Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Tanzania Tuesday #25 : Gertrude Emily Benham

In honor of Women's History Month, I thought I'd do a little research into the history of women on Mount Kilimanjaro. Full disclosure: I have only tracked European women... as you'll see, this has been challenging in itself, as women were seemingly only celebrated as part of a man's expedition.

Gertrude Emily Benham photo courtesy of ILAB.org
Our first heroine, Gertrude Emily Benham, is proof of this, having been largely forgotten from the climbing history of Kilimanjaro.

Born in London in 1867, Benham spent childhood summers climbing with her father in the Alps, becoming a skilled mountaineer and summiting both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn in her twenties.

In 1904, having inherited some money after her parents died, Benham sailed to Canada to climb in the Rockies -- the first of many voyages she would make over the course of her life.

Between 1904 and 1934 she circumnavigated the globe 7 times, visiting Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, India, Egypt, Corsica, the United States, Argentina, Uganda, Kenya, Tahiti, Nigeria, Mozambique, Cameroon, Tibet, Syria, the West Indies, Belize, Peru, and Chile... to name a few.

Along the way she collected ethnological objects, many of which she donated to the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. (Why there, you ask? Apparently Benham had visited the museum once and was so impressed by their displays that she decided it would be the perfect place to leave her extensive collection.)

It seems that the museum is currently closed for renovations, but some of the collections -- like this coffee pot collected in Zanzibar and donated by Benham -- are available online in Plymouth's World Cultures site.

A pair of Tibetan boots Benham wore "on my tramps to Leh" was featured in the BBC's "A History of the World" project in 2010.

Benham traveled "alone" -- alone in the Victorian sense -- aided by porters and guides. She kept extensive notes, made sketches, and also embroidered and knit while traveling -- taking up her needles as she camped in inhospitable places. Clearly a woman after my own heart!

In 1935 Benham embarked on her final journey, dying on a boat off the eastern coast of Africa in 1938 and being buried at sea. I suspect it's the sort of death she wanted: while on an adventure.

Benham's Kilimanjaro Climb

In October or November 1909 Benham arrived in Moshi, where German soldiers confirmed that Kilimanjaro 'had never been climbed by any Britisher, man or woman, and very seldom by anyone else'. She acquired two guides, five porters, and a "cook boy", and set off for Kili at 6:30 in the morning. They hacked their way through forest, pitching camp at 10,000 feet. They left most of their luggage in a tent there, and continued up the mountain, with the porters carrying firewood and blankets. Two hours later they passed two skeletons, victims from an earlier expedition. This spooked the porters, who felt it confirmed their belief that the mountain was inhabited by evil spirits,

Despite pleading, threats, and bribes, the porters refused to continue, so Benham shouldered her own bag and set off alone. This shamed the cook boy and two of the braver porters, who followed her. The smaller party made camp in an ice cave. The boy collected some snow in a cup, wanting to take it home to show his family. When it melted by the fire, the guides thought it was bewitched and refused to go any higher.

The next morning Benham set off alone, after a guide had pointed out the route to the summit. She reached the rim of the crater at 2pm, and said, "My first feeling up there was that of being absolutely on top of the world". In the account she wrote of her climb, she said that the highest point was some distance "to the left", but as there was "not much difference in height" and "since the snow slope was steep", she decided not to make for the higher peak but instead descend. Despite the thick mist, she was able to follow the marks she had made with her ice axe and find the camp in the ice cave -- though only after spotting the bright red clothes worn by the cook boy. They all spent a cold night in the ice cave, descending to the first camp the next day. Benham sent the porters and guides down ahead of her, staying alone at camp for four more days sketching the views before returning to Moshi.

Her biographer Raymond John Howgego states that Benham reached the summit of Mawenzi; at 5149m the second highest peak on Kilimanjaro (behind Kibo, 5896m).  I haven't been able to read Benham's own account, but from what Howgego quoted (see above) it does make me wonder if perhaps she was on Kibo and reached what's now known as Gillman's Point or even Stella Point ... both on the crater rim, and from which the highest point would be "to the left" but "not much different in height". But without knowing more about Benham, that's just wild speculation.

It's sad that Gertrude Emily Benham has been overlooked in Kilimanjaro history. The other women who have been included as achieving "firsts" all climbed with European men. She even sent a letter to The Times in late November 1909 describing her travels and her ascent of Kilimanjaro, but it received little notice. Eighteen years later -- in 1927 -- Benham read an account of Sheila MacDonald, "the first woman to summit Kilimanjaro" (about her more later); a friend sent a letter under the pseudonym "West African" with information on Benham's own ascent. Finally in 1928 a brief article about Benham's 1909 ascent appeared in the Daily Mail. This, in turn, caused a Colonel Strutt to write to The Times to support Macdonald's claim as the first woman to summit, writing, "Miss Gertrude Benham, about 1911 [sic], reached the rim of the crater -- some two-three hours below the summit -- and never claimed to have gone any higher."

A side note from a German wiki page, however, seems to agree with my wild speculation, namely that Benham was on Kibo rather than Mawenzi, based on other landmarks described in her account:
"Howgego, determining the Benham has climbed to the second highest peak of Kilimanjaro, thus the Mawenzi 5,148m, is of course wrong and be sure due in the ignorance of the local location of Mawenzi to the Kibo. Ratzel Glaciers directly on the crater rim Benham has reached 60m above the present level at the Stella Point a height of at least in 1909." -- Awkward translation from Microsoft Translator of "Gertrude Emily Benham" from Kilimanjaro.bplaced.net

I find Benham particularly inspiring. I mean, really, crafting to fund your travels? #lifegoals. I'm not alone here. She's been featured as a "History Centre Hero" by Plymouth Arts and Heritage. Her lifetime of adventures -- and collecting -- has even been the subject of a highly readable PhD dissertation by Catherine Cummings of Plymouth University. I hope to learn more about her in the future.

"The spirit of wanderlust has entered my soul." - Gertrude Emily Benham, 1928


Cummings, Catherine. (2013). Collecting En Route: An Exploration of the Ethnographic Collection of Gertrude Emily Benham (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from PEARL. (10194687)

Gertrude Emily Benham. Retrieved March 5, 2017 from http://kilimanjaro.bplaced.net/wiki/index.php?title=Gertrude_Emily_Benham

History Centre Heroes: Gertrude Emily Benham. (2016, July 27).
Retrieved from https://plymouthartsandheritage.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/gertrudebenham/

Howgego, Raymond John. Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) - English Mountaineer, Traveller and Collector - A Biography by Raymond John Howgego. Retrieved from https://www.ilab.org/eng/documentation/489-gertrude_emily_benham_1867-1938_-_english_mountaineer_traveller_and_collector.html

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