The Exotic Orient Through the Eyes of Female Writers in the Colonial Period

By Tam Kuan Ho*

 “My mind filled with dreams of tiger shooting, cobra killing, dacoit hunting, and other venturesome deeds.”

Beth Ellis, An English Girl’s First Impression of Burmah, 4.

In 1898, Beth Ellis travelled to Burma for six months at the invitation of her sister. Returning to England, she penned a travel book detailing her journey and experience in Burma. Before Ellis had left, she imagined the adventures she would have and “brought a great many unnecessary things, as is ever the custom with inexperienced travellers” [1]. Although she had not left England, she had already “seen” Burma through the countless travelogues and other literary works produced in the preceding centuries. Her trip to Burma was not to uncover the Orient but to experience the exotic Orient as she knew from books and writings – a situation faced by other female travel writers of the period.

Figure 1: A Javanese Young Woman, in Java: The Garden of the East, by E. R. Scidmore, 27.

Colonial-era narratives of travel are filled with male writers and figures who travelled to Southeast Asia in recognisable roles such as soldiers, administrators, missionaries, and merchants. However, female writers and travellers were also present, travelling to the region for more varied reasons: Beth Ellis went to Burma in 1898 to visit her married sister; Mary Helen Fee travelled to the Philippines in 1901 as a teacher employed by the US government; Maud Huntly Jenks travelled to the Philippines in 1902 to accompany her husband on his new posting; and Rachel Wheatcroft travelled throughout the region in the 1920s, taking up intermittent teaching positions in Ceylon and Siam to cover her expenses [2]. Most interestingly, Margaret Brooke travelled for the first time to Sarawak in 1870 with her husband Charles Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, transplanting herself into the position of an Eastern ruler [3].

Works by researchers such as David Lawrimore and Christine Doran have used female travelogues to explore how women negotiated their positions as a woman and as colonisers in a foreign environment [4]. Though these positions may be in tension, these women were undoubtedly representatives of empire and how they viewed Southeast Asia concurred with the hegemonic discourse in the metropole.

The Orient was already understood and recognised as an exotic locale by female travel writers before their travels. As mentioned, Ellis was aware of the possible adventures and incidents that could befall her before her journey. She recounts the poem “Mandalay” by Rudyard Kipling, a significant piece of popular culture in late 1800s Britain [5]. Similarly, Wheatcroft noted that she “was to find myself in Conrad country” upon her boat entering Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River, and showed familiarity with Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line and Almayer’s Folly [6]. She also credited Zhou Daguan and George Groslier as authors whose writings helped her understand the locations and sites she visited [7]. Lastly, Brooke learned of Sarawak, pirates, and head-hunting Dyaks from the book Ten Years in Sarawak written by her soon-to-be husband.

Female travelogues tapped into the corpus of Southeast Asia travel writings and used descriptions and anecdotes built up by other previous travellers. Interest in imperialism and empire permeated the popular culture of Europe and the United States [8]. Travel books feeding off this popular interest helped to construct “ways of ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’ the world,” determining what was important for visitors to see, to be revisited and rewritten about by later writers [9]. By pre-determining what were the significant sites and experiences, constructing a fixed way of viewing Southeast Asia, the pre-existing corpus of travel writings helped to set expectations for these female travel writers.

Figure 2: Orang-utan, in The Golden Chersonese, by Isabella Bird, 14.

Having understood the popular discourse about the Orient before their arrival, female writers sought to reassure the readers and themselves of the Orient’s supposed exoticism. In book titles and content, they repeated well-established Oriental tropes. For instance, E.R. Scidmore titled her book Java: The Garden of the East and used biblical themes in her writing of Java: “Over sea and sky and the wonderland before us was all the dewy freshness of dawn in Eden” [10]. Another example is that native peoples are to be spoken of, and to have their characteristics, personality, behaviour, and habits described and judged through a Western lens. Elizabeth Mershon, a missionary who worked in Borneo, titled her travelogue With the Wild Men of Borneo but stated in the opening paragraph “that the ‘wild men from Borneo’ is not such a bad fellow after all” [11]. She goes on to describe the Dyaks’ customs and habits and the practice of headhunting [12]. Such information did not present anything new about the Dyaks but was essential to the maintenance of exoticism within her travel narrative.

