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Mary Henrietta Kingsley: Explorer of Africa

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

She was a rarity of Victorian times, a woman who rejected the rigid conventions that dictated how she was supposed to behave. Mary Kingsley decided she preferred to explore the jungles of Africa than engage in polite chit chat over tea in the drawing room.

Mary Kingsley.

Mary Kingsley.

Mary Kingsley's Early Life

She had an unpromising start to her life's journey. She arrived in this world in London, four days after her parents solemnized their relationship with marriage. Her father, George Kingsley, was a doctor and traveler; her mother was a domestic worker from London's gritty East End.

Shortly after Mary's birth in 1862, her father took off on one of his many travels. Her mother was sickly and unhappy and it fell to Mary to look after her rather enjoying a normal childhood. She received no formal education but she had access to her father's expansive library. When not catering to her mother's needs, her head was buried in books.

Through a teach-yourself process she learned about mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics. She also studied German and Latin that she spoke with the Cockney accent she picked up from her mother.

In 1891, Dr. Kingsley returned from his travels along with a dose of rheumatic fever. The disease carried him off within months and Mrs. Kingsley followed him after a stroke. At the age of 29, Mary Kingsley was bereaved but also free from the life about which she later wrote “I knew nothing of play and such things.”

The legacy of £4,300 (roughly worth about a million dollars today) added to her sense of freedom.

Mary Kingsley kitted out for jungle exploration complete with umbrella, which she used on one occasion to prod a hippopotamus to get out of her way.

Mary Kingsley kitted out for jungle exploration complete with umbrella, which she used on one occasion to prod a hippopotamus to get out of her way.

Mary Kingsley's First Trip to Africa

Journalist Simon Bendle writes that “what the newly liberated Miss Kingsley did next was so bizarre, so unimaginable for a Victorian lady, so out of keeping with her life up to that point, it’s barely believable—she went to West Africa to study tropical fish and cannibals.”

It was August 1893 when Mary Kingsley set off for West Africa. The region's climate was hot and humid and fatal diseases were endemic. Malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, and a host of other maladies felled so many European visitors the area became known as the White Man's Grave.

A few women accompanied their missionary or colonial official husbands into these inhospitable climes, but almost none had travelled there alone. Mary never revealed what motivated her to go to West Africa but it has been speculated that she wanted to collect information to complete a book her father had started about African culture. She travelled lightly with just a small number of porters.

While being rebellious about the proper role Victorian society proscribed for a woman, Mary Kingsley still felt certain standards had to be maintained. It was her view that, even in the sweltering jungle heat, a lady had “no right to go about in Africa in things you would be ashamed to be seen in at home.”

That meant the full Victoria kit of a voluminous woolen skirt, high-necked cotton blouse, black bonnet tied under the chin, and a corset—yes, a corset. She must have cut an astonishing figure among African people few of whom had ever seen a white woman before.

For three months, she lived among local tribes in Sierra Leone, Gabon, and Angola learning something of their bushcraft. As she travelled she traded goods, as History Today notes “bartering rum, gin and fish-hooks for ivory and rubber, while collecting beetles and fishes as specimens for the British Museum.”

Having dipped her toe into African culture, she returned to England in December 1893 to prepare for a more serious plunge into the subject.

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ENCOUNTERS WITH WILDLIFE (1)

Mary had brushes danger in the form of what she called “knockabout farces before King Death.” On one occasion, she was woken up to hear a commotion outside her hut; a leopard was attacking a dog. She used a chair to separate the animals and the dog ran off, but the leopard still wanted his supper and turned on Mary. She threw a water jug at the hungry cat that exploded on its head. Mary noted calmly in a letter to a friend that “this discouraged the creature.”

Mary Kingsley's Second Trip to Africa

Although largely untrained in the discipline, she carried out expert anthropological fieldwork among the peoples with whom she lived.

With her 1893 exploits as proof of her skill at observation and survival, she was able to get support for another expedition from the British Museum and the Macmillan Publishing Company. In December 1894, she set off on second trip to Africa to study local religions and cannibalism.

In Nigeria, she met missionary Mary Slessor and came face-to-face with the custom of twin killing. If twins were born, it was believed that one was evil and the other good. Since it was impossible to tell which was witch, it was prudent to kill them both. Mary Slessor managed to put a stop to the practice among the people she worked with.

ENCOUNTERS WITH WILDLIFE (2)

While canoeing an eight-foot long crocodile tried to climb into her boat to, as she put it, “endeavour to improve our acquaintance.” She gave the reptile a mighty whack on its snout with her paddle causing it to retreat and find some less feisty prey. Her completely unperturbed reaction was that the croc, was “only a pushing young creature who had not learnt manners.”

