Mary Kingsley was an explorer and travel writer who published ‘Travels in West Africa’ and ‘West African Studies’. She was a truly remarkable woman who died of typhoid at the relatively early age of thirty eight. She spoke and wrote about African culture challenging the popularly held ideas about Africa and by so doing helped to change preconceived attitudes about African culture. She also helped to change attitudes towards women and although she was not a supporter of the Suffragists she demonstrated through her travels alone through Africa that women were not the feeble and weak people they were often taken for.
Mary was born on 17 October 1862 to Mary Bailey and George Kingsley. She came from a family of writers for although her father was a doctor by training working for George Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and other members of the aristocracy, George also wrote about anthropology and was writing a book about African culture when he died. Mary’s uncles were the writers Charles Kingsley and Henry Kingsley.
A year after her Mary’s birth the family moved to Highgate, north London, where her brother George was born in 1866. As was the custom in the late Victorian period, girls generally did not receive any formal schooling although Mary did read a great deal. Her father had a large library in the house full of tales of adventure and the works of scientists. George’s passion was big game hunting and there were plenty of stories about big game hunters. These stories ignited in Mary a thirst for knowledge about places far away and the people who lived in strange places. Her father was often away on trips with his aristocratic clients and he often was able to include a hunting trip. In 1876 George was in the USA and had been invited to ride alongside General Custer in his campaign to destroy the Sioux of Sitting Bull. The family heard about the Battle of the Little Big Horn and worried about the safety of their father. Eventually they learnt that he had not joined Custer on his last journey but had been held up by bad weather.
By the time Mary was sixteen her mother was quite ill and had to be looked after. It became part of Mary’s duty to care for her mother and assume many of her mother’s duties around the house. There was no time for any formal schooling and it was all Mary could do to keep her reading of her father’s library going.
In 1891 the family was living at 7 Mortimer Rd, Cambridge. Dr Kingsley was not recorded on the census return as he was probably abroad. When he did return trips, he did so with rheumatic fever and Mary now found herself caring for both of her parents. In ‘Sport and Travel’ 1900 Mary wrote about her father’s trips abroad saying that ‘he thoroughly enjoyed grizzly bear hunting and loved ‘the bright eyes of danger’; still there was in him enough of the natural man to give him the instinctive feeling that the duty of a father was to go out hunting and fighting while his wife was at home’. Mary was clearly not overly critical of her father as his behaviour was typical of the time but she did say, ‘I am fully convinced that taking this view of life really caused the illness which killed my mother. For months a a time she was kept in am unbroken strain if anxiety about him.’
In 1892 Dr Kingsley died followed three months later by her mother. Mary was now free of all the domestic responsibilities she had had and with the money due from her parents’ inheritance (shared equally between herself and her brother) could indulge her interest in foreign culture. ‘The whole of my childhood and youth was spent at home, in the house or garden. I know nothing of play and such things’. It can’t have been a particularly happy time for Mary to see her mother suffering. She believed she had not provided her parents with sufficient care whilst they were ill. ‘I know I failed, for my mother’s sufferings were terrible’. It must have been a huge sense of relief from her burden when her mother died and she soon set about organising her first trip abroad.
Mary decided to visit Africa, perhaps because it was relatively close and therefore cheaper than the far away Pacific – or perhaps it was because her father had started to write about African culture and Mary felt obliged to complete the work her father had begun.
