Rosita Forbes

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS - For a se­lec­tion of Rosita’s writ­ings see From the Sa­hara to Sa­markand by Mar­garet Bald. For a full list of Rosita’s books and a longer ver­sion of this story, visit www.dun­can­j­

The stereo­typ­i­cal gen­tle­man ad­ven­tur­ers of the early 20th cen­tury met their match in Rosita Forbes (1890-1967), one of Eng­land’s first and most flam­boy­ant lady-ex­plor­ers. She was born Joan Rosita Torr on 16 Jan­uary 1890 at Rise­holme Hall, north of Lin­coln, and was the el­dest of five chil­dren. Her fa­ther Her­bert James Torr was a landown­ing squire who failed in a bid to be­come a Lib­eral MP (un­like his fa­ther John Torr who was suc­cess­ful). Joan’s ex­otic mid­dle name – of­ten short­ened to Sita – came from her mother Rosita Graham Torr, whose fa­ther, Dun­can Graham, had mar­ried a half Span­ish woman “with enor­mous blue eyes... and blue-black hair”. Fire­side tales of her cross­ing the An­des with her fa­ther, Joan’s great grand­fa­ther, had a pow­er­ful ef­fect on the young Joan, in­spir­ing her to want to make her own mark on the wider world. An­other in­spi­ra­tion was her great un­cle, Wil­liam Torr, a cat­tle-breeder so renowned that he was asked to ad­vise the Farmer King, Louis of France, on his own herd. Wil­liam rode all the way from the Lin­colnshire fens to Paris on horse­back to dis­pense his knowl­edge!

At school Joan proved her­self good at ex­am­i­na­tions and demon­strated a gift for for­eign lan­guages. She also loved the out­doors, horses, hunt­ing and maps. As she wrote in her book Ad­ven­ture, one of the rare books in which she pro­vides any au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails, “I al­ways col­lected maps, and I pre­ferred the kind dec­o­rated with stiff lit­tle ships, sails bel­ly­ing in a breeze which looked like a comet, with uni­corns or sav­ages to dec­o­rate the wilder­ness... The curly red lines across African deserts had the fas­ci­na­tion of a mag­net, and I hoped fer­vently that the pi­o­neers who were writ­ing their names over the blank spa­ces would leave just one small desert for me.”

She left home at seven­teen and on 5 Oc­to­ber 1911 mar­ried her first hus­band,

Colonel Ron­ald Foster Forbes, a sol­dier bound for the east. Un­for­tu­nately, al­though the mar­riage took her to China, In­dia and Aus­tralia, she dis­liked not only gar­ri­son life but also the colonel’s ter­ri­ble tem­per, and in 1917 the pair were di­vorced. After part­ing Forbes went home via South Africa, where she at­tempted to ride north from Dur­ban across the Zam­bezi. Al­though the au­thor­i­ties for­bade her at­tempt, and she was forced into us­ing a more ortho­dox route to Eng­land, it would be her first taste of lone trav­el­ling.

Back in Eng­land she joined an am­bu­lance go­ing to France on war ser­vice, and be­tween 1915 and 1917 served as a driver at the Front for the So­ciété de Se­cours aux blessés mil­i­taries. The French gov­ern­ment awarded her two medals for her ef­forts. She then came back to Lon­don and drove an of­fi­cial car for the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment – but was soon bored. Be­fore long she was looked up by a girl­friend called Un­dine, re­cently re­leased from hos­pi­tal, who said she too was tired of Lon­don, and that they should go around the world to­gether. As Forbes con­fessed in her ac­count of the thir­teen­month jour­ney (1917-1918), Un­con­ducted

Wan­der­ers (1919), the pair­ing was a good one: “With an­other girl, equally undis­mayed by of­fi­cial re­stric­tions, I had wan­dered round the world, mostly off the map, bor­row­ing what we needed in the way of horses, the floor of a na­tive hut as a bed, the pirogue of the Indo-Chi­nese cus­toms or the New Guinea gov­ern­ment yacht ... The Times, re­view­ing my first book, said we had asked for ev­ery­thing we wanted with the as­sur­ance of well-bred chil­dren who had never been re­fused.”

