Mary Kingsley

The scientific studies of Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) added much to European knowledge of African wild-life. She brought back one previously unknown species of fish, six new subspecies that had not been named, a previously unknown snake, and eight new insects. It was a great achievement for someone with no scientific training.

Mary Henrietta Kingsley was born in London on October 13, 1862, four days after her parents' wedding. Her father, a wealthy physician, and her mother, his cook, had an uneasy marriage. Her mother did not fit into her father's social world, and retreated to her bedroom, claiming ill health, for the rest of her life. Kingsley's father, George, was a personal physician to various aristocrats, traveled extensively—for months and sometimes for years—and was seldom at home.

The family lived in an unusual house, in which all the front windows had been bricked in. Inside the house, darkness reigned because Kingsley's mother insisted that the shutters on the remaining windows be closed. Because she was ill, the house was kept silent. Although Kingsley had a younger brother, he was sickly and required special care. The two did not often play together.

Kingsley did not attend school because her father thought an education was unnecessary for her. He taught her German because, at the time, all medical research was published in that language. Her father believed that she would be useful to him if she understood German. Kingsley was largely self-taught. She found refuge in her father's library, which was filled with souvenirs from all over the world, floor-to-ceiling books filled with literature and travel narratives, and artifacts, including Stone-Age axes, iron trinkets from India, and arrowheads. This was the golden age of exploration, and there were maps and accounts of voyages to the North and South poles, Australia, the South Seas, Arabia, the Himalayas, and Africa. The library, unlike the rest of the house, was a haven of interest, adventure, and excitement for Kingsley. In A Voyager Out, Katherine Frank quoted Kingsley, who wrote, "The whole of my childhood and youth was spent at home, in the house and garden. The living outside world I saw little of, and cared less for. I felt myself out of place at the few parties I ever had the chance of going to, and I deservedly was unpopular with my own generation, for I knew nothing of play and such things. The truth was I had a great amusing world of my own [that] other people did not know or care about—that was the books in my father's library." Kingsley became fascinated with accounts of what she called "classic spots" in West Africa— places that were particularly dangerous, unknown, or exotic, and which required unusual strength, perseverance, and intelligence from the explorer.

When Kingsley was 29, her father died unexpectedly in his sleep. Six weeks later, her mother also died. Frank wrote of Kingsley's response to their deaths, "At first the prospect of her freedom made her positively dizzy. Then she realized the intoxicating possibilities; after a life of avid, vicarious travel, she might voyage out in reality as well as in dream and seek the confluence of her inner and outer worlds."

First Trip to Africa

Kingsley took a trip to the Canary Islands, off the coast of Spain. There she met ships' captains and traders who did business with the tribes of the West African coast. They filled her imagination with stories of cannibals, mangrove swamps, strange fish and animals. This information gave her a sense of purpose: she would explore West Africa and study tribal religion and law, as well as the local natural history. According to John Keay in Explorers Extraordinary, she wrote, "I had to go to West Africa and I went there, proceeding on the even tenor of my way, doing odd jobs and trying to understand things, pursuing knowledge under difficulties with unbroken devotion."

In 1893, Kingsley set out for Africa, despite the warnings of friends at home and the lack of real information about the area. At the time Africa was largely unknown to Europeans, and West Africa in particular was called the "White Man's Grave." If men died there, people said, what chance did a woman have against headhunters, crocodiles and disease?

Dressed in a stiff black skirt and blouse, with high buttoned shoes and a perky hat, Kingsley set out. In her book Travels in West Africa, published in 1897, she wrote, "You have no right to go about Africa in things you would be ashamed to be seen in at home." Her proper Victorian outfit became her trademark, unsuitable though it was for the hot African climate. She carried a knife and revolver, but never used them. Instead, she relied on her own wits and self-confidence, as well as her knowledge of the local cultures. She realized that if she showed up at villages with no obvious reason for being there, people would question her motives and would not trust her. But if she became a trader, people would welcome her. According to Desmond Wilcox in Ten Who Dared, she wrote, "There is something reasonable about trade, especially if you show yourself an intelligent trader who knows the price of things. It enables you to sit as an honored guest at far-away inland village fires: it enables you to become the confidential friend of that ever-powerful factor in all human societies, the old ladies. It enables you to become an associate of the confraternity of Witch Doctors, things that being surrounded with an expedition of armed men must prevent your doing."

Kingsley's interest in and respect for the local cultures was unusual for her time. Many Europeans considered Africans to be savages in need of Christianity and "civilizing" influences. Kingsley, however, denounced missionaries for destroying the local cultures and disrespecting the people. All her travels in Africa were based on trade, which not only allowed her to travel relatively cheaply, but gave her independence and access to otherwise inaccessible places and people.

