Lola Rodriguez de Tio: An inspirational traveller, exile and revolutionary for International Women’s Day and beyond …..

Lola Rodriguez de Tio
Lola Rodriguez de Tio

Female travellers were not only famous for their travel alone. Some were prolific writers, poets or revolutionaries. Lola Rodríquez de Tío  was one such person.  She was  born in 1843 in St Germain, Puerto Rico. She later became one of Puerto Rico’s most distinguished nineteenth-century lyric poets.  Her early education took place in St Germain. Her schooling continued at home, where various intellectuals and politicians often met in informal literary and social circles. In 1876, her family moved to Mayagüez, where she published her first book of poetry, Mis cantares [My Songs],  She was also the first woman to give a speech at a graduation in Mayaguez. Her life can be represented by three phases: her home-life, her intellectual work and her political activities. In 1863, at the age of 20, Lola married Bonocio Tío Segarra, a well educated writer, who was politically active against the Spanish colonial regime. The couple made their home a centre of political gatherings and were both exiled for their activities, firstly in 1877, when they went to Venezuela. Most of Lola’s works were amalgamated in Obras completas [Complete Works] after her death.

Politics and Exile

In 1868, inspired by the call for Puerto Rican independence known as the Grito de Lares, Lola wrote patriotic lyrics to the tune of La borinqueña the song became very popular, but brought her into conflict with Spanish authorities. In 1877 Bonocio Tío, her husband, was exiled for having denounced the Spanish Governor of Puerto Rico and they lived for three years in Caracas, Venezuela. Upon their return to Puerto Rico the couple founded the magazine La Almojábana. They were exiled again in 1887, returning first to Venezuela and then to Cuba. Once in Havana, their home became a centre for politicians and intellectuals as well as exiled Puerto Ricans and it has been said they aided José Marti the Cuban revolutionary, by hiding weapons in their home.

In Cuba, Lola voiced her support for various Puerto Rican patriots jailed at El Morro [a prison]. With the publication of her book of poetry, entitled Mi libro de Cuba [My Cuban Book], and her continued revolutionary activities, Lola and her husband in 1889 were exiled once more to New York City.

It’s stormy outside, but I didn’t know there had been an earthquake!

Whilst in Mexico in 2003 I was awoken by my landlord in the middle of the night bellowing ‘Telefono, telefono, Inglaterra!’ The dark outside, the hour, and the thought that someone was calling me from England who had been well briefed on the time difference, made me think the worse: someone had died or was gravely ill. A moment later my nerves were calmed as my sister explained they had heard on the news about the Colima earthquake and wondered if I was anywhere near to it. I wasn’t. In fact I was miles away and I didn’t even know there had been an earthquake, not having yet heard the news. After a brief conversation and all fears in England were allayed I returned to bed thinking: what if? What would I do if someone passed away in London whilst I was abroad? How would I cope with the shock and grief? On another note I wondered, how my family would cope if the inevitable had happened, I did not come home.

I have investigated between 40-50 diaries, published letters, journals, narratives and memoir which were written by women of various nationalities in the mid-late nineteenth century who travelled abroad. Although my research has mainly been concerned with women, I also examined men’s writing as well. Taking this comparison into account, I still found it difficult to track a distinct feminine way of writing. However, nineteenth century women witer-travellers did exhibit some habits within their texts which were distinct from men’s travel writing, most of which I won’t bore you with here! Nonetheless, one thing is certain, they often used their letters as an outlet for their feelings and emotions, even on short holidays. Although I have to be careful not to be ‘gender blind’ as it is easy to do when writing something that you pertain women exclusively did or do; still, I have increasingly become interested in women’s emotional reactions to situations they find themselves in abroad.

maria grahamThis can be grief, sadness, empathy, joy, happiness, in relation to such situations as being
widowed, a sudden death, health difficulties, difficult scenes (such as slavery) and natural disasters. For example, Maria Graham’s journal (left) of her travels to Chile (published in 1824) is not only famous for its insights on Latin American history, (filled with illustrations like below right) but because her Sea Captain husband died of a fever whilst they travelled, leaving her widowed.  Graham’s subsequent published journals about Chile and Brazil, contained numerous descriptions on her state of health and how she coped with her grief whilst abroad. She wrote: ‘This afternoon I stood at my window, looking over the bay. The captain’s barge, of the Doris, brought ashore the remains of my indulgent friend, companion, and husband’. There is no doubt that Graham stayed abroad as long as she did after her husband’s death as a way to deal with her grief

landscapeand indeed recuperate her health which was severly effected by that grief.  In terms of women’s state of health I also found that travelling to regain, health often tied to leisure, was a very common reason for travel in the first place. This is reflected in the following passage from Clara Bromley’s travels to the Caribbean and Central America in 1853:’The following pages contain a short narrative of travel in South America, Mexico and the West Indies, undertaken by the author for the renovation of health and spirits, severely shaken by domestic losses during the preceding year. The author gladly takes this occasion of expressing her grateful sense of the kindness, courtesy, and hospitality she met with from all whom she came across during her tour”.