Start­ing in New York and mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia and Hawaii the two be­haved like reg­u­lar tourists but once in the Pa­cific and East Asia they were get­ting into one scrape after an­other, in­clud­ing be­ing cap­tured by the South­ern Army in China whilst try­ing to go over­land by river junk and sedan chair from Canton to Hankow. They es­caped by shoot­ing the no­to­ri­ous Sian River rapids in the wet sea­son, when no other boat would take them. All in all, they vis­ited some thirty dif­fer­ent coun­tries, in­clud­ing Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, New Guinea, Java, Su­ma­tra, Malay States, Siam, Cam­bo­dia, China, and Korea. With its strong fem­i­nine point of view Un­con­ducted Wan­der­ers gar­nered a lauda­tory re­view in the Times Lit­er­ary

Sup­ple­ment – but didn’t sell par­tic­u­larly well. Un­like later books it lacked Forbes’ trade­mark acute ob­ser­va­tions of a land and the real life of its in­hab­i­tants.

Into the Libyan desert

Back in Europe in 1918 Forbes went to Paris in the hope she might pick up work as a jour­nal­ist at the forth­com­ing Peace Con­fer­ence. After lit­tle or no suc­cess she was con­tacted by an edi­tor who wanted a se­ries of ar­ti­cles on French coloni­sa­tion in north­ern Africa – and was dis­patched to Casablanca. Tak­ing Un­dine with her, the two drifted slowly east­wards, with Forbes pick­ing up copy as she went, un­til they ar­rived a thou­sand miles away in Mas­sawa in Eritrea, on the Red Sea. Here Forbes’ part­ner­ship with Un­dine came to an end, the lat­ter want­ing to con­tinue “see­ing things” whereas the former now want­ing to “know things”. This thirst for knowl­edge, com­bined with a pen­chant for stylish clothes and wide-brimmed hats, would over the next twenty years be the mak­ing of Rosita Forbes as both se­ri­ous au­thor and celebrity.

Forbes went through Abyssinia to Khar­toum and thence to Cairo, where the Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties (ef­fec­tively the se­cret ser­vice) asked her to con­tinue on

to Da­m­as­cus to see what she could learn of King Faisal’s new Arab king­dom. It was here in 1920 that Rosita Forbes changed from be­ing a ca­sual on­looker into a se­ri­ous stu­dent of pol­i­tics. Com­plet­ing her task for the Bri­tish she set about writ­ing and lec­tur­ing in sup­port of Arab Na­tion­al­ism. It is in­ter­est­ing to note that her sin­gle piece of true ex­plo­ration, the ex­pe­di­tion to the Libyan Ku­fara oa­sis in the win­ter of 1920-21, achieved with the as­sis­tance of King Faisal, stems more than any­thing from the de­sire to write about the Arab world with author­ity.

A thou­sand miles square, the Libyan desert is the largest desert on the planet, its ex­tremes of tem­per­a­ture en­gi­neer­ing a moon­scape of jagged rocky plateaux ris­ing out of peb­bled plains and colos­sal sand dunes. The an­cient Greek his­to­rian Herodotus was one of the first to al­lude to the desert’s harsh­ness de­scrib­ing it in about 450 BCE as “wholly sand, very scant of wa­ter and ut­terly and en­tirely a desert.” Nei­ther the An­cient Egyp­tians, the Ro­mans, the Greeks nor the Arabs dared ven­ture into its in­te­rior, in­deed it wasn’t un­til the 19th cen­tury that the Zawaya, an Arab bedouin tribe of Cyre­naica (eastern Libya), fol­low­ers of the Sufi spir­i­tual leader Sayyid Muham­mad ibn Ali as-Senussi (the Grand Senussi), pen­e­trated the desert and reached AlKufrah (Ku­fara), the strong­hold of the Tibu peo­ple and the most iso­lated oa­sis in the Sa­hara.

From the Tibu the Zwaya learned how to lead camel trains across the desert for up to six­teen days with­out wa­ter or graz­ing. With this knowl­edge they were able to open up a di­rect trade link with Ouad­dai (Wadai) and Borkou (Borku), pow­er­ful sul­tanates far to the south-west in what is to­day Chad.

