The Incredible Adventures of Ida Pfeiffer

Uncategorized | April 5, 2019

An illustration of Cape Horn from The Story of Ida Pfeiffer and Her Travels in Many Lands. Source: (digitized by Project Gutenberg)

Ida Pfeiffer led an unlikely second career as one of the world’s first female explorers. Born in 1797 in Vienna as Ida Laura Reyer, she hailed from a middle-class family with five brothers and one younger sister. She was treated as a boy by the family, a role she embraced. One biographer commented, “Dolls she contemptuously put aside, preferring drums; and a sword or a gun was valued at much more than a doll’s house.” 

It was only at the age of ten after her father died that her mother forced her to adopt female norms, such as wearing a dress. In 1820 at age 23 she entered an arranged marriage to an attorney 24 years her senior. She had two sons with her husband, but eventually, the couple became estranged and lived apart. The family was wracked by financial troubles, but Pfeiffer prudently invested and saved to pay for her boys’ tuition.

Ida Pfeiffer photographed by Franz Hanfstaengl (1856). Source: (coleccioncisneros.org)

An Overwhelming Desire

Pfeiffer’s overwhelming desire was to see the world. This dream was realized only when her sons became independent. In March 1842, at the age of forty-five, she took to the road intent on visiting Palestine and the Holy Land.

She told her family and friends that she was going to visit an acquaintance in Constantinople (Istanbul). After a steamer voyage down the Danube, she reached the ancient city and then journeyed to Jerusalem, Egypt, and the Red Sea. She returned to Vienna vis-à-vis Italy.

Pfeiffer proved adaptable. While in Palestine she found a group of male tourists who asked if she could ride a horse, offering her one. Confidently, she climbed onto the steed and took off – it was her first time riding.

Ida Pfeiffer dressed for a collection foray with an insect net and a specimen container slung over her shoulder (lithograph by Adolf Dauthage). Source: (wikipedia.org)

Stretching Societal Norms

What made Pfeiffer’s journey truly unique was that she was of middle-class background and did not have the financial resources at her disposal to travel in style. Also, as a widow of middle age, it stretched societal norms for her to be traveling alone. However, her age also assisted her, since older women tended to have more control over their lives than younger ones.

In 1843 she published a diary her travels entitled, Journey of a Viennese Lady to the Holy Land. Her frank writing style proved popular and with the proceeds, she financed another expedition. In 1845 Pfeiffer headed north, journeying to Iceland and Scandinavia. In order to help pay for her journeys outside of her publications proceeds, she started collecting specimens of animals, plants, minerals, and cultural items that she could sell to museums or collectors.  

“Front page of "A Woman's Journey Around the World",” Smith Libraries Exhibits, accessed April 4, 2019. Source: (www/libex.smith.edu)

A Best Selling Author

Her diary for that trip was published the next year. By that time the adventures of Ida Pfeiffer were becoming known worldwide. In fact, she was becoming a minor celebrity. Her outspoken writing, which although reflective of some 19th-century stereotypes was remarkable for the time in its open-mindedness. In certain instances she opined, the lot of the people of the places she visited was better than that in Europe. She expressed indignation at the cruelties of slavery that she saw in Rio de Janeiro, and sympathized with women of the lower classes. The royalties from her second book helped to finance a more ambitious trip. She boarded a cargo ship to Brazil and from there voyaged to China, Singapore, India, Iraq, Persia, and Russia.

On this journey, Pfeiffer displayed her unique traits of curiosity and flexibility. While in Canton, she disguised herself as a man briefly in order to obtain a more candid view of daily life. She was warned not to journey through the dangerous roads of central Asia but disregarded the advice. After reaching home in 1848, she published her three-volume work, A Woman’s Journey Around the World, which proved to be a best seller and was translated into multiple languages.

Dayaks building a house. Source: (gettyimages.com)

A Second Trip Around the World

With still a good amount of the world to see, a restless Pfeiffer went abroad again in 1851. This time she journeyed to South Africa and into the East Indies where she had various adventures. One of her accounts tells how she persuaded a group of Dayaks from not eating her since her flesh was old and dried out. Pfeiffer only had words of praise for the Dayaks, “I must own I should have liked to have passed a longer time among the free Dayaks, as I found them, without exception, honest, good-natured, and modest in their behavior.”

Pfeiffer then went on to Australia, the United States, and South America again before returning to Vienna in 1854. Another best-seller followed, My Second Trip Around the World.  

Ida Pfeiffer in Madagascar. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Her Last Journey

In 1857, Pfeiffer set out to Madagascar on what proved to be her last journey. While there she became embroiled in political affairs and was forced to flee through the jungle. On that journey, she contracted a tropical disease, likely malaria.

She returned to Vienna, her health compromised. On October 27, 1858, Ida Pfeiffer died from complications of the tropical disease. By the time she passed, she had logged almost 20,000 miles by land and 150,000 miles by sea. For her contributions to exploration and science, she was inducted into the geographic societies of Berlin and Paris. The eminent British Royal Geographical Society would not admit her because of her sex. Her last adventure was published posthumously by her son which memorialized an incredible and unlikely 19th-century adventurer.

Tags: female explorer | Ida Pfeiffer

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.