“I do not hanker after Zanzibar, but only to go puddling about obscure districts in West Africa after… fetishes and fresh-water fishes.”
Mary Kingsley is one of my favorite women adventurers. She is unassuming, courageous, and friendly to everyone. She went originally to Africa, she said, “to die,” but that might have been an exaggeration.
Mary was the daughter of George Kingsley, of a wealthy family of educated men, and his cook, Mary Bailey. He married her just before Mary was born, but their lives were lived very much apart.
It was a lonely life. Mary’s mother became an invalid, and she was designated caregiver. She was denied an education and contact with other young women, so she learned from her father’s library. She learned to read on her own, but, like her mother, she never learned how to pronounce her h’s (think Eliza Doolittle saying, “‘enry ‘iggins).”
Mary’s beloved father had been a doctor, a traveler and a student of sacrificial rites of native peoples. She studied medicine and took up nursing, but her desire was to travel, to study the fetishes (beliefs of African tribes). Her parents and brother died suddenly when she was 30 and she was without family, so she decided it was time to travel.
When she booked her first trip to West Africa in 1893, Mary was informed that they didn’t issue return tickets. After being told by everyone not to go and that it was the “deadliest spot on earth,” she said this information didn’t help her “feeling of foreboding gloom.”
She describes an encounter with a leopard that attacked a dog outside her tent.”I, being roused by the uproar, rushed out into the feeble moonlight,…and I saw a whirling mass of animal matter with a yard of me.” She hurled two stools into the fray and broke it up. Then the leopard crouched, ready to spring, so she threw a water jug at it. The leopard ran away.
At another time on her second journey, she fell into an animal trap lined with sharp wooden spikes. She was saved because she wore the “regulation” women’s clothing of the time, including a full Victorian skirt with layers of underskirts. She said one should never dress in Africa in anything less than one would wear in polite company in England.
Mary’s Trips to West Africa
Mary went to Africa depressed and in mourning. But in her travels she found her “pilgrim soul,” and she fell in love – with Africa and its people. On her first voyage, in 1893, she traveled up and down the coast, visiting Europeans and venturing on scientific expeditions into the interior. She had two subjects: she collected fresh-water fish for the British Museum, and she studied what she called “fetishes” (the religious rituals of the native tribes). The study of these rituals was something her father had written about, and she had helped him in his writing.
She quickly figured out that the best way for her to travel was as a trader, rather than just a sightseer. She could gain entry into native villages, talk with the people, and learn about them more easily when she had goods to trade. Trading was also a way for her to pay her way during the trips.
Mary’s greatest gift was her ability to learn about and accept each culture, and she recognized the value of each native group as it was.
Mary’s second voyage, in 1985, was primarily to Gabon, north of the Congo, where she traveled up the Ogowe River and to remote parts of that country. She climbed Mt. Cameroon, the tallest mountain in West Africa at 14,435 feet.
She sought out native villages, not just to study their fetishes, but to learn about them in detail. The Fang tribes (rumored to be cannibals) were the dominant people of the area, and even in their villages she usually had no trouble, even staying with them in their dwellings.
Here’s an example of her relationships with the natives:
“I had a touching farewell with the Fans: and so in peace, good feeling, and prosperity I parted company…with “the terrible M’pangwe” whom I hope to meet with again, for with all their many faults and failings, they are real men.”
After her second trip, Mary wrote of her travels and her thoughts about what she had seen in Travels in West Africa. She was furious with the missionaries who stormed into Africa determined to weed out the inferior African cultures – and give them nothing in return. She saw through hypocrisy and sanctimonious nonsense, and she wasn’t afraid to call it out.
On the other hand, she had a delightful way with prose. In his introduction to the 2002 edition, Anthony Brandt says she was “one of the most appealing explorers ever to write a book.” She had a way of being amused at herself and she was modest about her achievements. Yet, Brandt says, she could hold her own with native chiefs and with traders. “It is impossible to read the book and not fall in love with her.”
Caroline Alexander, in One Dry Season, follows in the footsteps of Mary Kingsley and praises her, saying “she was certainly made of sterner stuff than I.” Alexander also cites many instances of laugh-out-loud humor and common sense in the book.
Her Final Journey to South Africa
In 1900, at age 37, Mary Kingsley went back to Africa, this time to South Africa to nurse during the Boer War between England and South Africa. She planned to nurse for a while then go back to her friends in West Africa. She contracted a fever (probably typhoid) and died on June 2. She asked to be left to die entirely alone in her room, and she wanted her body to be buried at sea.
Mary’s Influence and Legacy
Mary was considered a hero in Britain on her return from her second journey. She began taking interviews and doing public speaking, even though she was uncomfortable speaking. She used her public pulpit as an opportunity to speak out about several issues, including her anti-feminism.
She hated being called a “New Woman” by the press and became an ardent opponent of the suffrage movement. Her biographer Katherine Frank (A Voyager Out) says Mary didn’t want to associate herself with “feminist agitation” for fear that it would damage her credibility and her influence in West African affairs.
In an article called “The Development of Dodos,” Mary also attacked the missionaries in Africa, She also spoke out against the colonial policies of the European countries, saying that they were out to “murder” Africana culture and that, “far from being the Black Man’s ‘saviour’, they were often agents of unalloyed destruction.”(Frank)
Her activism stirred others to her causes, particularly her criticism of British imperialism; reform societies were set up in her honor.
Mary Kingsley had three fish named after her, and she turned up in a search as a character in a video game that characterized her:
Kingsley’s Pacifist perk causes enemies’ aggro chance to be lower. She cannot, however, use any weapons in combat.
An honorary medal was given in her name by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
One biographer said,
“In England she remains to this day a national hero.”
More about Mary Kingsley
Katherine Franks’ biography, A Voyager Out, is an excellent book. She provides more background into Kingsley’s childhood and her essential loneliness, as well as her strong opinions and endearing personality.
I also enjoyed the Caroline Alexander book One Dry Season mentioned above. She shows how little has changed in these parts of the world since the time when Mary Kingsley traveled and she puts Mary’s courage and determination into a new perspective.
Travels in West Africa is very much still in print, in an abridged volume Kingsley compiled before leaving for her final, fatal, trip. It’s still wordy, in the descriptions of people and places, but I agree with Caroline Alexander that it’s funny and delightful.