Written by Madylene Beardmore
I had been looking for some time for a reason to write something on Gertrude Bell, so when I was asked to consider writing about a woman to celebrate March being International Women’s Month, I jumped at the opportunity. Bell is not unknown, she was even considered one of BBC’s ‘Icons’ in their 2019 series, in the ‘Explorers’ category. She was beaten in that particular poll by the polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton, but the remarkable thing about Gertrude Bell is that her passion and success as an explorer is just one aspect of an extraordinary life. There has also been an excellent book Queen of the Desert by Georgina Howell, which was then turned into a disappointing film. If the film is to be believed, the two most important aspects of Bell’s life were the love affairs which left her heartbroken. Whilst Bell’s life was affected by these loves they did not define her and did not shape her successes or achievements, regardless of these relationships she still continued to plan for her future endeavours.
Born in 1868, Bell’s story very much begins entrenched within the Victorian period. Her Grandfather was Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, who owned an iron empire in the North of England which made him part of the new political elite, he was not born into the upper classes but gained power and influence through successful industry and served as MP for North Durham. This was to become important in Bell’s later life, as her family had the right balance of resource and liberalism to assist her in following her dreams and not adhering to the social expectations and demands of the time.
Bell’s mother Mary Shield Bell died in 1871 in childbirth. Subsequently Gertrude became incredibly close to her father, Sir Hugh, a relationship which endured for her entire life as well as a close bond with her stepmother Florence Olliffe and her siblings. Family was important to Bell and she maintained affectionate correspondence with members of her close and extended family throughout her travels and adventures. This correspondence is now part of the Newcastle University Library.
Bell studied at Queens College, London and at Oxford University, where she passed in the top of her class. She was not awarded a degree though as women were not awarded recognition of their degrees until 1920.
Early Career and Mountaineering
One of Bell’s early opportunities to test her desire to travel was a trip to Persia to visit her uncle Sir Frank Lascelles who was then British Minister to Persia. This inspired her to learn Persian and Arabic and began a lifelong passion for languages, she would later become fluent in Ottoman dialects. Her writings on this trip were also published in 1894 in the book Persian Pictures.
One of Bell’s lesser-known passions which dominated much of her efforts during this period was mountaineering. Between 1899 and 1904 Bell climbed La Meige and Mont Blanc and also forged many new trails across the swiss alps which had not been attempted before. She was notorious for choosing to traverse the harder trails. Her and her two guides nearly died in August 1902 when trying to the climb the Finsteraarhorn in extreme storm conditions. This was at a time when climbing gear and equipment was still incredibly basic. Despite this Bell made a name for herself as a skilled mountaineer and a pioneer in finding, yet untraversed ascents.
Much can be written on Bell’s travels and research in the Middle East. It requires its own book and Georgina Howell does an excellent job of covering each of Bell’s trips from planning stages, successes, strife, danger, discovery and wonder. If interested in learning more about this part of her life I would highly recommend this book.
Bell was a keen archaeologist and collected and studied many of the ancient sites of this area. She was also keen to record the culture of the tribes who she encountered. As a woman she was given unprecedented access to the tribe’s day to day lives as she was able to converse with both the male and female members and was seen as less of a threat. It helped that she was also often able to converse with them in their native tongue and picked guides who were well places to assist in areas beyond her own knowledge.
During Times of War
During the First World War Bell requested a placement in the Middle East, she knew her knowledge in that area would be invaluable to the British Army. This, in typically short-sighted fashion, was denied. Bell went on to volunteer with the British Red cross in France.
Bell worked on the researching and location of those missing in action. She liaised between the army and loved ones back at home to seek out information as to where individuals may be. It was tiring and often frustrating and sad work but Bell knew the importance for those at home, trying to find out information about their loved ones and she developed a system in which this could be done efficiently whilst ensuring that all information was shared compassionately.
It was eventually recognised that Bell had knowledge which would be successful to the British army in the Middle East and she assisted in both the First and Second World War in advising on troop movements, reinforcements and relationships with the local tribes which may be beneficial to the war effort.
After the Second World War Bell was employed to research and present a way forward for the Iraqi people. The Middle East was becoming expensive for the British Empire and in order to make it politically and economically viable they recognised they needed to grant independence. However, they were determined to do this in a way which would continue to benefit the British.
Bell surrounded herself by those who had local knowledge and attempted to find a way forward which would suit both sides. Recommending Faisal as the leader who would be agreed upon as a leader by all of the individual tribe leaders. Bell also felt that the identification of a shared past and origin was important and helped to found the Iraqi Archaeological Museum and the British school of Archaeology in Iraq which funded the excavations of sites and the research of finds. Much of the museums’ original collection was made up of Bell’s own finds.
Education and health was also important to Bell, particularly that of women and she put into place and found funding for institutions which would ensure this provision would continue after the British pulled out.
Bell died on 12th July 1926. She was a heavy smoker for most of her life and had suffered poor health for many years related to the habit, also the heat and conditions of the Middle East which did not suit her and the stress of her intense work ethic. Bell’s death looked much like a suicide and she took a large amount of sleeping pills, however she had made plans for the next day and had instructed her maid to wake her so the verdict of suicide is much disputed. Gertrude Bell was buried in the British cemetery in Baghdad and she was given the honour of a major funeral in which the new King of Iraq, Faisal was present in recognition of the important role Bell had played.
Bell was not perfect, she had little patience for other women who she felt did not match her intellect or exploratory nature, she felt herself to be the exception, not an example of womanhood generally. She was also a product of her time and despite her actions her whole life and her respect for those she met and worked with she still used a language and rhetoric and held opinions which we would today consider to be racist and imperialistic in their tone.
Whilst she fought for the self-determination of the Iraqi people to rule themselves, she still encouraged and advocated for these tribes to identify as one nation rather than leaving these cultures to continue as they had for thousands of years. She recognised this would cause difficulties but was under the employ of the British Empire who felt it would be less expensive and far more bureaucratically sensible, for themselves, to keep Iraq under one government. This creation of one nation, would go on to have far reaching consequences along religious and cultural lines which we are still seeing the (often violent) repercussions of to this day.
What impresses me about Gertrude Bell is that she relied on her own skill achieve what she wanted in life. Whatever she set her mind to she achieved, learning from mistakes and failures to then go on to succeed. She was a student her whole life and was self-aware without being self-critical, learning and building upon her knowledge of the world in an attempt to better understand and then action the change that was needed. She was pragmatic in her approach to world politics, understanding that if she could not provide the perfect solution she could at least negotiate a scenario in which the best compromise is fulfilled through research and empathic consideration of others.
Howell, G, ‘Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell’, Pan, 2015
BBC, Icons, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/xfhZH9qWPt1G8F2mbN2fVc/meet-the-icons, Feb 2021.