By the autumn of 1913, Maria Czaplicka had begun organizing a field trip to Siberia. She intended to study the nomadic reindeer herders who lived above the Arctic Circle to the east of the great Yenisei River. Relatively little was known about the people living in the expansive territories of north- central Siberia. There had been Russian and American- led expeditions, including the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, which surveyed the cultures of far- eastern Siberia during the early 1900s, but none had been to the central regions. Czaplicka wanted to find communities that were still untouched by industrial life, which would mean travelling north for weeks, first by boat down the Yenisei, then by sledge over the snow, across the sparsely populated frozen wilderness in search of small groups of herders living in reindeerhide tents.
She would not go alone. Czaplicka planned to travel with a friend of hers, an American named Henry Hall. Hall was crucial to her plans, but he is a shadowy figure in her story and little is known about his early life or his professional motivation. Born in Jamaica in 1876, he was eight years older than Maria. He had emigrated to America in his mid- twenties and worked as a teacher in New York City for eleven years before moving to London, where he studied anthropology at the London School of Economics. He never took a university degree, and although he went to lectures at the LSE he was not officially registered as a student there and must have attended on a casual basis. Whatever the nature of their first meeting, by the autumn of 1913 he and Maria were living at the same lodging house in Bloomsbury: 58 Torrington Square. Maria was finishing Aboriginal Siberia in the library at the British Museum, and Hall was studying at the LSE. That winter they worked together to secure their trip to Siberia for the spring of 1914.
Czaplicka and Hall presented their collaboration as purely professional and hid the fact that they were living together from their correspondents. Czaplicka wrote to her friends in Oxford and London using her Torrington Square address but to Hall’s contacts in America using her Somerville College one, while Hall maintained his own correspondence with them from Torrington Square.
Robert Marett, her anthropology tutor at Oxford, was uneasy about Czaplicka’s friendship with Hall, whom he had not met (Marett believed, mistakenly, that Hall was a professor of mathematics). Neither of them had any money to travel, so Marett suggested financial backers to Hall, but it is clear from his correspondence that he did so for the sake of Czaplicka and the expedition. He told Hall to apply to the director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, George B. Gordon, because he had heard that Gordon might have money for expeditions in exchange for contributions to his museum collections. Czaplicka had already promised to collect Siberian artefacts for the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, and now Hall promised to do the same for Gordon.
After several months of correspondence, Gordon agreed to give Hall $1500 (approximately £300), even though Hall had no qualifications and Gordon knew very little about him. No doubt it helped that Marett wrote to endorse the expedition and that Hall presented it as a joint venture with the University of Oxford; in fact Czaplicka had been given only a nominal £25 by Oxford, and the rest of her funding was still in doubt. Marett, meanwhile, admitted to Gordon that he did not know Hall, and explained that they were trying to find other people to join the expedition because ‘Miss C (who is fairly young and pretty) can’t go off by herself with a solitary man, however respectable, to live on the Siberian tundra.’
That spring, two women agreed to join the expedition, to Marett’s relief. Maud Haviland was an ornithologist who had grown up roaming her stepfather’s estate in southeast Ireland and was a good game- shot. She was practical, independent and passionate about birds. In her book about the Siberian trip, A Summer on the Yenesei, she wrote that she joined the expedition late, having been won over by Czaplicka’s intelligence, energy and ‘most winning address’. The fourth member of the group was Dora Curtis, an illustrator who planned to sketch their travels and the people they met. Curtis would turn out to be ‘the life of the party’, a good cook, always positive and everyone’s friend. ‘A better comrade for such a journey it would be impossible to find,’ wrote Haviland later, and Czaplicka agreed that Curtis was a most helpful member of the team. Haviland, meanwhile, would spend most of her time in Siberia striding across the tundra shooting birds and was little interested in the ethnological questions that preoccupied the others. According to press reports, two additional men were originally included in the team – G.A. Whyte, who was to have made ‘physiological observations’, and a man from the school of forestry at a Scottish university – but at the last minute they withdrew.
The group had to leave England before the end of May in order to reach the Yenisei River, their route north through Siberia, as the winter ice was breaking up. The Yenisei was open for only five months of the year so it was imperative that they left in time to make the most of their summer above the Arctic Circle, but by early May, Czaplicka still had not secured her funding. She had been hoping to receive money from two scientific societies in Moscow but they had let her down.
