This amazing forum is gathered together for the discussion of practical humanity and it is with great pleasure I want to introduce you to a woman who travelled for a year across Russia, on an extreme humanitarian mission in 1891 and whose story I feel, is an inspiration to us all and holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Yakutia in particular.
Firstly let me tell you why this indomitable Victorian lady has become part of my life.
I am on a project to rescue the names of the early women explorers and pioneers from obscurity. These are women from all over the world who for different reasons, travelled to far away unknown places so that they could document the lives of people who were hitherto unknown in environments that could only be dreamed of; they showed enormous courage and tenacity in their pursuit of knowledge and they wrote some of the first travel books and in doing so, enlightened the world to the plights and pleasures of other societies.
They suffered depravations and faced enormous danger along the way, this lack of safety and backup would be unthinkable to us today and if their lives had been lost, who would have known? Their courage excites and impassions me.
I have been recreating some of these journeys, as closely to the original ones as possible, and have travelled 500 miles in a dug-out canoe along a tributary of the Amazon River in the footsteps of Isabela Godin, the first known woman to travel the length of the Amazon in 1769. I have followed the 1895 journey of Mary Kingsley up Mount Cameroon in West Africa, climbed over the Himalayas of Ladakh to retrace the journey of Isabella Bird in 1889 who did it on a yak and travelled into the Llanganate Mountains of the Andes in Ecuador, one of the wildest and most inhospitable places on earth, in the footsteps of Isabel Brook who died there within three days of setting out to search for the lost Inca gold.
It is important to me to travel the same routes, travel at a similar time of year and although I benefit from better equipment I am mindful of what they took with them and how they dressed, in fact I have walked up a mountain in Africa in a long Victorian dress, in the rain, paying my deepest respects to them as I stepped back into clean and dry trousers afterwards!
Why they did these journeys is an essential criteria to my books and my research has thrown up significant elements in the lives of these women. Mostly they were born in an era that did not facilitate a woman’s curiosity about the world and they were not expected to go and find out. In the 19th century women did not study and have careers, the first female doctors in the UK had to dress as men, the first women colleges did not allow their female students to graduate until the 1920s, if they were born into wealthy families it was expected that they would learn to sew and play an instrument; this was generally the accepted way to attract and marry an eligible bachelor and once married they had no control over their own affairs. Women who were poor had even fewer opportunities. So it is easy to see how society left women feeling emotionally suffocated. These early women explorers broke away from all social convention to do what they did.
Nursing became an option for these women after Florence Nightingale gave it a favourable reputation becoming an icon of Victorian culture, especially in the persona of “The Lady with the Lamp” making rounds of wounded soldiers at night during the Crimean war of the 1850s. She is known for founding the modern nursing profession and her name is internationally familiar to us.
Kate Marsden, was one of the most enigmatic of those early nurses, but there is no evidence that she ever met Florence Nightingale. Kate was born in Edmonton, north London in 1859 and became a nurse when she was 16 and went to work in a London hospital.
Phrases like battle-hardened are used to describe Kate, she was tough and seemed well suited to care for the wounded in the war between Russia and Turkey in 1878. In the play ‘Angel of Mercy’ written in Russian and frequently acted out in Yakutia they depict her falling in love at this time with a soldier there who suffered from leprosy.
There is no evidence that this happened, in fact men or marriage would never feature in her life at all – but some sort of grand epiphany did occur at that time when she encountered more lepers, she said she “saw enough misery to strengthen her resolution.” What had she resolved to do?
By now she was nursing in Constantinople, or Istanbul as we know it today, she saw more lepers and the scene of horror appalled her so much that she started to feverishly pack her bags, “for the swift help of heaven and of men in my mission of relief.”
Leprosy had struck such a chord with her that she had decided to do whatever it would take to find a cure or at least bring relief to the sufferers. She was informed that a herb grew in Siberia that could assist their suffering and that was it, she had made up her mind to find it. In her book she writes:
“I may be called an enthusiast, or a woman who bids high for the world’s applause. I care not what I am called, or what I am thought of, so long as the goal of my ambition be reached, or so long as I may see before I die that the work commenced, though faultily, is on its way to completion.”