The eastern part of the Libyan desert, how­ever, still re­mained un­ex­plored: a vast area of dunes known as the Great Sand The Se­cret of the Sa­hara: Ku­fara was clas­sic Forbes, be­ing a com­bi­na­tion of po­etic pas­sages de­scrib­ing the land­scapes she had seen, as well as po­lit­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions and fas­ci­nat­ing in­ter­views with the peo­ple she met. With such ex­pe­ri­ences quite be­yond the ken of most read­ers she would soon be­come one of the most pop­u­lar travel writ­ers of the day Sea that ef­fec­tively cut off Al-Kufrah from Egypt. By 1918 the French had con­quered Chad and the Ital­ians oc­cu­pied coastal Libya hav­ing been un­able to sup­press the tribes of the in­te­rior. In eastern Libya an un­easy Bri­tish-bro­kered peace reigned be­tween the Ital­ian Gov­er­nor in Beng­hazi, the cap­i­tal of Ital­ian Cyre­naica, and the head of the fa­nat­i­cal Mus­lim Senussi sect, Sayyid Idris al-Senussi (later King Idris I of Libya), who ad­min­is­tered the af­fairs of sev­eral oases, in­clud­ing Al-Khufrah. Into this del­i­cate po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion stepped two very dif­fer­ent ex­plor­ers, who shared lit­tle in com­mon: one was the Ox­ford-ed­u­cated Egyp­tian civil ser­vant Ahmed Has­sanein Bey, the other was Rosita Forbes.

Has­sanein Bey was a mem­ber of the Turk­ish rul­ing class in Egypt who, while serv­ing on the Bri­tish mis­sion to the Senussi dur­ing the Great War, de­cided to visit the now leg­endary Al-Kufrah oa­sis with the bless­ing of Sayyid Idris. He orig­i­nally planned to take his old Bal­liol friend, Fran­cis Rodd, son of the Bri­tish Am­bas­sador to Italy, but when Rodd dropped out, Forbes stepped in. From the start Forbes took full credit for plan­ning, fi­nanc­ing and fa­cil­i­tat­ing the jour­ney, as was point­edly re­vealed in her book of the jour­ney, The Se­cret of the Sa­hara: Ku­fara (1921). In her own words what she wanted to do was “to cross some six hun­dred miles of desert ruled by the fa­nat­i­cal Senussi and jeal­ously guarded by the Ital­ians es­tab­lished on the Tripoli­ta­nian coast, in or­der to reach a group of oases whose ex­act po­si­tion was un­known”.

So as not to cause un­due at­ten­tion she dressed as an Arab woman and called her­self Sitt Khadija, claim­ing to be the re­cently-wid­owed daugh­ter of an Egyp­tian mer­chant called Ab­dul­lah Fahmi; to ac­count for her poor Ara­bic she claimed a Cir­cas­sian mother, a slave-girl in the harem of the Bey of Tu­nis. Her book por­trays Has­sanein Bey very much as her as­sis­tant, whereas in re­al­ity it was his con­nec­tions with the Ital­ians (through Fran­cis Rodd) and Sayyid Idris, that en­abled them to travel south at all, with an all-im­por­tant Senussi es­cort.

Em­bark­ing in Novem­ber they didn’t take the usual car­a­van trail from Tripoli but rather the more haz­ardous Beng­haz­iOuad­dai route, guarded fiercely by Libyan tribes. The jour­ney was hell on earth, with smoth­er­ing sand­storms, sick camels, mur­der­ous porters, and lack of wa­ter be­ing a few of their tribu­la­tions. Forbes’ poor com­pass skills would cause the ex­pe­di­tion to miss the Tais­erbo and Zighen wells north of Al-Kufrah; Has­sanein’s quick wits on the other hand

