The Kate Marsden Expedition

How many female explorers have you heard of?

Furthermore, how many early female explores have you heard of?

Don't feel ashamed. Until relatively recently I certainly didn't know the names of any.

But there have been many female explorers over the centuries. Isabella Godin, Mary Kingsley, Isabella Bird, just to start naming a few….. These women ventured out into the unknown, in their long skirts and dresses, into unchartered lands and territories on their own expeditions.

The purpose of this trip is to try to trace the journey of early female explorer, Kate Marsden, and to try to recreate her venture. The idea will be to follow, as closely as possible, the same route she took all those years ago.

‘So who was Kate Marsden and where did she go?’ You ask.

Well I’ll tell you.

Born in 1859, Kate Marsden was a middle aged, British nurse and missionary. In 1891 travelled 14,000 miles from London, all the way to the far Eastern Siberian province of Yakutia and back.  

'Why on earth did she go to Siberia?' You demand to know.

Marsden had good reason to choose far Eastern Siberia. She was in search of a legendary herb……. A herb reputed to only grew above the arctic circle in the region of Yakutia. She had first heard rumours of the existence of this special herb from a British doctor in Constantinople.

'Sounds romantic but a lot of trouble? What was so special about this plant?’ I guess to be your next question.

The reason was that this special herb was said to have curative properties for leprosy.

‘Even so – it’s a lot of trouble to go all that way!’ You say. ‘It  certainly doesn’t go far enough to explain her motivation to embark on such an epic adventure. There must be another reason. I’m still not convinced she isn’t stupid!’

Indeed Marsden acknowledges that many doctors did not caring to risk health and life to search for the herb. Others had neither the time nor the money to spend months and perhaps years in investigating the matter, visiting the lepers in isolated regions and to test the properties of the herb in a systematic way. So why would she do it and where did her resources come from? We’ll come to this in a minute.

By her own account in 'The Leper' a talk she gave at the Congress of Women in 1893, Chicago, Marsden first saw lepers during the Russo-Turkish war (between 1876 and 1877) when on hospital duty.1 At the age of 16 Marsden had began working as a nurse in a hospital located in the outskirts of London. Then in 1877 she had joined the Red Cross Mission in Bulgaria and provided care of the sick and wounded Russian soldiers in the field hospitals.2 It was whilst she was in Bulgaria that she had her first encounter with leprosy victims. One day, whilst out in the countryside in search of a suitable place to set up a camp for wounded soldiers transported from the battlefields, she came into a small hut where she met two people whose bodies had been disfigured by leprosy.

In her own words:

'....the emotions caused by the sight of two poor, mutilated, and helpless Bulgarian's cannot be fully described.'

She was so impressed by the terrifying effects of the disease she decided to devote her future life to alleviating the sufferings of lepers,3 It was at this point, she says that the conviction took hold of her that her mission in life was to minister aid to their plight.[1]

Her original idea was to set of to the British colonies in order to organise a mission for helping the lepers, but she was convinced by her relatives not to go. Then, in 1890 she read an article on the 250,000 suffers of leprosy in India. The article described their poor state and the lack of proper care provided to them there. This article appears to have reignited her motivation to lend assistance, and, for the second time in her life, she resolved to travel to India and set up a charity organisation there and raised funds. She began by writing to the Royal family for support.4

Her plan of action was first to travel to Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus and Constantinople, and visit the colonies in order to learn more about the disease, the conditions in those countries and the care and treatment available to them there. In was in Constantinople (Istanbul) that she learned from an English doctor that there may exist a certain herb that had a curative effect on leprosy. A herb apparently existed somewhere in the Yakutian region of Siberia.

Marsden wasted no time, immediately travelled to St Petersberg, reaching the city by November 1890, where she applied to the Russian Empress with a plan to organising an expedition to Siberia to find the herb and bring the cure, not only to Russian and Yakutian lepers, but to lepers all over the world. The Russian Empress gave her audience and provided with the necessary funds for Marsden's expedition, along with a writ of her majesty's protection and the open list – a letter to the Siberian governors prescribing them to provide every possible support for Miss Marsden's mission and to cover any additional expense on her way. 6

The problem was, no one knew the name of the herb, nor what it looked like. It was rumoured that the shamans and medicine men of the Sakha people, indigenous to the area, jealously kept this herb a carefully guarded secret however.

‘Hang on HANG ON!’ You interrupt. ‘So your telling me, Marsden travelled all the way to Siberia, looking for something whose existence is based on rumour only! AND she didn’t know the name of or what it looked like? Why would she do that? Sounds a bit stupid to me.’

Well the answer is yet. The possible existence of a herb with legendary curative properties was enough to entice Marsden to endure the 14,000 mile journey – but don’t all explorers have to be a little be ‘off the cuff, a bit risk taking? That’s one of the qualities that make them explorers and the rest of the population not explorers.

Despite the odds being against her, Marsden nevertheless hoped the Sakha would reveal it to her, on the basis of her solely altruistic motives and merit.

She hoped that she would be the one to be able to persuade the natives to provide her with information as to the herbs identity.[2]  She acknowledged that no one who wished to make experiments with it from mercenary motives could hope to obtain any information. Would the natives disclose the secret to one who wished only to benefit lepers throughout the Russian Empire and whenever they existed in various parts of the world? Could they be persuaded to reveal all they knew to a woman who came to them for the sake of humanity and on behalf of Christ?’ She wondered…….

The aim of our trip is to try and follow, as closely as possible, the route that Marsden took, recreating her journey visiting as many of the places she visited as possible, as sourced from her book. We will ultimately aim to end our journey in Sosnovka – a tiny settlement deep in the Siberia Taiga. It is the place where Marsden eventually founded a colony and hospital for the outcast lepers in Yakutia…..more on this later.

Marsden wrote a book about, accounting her experience and adventure. It is titled On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers and was first published in 1892, by Record Press, a year after she began her journey. It is still possible to purchase copies of the book and it formed the most important resource for our expedition.

[1] Marsden, Kate, On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers .pg 4.
[2] Marsden, pg 3.

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