as a soldier1, his permissiveness ended there. He was noted for randomly refusing even the most benign requests his children made, to “steel them for disappointment.” Her posthumous biography tiptoes around this bizarre parenting style in the most hilariously euphemistic way, describing it as “eccentric,” and saying it “would hardly find a defender at a time like the present” — said “present” being Austria in 1861, not exactly famous as history’s most liberal child-rearing paradise.
While her dad provided physical discomfort, her mom covered emotional anguish. Although Ida hated all things girly — she’d cut and burn her own fingers to prevent having to play piano — she gave that all up for a chance to marry her tutor. She fell deeply for him, began wearing skirts and practicing embroidery, everything she thought would make her a fine lady. Her mother already thought of the tutor as a son, and had him stay with them frequently. Truly, there could be no better match. Which is why her mother refused to let them marry, tossed the tutor out of the house, and set Ida up with a random lawyer2. Steel yourself for disappointment!
At 12, she told a French soldier staying in her house that she’d happily murder Napoleon in an instant.
From there, nothing much happened in her life for around 20 years3. She had kids who grew up and left the house, her mom died, and eventually so did her husband. And suddenly, she was 45, and had nothing holding her back any more. It was time to go buck wild. She was gonna travel, and she was gonna do it alone.
On the Road
The first problem she ran into was that she had no money. Her late husband’s financial woes had sunk her funds to where she could just barely make ends meet at home – let alone travel. While other women had gone on big travels, notably Hester Stanhope, they’d all been wealthy as hell. But here Ida’s lifetime of disappointment-training kicked in: she could sleep on a bed of nails, on fire, with a snake biting her all night. and she’d be fine. This gave her options. Not great options, but options.
The second problem was the social stigma around traveling, which she circumvented through flagrantly lying to everyone around her. She said she was just going on a little religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem4, but took, shall we say, the scenic route — through most of the Middle East, and on through Constantinople5. She was gone for 9 months.
Soon after she got back, she recouped most of her costs by publishing her travel diary, although she had to be coerced into it — it was “repugnant to her modesty.” Still, the anonymously-credited journal was a smash hit, owing in no small part to her blunt honesty (more on that later), and it was reprinted four times. It financed a 6 month trip to Scandinavia (for which she learned English and Danish), and planted the seeds of her first round the world trip.
Again, she told her children she was just stepping out for tea — in Brazil. This time she was gone for 2 and a half years, during which time she was attacked by highwaymen at knifepoint, met the rebel queen Pomare IV of Tahiti6, went on tiger hunts in India, and went on dangerously exhaustive desert journeys through the Fertile Crescent on camel. When she showed up at Tebris, the English consul didn’t believe a woman could have done it. She celebrated her 50th birthday like this.
And then she did it again! After laying low for 3 years (and writing a bestselling travelogue), she went on another around-the-world trip, this one even more dangerous. It’s on this 4-year-sojourn that she met the headhunting Dayak people of Borneo, and cannibalistic Batak people of Indonesia — whom she joked with, saying she was too old and tough to make good eating.
An Open Mind
The most astonishing thing about Ida Pfeiffer was her open-mindedness. While European travelogues of the time were awash with pearl-clutching descriptions of brutal savagery, Pfeiffer didn’t buy into it. Her first visit to the middle east praised the oft-maligned Turks for their social responsibility and tolerance of other religions, while snarking at European travelers for being gossipy, loud, and rude7. She praised the Bedouins for being hospitable and welcoming while everyone decried them as thieves and murderers.
She joked with the cannibals, saying she was too old and tough to make good eating.
Which isn’t to say she was a scion of enlightened social wisdom — she was absolutely a mixed bag. She referred to men as the “superior” sex and called Arabs lazy for not having terraformed Jerusalem into a flowering paradise. She called harem women ignorant and uneducated, but said they were probably happier than European women. Upon seeing the decapitated heads displayed by the Dayak, she described them sympathetically as trophies of bygone years — much like “the tattered flags that we hang up in our public buildings are to us.” She then went on to call the Dayak stupid and ugly, and say that they had a weird way of walking. But then asked herself, aren’t Europeans “not really just as bad or worse than these despised savages? Is not every page of our history filled with horrid deeds of treachery and murder?”
