May French Sheldon

May 10, 1847 - 1936

May French Sheldon was born on May 10, 1847 in Beaver County Pennsylvania. She was educated in America and overseas, studying art and developing into an author and ethnologist. May married Eli Lemon Sheldon, a banker and publisher, in 1876 and together they moved to London. She was a woman with strong principles and tremendous self-esteem.

In 1890, Henry Stanley, a friend of May’s, had returned from an extensive expedition in the African jungle. His stories captured her imagination and inspired her to take her own trip. While most tried to discourage her from this foolish idea, her husband was supportive while she organized the expedition. When she asked governmental leaders where she could hire people to help her, most would not cooperate. It was not until she talked to the Sultan of Zanzibar that she was able to find guides that would go with her into the jungle. The Sultan not only obtained porters for her, but also instructed all with who she met to treat her with respect. Over one hundred people went with her, as her guides, porters, and personal servants when she started her expedition in 1891. She was at the front of the group as they entered the jungle of East Africa. They called her “Bebe Bwana” (translated to “Lady Boss”). The entourage carried only enough food for the first eight days, after which they were expected to trade and hunt for food.

One of her goals for the trip was to meet tribal leaders. Sheldon accomplished this by visiting 35 tribes. The tribes’ customs, food, and medical practices amazed her. One tribe showed her customs that had never before been seen by a white person. She notes in her ethnography the many various customs that she saw, including affectionate spitting on each other, in lieu of kissing; carrying object son their heads, rather than with their arms; and their obvious lack of clothing, save the copious necklaces, bracelets, and pendants worn by the tribes. The sultans, tribesmen, and tribeswomen, as well as the almost 200 employed in her caravan, were all courteous and respectful, almost chivalrous, despite their western reputation for being savages meant to be tamed.

On the travels homeward, the men that were carrying her in her custom made wicker basket accidentally fell 20 feet into a ravine. When they got back up, she fell again, this time she was temporarily paralyzed and delirious. She wanted to go home for medical attention, and so her guides worked hard to return by the shortest route possible, in the most expedient fashion. She fully recovered upon returned to America.

Sheldon wrote Sultan to Sultan (1892) about her travels. She conducted lectures describing her expedition in both England and America. May was one of the first women to be admitted into the Royal Geographical Society in 1892. In 1903, she defended African rights in the Belgian Congo and was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Couronne of Belgium in 1921 for her work. May French Sheldon died in 1936 in London, approaching 90 years old. She was the last remaining member of her family.