The Golden Chersonese by Isabella Bird

I wrote a post about The Golden Chersonese for Asian Books Blog.

A paperback edition of The Golden Chersonese was published in 2010 by Monsoon Books. The text is also available free from along with various other works by Isabella Bird.

Bird traveled around the world in the late 1800s, largely unaccompanied. This volume of hers, one among a dozen published works, contains letters describing her experiences in the Malaysian Peninsula, where she traveled after stopping briefly in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore.

Reading the letters without much in the way of added historical context left me feeling somewhat adrift, but the book was worth reading for the strange feeling it gave me of traveling not just in space but in time.

See below for some notes on what makes this travelogue very much of its time and not ours.

The Golden Chersonese as Time Travel

By sending us back in time, The Golden Chersonese can impart a sense of appreciation for knowledge, convenience, health and safety, and attitudes we might take for granted.

Bird’s descriptions of the physical appearance of different tribes and races of people strike me as uncomfortably patronizing whether positive or negative, and she is frank in both her disparagement (e.g., of Malays) and her admiration (e.g., of people she calls the Klings). Footnotes to explain whom she is referring to would have been useful; I turned to the internet and discovered that by ‘Klings’ Bird probably meant Tamils (or possibly South Asians generally), and that the term is now considered a slur.

Natural Science
Naturalists and scientists have collected, catalogued and classified hundreds of tropical plants and animals since Bird’s time. Her knowledge, which was at any rate not that of a specialist, is thus out of date: we do not call the large lizards of Southeast Asia alligators but crocodiles. The ants that piqued her curiosity, to which she devotes a fascinating series of paragraphs, have no doubt been studied more closely and described more precisely.

Snakes still pose some threat even in uber-urban Singapore. However, for better or for worse, wild tigers are responsible for far fewer human deaths in Southeast Asia than in previous centuries. There is a sense in which nature now needs protection from us, rather than the reverse.

Whereas Bird eventually gave up on a badly trained elephant and simply walked the last part of the way to Kuala Kangsa, Perak, we can much more easily travel throughout the peninsula on land, by boat or by air.

We now know that fevers are caused not by damp night air but by mosquitoes, which we can somewhat control with manufactured chemicals. We do not leech or bleed medical patients. Deaths of infants are rarer.

Human Rights
Bird believed British justice was fairer than the patchwork of laws haphazardly enforced by local rulers in the Malaysian Peninsula and advocated the abolition of debt slavery in the Malay States. Though today just law is by no means universal and slavery is not entirely extinguished in the region, it is good to look back and see that real progress has been made.

When and Why I Read The Golden Chersonese

"A nineteenth-century Englishwoman's travels in Singapore and the Malay peninsula."

Genre: travel / Southeast Asia
Date started / date finished: 09-Nov-20 to 23-Nov-20
Length: 352 pages
ISBN: 9789810844844
Originally published in: 1883/2010
Amazon link: The Golden Chersonese