Figure 3: Dyaks in Native Costume, in With the Wild Men of Borneo, by Elizabeth Merson, 34.

Single episodes of danger (imagined or otherwise) also served to support the feelings of exoticism and danger in readers. Mershon recounted:

“Presently a form loomed ahead of me. In the dim light, I saw that it was a native with a huge club in his hand, going in the same direction… I knew that one blow from that club would kill me, and after being relieved of the money in my pocket, my body would provide food for the crocodiles in the river close by, and no one would be the wiser. Fear gripped my heart, but the promises of God came into my mind.”

Mershon, With the Wild Men of Borneo, 75.

Perhaps not repeating these ideas may have harmed their credibility amongst the public back home, who had come to expect tales of adventure. Ellis, as stated previously, had similar expectations. In her book, she described her experience of joining a tiger’s hunt, although her only role was to sit in a tree and observe the men [13]. More humorously, Ellis wrote of several dangerous adventures and events which turned out to be false such as a dacoit attack on her gharry which “had been only a dream” and an encounter with a “python” which upon closer inspection was just “the fallen branch of a tree” [14].

Even when these female writers were not the main actors, such episodes of adventure, danger, and exoticism were central elements for a travel narrative of the Orient. However, with the increasing modernisation and westernisation of the Orient in the 20th century, some were not fond of what they saw as the loss of character in Southeast Asia – something we’ll cover in the next article.

Reprints of some colonial-era travelogues by women authors available at ISEAS Library:


[1] Beth Ellis, An English Girl’s First Impressions of Burmah (Wigan: R. Platt, 1899; Bangkok: White Orchid Press, 1997), 4. Citations refer to the White Orchid Press edition.
[2] Ellis, An English Girl’s First Impressions, 4; Carmen Nelson Richards, ed., Death Stalks the Philippine Wilds (Minneapolis: The Lund Press, 1950), 1; Mary Helen Fee, A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1912; Claremont: The Paige Press, 2005), 11-12. Citations refer to The Paige Press edition; Rachel Wheatcroft, Siam and Cambodia: In Pen and Pastel (Geography: The London Geographical Institute, 1929; Delhi: Gian Publishing House, 1986), 1. Citations refer to the Gian Publishing House edition.
[3] Margaret Brooke, Good Morning and Good Night (London: Constable, 1934).
[4] Christine Doran, “Golden Marvels and Gilded Monsters: Two Women’s Accounts of Colonial Malaya,” Asian Studies Review 22, no. 2 (1998): 175–192,; David Keoni Lawrimore, “Imperial Ambivalence: Gender, Discourse and Empire in Early Twentieth-Century Women’s Travel Narratives of the Philippines,” Interventions 17, no. 4 (2015): 585–602;
[5] Ellis, An English Girl’s First Impressions, 56-59.
[6] Wheatcroft, Siam and Cambodia, 85.
[7] Wheatcroft, Siam and Cambodia, 67.
[8] Dunlaith Bird, Travelling in Different Skins: Gender Identity in European Women’s Oriental Travelogues, 1850-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 5-6.
[9] Han Mui Ling, “From Travelogues to Guidebooks: Imagining Colonial Singapore, 1819-1940,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 18, no. 2 (2003): 257–278.
[10] E. R. Scidmore, Java: The Garden of the East (New York: The Century Co., 1899; Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 17. Citations refer to the Oxford University Press edition.
[11] Elizabeth Mershon, With the Wild Men of Borneo (USA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1922; Kota Kinabalu: Natural History Publication (Borneo), 1999), 13. Citations refer to the Natural History Publication edition.
[12] Mershon, With the Wild Men of Borneo, 34-42.
[13] Ellis, An English Girl’s First Impressions, 221-232.
[14] Ellis, An English Girl’s First Impressions, 63-66; 180-182.

*Tam Kuan Ho was an undergraduate intern at the ISEAS Library from May to August 2023.

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