pre­vented them from be­ing mur­dered by Zwaya tribes­men. Nev­er­the­less they even­tu­ally reached Al-Kufrah, which was set in a val­ley hemmed in by shale and sand­stone cliffs. On the cliff top was perched the vil­lage of Taj, the sa­cred cen­tre and head­quar­ters of the Senussi broth­er­hood. Rosita Forbes was the first non-Mus­lim woman ever to en­ter it: sen­si­bly she took pho­to­graphs with a con­cealed cam­era. Here the pair stayed for ten days with the ikhwan (or broth­ers) at the be­hest of Sayyid Idris. But when they ven­tured down into the val­ley to visit the slave mar­ket and car­a­vanserai at Jof they were once again threat­ened by Zwaya tribes­men. Upon their re­turn the Senussi recommended they take a dif­fer­ent route back across the desert to avoid am­bush, via Jagh­bub and then Siwa. De­spite Has­sanein Bey fall­ing from his camel and break­ing his col­lar­bone on the way, they were even­tu­ally picked up by a Camel Corps pa­trol and es­corted to safety.

The se­cret of the Sa­hara

Hav­ing ar­rived in Alexandria in Fe­bru­ary 1921 Has­sanein Bey re­cu­per­ated while Forbes be­came the talk of the town.

Be­ing pur­sued by pho­tog­ra­phers and press­men un­doubt­edly helped de­velop her fa­mous tal­ent for self-promo­tion. As vet­eran trav­eller and Ara­bist Gertrude Bell put it, “in the mat­ter of trum­pet­blow­ing she is unique...” Back in Lon­don Forbes man­aged to tran­scribe her travel jour­nal in less than a month and sold the re­sult­ing man­u­script to Cas­sell’s in Bri­tain and Do­ran Dou­ble­day in the United States.

With an in­tro­duc­tion by ex­plorer, lin­guist and colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tor Sir Harry Hamilton John­ston and se­ri­al­i­sa­tion in The Sun­day Times, The

Se­cret of the Sa­hara: Ku­fara was clas­sic Forbes, be­ing a com­bi­na­tion of po­etic pas­sages de­scrib­ing the land­scapes she had seen, as well as po­lit­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions and fas­ci­nat­ing in­ter­views with the peo­ple she met. With such ex­pe­ri­ences quite be­yond the ken of most read­ers she would soon be­come one of the most pop­u­lar travel writ­ers of the day.

Her mo­tives for down-play­ing the role of Has­sanein Bey re­main un­clear. Per­haps it was a sim­ple crav­ing for fame (al­though she claimed in her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy to find fame tire­some), or else a need to put her­self cen­tre-stage in her books? There may also have been an el­e­ment of wish­ing to prove her­self in a man’s world after the col­lapse of her first mar­riage. Gertrude Bell was again damn­ing in her praise: “I am so sick of Rosita Forbes! and the thing that makes me sick­est is that she scarcely ever al­ludes to that cap­i­tal boy, Hasanain (sic), who was with her, an Egyp­tian, with­out whom she couldn’t have done any­thing. She doesn’t know a word of Ara­bic.”

In Lon­don Forbes was much in de­mand as a speaker at lunches and din­ners, a chal­lenge she took up with gusto. She spoke to a full house at the Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety and was even sum­moned to Buck­ing­ham Palace, where she sat on a gilded sofa be­tween King Ge­orge V and Queen Mary show­ing them her “pre­cious map – the first of the Libyan Desert”. Forbes was also courted by the War Of­fice, be­cause of their in­ter­est in the politico-mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion on the western bor­ders of Egypt, where she took a shine to a mem­ber of the gen­eral staff, an­other colonel, the cho­leric, hunt­ing­mad Ir­ish­man Arthur Thomas McGrath, D.S.O. They were mar­ried on 22 Oc­to­ber that same year in the Chapel Royal, but

hav­ing al­ready made her name as Rosita Forbes she de­cided to re­tain this name pro­fes­sion­ally. Hon­ey­moon­ing on the con­ti­nent Forbes took time out to ad­dress the Royal An­twerp and the French Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­eties, both of whom pre­sented her with gold medals in 1921 and 1923 re­spec­tively.

