In honor of Women’s History Month this March, Worlds Revealed is featuring weekly posts about the history of women in geography and cartography. You can click on the “Women’s History Month” category see all related posts. Today’s blog, and last in the series, is by Tim St. Onge, a cartographer in the Geography and Map Division.
Many of the greatest maps in cartographic history have been borne out of expeditions and adventures into regions not well known to outsiders. Certainly the maps authored and annotated by Lewis and Clark in their explorations of the American West in the early 1800s come to mind as a prime example. The Lewis and Clark expedition was tasked primarily with mapping beyond the western frontier of the young United States, into regions inhabited by Native American but completely foreign to Euro-Americans settled in the east. Plenty of lesser known expeditions have contributed immensely to our understanding of world geography through maps of their travels, and one such explorer worth remembering is Lady Anne Blunt.
Lady Anne Blunt (born Anne King-Noel in 1837) was raised into the privilege of English high-society. Despite suffering through a tumultuous marriage to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Lady Anne became incredibly accomplished through her passions for writing, travel, and horses. In leading expeditions alongside her husband in the 1870s, Lady Anne became the first European woman to cross the northern Arabian Desert. Her main objective in these travels was to buy pureblood Arabian horses and bring them back to the Crabbet Arabian Stud, the Blunts’ horse breeding farm in England. Her efforts to save purebred Arabian horses were a success: today, it is estimated that more than 90 percent of Arabian horses in the world descended from the Blunts’ horses at the Crabbet Arabian Stud. Her journeys are well-documented in meticulous diary entries, impressive sketches and watercolor paintings, and two books: Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates and A Pilgrimage to Nejd.
Another valuable product of her expeditions, particularly to a geographer like me, is a map created by Edward Stanford illustrating her travels. Based on Lady Anne’s accounts of her expeditions in 1878 and 1879, Stanford was able to chart not only the routes of her journeys through the region but also important elements of the area’s physical and cultural geography at the time. Red text denotes the locations of Bedouin tribe settlements over the winter months, and in detailed annotations along the journey routes are descriptions of local irrigation practices, tribal relations, history and religion. Also included are pilgrimage routes to Mecca for the Haj and important landmarks, such as “Birs Nemroud,” the possible inspiration for the Tower of Babel.
Maps produced as a result of these kinds of expeditions can reveal fascinating insights into local landmarks and the experiences of travelers “on the ground.” Lady Anne Blunt’s objective wasn’t to map the region, per se, but her detailed, place-based observations allowed for Edward Stanford to map her travels. Through this map, in addition to her literature and art, we can appreciate the scale of Lady Anne Blunt’s adventures.