Monday, May 27, 2013

Great Travelers in History: Mary Kingsley


By Jenni Gate

The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.

Albert Einstein

Mary Henrietta Kingsley traveled paths few in history had ever explored in a time when women never traveled alone. Her journeys within West Africa expanded Europe’s knowledge of the region. Despite the inherent racism of colonialist England during the Victorian era, she became an advocate for the people of West Africa, often suffering ridicule as a result. Ignoring popular opinion and the expectations of society, Mary Kingsley paddled up little-known estuaries, walked through jungles, endured insects and reptiles, climbed mountains, and stoked fires on steamships. She met and befriended cannibals and missionaries alike, though it would be fair to say she preferred the former to the latter. She collected specimens of fish wherever she went, and took copious notes of her experiences. Her life was extraordinary but short.

Although she had no formal education, Mary Kingsley grew up in a house full of books about science and memoirs of explorers. Her father, a doctor and writer, traveled extensively throughout his own life. He contracted rheumatic fever on his last journey and returned home where his daughter cared for him until his death. She had nursed her mother for years. Coincidentally, both parents died within a few weeks of one another. Mary Kingsley, then age 30, decided to travel. She had a few academic connections through her brother, who was in law school at that time. Mary read what was known about Africa, asked her acquaintances for advice about traveling there and was roundly told not to go. She was repeatedly warned that it was too dangerous to go to West Africa.

Ignoring all advice, in 1893 she headed to Liverpool and boarded a ship for the Canary Islands, then pushed on to Sierra Leone. She arrived in West Africa with few possessions other than her high-necked shirts and floor-length skirts. Traveling the coastline by steamboat, she made her way past the oil rivers of Nigeria and on to Angola. 

Region traveled by Kingsley
It was the Victorian era, and women did not travel alone. Her shipmates assumed she was a missionary, and they were scandalized to find her still on board the ship after all the other missionaries disembarked at the Canary Islands. Even in Africa, local women continually asked where her husband was. She frequently went into dangerous areas alone, but most often journeyed with African men who helped her by cooking, translating, making camp, and finding pathways.

On her second journey to West Africa a year after the first, Kingsley traversed the rivers of the French Congo and climbed Mount Cameroon (the first English person to climb it). She met and befriended the Fan (or Fang as some sources name them) people, who were known to be cannibals. Exploring by steamboat and dugout canoe, paddling the swamps and streams of the Ogooué River in Gabon, she collected fish from the rivers and lakes to take back to the British Museum as specimens for study. She was thrilled to have this work taken seriously by the zoologist who helped sponsor the trip, Dr. Albert Gunther. At least three previously unknown species of fish were named after her.

Mary Kingsley documented travels on the rivers throughout West Africa. Her writing is evidence of a humorous and curious mind. In Travels in West Africa, she described the dangers of paddling through the tidewaters of African rivers in dugout canoes:

Now a crocodile drifting down in deep water, or lying asleep with its jaws open on a sand-bank in the sun, is a picturesque adornment to the landscape when you are on the deck of a steamer, and you can write home about it and frighten your relations on your behalf; but when you are away among the swamps in a small dugout canoe, and that crocodile and his relations are awake – a thing he makes a point of being at flood tide because of fish coming along – and when he has got his foot upon his native heath – that is to say, his tail within holding reach of his native mud – he is highly interesting, and you may not be able to write home about him – and you get frightened on your own behalf.

About encounters with insects in West African Studies, she wrote:

But it’s against the insects ashore that you have to be specially warned. During my first few weeks of Africa, I took a general natural historical interest in them with enthusiasm as of natural history, it soon became a mere sporting one, though equally enthusiastic at first. Afterwards a nearly complete indifference set in, unless some wretch aroused a vengeful spirit in me by stinging or biting. I should say, looking back calmly upon the matter, that 75 per cent of West African insects sting, 5 per cent bite, and the rest are either permanently or temporarily parasitic on the human race. And undoubtedly one of the many worst things you can do in West Africa is to take any notice of an insect. If you see a thing that looks like a cross between a flying lobster and the figure of Abraxas on a Gnostic gem, do not pay it the least attention, never mind where it is; just keep quiet and hope it will go away – for that’s your best chance; you have none in a stand-up fight with a good thorough-going African insect. …

Of course you cannot ignore driver ants, they won’t go away, but the same principle reversed is best for them, namely, your going away yourself. 