A sil­ver medal from the Royal So­ci­ety of Arts in Lon­don (1924) for her pa­per The Po­si­tion of the Arabs in Art and Lit­er­a­ture would fol­low. Re­turn­ing to Lon­don the pair lived at 20 Great Cum­ber­land Place, which Forbes had re-dec­o­rated by Robert Lu­tyens, son of renowned ar­chi­tect Sir Ed­win. For Forbes, how­ever, the Ku­fara episode would ul­ti­mately be tinged with sour grapes. The Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety did not hon­our her with a medal, most likely be­cause the sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion she brought back was too mea­gre. She and Has­sanein Bey had only taken along an aneroid barom­e­ter (to mea­sure heights above sea level) and a pris­matic com­pass, per­mit­ting lit­tle more than a sim­ple com­pass tra­verse of their route to be made. Even this was in re­al­ity un­der­taken later by Dr. John Ball, the Di­rec­tor of the Desert Sur­veys of Egypt.

Morocco to Abyssinia

Through­out the 1920s and well into the 30s Rosita Forbes used her travel ex­pe­ri­ences as the back­drop for a string of nov­els, and prompted by her pub­lisher she fol­lowed these up with her first biog­ra­phy, a por­trait of Mu­lai Ahmed er Raisuni, Sherif of the Rif­fian Ber­ber tribe. El Raisuni, the Sul­tan of the Moun­tains: His Life

Story (1924) was the re­sult of a se­ries of long in­ter­views Forbes had with Raisuni over eleven days in 1923 in his At­las Moun­tain fast­ness in Morocco.

With a red henna beard and claim­ing a pedi­gree stretch­ing back to Noah he was sur­rounded by three score slaves, nine daugh­ters, three sons, and two wives. The book in­cludes a let­ter writ­ten by Raisuni him­self which starts as fol­lows: “Glory to God, on Mon­day the 7th day of Mo­har­ram, the holy, the first month of the year 1342 (in the Mus­lim cal­en­dar), there came to visit us the beau­ti­ful, the pre­cious pearl, the learned, well-ed­u­cated Sayeda Rosita Forbes, the English­woman.” The story would even­tu­ally be heav­ily fic­tion­alised in the 1975 film The Wind

and the Lion. On the strength of the book Forbes spent the win­ter of 1923-24 on a lec­ture tour of the United States. Every bit as gru­elling as one of her ex­pe­di­tions she gave an in­cred­i­ble eighty-eight lec­tures in ninety-one days!

In late 1924 Forbes ex­tracted a com­mis­sion from The Daily Tele­graph to ac­com­pany ex­plorer, ori­en­tal­ist and writer Harry St. John Bridger Philby (spy Kim Philby’s fa­ther) on a cross­ing of the Rub ‘al-Khali, the un­charted Empty Quar­ter of South­ern Ara­bia. The Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties at Aden con­sid­ered the jour­ney too dan­ger­ous and so Forbes de­cided in­stead in 1925 to make a 1,100-mile trek by foot and mule through Abyssinia (mod­ern Ethiopia), ac­com­pa­nied by the pho­tog­ra­pher Harold Jones. The re­sult­ing book From Red Sea to Blue Nile: Abyssinian Ad­ven­tures (1925) tells of their search for leg­endary Lal­i­bela, with its Chris­tian churches hewn from solid rock, and Axum, the cap­i­tal of the Queen of Sheba. Dur­ing the jour­ney Forbes

was en­ter­tained by the re­gent Ras Ta­fari (Haile Se­lassie). Forbes and Jones also made a film of the same name al­though of the orig­i­nal 11,000 feet of film taken only a tan­ta­lis­ing six min­utes sur­vives to­day (sur­viv­ing play­bills show the in­trepid Forbes cross­ing the Nile sur­rounded by spear­men to keep croc­o­diles at bay!).

Be­tween 1925 and 1930 Forbes de­voted much of her time to writ­ing medi­ocre ro­man­tic fic­tion about well-to-do but bored hero­ines in jeop­ardy in ex­otic lands, draw­ing once again on her colour­ful travel ex­pe­ri­ences. Two of her African nov­els were even sought out by silent film pro­duc­ers of the day, be­ing If

the Gods Laugh (1925), re­leased in 1927 as Fight­ing Love (di­rected by Nils Olaf Chrisander and star­ring Jetta Goudal and Vic­tor Var­coni), and Ac­count Ren­dered,

and King’s Mate, re­leased in 1928 as The White Sheik.

