Who travels the Orient in the 1850s and 60s, with a piano, wrought iron beds, a mother, an aunt, five pet dogs and hundreds of servants?
There is no one quite like the remarkable Alexine Tinne….and nothing quite like her story…
Born in 1835 into a wealthy Dutch family, Alexine Tinne is a fascinating figure. Her father died when she was ten, making her the wealthiest heiress in the Netherlands. She and her mother travelled the continent extensively, but arrived in Cairo in 1861, apparently running as far as possible from the attentions of an unwelcome suitor of Alexine’s. Mad with the contemporary obsession of searching for the origin of the Nile, they travelled from Cairo up the river into the Sudan to the frontier town of Khartoum whose primary reason for existence at the time was the trade of ivory and slaves.
Undeterred by her surrounds and her dubious fellow Europeans, from there, Alexine launched an expedition to discover the Nile’s source. In 1862 hiring the only steamer available (upsetting Sir Samuel Baker who had wanted it for himself) and contracting several barges she and her long suffering mother travelled extremely slowly and in great style, at times travelling with hundreds of servants and porters. Such numbers were necessary when one took the piano, the iron bed frames from Holland, five pet dogs, photographic and painting equipment, materials (including a bricklayer) to help build a house when one got to a suitable location and all the necessary food, crockery and silverware etc. Dozens of people were needed to pull the steamer and barges with ropes from the shore, when the waters of the Sud (as the boggy marshes of the Upper White Nile were known), prevented them from moving.
Wealth and luggage could not insulate her from the terrible conditions, however, and Alexine nearly died of fever on their first expedition as far as Gondoroko and her mother actually did die on their second expedition to discover the Bahr el Ghazar, the Sudan’s Western tributaries to the White Nile. Her two trusted Dutch maids also died on this trip, along with a distinguished botanist Hermann Steudner accompanying them. Her Aunt who had been waiting for their return died, again of fever, soon after Alexine’s return to Khartoum.
After these tragedies Alexine returned to Cairo where she set up a household of approximately 30 people comprised of Dutch servants and freed slaves. She refused to return to Europe. She had long planned to travel to see the famed Tuareg Arab Tribesman of the Libyan desert, and in 1869 aged 34 she set out, the first woman to attempt to cross the Sahara. Here her adventures were cut tragically short as her party was ambushed and she was murdered by Tuareg tribesmen, the very men she had been so fascinated to meet. According to eye witnesses her hand was severed and she received a blow to the neck which caused her to fall to the ground and bleed to death. The rest of her party fled and her body was never recovered.
Alexine was an accomplished photographer, and had converted a carriage into a dark room back home in The Hague. She was also a serious botanical artist, and her detailed drawings led to the publication in 1868 of Plantae Tinnanae which had professional engravings based on her drawings.
But what intrigues me most are her sketchbooks. Dozens of watercolours of the places she went, the rooms she stayed in and the people she saw… I have only seen a handful of them, the rest are in the Historisch Museum in the Hague which I will go to in November.
The few I have seen are delicately painted, calm, serene and convey nothing of the harsh conditions, the disease and the constant danger to which Alexine subjected herself. This was a time remember, when women of her class were expected to be accompanied by a man to go in to dinner! To be in charge of a party which goes searching for the source of the Nile, and to attempt to cross the Libyan desert, is extraordinary.