On her first trip, Kingsley spent five months in Africa, studying wildlife in the vast mangrove swamps, and studying tribal religions. She returned with a collection of beetles and exotic fish, and the knowledge that she had found her life's work. As Keay noted, she later wrote, "I succumbed to the charm of the Coast. I saw more than enough during that voyage to make me recognize that there was any amount of work for me worth doing down there. So I warned the Coast that I was coming back again."

Travels Among the Fang Headhunters

Kingsley stayed with her brother for a short while, keeping house for him. In 1894, he left on a trip to Burma and she left too, planning to explore the Ogowe River, which ran through the Congo's Gabon area. Almost completely unknown in England, it was the home of as-yet-undiscovered fish, and ran through an exceptionally dense rain forest. This region was home to several notorious tribes, including the Fang, who were known to be cannibals. Only one European, a Frenchman, had visited them, and he had disappeared without a trace. Kingsley believed that, as a trader, she had a greater chance of safety. As Wilcox wrote, "A missionary would have been killed and eaten on sight. But a trader—even a white woman trader—might survive."

With several men from the Ajumba tribe, and an interpreter from the Igalway tribe, Kingsley set out up the Ogowe River to the interior. Eventually they came to another river, called the Karkola, and a lake, called Ncovi. She was the first European to see them, but typically refused to agree with others who said later that she had "discovered" them, saying that the people who lived there knew about them all the time.

When Kingsley finally met the Fang, they ran down from their village with weapons, clearly intending to attack her and the men in the canoe. She and the men stood still, holding out their hands. Luckily, one of the Fang men recognized one of the men in Kingsley's boat: they had traded with each other before. Kingsley asked for men to accompany her deeper into the interior, and eventually reached an agreement.

Through their travels together, Kingsley and the Fang developed a sense of mutual respect. According to Wilcox, she wrote: "A certain sort of friendship soon arose between the Fan and me. We each recognized that we belonged to that same section of the human race with whom it is better to drink than to fight." In one village, she stayed in a chief's house but had difficulty sleeping because of a strong, disgusting odor. She discovered it was coming from a bag hanging from the roof beams. Keay noted that she later wrote of the contents of the bag, "They were a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears, and other portions of the human frame. The hand was fresh, the others only so-so, and shriveled." She later remarked humorously that it was very "touching" that the Fang should keep bits of their victims as mementos. She usually took a walk at night when she was staying in a village, but this night she decided it would be best to stay inside.

In another village, realizing that the villagers were hostile, she ordered her interpreter to tell the chief she had heard the town was full of thieves. He was horrified, but she told him if he did not say it, she would. The chief was dumbfounded by her bravado, and protested that it was a good place. She answered that she would see for herself, and then decide. This bluff undoubtedly saved her life. In the same village, one of the men traveling with her got into a dispute with a local man. The local man tied him up and was planning to eat him. Kingsley, with the help of the chief, intervened and saved his life.

At another time she agreed to provide medical care for the villagers if they would provide her with information about their religion. The number and variety of illnesses was staggering and often disgusting: abscesses, infections, open sores, spear wounds, and parasitic diseases.

Kingsley walked or canoed 70 miles through the jungle, but her travels seemed much farther because of the intensity of her relations with the local people, the complexity of the jungle, and the vast swamps she often had to wade through. Despite all these factors, or because of them, she deeply enjoyed herself. Wilcox noted that she later wrote, "I went to West Africa to die [because of her grief after the death of her parents]. West Africa amused me and was kind to me, and was scientifically interesting, and did not want to kill me just then."

Her scientific studies added much to European knowledge of African wildlife. She brought back one previously unknown species of fish, six new subspecies that had not been named, a previously unknown snake, and eight new insects. It was a great achievement for someone with no scientific training.

A Best-selling Author

Kingsley returned to England in December 1895. Although she wanted to travel more, she found herself having to stay home and keep house for her brother, a weak and selfish man. In 1897, she published Travels in West Africa, which became an immediate bestseller. She went on lecture tours, but her health was deteriorating. In 1898, she contracted influenza and typhoid, which left her very weak.

In 1898, Kingsley volunteered to go to South Africa during the Boer War in order to nurse prisoners. She caught enteric fever and became deathly ill. Kingsley died in Simonstown, South Africa on June 3, 1900, at the age of 37. As she had requested, her body was carried out to sea on a warship, and she was buried at sea.

Further Reading on Mary Kingsley

Frank, Katherine, A Voyager Out, Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Keay, John, Explorers Extraordinary, Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1986.

Wilcox, Desmond, Ten Who Dared, Little Brown and Co., 1977.

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