Mary Henrietta Kingsley (October 13, 1862 – June 3, 1900) was an English writer and explorer whose writing on her travels and observations in Africa challenged attitudes of racial superiority and provoked considerably hostility towards her ideas. She was the first Englishwomen to climb Mount Cameroon and to follow the particular route she took to the summit and the first European to enter parts of the Gabon. Although not a trained anthropologist, her writing represents a significant contribution to the ethnography of Africa. She is recognized by the Royal Africa Society as the inspiration behind its formation. She is of special interest as someone who bridged or transcended gender in the later nineteenth century by combining masculine and feminine characteristics. Announcing her death while serving as a war-time Nurse in South Africa, one obituary stated that, “she died at last a woman’s death in a center of civilization, but perhaps that will only strengthen people’s memories to recall that she had lived like a man in strange countries where civilization had not gained the mastery.” Kingsley was courageous to challenge the imperial order and to cross gender frontiers at a time when women were thought incapable of doing what men did. Her achievements earned her a unique place in the European exploration of Africa and her championship of the equality of races was a pioneering contribution to combating the type of prejudice that results in the exploitation and dehumanizing of Others.
Kingsley was born in Islington. She was the daughter of George Henry Kingsley (himself a travel writer) and Mary Bailey, and the niece of Charles Kingsley. Her father was a doctor and worked for George Herbert, 13th Earl of Pembroke. Her mother (her father’s former cook, whom he married just four days before Mary’s birth) was an invalid and Mary was expected to stay at home and look after her. Mary had little formal schooling but she did have access to her father’s large library and loved to hear her father’s stories of foreign countries. She began to act as his research assistant. George traveled widely, and wrote such books as South Sea Bubbles (with the Earl of Pembroke; NY: D. Appleton & Co, 1872) and Notes on Sport and Travel (1900, with a Memoir by Mary; London: Macmillan) and a book on Geoffrey Chaucer. Kingsley traveled to Paris when she was 26, and also taught herself Arabic and Syrian. She also benefited from living in Cambridge, where her family moved in 1894 to be close to her brother Charley while he studied there. Mary was not allowed to enter ‘the gates of any of the Colleges’ but found the social and intellectual atmosphere of great interest and enjoyed the house visits of her father’s and brother’s scientific friends. One of these, Henry Guillemard, with ‘whom she had a devoted but sometimes troubled friendship’ was later her editor. She later pointed out how only a few pounds was spent on her education to pay for some tuition in German to assist her father with translation, while her brother’s education cost thousands.
Her father died in February 1892. Her mother also died just five weeks later. Freed from her family responsibilities, and with an income of £500 a year, Mary was now able to travel. She first visited the Canary Islands, where contact with West African traders pointed her in the direction of Africa as her destination of choice. She also moved to London to keep house for her brother Charley, who that year himself set off for the Far East. She continued to keep house for him when they were both at home. Her father had started a book on African culture which he had not finished, so she decided to visit Africa to collect the material she would need to finish the book for him. Her father had been especially interested in primitive religion and law.
She sailed to Sierra Leone in August 1893. Sailing along the coast, she then walked inland, reaching what is today part of Nigeria. She lived with local people who taught her necessary skills for surviving in the African jungles, and often went into dangerous areas alone. In her writing, she drew on ethnographic work and while she did not make any formal claim to be an anthropologist, she used participant observation and was methodological in her work. Certainly, says Frank ‘today she would be called an anthropologist or enthnographer’. She never relied on a single account or on a single observation, but always looked for repetition before she took a belief, custom or practice as standard. She had read widely on anthropology and the physical sciences, says Blunt having set out to master the ‘new science of anthropology’ as early as 1894 in ‘her capacity as her father’s research assistant’ preferring Edward Burnett Tylor to James Frazer, commenting that despite her Cambridge pedigree (almost as if she were a graduate) she was inclined towards the ideas of Oxford’s first professor of anthropology. She did not think that people owed their notion of the soul to dreams, as Frazer. Calling Tylor her ‘great juju’ she recommended that any visitor to West Africa learn his Primitive Culture off by heart. For Tylor, belief in the soul, and in spirits, began as a type of rational process whereby in the absence of a ‘sensible’ explanation for such life-crises as death, dreams, illness, primitive people concluded ‘that they are to be accounted for by the presence, or absence, of some immaterial entity, the soul’ In fact, at a time when most anthropology took place in ‘the cloistered libraries of Oxford or Cambridge’ Kingsley ‘was one of the few early ethnographers actually to go out into the field.’ Blunt says that she was constantly ‘anxious to establish credibility as a scientific observer,’ a task that her gender made more difficult, hence she ‘attempted to be identified as an objective, masculine observer while maintaining more feminine characteristics of subjective observation.’ However, in order to be taken seriously, she located herself ‘within the masculine tradition of scientific observation’ When her publisher wrote to her that he had assumed her book to be written by a man because of the masculine tone, she was somewhat offended, replying that she had never said that the book was by a man. Her interests were those of a cultural anthropologist but not typically so since she was not so much concerned with the ‘social fabric of the culture or even how the people got on practically in every day life’ than with ‘what they lived for, what they believed in – their conception of and accommodation to the universe and the mystery of human existence’. Frank suggests that this stemmed from her own background in which religion played an important role. She was never really an ‘impartial scientist’ because she began with an a priori belief in the reality of the spiritual dimension and also was disposed towards she finding ‘kindred spirits’. She found, Frank suggests, a ‘kindred spirit’ among amimist peoples. She traveled, in fact, in ‘search of herself’. She often traveled alone, or in small groups and ‘traded to pay her way’, in contrast to some explorers who left home with a large financial grant.