Next on her list of adventures was a canoe trip (she did her own paddling), up the Ogooué River in Gabon. She travelled to places no European, man or woman, had been before and collected fish specimens that were unknown to Western science. Another goal of the trip was to meet up with the Fang, a tribe that had the fearsome reputation of enjoying people as part of their diet.

Was their cannibal notoriety deserved? In her 1897 book Travels in West Africa, Mary describes arriving exhausted in a Fang village. She immediately crashed in the hut she was given and awoke later with a peculiar smell assailing her nostrils.

She noticed some bags hanging from the roof that seemed to be the source of the pong. She opened one bag and found therein human body parts including a hand eyes, and ears. She wrote “The hand was fresh, the others only so so and shrivelled.”

However, the sight of this extraordinary white woman coming into their villages did not increase the Fang appetite for human flesh. Indeed, they proved friendly and happy to trade ivory and rubber for white Victorian ladies' blouses. She described the Fang as “full of fire, temper, intelligence, and go.”

Having charmed the Fang out of their cannibalistic impulses, she set off for Mount Cameroon, a journey that took her through a nearly impenetrable swamp. When she emerged from the stinky bog she was covered in leeches and nearly lost consciousness from blood loss.

Then, came the challenge of 13,760-foot high Mount Cameroon. She reached the summit leaving behind her five male, African companions who gave up on the gruelling climb.

With these amazing feats behind her, Mary Kingsley returned to Britain, an unlikely celebrity. She travelled all over the country giving lectures to thousands and trying to dispel the negative stereotypes of African people held by so many people.

Mary Kingsley's Third Trip to Africa

Mary Kingsley took issue with colonial administration and with Christian missionaries. The first she criticized for imposing European institutions on indigenous systems. Missionaries she took to task for trying to “murder” African culture that had served the people well for millennia.

She “focused on showing how complex African society was and how in several areas African tribes dealt with the needy in society far better than European society did. She showed African culture to have complex legal systems and a well ordered society” (britishempire.me.uk).

The Boer War, which broke out in 1899, she viewed as imperialism going off the rails, so she volunteered to nurse the wounded in South Africa. She arrive in Cape Town in March 1900 and was sent to help take care of Boer prisoners of war. The “hospital” was a filthy, makeshift affair in which typhoid was running amok among the prisoners.

In letters to a friend she wrote “I never struck such a rocky bit of the Valley of the Shadow of Death in all my days as the Palace Hospital, Simonstown.” To another she mused “Whether I shall come up out of this I don’t know . . . All this work here, the stench, the washing, the enemas, the bedpans, the blood, is my world.”

She did not “come out of this.” In late May, the first symptoms of typhoid fever appeared. It didn't take long. Knowing she was on the verge of death she asked colleagues to leave her room so she could pass away unobserved. She died in the early hours of June 3, 1900. She was just 37 years old.

Mourners gathered on a pier for Mary Kingsley's funeral.

Mourners gathered on a pier for Mary Kingsley's funeral.

Bonus Factoids

  • In accordance with her wishes, Mary Kingsley was buried at sea. As her coffin was slipped into the ocean off Cape Town it floated because someone neglected to weigh it down. As the casket bobbed merrily in the waves a lifeboat was sent out attach a spare anchor to it. This did the trick. The various chroniclers of Miss Kingsley's life agree should would have been amused by this mishap.
  • At one of Mary Kingsley's public lectures in England she was obliged to sit quietly on the stage while a man read her text.
  • Isabella North (1831-1904) was another British woman who defied the conventions of Victoria society. She travelled widely in Asia and wrote about her adventures in several books.
  • Nobody seems to have told Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839) that her purpose in life was to be proficient at the piano, singing, painting, and needlework. Described as “headstrong and brilliant, [who] terrified people with her sharp tongue,” she became a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East. You can read more about her life here.

Sources

  • “Death of Mary Kingsley.” Richard Cavendish, History Today, June 2000.
  • “Mary Kingsley: Demystifying Africa.” Jacqueline Banerjee, PhD, the Victorian Web, September 23, 2013.
  • “Mary Kingsley: Friend of Cannibals.” Simon Bendle, greatbritishnutters.blogspot.com, April 2008.
  • “Travels in West Africa.” Mary H. Kingsley, 1897, via Project Gutenberg.
  • “Mary Kingsley.” britishempire.me.uk, undated.
  • “The Victorian Traderess Who Battled Colonialism and Crocodiles in Africa.” Tao Tao Holmes, Atlas Obscura, September 16, 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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