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Volume 34, Number 1January/February 1983

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Alexine and the Nile

Written by Leo Hamalian
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

In the story of the search for the sources of the Nile, one explorer—rarely mentioned—was Dutch and female. Alexine Tinne, who would have been one of the richest heiresses in The Netherlands, squeezed into her short life enough adventure to satisfy a dozen ordinary mortals, and then died tragically and dramatically in the Sahara.

Nothing in the early years of Alexine Tinne's life hinted at the extraordinary experiences she was to survive—or the unexpected end she was to meet. Because her family was both affluent and liberal, she received the best European education available and spent summers visiting friends in London and Paris, where she learned to speak both English and French fluently. But then, at 19, she went on a tour of Egypt.

For Alexine, Egypt was a turning point. Inspired by its ancient glories, she and her mother set out on an arduous five-day trek by donkey and camel to the Red Sea and, later, also toured the Holy Land—at a time when the area was still unsafe for western women—and went on to Damascus. It was, in a sense, a prelude to the more perilous journeys ahead.

Those journeys began in 1857 when Alexine, then 22, began to explore the Nile in earnest. With her mother she started up the Nile a second time, reaching Wadi Haifa, some miles upstream from the temple of Rameses II, before the formidable second cataract forced them to turnback. Then, three years later, with still a third woman—Alexine's aunt, Adriana—she began to prepare for a major expedition into the Sudan towards the unknown source of the Nile.

For this venture their family's money was important, since they were able to afford a small steamer; it would tow two boats laden with provisions to feed them and their Arab crew, their servants, some soldiers, a horse, a donkey and five dogs (which had to be put ashore twice a day).

Up to that time, the most extensive expedition to get beyond Khartoum by Europeans had been made under the former Viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, but in three attempts even this party got no further than just beyond Gondokoro, where dangerous rocks and rapids had blocked further progress up river. Nevertheless, the Dutch party pressed on to a place called Jabal Dinka, after the tribe of Dinkas. There supplies began to run low and the mother, Harriet, had to return to Khartoum on the steamer for fresh stores. In Khartoum she met a startled English couple named Baker—the discoverers of Lake Albert. When she told them of their plans Samuel Baker wrote to his brother: "There are Dutch ladies traveling without any gentlemen... They must be demented. A young lady alone with the Dinka tribe... they really must be mad. All the natives are naked as the day they were born."

Demented or not, Harriet got her supplies, returned to Jabal Dinka, and with Alexine and Aunt Adriana, steamed upstream again—in spite of fierce mosquitos which bit them until their faces swelled beyond recognition, tropical fevers which laid them low, and "floating islands" that threatened to wreck the steamer. During her leisure time, Harriet kept a notebook entitled "A Few General Directions for Travellers on the Nile," in which she advised neophytes on the river to avoid draughts, to wear flannel around their loins, and to maintain a proper diet—"an English diet, not too much fruit and well-cooked vegetables."

Meanwhile, the now-famous Speke and Grant—sent by the Royal Geographical Society on a second expedition to Lake Victoria—had arrived in the southernmost part of the Sudan and were running short of supplies. Learning of this, Alexine generously decided to transport food and medicine to them in her steamer. But then, John Petherick, an English consul assigned to help Speke, set off overland with supplies, and Alexine resumed her exploration of the Nile.

In Gondokoro, their approach generated a wave of excitement; their little steamer, the first such craft ever seen there, caused a sensation when it docked. From Gondokoro the Dutch ladies—though told that it was impossible to go beyond—promptly set off on an excursion up river and got as far as Juba before retreating. Then, however, Alexine fell desperately ill with fever and the party had to spend a full month among the Shilluk tribesmen while she recuperated. They took advantage of the time to question the Shilluks about the source of the Nile but got nowhere; the tribesmen would merely laugh and say that it had none.

The ladies did not believe this, of course—Victorian ladies were like that—but since reconnaissance on foot had revealed a series of rapids too trying for Alexine, the party had to retreat; a month later they were back in Khartoum, justly proud of their achievement: no other European women had ever gone so far up the Nile.

By then, however, Alexine had been bitten by the exploration bug, and sometime during the return to Khartoum decided to explore the great unknown interior of Africa by steaming up the Bahr al-Ghazal, a major tributary of the Nile, and then moving overland to Lake Chad—thought by some to be the source of the Bahr al-Ghazal. She may also have hoped to discover the source of the Congo River—another great goal for Victorian explorers; Captain Speke himself had called it "the last feature of interest in Africa."

Speke, in fact, warned the ladies against the undertaking. "I should be sorry to see any ladies attempt an exploring journey when failure would inevitably be the result, not from want of pluck, but the fearful effects of African climate, which cannot be overestimated," he wrote. But Alexine was adamant and subsequently they set out.