Jour­ney­ings con­tin­ued along­side these nov­els, in­clud­ing a news­pa­per com­mis­sion to visit Per­sia to write an ar­ti­cle on Reza Khan, the soon-to-be Shah of the soon-to-be-formed Iran, and a Balkan tour writ­ing for the Daily

Tele­graph. She also sailed a twenty-ton open dhow with a crew of eight Arabs (only one of whom had ever done the jour­ney be­fore) across and down the Red Sea (1922-1923) in the midst of win­ter gales, to land at the for­bid­den port of Jeizan to ex­plore un­known Asir (both in Saudi Ara­bia) and Ye­men, again dis­guised as an Arab woman. An at­tempt to com­plete the holy jour­ney to Mecca was not a suc­cess though, and was one of the rare times that Forbes’ dogged deter­mi­na­tion was thwarted. Still not yet forty, how­ever, she had al­ready trav­elled across all the world’s con­ti­nents ex­cept Antarc­tica, and in 1928 she summed up her ex­pe­ri­ences in the an­thol­ogy Ad­ven­ture – Be­ing a Gipsy Salad, Some In­ci­dents, Ex­cite­ments and Im­pres­sions of Twelve Highly Sea­soned Years.

Into the heart of Asia

In 1929-30 Forbes re­turned to se­ri­ous trav­el­ling and set out on her most ex­ten­sive jour­ney to date, an 8,000-mile jour­ney on horse­back and by truck to Cen­tral Asia and the new coun­tries of the Near East, some of which, such as Syria, Tran­sjor­da­nia and Iraq, did not ex­ist be­fore the First World War, and all of which were be­ing changed by the im­pact of Western ideas on their an­cient cus­toms. Her ob­ser­va­tions were made known in one of her best and most se­ri­ous trav­el­ogues, Con­flict: An­gora to

Afghanistan (1931), with a for­ward by Afghanistan ex­pert Bri­gadier-Gen­eral Sir Percy Molesworth Sykes. True to the book’s ti­tle she set out from An­gora (to­day’s Ankara) in the new Turkey of Ke­mal Ataturk (whom she met) go­ing via Syria and Pales­tine to the North Ara­bian desert (where she met Ibn Saud) and the bor­ders of Iraq. There­after, she tra­versed Per­sia to the bor­ders of Baluchis­tan and Afghanistan, then re­turned back along the Rus­sian fron­tier through Azer­bai­jan (where she saw the fight be­tween the Com­mu­nist Red Army and Causasian

peas­ants on the Aras river) and Kur­dis­tan (into which she slipped with a party of Ar­me­nian gun-run­ners and saw the bat­tle on Mount Ararat be­tween Turks and Kurds).

The book’s en­dear­ing value is Forbes’ clear com­men­tary on the so­cial, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions at play in the coun­tries she vis­ited. She notes, for ex­am­ple, the con­trasts be­tween the new towns in the Per­sian oil fields, which are like a town in mid­dle- western Amer­ica, and the an­cient ban­dit-haunted vil­lages of Luris­tan.

In 1931-1932 Forbes and her hus­band made a tour of South Amer­ica. Tak­ing in Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ar­gentina, Chile, Bo­livia, Peru, and Ecuador the jour­ney cov­ered some 23,000 miles; only Colom­bia and Venezuela were omit­ted. In the book Eight Republics in Search

of a Fu­ture, she out­lines each coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and cul­tural his­tory and traces their strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence from their tenth-cen­tury colo­nial rulers (Spain and Por­tu­gal) through to the po­lit­i­cal tur­moil of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury (mil­i­tary coups d’etats, pop­u­lar in­sur­rec­tion and rev­o­lu­tions by both left and right, civil wars, brief pe­ri­ods of democ­racy, but mainly var­i­ous forms of dic­ta­tor­ship). With this in mind she then at­tempts to pre­dict each coun­try’s fu­ture with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess.