It is no surprise therefore that somewhere in women’s written emotional reactions to their travel experience, they recounted their state of health whilst they were on holiday. These explanation were sometimes a continuation of what they were experiencing back home, as Clara Bromley’s explanation for her travel to recuperate from ‘domestic losses’ so aptly described.

cropped-eastward-ho-1857-after-h-n-oneil-001.jpgAs these two examples show, life did not stop for these women simply because they were abroad. Today, travel brochures would have us believe just that fact. The plethora of TV Holiday advertisements we get bombarded with after Christmas, travel web sites and newspaper supplements, plead to us to take a break from life by going abroad. It is only in these times of austerity, and the cosy pro-England feel that the 2012 Jubilee celebrations and Olympics brought, that vacation suggestions now include the stay-cation or holidaying in England into our consciousness.  However, even nineteenth century women found that they were enticed by early holiday advertisements, one Mrs Foote who travelled to Nicaragua in 1853-4 had ‘selected the route through Nicaragua, having been induced to do so by the glowing advertisements and verbal assurances of all the Company’s agents, who represented it to be in perfect condition for the transit of passengers’. In fact, Mrs Foote’s journey was horrendous, where she wrote about her encounter with a live volcano: ‘We were awakened in the night by the strong and suffocating smell of sulphur, and on opening the outer door found a thick shower of ashes falling continuously, and silently’.

concordiaThere were not many women who discussed their emotional reactions to dire disaster but as Mrs Foote demonstrated, there were some. Eliza Fenwick for instance, who went to Barbados in 1814 also wrote of her experiences during a hurricane on the island around the same time. We all know someone who has suffered from at least unexpected bad weather whilst on holiday – let alone tragedy; Hurricane Sandy’s recent battering of the East Coast is testimony to that as is today’s Japanese quake! Disasters both natural and otherwise are numerous like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tshnami and earthquake and the Costa Concordia (above left)  shipping disaster in January of this year. The only difference with contemporary accounts as compared to nineteenth century ones, is that with the former contemporary reports of disasters come through multiple mediums. We have the choice of watching startling and often disturbing imagery, to a plethora of accounts from news bulletins in print, Television and internet; and oral testimonies and documentaries.Whilst I watched the awful events of the Concordia disaster earlier this year, ironically in the 100 year’s anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I was surprised at the parallels which could be drawn with some of the women I had researched. For example Miss Metcalf’s  wrote a note to her mother and posted on Facebook ‘my name is Rose, its Friday 13th and I am one of the last survivors still on board the sinking cruise ship off the coast of Italy, pray for us to be saved’. The ability to connect to each other with such immediacy, unlike nineteenth century women’s experience, doesn’t hide the fact that the human need to communicate her fears to someone else was at the forefront of her mind even as ‘the water rose’.


So why do I have an interest in all things emotional and as it turns out, catastrophic again? Oh yes! travel – which can sometimes run the risk of getting lost in the analysis – something to watch! Perhaps my Mexican ‘so near to an earthquake experience’ scarred me for life? Though I did turn to my pen and write copiously about my experience there…(note to share with you at some point!) Or maybe I just have a preoccupation with disaster. One of my other pastime is watching disaster movies –  you figure it out!!

Sea sickness was often written about, and depicted in cartoons, by nineteenth-century travel writers. seasickness

Why write about women travellers

Definition of travel

Throughout this blog you may see the term ‘writer-traveller’. I use this term for the women I am going to introduce you to, because they were generally women who travelled and wrote about their experiences abroad whilst there or on their return home.These writings were generally in the form of letters, diaries, memoirs, travel narratives, or historical studies.

Why write about the history of travel?

My research into women travellers is based on my family’s own history of travel from the Caribbean to England in the 1950s and my own personal racial combination of Barbadian and Scottish heritage. The realisation at a young age, that I am connected to other places apart from the one I live in, has led me to develop a keen interest in the movement of people and how this movement can lead to change in the individual or further exploration of the ‘self’.I consider my own travels as a continuum of my ancestors’ removal from Africa to the Caribbean. My own travel spans twenty years, through Europe, the Caribbean, Central America and back home to England. These experiences led me to re-evaluate my personal history and to historical research. I look predominantly at women who went to the Caribbean, Latin and Central America.

Through my writing, I also want to dispel the myth that all women who travelled in the nineteenth century were English, white and middle-class. Although my research has shown that the majority were, there were also women of other nationalities who were travelling for many reasons. Mary Seacole (above left), travelled extensively throughout her lifetime to England, Cuba, Haiti and Panama. She most famously travelled to the Crimea to nurse the sick during the British-Russian war in 1855. My definition of ‘travel’ is therefore broad encompassing the explosion in leisure travel which occured in the mid nineteenth century, to examining travel as a result of  exile and forced migration.

