Ida Pfeiffer was born in Vienna, Austria, as Ida Reyer. She had five or six brothers and was treated as one of the boys by her father. As a young girl, she wore boys’ clothes and received the same education as her brothers. She was also encouraged to participate in strenuous outdoor activities to help develop physical strength and independence.
Her father died when Ida was nine years old at which point her mother encouraged her to take up activities and clothing more suitable for a young lady of her time. She reluctantly started wearing dresses and took piano lessons.
At age seventeen, she fell in love with her tutor and he with her. They wanted to marry, but Ida’s mother forbade it. She wanted a better match for her daughter. Finally, in 1820, when Ida was 22 years old, she agreed to marry Pfeiffer, a widower much older than herself. Pfeiffer was a lawyer and held an important position in the Austrian government. Later, the Pfeiffers had two sons together.
Some time after their marriage, her husband lost his government position and the family found itself poor. Ida started giving music and drawing lessons to earn money but that amount didn’t meet their needs and she asked her brothers to help finance her sons’ schooling. After her mother died in 1831 and left her a small inheritance, there was just enough money for living expenses and for the boys’ education. In 1835, the Pfeiffers separated. By 1842 both sons had established their own homes and Ida was free of family obligations. She decided to travel.
Ida went first to the Holy Land, ostensibly on a pilgrimage, knowing that in choosing this destination she would encounter less disapproval from family and friends who were already alarmed at her decision to travel alone. She was not oblivious to the dangers to which she was exposing herself. In fact, she thought there was a strong possibility she would not return. So, she made out her last will and testament and proceeded on her journey.
She sailed the Danube River to the Black Sea, went to Constantinople (now Istanbul), to Jerusalem, and then to Cairo. She visited the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, where she learned to ride a dromedary. From there she went to the Isthmus of Suez and took a boat for the return trip home by way of Italy. She published her memoirs from the trip, Visit to the Holy Land, Egypt, and Italy in 1846 and used the money thus earned to finance a trip to Iceland.
Unlike other travelers to Iceland of the time, Ida traveled alone and on a tight budget. She made her way around on pony carts and lived like the Icelanders. She complained that the local people were crude, their homes dirty and their meals boring, composed of mostly porridge and fish. After a six month stay, she returned home and wrote her observations as Journey to Iceland, and Travels in Sweden and Norway. She also brought back samples of plants and rocks she had collected in Iceland which she sold to museums.
She next planned to go around the world. In 1846 she departed for Rio de Janeiro on a Danish ship. Previous visitors to that South American port had praised its scenic beauty, while Ida was repelled by its filth and poverty. Unimpressed by their “civilized” cities and plantations, she hired a guide and went into the rain forest to investigate the Indians.
She found the beauty of the rain forest enchanting but once she reached the tribe of Puri Indians, she was disappointed. She thought the Indians primitive and savage. As a European Christian, she felt superior to them.
Ida continued on to China. On the way, she stopped in Tahiti and was scandalized by the carefree, sexual behavior of Tahitian women. She entered China from Macao, a Portuguese colony, then traveled on a junk, a traditional Chinese cargo boat, to the city of Canton. She visited a well-known biologist, Louis Agassiz, who was there on a scientific mission. In Canton she made many excursions around the city, often dressed in man’s clothing for safety. She observed local people and their customs. Again, her opinion of them was rather negative.
Ida Pfeiffer found India much more to her liking. She spent several months there, traveling with almost no baggage. She carried only a leather pouch for water, a small pan for cooking, some salt, bread and rice. She was often fed and given shelter by the local people.
She continued on to Baghdad in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) where she joined a camel caravan for a 300-mile journey across the desert to the city of Mosul and then to Tabriz in northern Persia. The British consul stationed in Tabriz was amazed to see her. He didn’t think it possible for a woman to travel alone in that part of the world without even knowing local languages.
Tired of traveling through countries she thought backward, she happily joined a caravan going toward Russia, where she was looking forward to seeing Christian folk again. Unfortunately, she was just as disappointed with the Russian people. She was soon arrested under a suspicion of being a spy and held overnight while her identity was being investigated. She wrote in her journal, “Oh you good Arabs, Turks, Persians, Hindoos! How safely did I pass through your heathen and infidel countries; and here, in Christian Russia, how much have I had to suffer in this short space.” Continuing westward through Turkey, Greece and Italy, she returned home in November 1848. Her most recent adventures published as A Lady’s Voyage Round the World made her famous.
After announcing that she was ready to travel again in 1851, she received many invitations from Europeans stationed all over the world, as well as offers of free transportation from railroad and steamship companies.
After sailing from London to Cape Town, she continued to Singapore and Borneo. Ida Pfeiffer spent six months in Borneo traveling through the almost impenetrable rain forest. Ignoring her advisers, she visited the Dyak tribe known for practicing ritual headhunting. Surprisingly, Ida liked and admired the Dyaks. She wrote, “I shuddered, but I could not help asking myself whether, after all, we Europeans are not really just as bad or worse than these despised savages? Is not every page of our history filled with horrid deeds of treachery and murder?” She then said, “I should like to have passed a longer time among the free Dyaks, as I found them, without exception, honest, good-natured, and modest in their behavior. I should be inclined to place them, in these respects, above any of the races I have ever known.”
Her next stop was Sumatra in Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Again, disregarding her European advisers, she set out to visit the Batak tribe, known to be cannibals and who had never allowed a European into their territory. The Batak treated her as a curiosity and passed her from tribe to tribe. Ida was much less at ease with the Batak, especially after they made a gesture that they wanted to kill and eat her. She was frightened but made a joke, saying in broken Batak that she was too old and tough to make good eating. This amused them and they let her go for the time being. She eventually made her escape unharmed. She was the first person to report on the Batak way of life.
Ida then sailed to San Francisco, and visited the Andes of South America. She returned home after a four-year absence. Her book, A Lady’s Second Journey Around the World was a best-seller. She was elected to the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris, but the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain refused to admit her because she was a woman.
Ida Pfeiffer made yet another trip. She went to Madagaskar off the coast of Africa. Soon after arrival, she found herself a prisoner of Queen Ranavalona for taking part in a plot to overthrow the queen. Eventually, she was released. However, she became ill with a tropical disease from which she did not recover. Ida Pfeiffer died in Vienna in 1858.