Wild women and re­mark­able men Fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of an­other novel The Golden Vagabond (1936), Forbes turned her thoughts to Cen­tral Asia. De­spite gov­ern­ment warn­ings about poor con­di­tions for trav­ellers in the Soviet So­cial­ist republics of Cen­tral Asia she was de­ter­mined to tra­verse the moun­tain king­dom of the Afghans – a strong­hold of Feu­dal­ism sup­pos­edly closed to out­siders at the time – and reach far-off Sa­markand, in Turkestan (to­day Uzbek­istan). She ded­i­cated the re­sult­ing book, For­bid­den Road – Kabul to

Sa­markand (1937) (pub­lished by Pen­guin in pa­per­back as Rus­sian Road to In­dia

by Kabul and Sa­markand in 1940) “To all fel­low trav­ellers who ‘for lust of know­ing what should not be known’ have taken the road to Sa­markand.”

She started this in­cred­i­ble 8,000mile odyssey in 1935 in Peshawar, that charm­ing, mostly law­less city that sits at the base of the nearby Khy­ber Pass. Forbes of course had to ven­ture into the city’s old bazaars, in­ves­ti­gat­ing ru­mours of “the se­crets of Peshawar that all men know.” From here she trav­elled by chauf­feur- driven car through the rugged ter­rain of In­dia’s (then Pak­istan’s) North West Fron­tier Prov­ince, en­ter­ing Afghanistan through the Ko­hat Pass. In Afghanistan she vis­ited Jalal­abad and Kabul (with a de­tour to Kan­da­har) fol­lowed by a cross­ing of the Hindu Kush by way of Bamyan, with its gi­ant Bud­dhas, and Doab. She then crossed the Mazar Pass and en­tered Mazar-I-Sherif. Head­ing north now she passed through Balkh and crossed the Oxus (mod­ern Amu Dar’ya) at Ter­miz and en­tered Rus­sian Turkestan (mod­ern Uzbek­istan), where she reached her even­tual goals of Bokhara, Sa­markand, Tashkent, and be­yond.

Along the way lit­tle es­capes Forbes’ ob­ser­vant eye, in­clud­ing the new cot­ton farms of Tad­jik­istan and the felt tents of horse-breed­ing no­mads in the Steppes. In her inim­itable man­ner she ef­fort­lessly dis­armed the Afghans in a way that mil­i­tary men from Alexan­der the Great and Genghis Khan to the Bri­tish them­selves had failed to do. The re­sult was one of her most in­for­ma­tive and read­able trav­el­ogues, full of the maps, in­dexes and ap­pen­dices that made them so dif­fer­ent to her nov­els.

The Sec­ond World War placed se­vere lim­i­ta­tions on trav­ellers and travel writ­ing but Forbes adapted her­self well, de­vot­ing much time to sup­port­ing the Al­lied war ef­fort by lec­tur­ing in Canada, North Amer­ica and Great Bri­tain. A book called Hero­ines of Our Time (1939) by Han­nah Bel­lis listed Forbes to­gether with the likes of Marie Curie and Sylvia Pankhurst (more triv­ially she had been named Lon­don’s best dressed woman in

The per­fect jour­ney is never fin­ished, the goal is al­ways just across the next river, round the shoul­der of the next moun­tain. There is al­ways one more track to fol­low, one more mi­rage to ex­plore

1937!). The distin­guished labour his­to­rian Mar­garet Cole in­cluded a chap­ter on Forbes in her book Women of To­day (1938), re­veal­ing that “she gives the im­pres­sion of hav­ing done the things which she has done mainly be­cause she thought it would be amus­ing or in­ter­est­ing to do them and not for any more es­o­teric rea­son.”

Forbes and her hus­band then turned their at­ten­tions to­wards the Caribbean, where in 1939-1940 they carved out a 400acre es­tate, Uni­corn Cay, on the east coast of the sparsely in­hab­ited Ba­hamian is­land of Eleuthera. Their house, which still stands on a low hill on Banks Road, near North Pal­metto Point on what the lo­cals call “north shore”, was de­signed by Forbes her­self in the style of a Loire Château, with a large court­yard and en­trance flanked by tur­rets.

In 1940 Forbes pub­lished These Men I Knew: In­ter­views with Var­i­ous Rulers and States­men, be­ing her im­pres­sions of more than two dozen men (and one woman) whom she had met or in­ter­viewed. It was of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est at the time since she had twice met Hitler in Ger­many in 1933, as well as Her­mann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Joseph Stalin, and Ben­ito Mus­solini, all ma­jor play­ers in the war now rag­ing.