Could any of her wartime experiences prepare her for what happened next? She was embarking on the most grueling, equestrian journeys of the late 19th century, in fact I would stick my neck out and say she completed one of the hardest journeys ever undertaken by a woman. The dangers, extreme cold and hardships were so immense that when she published her book ‘On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers’ it was received in England as a Victorian gothic horror novel and not as a book about an ambitious humanitarian journey at all.
Now when I put myself in her shoes I ask myself, what do I know about Siberia? My geographical background is very different, for a start we don’t have forests like this that stretch as far as an ocean, full of bogs and bears and if you watch too many TV programmes you would believe that yetis, the size of cars lurk behind the trees and are ready to jump out on you. And there are reindeer like we see on Christmas cards with mossy antlers and bells that are looked after by smiling folk in lovely costumes – What information did she gather 120 years ago? Or did she embark upon the journey without any ideas of the reality?
A google search before I left in 2012 revealed short films on You Tube of snowdrifts inside minibuses and lorries crossing frozen rivers that had traffic lights installed and warnings to keep your engines running all night if necessary and I found an article on Yakutsk, calling it the coldest city in the world that highlighted that if your central heating broke you would surely die… I prepared to leave in September – summer so that my journey in Yakutia would coincide with the time that Kate arrived in the province in 1891, by then she had already been travelling for eight months across Russia through horrifying conditions.
At some point Kate’s mission of mercy turned from looking for the plant that would bring possible relief from leprosy. Incidentally this herb has been identified as Wolf’s plant and I have drunk an infusion made from it, and although I don’t knowingly have leprosy, I can promise you I felt no different after drinking it!
She learnt of the horrific conditions under which Russian lepers were forced to live – this became her new focus.
Before she left, this 31 year old nurse asked for imperial assistance from England’s Queen Victoria, as well as the Empress of Russia, and they gave her their whole hearted support, one wonders if they thought she would ever come back.
The railway had arrived in Russia and Kate travelled on it as far as Zlatoust in the Chelyabinsk region of the southern Urals before transferring to horse-drawn sledges for thousands of miles across the wilds of Siberia. On the early part of the journey she had a female companion but this lady failed to match Kate Marsden’s stamina and had to return to Moscow due to ill health. Kate journeyed on dressed in prodigious quantities of clothing that even the Siberians thought very odd: Jaegar undervests, ‘loose kinds of bodies lined with flannel’, three topcoats, eiderdown ulsters, full-length sheepskin coats, reindeer skin coats, long haired hunting stockings and two sorts of felt boots. All of these clothes left her unable to move and she had to be hoisted into the sleigh by policemen who were there to see her off.
I travelled on the railway to Irkutsk which sits on the southern end of Lake Baikal and from there I desperately tried to find a way to follow her route through small villages on the western side of the lake and catch a cargo boat along the river Lena to Yakutsk – but it wasn’t possible. The villages were mostly gone, I carried with me a 19th century map that I obtained from the Royal Geographical Society but it showed a different Russia from the one we have today and I sadly had to accept that I would have to take the boat up the lake and move away from Kate’s original journey.
The Baikal journey was very beautiful though and while I was gliding over the surface of the deep blue lake staring out at its magical shores, Kate was being jolted and tossed on a sledge at temperatures frequently hitting -50 degrees. She writes in her book: ‘There are gleams of light which you pass on your way that seem to come from tiny hut windows in the forest.’
“Driver” I shouted. “Can’t we stop a minute at one of those huts?”
“Eh, what, madam?”
“Those huts where the lights are on, can’t we rest there? ”
“Lights? They’re wolves eyes!”
When she arrived at a shelter for the night, which was usually just a dirty hut, she would be in a semi-comatose state and need to be dragged from the sledge. She says that on gaining a footing, she felt more like a battered old log of mahogany than a gently
nurtured Englishwoman! She describes these primitive hotels saying ‘Have your pocket-handkerchief ready, if you can find it, and place it close to your nostrils the moment the door is opened. The hinges creak; and your first greeting is a gust of hot, fetid air, which almost sends you back; but you remember the cold outside and the cravings of hunger, and so you go in.’