To reach the River of Gazelles, they had to steam 483 kilometers (300 miles) up the White Nile—again moving towards Gondokoro. After being paddled up the unexpectedly shallow tributary—reduced to a muddy trickle—the cavalcade started across the savannah toward the Jur river. But by then the rainy season had begun and soon they were in trouble. Storms lashed them with hail and lightning; their tents collapsed; they were constantly cold and wet. Worse, the soldiers hired to protect the party mutinied over rations. Then Alexine became seriously ill and no sooner had she rallied than her mother, her favourite maid Flora, and one of the servants came down with the fever—and, tragically, succumbed to it.

For Alexine this was a terrible blow. She was devastated by grief and guilt, thinking that had she not persuaded her mother to come on the expedition, her mother would not have died. Sadly, friends and relatives in The Hague seemed to share that sentiment and Alexine, shamed, decided she could never return home. Meanwhile, a relief mission sent out by Adriana from Khartoum met Alexine at Waw and helped her to return there—where tragedy struck again. Adriana also came down with fever and in July 1864, less than seven weeks later, died.

By now, Alexine's exploits had inspired admiration and praise in the newspapers. She was described as "young and beautiful," "remarkably accomplished," "a fearless horsewoman," "mistress of many languages including Arabic"—a reputation that helped when, later, she moved to Algeria and Tunisia, and began to speak out candidly against the suffering involved in slavery, and set up a house for liberated slaves next to her own home.

During this time, Alexine also made the papers by experimenting with an unusual bicycle specifically designed, like the sidesaddle, for the ultra-modest Victorian lady. The London Times wrote: "Miss Tinne recently imported into Barbary a velocipede of the latest Parisian manufacture: but finding it not adapted to the sands of the Great Desert, she presented it to the Pasha of Tripoli."

Alexine, however, was thinking of more important things than sidesaddle bicycles; she had plans for the "Great Desert" – the Sahara. In 1869, determined to become the first Western woman to cross it, she recruited two Dutch sailors, persuaded them to join a caravan, and headed for Lake Chad, the goal of her expedition some years before.

Her plan was to follow the route pioneered two years earlier by the French explorer Duveyrier, the only European who had ever spent any time in the land of the Tuareg. From the Tassili-n-Ajjer plateau (See page 7) she would head south to Lake Chad, then on to the sultanate of Bornu, and through Darfur to the Nile at Khartoum.

In that era, an expedition like that would have compared with Peary's polar expeditions. Nevertheless, the first phase went well; her caravan reached Marzuq, 800 kilometers (500 miles) due south, encountering nothing more ominous than the usual sandstorms. But in Marzuq, Alexine met a guide who persuaded her to let him escort the caravan through the unknown Tuareg country to a rendezvous with the Tuareg chieftain Ichnunchen at the Oasis of Ghat before pushing on to Lake Chad. Alexine agreed, and on July 21, her party left Marzuq, with the guide.

Knowing the hazards of desert travel, Alexine had taken along not only an ice machine for Ichnunchen, but also two iron tanks of water carried by camels. Unfortunately, however, rumor preceded her that the tanks were actually full of gold coins, not water, and as they left an oasis called Wadi Shergui to set out again for Ghat, 12 riders on camels rode into camp. They said they had been sent by Ichnunchen to lead them to Ghat, but ominously, their guide quickly slipped away and within minutes an altercation broke out between Alexine's Arab servants and the newcomers. When one of the Dutch sailors tried to break up the nght, a Tuareg warrior ran him through with a lance, and the Tuaregs then turned on Alexine, who raised her hand as though commanding them to cease. Mistaking her gesture as an attempt to draw her revolver, one of the Tuareg, using his sword, cut off her hand and in the ensuing chaos, the other Dutch sailor and several Arabs, while trying to defend Alexine, were killed before the marauders sped off leaving Alexine to bleed slowly to death.

In retrospect—and considering the status of Victorian women—Alexine, her mother and her aunt were extraordinary. Though, they may seem like dilettantes, they brought back much valuable material relating to the climate, geology, animals and plants—in particular, a series of skillful botanical drawings subsequently published as Plantae Tinneanae, a book still available in many libraries. Unfortunately, though her life is only sketchily documented.

Her adventures, in fact, are preserved in just one diary which her mother kept, and according to her biographer, the entries are so incomplete that they do not make a readable record by themselves. Alexine did write many charming letters, but like the crates of her ethnological specimens which were stored in London—and like the small English church erected in her memory in The Hague—almost everything was destroyed by Hitler's bombs in World War II.

Still she is remembered—in a little obelisk near Juba in the Southern Sudan which records her name at the farthest point she was to reach in her search, and in a memorial provided by none other than Dr. Livingstone, the explorer and missionary, who said:

The work of Speke and Grant is deserving of highest commendation, inasmuch as they opened up an immense tract of previously unexplored country. But none rises higher in my estimation than the Dutch lady, Miss Tinne, who after the severest domestic afflictions, nobly persevered in the teeth of every difficulty.

Leo Hamalian, a professor of English at the City College of New York, is author of such books as Burn after reading, As others see us, In search of Eden, New Writing from the Middle East, Ladies on the Loose and D. H. Lawrence in Italy.

This article appeared on pages 22-29 of the January/February 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1983 images.