At this time – the mid-
Mary set out for Africa in August 1893, arriving in Sierra Leone on 17 August. From there she travelled along the coast eventually arriving in Luanda in present day Angola. She lived with the local people who taught her how to survive in the jungle wilderness. She was then able to venture alone into the forest and experience all the noises and smells of being in the forest. She later wrote of her experiences in ‘Travels in West Africa’ writing of her confrontations with wild animals. ‘I have no hesitation in saying that the gorilla is the most horrible wild animal I have seen. I have seen at close quarters specimens of the most important big game of Central Africa, and with the exception of snakes, I have run away from all of them; but although elephants, leopards, and pythons give you a feeling of alarm, they do not give that feeling of horrible disgust that an old gorilla gives on account of its hideousness of appearance.’ Mary once found herself facing a big leopard and had the calmness to extricate herself from what could have a been a tricky situation, ‘Climbing up over a lot of rocks out of a gully bottom where I had been half drowned in a stream, and getting my head to the level of a block of rock, I observed right in front of my eyes, broadside on, maybe a yard off, certainly not more, a big leopard. He was crouching on the ground, with his magnificent ahead thrown back and his eyes shut. …no sooner did I see him than I ducked under the rocks and remembered thankfully that leopards are said to have no power of smell.’ Mary had a writing style which made her books appeal to all. They read like an adventure novel rather than an academic journal, and her talks and books made her immensely popular.
Mary returned to England in December after just a few months away but she was determined to return, this time to go further and discover more, particularly about the nature of cannibalism. She got the support of Dr Albert Gunther, a zoologist at the British museum, who helped her plan her return trip. She also got a book contract to write the story of her adventures from MacMillans.
In 1894 Mary returned to West Africa, departing Liverpool on December 23rd. She travelled widely throughout West Africa, often by canoe with a small crew of natives. She went up the Gabon, Rembwe and Ogowe rivers and towards the end of her trip climbed Mount Cameroon.
In her writings about African culture following her return from her second trip to Africa in 1894, Mary challenged a number of European myths about African culture. Mary wrote about religion in Africa refuting the prevalent idea that African religion was based on worshipping inanimate objects and instead 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.
Mary criticised the way European countries, in the name of improving these societies, altered the culture of African tribal societies without understanding them at all. Mary did not subscribe to the popular view of Africans as being less intelligent than the European. She accepted that Africans were less advanced and needed the support of European nations to develop but she criticised missionaries and others for attempts to convert Africans and the replacement of African culture with a European culture.
Mary Kingsley’s views on African religion and culture were set out in a number of books, articles and in her talks. Her ‘Travels in West Africa’ was published in January 1897 and went into a fifth edition within five months. Her popularity led to journalists labelling her as ‘the New Woman’ a term which she rejected. Mary did not want to be associated with the contemporary suffrage movement, feeling that her family and friends might well turn against her if she was to be regarded as a feminist heroine. It was difficult enough as it was to engage with the British public on the issues she was writing about. Some of her talks had to be read out aloud by men as many geographical societies banned women from speaking at their meetings. Had she allowed herself to become an active supporter of the Suffragist movement, it would have been almost impossible for her to be taken seriously as a writer on anthropology.
In 1900 Mary decided to travel to Africa again, not this time to explore unknown territory but to nurse those Boers who had been wounded during the Second Anglo-
During her short literary life, Mary had helped change attitudes towards the African culture and the nature of imperial rule. Although it haw not been her intention she also helped to change c19th attitudes towards women and the role they should lay in society. She may have rejected the notion of herself as a fighter for women’s suffrage but through her actions she helped dismantle traditional views of women as gentle and fragile creatures.
Mary had travelled to West Africa aboard ships of the Elder Dempster Line whose owner Sir Alfred Jones, in recognition of Mary’s work, donated £350 to be given on an annual basis to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. This sum was instrumental in setting up the School whose founders, Sir Alfred Lewis Jones and John Holt, were friends of Mary. The greater understanding of African culture and commerce fostered by Mary Kingsley also led to the formation of the Fair Commerce Party, The Congo Reform Association and the African Society which would continue the work begun by Mary.
In recognition of Mary’s work, the Mary Kingsley Medal was instituted by John Holt in 1903 and was issued for the first time in 1905 to Sir Patrick Manson, by many seen as the founding father of the field of tropical medicine.
You will find a more detailed biography of Mary Kingsley here: http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/history/explorers/1.html
The family home in Highgate, north London