Thursday 3 December 2020

Backlist books: The Golden Chersonese by Isabella Bird

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Werts that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia. This post is about The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, as it was originally titled, which details the author’s travels through China and Southeast Asia from December 1878 to February 1879, and was published in 1883. The book consists of Bird’s letters to her sister, “unaltered, except by various omissions and some corrections as to matters of fact”. She says they lack “literary dress” because she wishes to convey her “first impressions in their original vividness”.

Readers will be favourably impressed by Bird’s appetite for the unfamiliar and tolerance for heat, mud and pests, whether she is drinking from a fresh coconut fetched by a tame monkey, slipping down from the back of an uncooperative elephant or discovering leeches feasting on her bloodied ankles.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read The Golden Chersonese, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Places in The Golden Chersonese

The title of the book is derived from the Greeks’ name for the Malaysian Peninsula. Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1869 book, The Malay Archipelago, had familiarised readers with the region's islands.

The book opens as Bird loses sight of Japan on a voyage to Hong Kong, where she arrives in the midst of a dangerous and destructive conflagration. After a short stay, she takes a river steamer to Canton (Guangzhou), where she takes in sights both charming and squalid. She returns briefly to Hong Kong before catching a boat up the Mekong River to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Cochin China (Vietnam). Her next stop is Singapore. The remaining two-thirds of the book are letters about various parts of Malaysia (the Straits of Malacca and the native states of Perak, Selangor and Sungei Ujong). Bird departs the Golden Chersonese from Pinang (Penang).

People in The Golden Chersonese

Bird’s biographer lists three other contemporary Englishwomen famous for their travels but states that Bird’s “outstanding merit” is that she “faced the wilderness almost single-handed; that she observed and recorded without companionship”. Certainly she seemed to thrive most when farthest from urban social duties. Thus it is that the “characters” one meets in her travelogue form a rotating and very temporary cast. Here she is hosted by an official and his wife, there she is attended by a turbaned manservant, elsewhere she must communicate entirely by hand-signals as nobody speaks English.

Themes in The Golden Chersonese

Much of Bird’s narration is in a neutral tone, but at times she reveals her personal judgments. She longs to share the Christian faith with others, and in keeping with that faith, wishes to ease the suffering of debtors, prisoners and the sick. After she visits a prison in China, she describes it dispassionately, though she must have felt horror, disgust and sadness at the inhuman conditions in which the inmates are kept. Equally factual yet distressing is her explanation of how death sentences are carried out at the execution grounds. She is powerless to do more than commiserate with the local missionary.

In the Malay States, however, which are “practically under British rule”, she can hope that conditions will soon improve. By writing of the evils of debt slavery, she perhaps intends to speed its abolishment. Appended to her text are some letters between officials indicating that in spite of difficulties some progress was made.

The Remarkable Life of Isabella Bird

After a childhood of chronic medical difficulties and a spinal operation to remove a tumour, Bird began travelling on the advice of her doctors.

1854:Visited the United States.
1872:Went to Australia and Hawaii (aka The Sandwich Islands).
1873:Explored the Colorado Rockies.
1878:Left for Asia, visiting Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaya.
1881:Married John Bishop (but was widowed in 1886).
1889:Began to travel with a renewed sense of Christian purpose; went to India and founded a hospital in memory of her husband. Visited Tibet, Persia, Kurdistan and Turkey.
1892:Became the first female to be elected a member of the Royal Geographic Society.
1897:Returned to China and Korea.
1901:Spent six months in Morocco.
1904:Died of illness in Edinburgh at the age of 72.

Further Reading

A biography, The Life of Isabella Bird (Mrs Bishop), was written by Anna M. Stoddart and first published in 1907 by John Murray in London and in 1908 by Dutton in New York. has a digital facsimile of the 1908 book and Cambridge University Press offers a 2011 reissue.

Bird’s letters were published as travelogues by John Murray, the British house whose authors include Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Darwin.

  • The Englishwoman in America (1856)
  • The Aspects of Religion in the United States of America (1859)
  • Notes on Old Edinburgh (1869)
  • Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, amongst the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs and Volcanoes (1874)
  • The Hawaiian Archipelago (1875)
  • A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879)
  • Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: Travels of a Lady in the Interior of Japan (1879)
  • The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (1883)
  • Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan. Volumes 1 and II. (1891)
  • Among the Tibetans (1894)
  • Korea and Her Neighbours (1898)
  • The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899)

A paperback edition of The Golden Chersonese was published in 2010 by Monsoon Books. The text is also available free from along with various other works by Isabella Bird.