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McEwan C., 2000, Gender, geography and empire: Victorian women travellers in West Africa, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot, 256 p.

Mechtild Rössler

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1The book is based on research carried out for a thesis at Loughborough University in 1995. It "revisits" some of the research and focuses on women "hidden in the histories of imperialism and geography". The research is based on correspondence and archival material at several British Museums, Archives and Libraries, as well as transcripts of manuscript collections from the US. The book includes an extensive Bibliography.

2Although there have been many publications during the past 10 years on women travellers and their stories and contributions to geography and geographical thought, this book also reviews the theoretical concepts. McEwan specifically tries to write "a 'feminized' history of British geographical thought and imperial culture" (p.1) and to this end she analyses the example of women who travelled to West Africa in the 19th century. She also suggests strategies as to how to write a critical feminist account of geography and imperialism, including: (re) writing the histories of geography by looking at women travellers and their writings; exploring their aims and context and critically analyzing their travel accounts.

3She also looks at the social context of these women as well as their reason to travel: from the aristocratic Elizabeth Melville, who went to Sierra Leone in the 1840s as the wife of a colonial judge, or Zelie Colvile as wife of the Commissioner of Uganda in 1809, to the middle-class Anna Hinderer, a wife of a missionary in Ibadan (1850/60) and Ms Henry Grant Foote, wife of a colonial consul in Lagos (1861) to the working class Mary Slessor in Nigeria (1876-1915) or Mary Kingsley, well known independent traveller and explorer travelling in West Africa from 1892 to 1895, considered middle class with a working class mother background.

4McEwan notes that only few white women have travelled in West Africa and that the British Empire has simply an "extraordinary masculine history" (p.16). She distinguishes women who are considered to be "travel writers" and travel accounts and other documents from women who travelled in the West African region for other duties and purposes. This distinction seems to be fundamental: for the latter their accounts were based on different experiences and encounters with the African people, related to their roles of wives of colonial administrators or missionaries. Therefore different social and imperial contexts influence their travel writing.

5McEwan's study then focuses on four themes: the representation of landscapes, race, customs and women considered to be primary topics in these accounts. The chapter on the relationship between the natural environment and the prevailing images of the tropical and dark continent is particularly interesting. The traveller’s view of race and customs, including witchcraft and cannibalism, are interwined and clearly show their 19th century observation lenses. She also explores the relationship between these women and the African people they have met, the colonized counterparts, in particular African women. She then reviews the impact of those women writers on the British imperialism and their "empowerment" through the writing experience. She also points out the difficulties in reviewing underlying histories with the documentation available and from imperial discourses, taking into account the position of the researcher from the "elite 'palaces' of knowledge production" in the Western world and thus highlighting the limits of her own research. She therefore questions if it is at all possible to "retrieve the subaltern histories".

6Interesting is also the audience to which the travel writings were addressed, reaching from the very popular accounts of Mary Kingsley, who not only published widely including in newspapers, but also provided her opinion about the western African region and Britain's interest to the general public through lectures, to less known writers such as Anna Hinderer, whose accounts were only published after her death. In conclusion, McEwan provides a solid analysis of women travel accounts of West Africa in the nineteenth century, highlighting common themes such as the description of the landscapes and natural environment which contributed to geographical knowledge of the time. At the same time such descriptions were used as tools to encourage colonization, as they were seen as vast landscapes to be explored, conquered and settled, often these landscapes were also romanticised in a mythical way, as was the case in other travel records of the Victorian times in contrast to the industrial revolution. The landscape writing of these women can be seen as extremely complex, as influenced by 19th century concepts of nature, science and imperial discourse. The same is true about the accounts of "the other", race and African women: "The relationship between race and gender is… of critical importance in the context of the British imperial culture" (p.203). These travel writings have contributed to creating prejudice and racial imagines in British imperialism and added to the construction of the portrayal of Africa as the "dark continent". McEwan states that her study has illustrated that "the 'dark continent'" was not a monolithic concept; it was formed by a complex production of knowledge and, therefore, open to a variety of interpretations." (p.212) She finally has explored the differences and the similarities between the travel accounts of these women from diverse cultural, social and economic backgrounds and this is reflected, for example, in their different positions concerning slavery.

7Her book provides also a plea to go beyond disciplinary boundaries to identify marginalized identities and knowledge. Her study is an analysis situated between geography, history, anthropology and cultural postcolonial theories. She concludes "The question remains, is the engagement by western academics with postcolonial theory simply a form of re-colonization, or is it now a case that 'we' are more willing to recognize the limits of our knowledge and be receptive to different ideas and different voices"? Let us hope that African researchers take up some of these points in the future to have a review of travel writing from completely different perspectives. With such a new approach "the old imperial discipline of geography can be said to have engaged fully with critiques of hegemonic knowledge production" (p.219)

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Mechtild Rössler, « McEwan C., 2000, Gender, geography and empire: Victorian women travellers in West Africa, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot, 256 p. », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Revue de livres, mis en ligne le 21 mai 2002, consulté le 24 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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