Kate Marsden carried 9,000 New testaments that she gave out along the way, mostly in the prisons, carried 40 pounds of plum pudding, or Christmas pudding as we call it, enough oil wicks to last for 10 years and had frozen lumps of vegetable soup hanging off the edge of the sledges. I carried 3,000 postcards celebrating Kate Marsden which I tried so hard to get rid of along the way that I resorted to leaving little stacks of them under train seats and handing them out to anybody I encountered.
As I neared Yakutia I didn’t have to press my postcards on people anymore – they wanted one. Siberian TV had caught up with me and had been broadcasting snippets of my journey since Tomsk, they knew about Kate and I was soon to start experiencing the love everyone had for her.
It was here in Yakutsk, 5,000 miles form St Petersburg, that the nature of Kate’s extraordinary journey altered course. It was summer by then and the next leg of her journey was on horseback – although she wasn’t a very confident rider. In her words she says:
‘We left Yakutsk for Viluisk June 22nd, 1891, to begin our long journey of 2000 miles on horseback, for the purpose of visiting the lepers living in forests unknown, even to the Russians. Our cavalcade was somewhat curious, consisting of about fifteen men and thirty horses; all those around me were talking in a language which I could not understand.’
She carried a revolver, a whip, and a little travelling bag and had to ride as a man because the Yakutsk horses were so wild that it was impossible for her to ride otherwise; and there were no roads, the horses constantly stumbled on the roots in the forest. For three months she ate black and white dried bread, dried prunes, and drank tea with sugar.
Kate did indeed find the lepers in the forest and documented the horror of their existence in her book. ‘The poor lepers are so looked down upon as the very dregs of the community that even those wishing to befriend them have fallen into the way of thinking that the worst is good enough for them. Some of the people came limping, and some leaning on sticks, to catch the first glimpse of us, their faces and limbs distorted by the dreadful ravages of the disease. One poor creature could only crawl by the help of a stool, and all had the same indescribably
hopeless expression of the eyes which indicates the disease. I scrambled off the horse, and went quickly among the little crowd of the lame and the blind. Some were standing, some were kneeling, and some crouching on the ground, and all with eager faces turned toward me. They told me afterward that they believed God had sent me; and, my friends, if you could all have been there, you would no longer wonder at my having devoted body and soul to this work.’
Kate Marsden raised the funds to build a leper colony and it opened a few years after Kate’s visit and this became a turning point in the lives of the lepers. It existed until the 1960s, leprosy became treatable with antibiotics in the 1940s but unfortunately still exists in some parts of the world.
Sadly, circumstances never gave her the opportunity to see her hospital built but she founded the St. Francis Leprosy Guild in London which still exists today. The rest of her life was not a happy one and it seemed to lack the purpose that had driven her to make this remarkable journey, she died in poverty in 1931.
I am going to close by showing you a piece of film. After a 20 hour journey on an unmade road through the forest from Yakutsk I arrived in Vilyuisk and was then whisked off to Sosnovka – the site of the leper colony. What you will see is a welcome within an extraordinary community, and one that had waited 120 years to take place. You see, I think they had waited for her to come and she never did – she couldn’t. I am not a nurse and I didn’t suffer the way she did, but I came in her name and I was given the full honours in her place. It was a deeply humbling and moving experience that I will never forget.
You will laugh because I had to hand my camera to someone to film because I was being filmed myself – and I inadvertently handed it to the Deputy Governor!
What I want to say to you all is that the buildings may have nearly gone and a new hospital with a different purpose has taken its place. But what you are all doing now is the direct result of her, her practical humanity and nerves of steel has left its mark on all of us.
We have found her unmarked and overgrown grave in London and we have cleared it and the people of Vilyuisk have donated a plague. I hope Kate Marsden has found peace. She may look down and smile, in the knowledge that her dreadful journey has brought changes in the world that make life more bearable for the less fortunate. We are all now a part of her project and the work with the needy in the forests here and around the world is the direct result of her.