"Miss Tinne, who after the severest domestic afflictions, nobly persevered in the teeth of every difficulty" - The Dutch explorer and africanist Alexandrine Petronella Francina Tinne

17 October 1835, the Dutch explorer and africanist Alexandrine Petronella Francina Tinne was born in the Hague.
“The work of Speke and Grant is deserving of highest commendation, inasmuch as they opened up an immense tract of previously unexplored country. But none rises higher in my estimation than the Dutch lady, Miss Tinne, who after the severest domestic afflictions, nobly persevered in the teeth of every difficulty.“ (David Livingstone)

A somewhat romantic portrait of Alexandrine Tinne on horseback 
by Henri Montpezat (1849, Haags Historisch Museum)

Female explorers were not unheard of during the 19th century. Lady Hester Stanhope and Jane Digby became something like beacons of beacons of travel and high adventure in the Near and Middle East, Mary Kingsley went to West Africa and Isabella Bird to Asia, later Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark set new standards in archaeology and exploration and all had been at least on an equal footing with their male counterparts. And like their male counterparts, many didn’t die in their beds of old age. Tropical diseases and exhaustion were a danger to men and women alike and so were other natural hazards. And some met violent deaths. Alexandrine Tinne was one of them. But her story began as eccentric and along the same lines of being born with a silver spoon in her mouth like that of most of the others. The daughter of a wealthy Dutch diplomat and merchant was well educated and travelled a lot and when her father died in 1845, she became one of the richest heiresses in the Netherlands.

A water colour by Alexandrine Tinne of a room in Beyrouth, captured during her stay there in 1857

Her first real adventure was set off by a rather conventional dream of mid-19th century Europe – finding the sources of the Nile. Thus, Alexandrine learned Arabic, corresponded with the explorer John Henning Speke, agreed to meet him on the upper reaches of the river on the border between Egypt and Sudan, organised an expedition stocked with every imaginable luxury, packed her mother and her aunt and went up the river in 1862. Speke didn’t turn up though, but Alexandrine met the German explorers Theodor von Heuglin and Hermann Steudner in Khartoum and together they moved on to South Sudan and the Bahr el Ghazal river, the main western tributary of the Nile, together with 65 native bearers and bodyguards, two Dutch maids, mother and aunt in tow. The adventurous trio made significant discoveries during their stay, pushing farther south, surmising the existence of a lake in middle Congo. All members of the expedition suffered from fever during the year they stayed in Central Africa, but in 1864, first Steudner died of it, then Alexandrine’s mother, the two Dutch maids followed and finally, after they had returned to Khartoum, the aunt passed away. Alexandrine wouldn’t forgive herself for the rest of her life that she dragged them with her on the expedition. Nonetheless, her ethnographic collection was brought to England by her half-brother who tried to persuade her to return to Europe with him, she decided to stay, though, and lived the following four years in Cairo, a bit like Hester Stanhope and Jane Digby.

A German imagination of Alexandrine Tinne as Queen of the Desert 
(Die Gartenlaube, 1869)

Then she decided to become the first European woman to cross the great Sahara desert from Tripoli to Lake Chad and meet en route with the fabled Tuareg tribes. Her first attempt failed and her wonderful new bicycle, rather inappropriate for desert forays but modestly equipped with a sidesaddle, was made a present to the Pasha of Tripoli. Undeterred, she hired two Dutch sailors as bodyguards and set forth from Tripoli again on January 1st 1869, this time with a more sensibly equipped expedition and Alexandrine bringing her considerable desert experience to bear. Unusual were just the ice machine she dragged along with with her and two large water tanks. After meeting the famous German africanist Gustav Nachtigal in Murzuq, 650 miles south of Tripoli, she proceeded further south into Tuareg country and allowed herself to accept a new local guide and the rumour spread that the tanks her expedition carried were full of gold coins as presents for local chieftains. On 1 August near the oasis of Ghāt, 300 miles further to the southwest at the borders of Algeria, 12 Tuareg camel riders entered her camp, her new guide ominously disappeared all of the sudden and a quarrel broke out with the expedition’s Arab servants. One of the sailors tried to settle the dispute and was run through with a lance, Alexandrine raised her arms in a gesture to pacify the parties that was mistaken for drawing a gun, another Tuareg hew off her right hand with his sword, she fell and slowly bled to death. Her body was recovered a couple of days later. Much of her legacy was destroyed during the air raids on the Hague and the Blitz on Liverpool, where her brother had bequeathed her collection to the National Museums, but her memory remains as an eccentric but courageous explorer with not inconsiderable botanical and ethnographic achievements.

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