Unladylike Behavior: Tanzania’s First Female Explorer

Written by Thomson Safaris
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By Van der Weyde (Bibliothèque nationale de France) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

They came from Germany, England, and Portugal; some were staggeringly wealthy heirs, while others were poor as church mice (and traveling on scant church funds); they blazed a path across the continent in their youth, or only ever managed to make  inroads in old age. The backgrounds of Tanzania’s earliest western explorers were diverse, except for one important factor:

They were all men.

That is, until May French Sheldon came along in 1891. Not only did Sheldon set out on her own for East Africa that year—unheard of in a time when “respectable” women still might not visit a gentleman without an escort, let alone a different continent—she managed to uncover parts of the region no one had ever seen before!

Sheldon, an American known for her flamboyant dress and sharp intelligence, was living in London in the early 1890s, where she and her husband had established publishing firms. Interested in the world around her (and far from her), the 41-year-old Sheldon conceived of a solo journey to East Africa in 1891, “simply to study the native habits and customs free from the influence of civilization.”

There was pushback, of course. Sheldon was criticized in the Spectator for indulging her “merely feminine curiosity . . . hardly a useful and laudable one,” and as she was departing from Charing Cross Station, a random bystander yelled at her to “be reasonable, and abandon this mad, useless scheme.”

But Sheldon wouldn’t be dissuaded, and set off for the wilds of East Africa.

And wild it was. In her memoir of the trip, Sheldon mentioned stumbling over “uncertain surfaces [which]…required cat-like agility to crawl or slide down,” at the bottom of which she’d often find herself “landing in a bed of leaves which must have been the accumulation of centuries.” More than once, her guides had to physically haul her out of pools of muck and unexpected pits, and she was undoubtedly uncomfortable during much of her journey.

But what a journey it was!

During her stay, Sheldon met with the Sultan of Zanzibar, who bonded with her over the fact that they were both childless (and refused to believe her husband wasn’t hiding more fertile wives elsewhere). She visited the Maasai people and delighted the chief by cutting up an orange peel so it looked like a set of fright teeth (he responded horrifyingly: by extracting one of his own teeth and, bleeding heavily from the mouth, offering it to Sheldon…and he’d already bored a hole through it so she could more easily wear it around her neck).

Most impressively of all, she was the first Westerner to visit Lake Chala, a body of water that formed in a crater near Kilimanjaro, and was, until her visit, unknown.

Upon her return, and publication of her travelogues, Sheldon was reviled in the press, who saw her as contributing to the “spirit of unrest and the uneasy jealousy that is forever driving the fair sex into proving itself the equal of the other.”

That judgment seems outdated to us now, but in a lot of ways, it didn’t go far enough: May French Sheldon didn’t just prove herself a man’s equal; as an explorer, she far surpassed most men!