Could Marett have done more to help her? By appealing to wealthy men’s colleges at Oxford for support he had successfully raised nearly £200 for one of his male students, Diamond Jenness, who went to do fieldwork in the D’Entrecasteaux Islands off the east coast of New Guinea. He did not do the same for Czaplicka, believing she was more likely to raise funds from those interested in ‘the cause of the education of women’. In desperation, just a couple of weeks before their departure date, Czaplicka appealed to her alma mater again. On 9 May, she wrote a letter to the secretary of the Mary Ewart Trust at Somerville, which had funded Freire- Marreco’s travel to New Mexico, to ask if they would support her. Emily Penrose was one of the three trustees, along with Charles Buller Heberden, principal of Brasenose College, and Charlotte Green, vice- president of Somerville Council. These three met informally on 18 May, and agreed to grant Czaplicka £200. Charlotte Green took it upon herself to personally advance half of the money to the Russian Bank for Foreign Trade in Czaplicka’s name, because they knew she was due to depart in less than a week.
This last- minute decision meant that Maria Czaplicka did not know whether she would be able to start out until just three days before she was due to leave England. Hall, Haviland and Curtis spoke no Russian and were completely reliant on her contacts: without her, they would have had to abandon the entire venture. It must have been nerve- racking waiting for news – at times they must have given up hope. Czaplicka had spent months working to get the expedition under way, buying equipment, planning routes and contacting Russian officials, with no guarantee that it would actually happen. Then, suddenly, she was on her way.
Czaplicka departed London on the boat train from Charing Cross about a week before her travelling companions, so that she could visit St Petersburg to meet government officials and receive letters of introduction for their onward journey. In Moscow, she met up with Hall, Haviland and Curtis and together they spent five days on the ‘unspeakably tedious’ Trans- Siberian Railway, travelling east to Krasnoyarsk, where they would leave the train and continue north on the Yenisei by boat. After just one night in Krasnoyarsk, ‘surely the dustiest town in the world’, they boarded a little paddle- wheel steamboat, the Oryol, filled with fishermen and their families heading to their fishing stations for the summer.
They spent three weeks ‘crawling down stream’ on the Oryol, stopping frequently to put fishermen ashore with their barrels, nets, and the planks of wood they used to build temporary summer shelters along the river. They travelled for fifteen hundred miles on the boat, and as the days passed, the dense pine forest thinned, the trees became smaller and the patches of snow between them larger, until there were only a few larch trees barely ten feet high to be seen in the marshy tundra. The river widened, blocks of ice piled up on its banks, and the water and the land spread out vast and flat before them. Travelling north had the strange effect of reversing time. ‘It was as if for every day, spring was retarded for one week,’ Haviland wrote as they went back into winter, leaving towns and villages behind and seeing only the occasional balagan – a low, turf- roofed fishing hut – along the way.
At every stop, Haviland hiked through the trees or across the snowy marshes to find nests and eggs and to shoot birds, some of which she skinned for her collection, and others, common ducks and geese, she gave to Curtis to cook for dinner on the boat. Czaplicka, Curtis and Hall visited locals in their homes whenever they could, to ask about their lives and customs. Curtis sketched the people she met, and Czaplicka, with her ‘talent for strange tongues’, set about learning two of the local languages: Nenets and Samoyedic.
Alongside the three vivacious female members of the expedition, Henry Hall makes little impression. Haviland barely mentioned him in her book, although she described her female companions fondly: in A Summer on the Yenisei only occasionally does the reader realize that Hall is still there, getting a raw deal on accommodation and speaking ‘nothing but English’. Czaplicka carefully edited him out of her later book as much as possible, and so she gives us no reason to doubt his peripheral part in the proceedings. In fact, she and Haviland both enjoyed telling the story that, on first meeting, Siberians often thought their visitors must be a group of suffragettski, banished to Siberia by the British government. Even the jokes excluded him, and Hall slides out of view in this group of radical women travellers.
In a neat reversal of their lives at home, during that summer in Siberia Czaplicka and her female companions not only took the limelight but took control as well – apparently with Hall’s consent. To the Siberians they met, Haviland, with her gun, was known as ‘the boy’; Curtis, with her pencil, was ‘the writing woman’; and Czaplicka, who took charge of the team’s medical supplies, was given the semi- spiritual status of ‘the healing woman’. Hall was simply ‘the man’. Czaplicka jokingly called him ‘the only “mere man” of the party’.
For all intents and purposes, Maria Czaplicka was the man. She had organized the venture and she led throughout. To take responsibility in this way, she found, was both a burden and a thrill.
Image © Simon Matzinger