In 1944 she pub­lished Gypsy in the Sun, the first vol­ume of her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, cov­er­ing the pe­riod 1920 to 1934, fol­lowed by Ap­point­ment with Des­tiny (1946) cov­er­ing 1935 to 1943; the pair would later be abridged and reis­sued as a sin­gle vol­ume, Ap­point­ment in the Sun (1949). In Ap­point­ment with Des­tiny Forbes hinted at her im­mi­nent with­drawal from se­ri­ous trav­el­ling when she ad­mit­ted her de­sire to “find a frag­ment of earth fresh as the first morn­ing in Eden. I did not want com­fort or in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­course. I wanted an old-fash­ioned and prim­i­tive con­di­tion de­pen­dent on my own brain and hands.” Other than a biog­ra­phy of Sir Henry Mor­gan - Pi­rate and Pioneer (1946) - and Is­lands in the Sun: On the West Indies (1949) (de­tail­ing a trip from the Ba­hamas to Trinidad via Ja­maica, Cuba, Cu­ra­cao, Bar­ba­dos and Gre­nada), Rosita Forbes ef­fec­tively dis­ap­peared from pub­lic view. Now en­joy­ing her own frag­ment of Eden on Eleuthera, and hav­ing vis­ited most coun­tries of the world ex­cept New Zealand and Ti­bet, it is hardly sur­pris­ing.

Arthur McGrath died on 18 Jan­uary 1962 and was buried on Eleuthera close to Uni­corn Cay. Rosita re­mained on the is­land un­til 1966, when she moved to Ber­muda to be a lit­tle closer to Eng­land, just in case of ill­ness. Her fi­nal ad­dress was Clare Cot­tage in the parish of War­wick. She died there on 30 June 1967, and was buried on 1 July 1967 in grave plot 119 at Christ Church, one of the old­est Scot­tish Pres­by­te­rian churches in the New World. Her burial record is one of the very few in­stances in which her full name, Joan Rosita McGrath, is given (the grave it­self car­ries a metal plaque with ‘Rosita Forbes’ writ­ten in smaller let­ters below, to­gether with the quo­ta­tion “Let light per­pet­ual shine upon her”, re­flect­ing Rosita’s life­long love of the sun.

For all her many jour­neys, books, ac­co­lades, and an obituary in The Times of 4 July 1967, Rosita Forbes re­mains to­day a largely for­got­ten trav­eller.

Left: Rosita at the bar­rier on the In­dian-Afghan fron­tier in the Khy­ber Pass

Below: Forbes in Abyssinia Below, top: Forbes with camer­man Harold Jones, film­ing a doc­u­men­tary in Abyssinia

Below, left: Arthur Thomas McGrath, D.S.O. Below: Forbes leav­ing Buck­ing­ham Palace after tak­ing tea with the King and Queen in 1921

Far right: Forbes dur­ing her four­month jour­ney through the Libyan desert Right: Ahmed Has­sanein Bey, Rosita’s co­ex­plorer in the Libyan desert Left: A small se­lec­tion of Forbes’ book cov­ers, pub­lished in many lan­guages

Rosita Forbes, From Red Sea to Blue Nile (1925)

That is the charm of a map. It rep­re­sents the other side of the hori­zon where ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble. It has the magic of an­tic­i­pa­tion with­out the toil and sweat of re­al­iza­tion. The great­est ro­mance ever writ­ten pales be­fore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of...

Left: Rosita Forbes, stu­dio shot, 1919 Right: Forbes as ‘Khadija’ for her Libyan desert trip (All im­ages (ex­cept left) cour­tesy of Mar­garet Bald, FromtheSa­hara toSa­markand: Select­edTravel Writ­ing­sofRosita Forbes,1919-1937)

Below: En route to the Raisuni’s home in the Rif Moun­tains, Morocco Left: In front of a gate at Angkor Wat, Cam­bo­dia, 1917-1918 Quote below: From Red Sea to Blue Nile (1925)

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