And later in the same work:

While in West Africa you should always keep an eye lifting for Drivers. You can start doing it as soon as you land, which will postpone the catastrophe, not avoid it; …it may be just as well for you to let things slide down the time-stream until Fate sends a column of the wretches up your legs. … The females and workers of these ants are provided with stings as well as well-developed jaws. They work both for all they are worth, driving the latter into your flesh, enthusiastically up to the hilt; they remain therein, keeping up irritation when you have hastily torn their owner off in response to a sensation that is like that of red hot pinchers.

After her second trip to West Africa, Kingsley toured England and spoke widely of her travels. She lectured on diverse topics from opening trade to Europeans in the region to the harm caused by missionaries converting native people and destroying whole ways of life in the process. Her opinions, formed from personal experience and observation, were controversial, sometimes creating a backlash in the press. Yet her work was influential in establishing perceptions of West Africa in Europe, and many of her observations are still relevant.

Volunteering as a nurse for the Second Boer War, Mary Kingsley returned to Capetown, South Africa in the late 1890s where she died of typhoid on June 3, 1900. In England between journeys, she had met Rudyard Kipling, striking up a friendship of mutual respect and admiration. In her work, Kingsley often quoted Kipling. At her death, Kipling gave her eulogy before her burial at sea with full military honors.

About her own writing, Mary Kingsley was humble and humorously self-deprecating, as the following story illustrates:

Alas! I am hampered with bad method of expression. I cannot show you anything clearly and neatly. I have to show you a series of pictures of things, and hope you will get from those pictures the impression which is the truth. I dare not set myself up to tell you the truth. … It is a repetition of the difficulty a friend of mine and myself had over a steam launch called the Dragon Fly, whose internal health was chronically poor, and subject to bad attacks. Well, one afternoon, he and I had to take her out to the home-going steamer, and she had suffered that afternoon in the engines, and when she suffered anywhere she let you know it. We did what we could for her, in the interests of humanity and ourselves; we gave her lots of oil, and fed her with delicately-chopped wood; but all to but little avail. So both our tempers being strained when we got to the steamer, we told her what the other one of us had been saying about the Dragon Fly. The purser of the steamer thereon said “that people who said things like those about a poor inanimate steam launch were fools with a flaming hot future, and lost souls entirely.” We realised that our observations had been imperfect; and so, being ever desirous of improving ourselves, we offered to put the purser on shore in the Dragon Fly. We knew she was feeling still much the same, and we wanted to know what he would say when jets of superheated steam played on him. He came, and they did; and when they did, you know, he said things I cannot repeat. Nevertheless, things of the nature of our own remarks, but so much finer of the kind, that we regarded him with awe when he was returning thanks to the “poor inanimate steam launch”; but it was when it came to his going ashore, gladly to leave us and her, that we found out what that man could say; and we morally fainted at his remarks made on discovering that he had been sitting in a pool of smutty oil, which she had insidiously treated him to, in order to take some of the stuffing out of him about the superior snow-whiteness of his trousers. Well, that purser went off the scene in a blue flame; and I said to my companion, “Sir, we cannot say things like that.” “Right you are, Miss Kingsley,” he said sadly; “you and I are only fit for Sunday school entertainments.”

Mary Kingsley wrote two books, Travels in West Africa, published in 1897, and West African Studies, published in 1899, and she published several articles. Her writing was descriptive and full of detail about the surroundings and observations of the people she encountered. The humor infusing her writing makes reading her work still a joy today.


  1. Jenni, what a fascinating post. Imagine her travels in those long skirts! Thanks for giving us a slice of history not covered in textbooks.

  2. Thanks, Patricia. I first read her books about 15 years ago and was fascinated by the fact that she turned her life on its head, threw out expectations about a woman's place, and held her own with the men she encountered. And those long skirts saved her when she fell into a pit with spears for catching game. Amazing!