Witness against Slavery – The Story of Mary Prince

Witness against Slavery – The Story of Mary Prince

“Oh the horrors of slavery!” … the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate …. I have been a slave – I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free” Mary Prince

Mary Prince was born a slave in 1788 in Brackish Pond, Devonshire Parish, Bermuda. Her mother was a house servant and her father a sawyer. Prince’s earliest years were spent in a succession of households in Bermuda, mainly as a domestic servant. She came to England in 1828 with her owners (The Woods) where she worked as their house servant. After pleas to the Woods to grant her manumission (freedom) were unsuccessful, Prince left the Woods household in November 1828. She eventually found employment with Thomas Pringle in 1829. Pringle was the then editor of the Anti-Slavery Reporter.

One of the Reporters’ aims was to expose atrocities in the British colonies, and therefore Pringle decided to sponsor Prince to write a narrative of her experiences of slavery, and in addition to start the process of obtaining her freedom from slavery, by petitioning Parliament. This was a long process which ran from 1828-33.

The autobiographical narrative A History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, was eventually published in London in 1831 it was so successful it went into three editions. Prince actually dictated her narrative to an abolitionist, Susana Strickland, who was staying at the home of Pringle, but the Narrative was Prince’s idea, as she actually said that she wanted people in England to ‘hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered’. The Narrative is multi-layered; firstly it contains biographical information about her young life; secondly graphic descriptions of the brutal treatment Prince received at the hands of most of her owners; and thirdly it reads as a late eighteenth-century anti-slavery text. The Woods returned to Antigua before the petition to Parliament was resolved but 1833 saw the emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire.

Why is Mary Prince an important figure to remember in Black History Month?

Ziggi Alexander in the Introduction to the reprinted edition of the Narrative aptly writes: ‘Her story is of interest because she stressed not only the suffering and indignities of enslavement, but also the triumphs of the human spirit. She demonstrated how a woman can be enslaved and yet not be a slave’. What Alexander means by this is that Prince did not accept her enslaved state, and continually fought against this condition. There are examples in the Narrative which showed her strong spirit and resistance to slavery. She displayed open resistance towards her tormentors. For example, after ‘Captain I beat [her] till she was unable to stand’, she found the strength to run away to her mother where she stayed a long while; on another occasion when she returned from the Turks Islands where she had been working in the salt ponds for about five years, Prince defended the daughter of her owner Mr D who he had beaten: she wrote ‘I strove with all my strength to get her away from him. He had beat her with his fist, and almost killed her’.

Astoundingly, Prince not only seemed to emerge stronger from each round of ill-treatment from her masters, but was instrumental in engineering her trip to England with the Woods. It was at Prince’s suggestion to her owner Mr D that she was sold to the Woods. Many slaves believed that they would be free in England because news of abolitionists’ work reached the colonies. Prince was no exception and siad that ‘My husband was willing for me to come away [to England] heard that my master would free me’. Her persistence took a lot of courage and importantly, her removal to England was instrumental in her story being told.

Indeed, Prince was not reticent about sharing her horrendous experience of slavery. The narrative contains graphic descriptions of the degradation that Prince experienced. The humiliation she suffered was so great that she often wished she could ‘escape from this cruel bondage and be at rest in the grave’. Prince’s story is also an invaluable historical source. As well as retelling her own story of brutality, Prince retold other slaves’ experiences too: “While I was in the country, I saw how the field negroes are worked in Antigua. They are worked very hard and fed but scantily. They are called out to work before daybreak, and come home after dark’. These facts also make her story an important part of black history.

Her narrative is not only a personal account of a black female slave, but part of the history of the fight for emancipation from slavery in England. It was the first anti-slavery petition by a black woman to the British Parliament.

Prince’s story was criticised at the time by the Woods and James Macqueen, a prominent anti-slavery campaigner, for being simply a tool for the Anti-slavery society. These criticisms were played out in the press surrounding two law-suits brought in 1833, ironically the year of Emancipation, and both reported in The Times. In the first case, Pringle sued the editor of the Blackwoods magazine, Thomas Cadell, and Pringle won. Cadell had published a diatribe by James Macqueen’s against Prince which portrayed her as a scandalous and abusive woman.The second was brought by Wood for slander against Pringle which Wood won by default because Pringle could not bring witnesses from the West Indies to prove his allegations against Prince. In the second case, Prince gave a testimony on many of the atrocities against her and it was easy for Wood’s team to claim that the abolitionists had censored many of these facts to push forward their own cause. However, it must be noted that even if her experiences were retold to help the abolitionists cause, this did not diminish her Narrative’s message.

Today her narrative can be read as an important part of the parliamentary history of the abolition of slavery in England.  Prince had the unique role, however brief, of representing the mass of enslaved people in the British West Indies.    In 2007 Prince’s contribution to the ending of slavery was recognised, by the locating of a plaque  in her honour at the University of London’s Senate House, the site of the house where she lived in 1829.

Further Reading:

L. Bracks, Writings on Black Women of the Diaspora (1998)

M. Ferguson (ed.), The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Related by Herself (1987)