So hey, she was trying! It was pretty revolutionary for the time.
And she only got more open minded as years went on. By the time she met the cannibalistic Batak, whom she’d been repeatedly warned would try to kill and eat her, she was so firm in her belief that they couldn’t be as bad as people say that she became the first European to meet them. And she was right! She found that they had a good legal system (usually eating only the most depraved criminals), were trustworthy and literate — and yes, cannibals. She went on to describe, at length, the dishes they’d cook people into, as if she was writing for Jeffrey Dahmer’s Lonely Planet. She was a curious one.
A Sudden End
She kept thinking of retiring, but much like Hayao Miyazaki, never could quite seem to sit still. After her second round-the-world journey, she decided to visit Madagascar. This was a mistake. In short order, she was taken in by a handful of European expats, who were plotting a coup d’etat against the cruel ruler of the time: Ranavalona I, who was previously covered as a Rejected Princess. Although Pfeiffer had no axe to grind, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was caught in Ranavalona’s web. She marched the now-61-year-old-woman through malaria-infested swamps for months, which soon thereafter (possibly in conjunction with cancer) proved the death of Ida.
She described at length the dishes the cannibals would prepare, as if writing for Jeffrey Dahmer’s Lonely Planet.
In the end, she had traveled over 150,000 miles of sea and 20,000 of land, in an era before airplanes or comfortable trains. She brought a huge amount of geographic, botanic, and ethnographic knowledge to Europe — and although she was not a trained scientist, her contributions merited a gold medal from the King of Prussia and an honorary membership in the Geographical Society of Berlin. Austria, for its part, seemingly didn’t care much about anything she did (it’s okay, she was well prepared for disappointment).
In her posthumous biography, attached to her last travel journal, her life is summed up with a final quote: “She had what, in common life, we emphatically term character.“
- She was hugely jingoistic as a kid. When Napoleon invaded Austria and some French soldiers crashed at her house for a while, she told them, “if I myself could murder Napoleon, I should not hesitate one instant to do so.” She then turned her back on Napoleon himself during a victory parade. She was only 12 but clearly had the fully-developed chutzpah of an 80-year-old senior who’d long since stopped giving a fuck. ↩
- The first thing out of Ida’s mouth upon meeting her husband: “You should know I’m in love with another guy.” His reply: “cool. I think we all are.” He was a pretty chill dude and they got along, even if they were never in love. ↩
- At least, according to her biography. Who knows, maybe she fought off an alien invasion and forgot to mention it. ↩
- Which was quite the vacation destination at the time! It had opened up considerably after Muhammad Ali had made Egypt safer for travelers. No, not that Muhammad Ali, a different one. Although it’s a lot of fun to picture the presumably time-displaced boxer punching his way through Bedouin territory. Maybe on a future episode of Doctor Who. ↩
- Not Istanbul. Not yet. Put the guitar down, TMBG. ↩
- Queen Pomare IV, a woman who warred against French colonialism for 5 years and was known as the “eye eater,” for reasons that are pretty self explanatory. She would have still been at war with France when Ida met her. They presumably commiserated on their hatred of the French. ↩
- A trait which we Americans have famously elevated to an artform. The student has become the master. ↩
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This one’s pretty simple — she’s spinning a globe (who knows where it’ll land next!), surrounded by people in her life. From right to left, we have:
- Her husband!
- A woman from a harem, and the sultan who held the harem.
- A Batak warrior! They have some pretty crazy outfits.
- A Dayak woman!
- Ranavalona I, who’s mean muggin’.
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Next Time on Rejected Princesses
This rebellious princess held her dad’s feet to the fire in the worst way: by insisting on marrying the stupidest man in Korea.