She returned to Africa in 1895. This time, she was equipped with a ‘collector’s outfit’ by the British Museum and ‘claimed to be studying fish and fetish’ but appears to have been more interested in cannibalism. She had spent a lot of time in the British Museum under the tutelage of Albert Charles Günther, keeper of the Zoological Department and author of An Introduction to the Study of Fishes and an old friend of her famous uncle, whose daughter wrote her a letter of introduction. Günther arranged for her to be equipped by the Museum when he heard of her plan to return to Africa.
She again traveled first to Sierra Leone, then along the Cape and Gold Coasts to Calabar, in company of Lady MacDonald, wife of the British Governor of what was then called the Niger Coast Protectorate. Reaching Glass by ship, she set off from there by canoe up the Ogowe, or Ogooué River in the Gabon, having taught herself how to steer, where she collected specimens of previously unknown fish and became the first European to enter some of the territory through which she passed. It would be the Ogowe that she ‘appropriated for herself.’ After meeting the Fang or Fans tribe – known for their cannibalism – with whom she spent some time, she climbed the 13,760 feet Mount Cameroon by a route unconquered by any other European. Several of her male companions collapsed from exhaustion before reaching the summit. Characteristically, she made them comfortable before continuing on to the summit. Africa for her was a continent of great beauty and endless interest. She wrote in the preface to Travels in West Africa that, ‘Your superior culture-instincts may militate against your enjoying West Africa, but if you go there you will find things as I have said’. Her sheer enjoyment of much of what she did is evidenced in a passage such as this, in which she described canoeing along the Rembwe, having marched overland from the Ogowe through territory notorious for the ferocity of its population:
On the other nights we spent on this voyage I had no need to offer to steer; he handed over charge to me as a matter of course, and as I prefer night to day in Africa, I enjoyed it. Indeed, much as I have enjoyed life in Africa, I do not think I ever enjoyed it to the full as I did on those nights dropping down the Rembwe. The great, black, winding river with a pathway in its midst of frosted silver where the moonlight struck it: on each side the ink-black mangrove walls, and above them the band of star and moonlit heavens that the walls of mangrove allowed one to see.
News of her adventures reached England and when she returned home in October 1895 she was greeted by journalists who were eager to interview her. She was now famous and over the next three years she toured the country, giving lectures about life in Africa. After this tour, she took 65 specimens of fish and 18 of reptiles back to England. Three newly ‘discovered’ species were named after her, the Brycinus kingsleyae, the Brienomyrus kingsleyae and the Ctenopoma kingsleyae She once said that she was most proud of having learned to paddle a canoe, and that her mentor liked the specimens she collected.
View of missionaries
Mary Kingsley upset the Church of England when she criticized missionaries for attempting to change the people of Africa. A ‘good deal of Travels in West Africa, says Frank, ‘consists of an attack on West African missions’ although she did form a close friend ship with Mary Slessor, whom she “admired enormously.” Slessor was a Scottish missionary for 20 years in West Africa – a remarkable term for what was literally a missionary graveyard – who shocked many by ‘going native’ as it was called, that is, by adapting local customs and practices and because of her staunch defense of women’s rights. Kingsley once confided in Slessor that she thought Islam ‘less disruptive of African society’ and that she would very much like to ‘study and live among the Muslims’. She had already studied Arabic. Frank thinks, too, that Kingsley may have admired David Livingstone, for whom Africa had become – as it became for her – ‘a desperately needed psychological and spiritual resting place’ and also a place from which there was no return. Frank thinks that Kingsley may have attended Livingstone’s funeral in 1874 Kingsley appears to have thought that, like Livingstone, she would die in Africa. Livingstone, too, had been ‘keenly interested in the African peoples among whom he traveled and lived’.
Kingsley, who used the word ‘Allah’s as often as she did ‘God’ told another missionary, Robert Nassau, however, that she was ‘not a Christian, telling him that ‘we see the God we are capable of seeing, according to the capacity and nature of our vision’. At other times, she described herself as worshiping the ‘Great God of Science’ and, says Frank, she appears to have been raised ‘without any sort of religious training whatsoever’ by her atheist father. On another occasion, she spoke of possessing, beneath the sense of ‘melancholy’ which she admitted feeling , ‘an utter faith in God’, though she was not certain this was of any use to anyone other than herself because it was rather gloomy. Her ‘faith’ remains an extremely ‘vexed and confusing issue’ because she was ‘reluctant to put herself on the line’. She appears, though, to have self-identified as Christian while entertaining doubt as to whether Christianity was ‘for white and black alike – the only’ hope.
She talked about, and indeed defended, many aspects of African life that had shocked many English people, including polygamy. Subsequently, people found her ideas shocking, especially in the face of the common perception that Europeans were far superior to Africans at the exact time that the European Scramble for Africa was occupying so much attention in the capitals of Europe. In contrast, Kingsley wrote that the “seething mass of infamy, degradation and destruction going on among the Coast native… [was] the natural consequence of the breaking down of an ordered polygamy into a disordered monogamy.” She argued that a “black man is no more an undeveloped white man than a rabbit is an undeveloped hare” and that she did not regard “the native form as ‘low’ or ‘inferior’… but as a form of mind of a different sort to white men’s – a very good form of mind too, in its way.” She thought that Britain had the right to locate new markets and she did not oppose colonization per se but thought that while the Southern region should be colonized, West Africa should be left alone. She did not lack a sense of superiority but inclined to attribute this to cultural differences, not to inherently racial factors. Defending her Travels in West Africa against a critic, on the one hand she agreed that African had allegedly failed to produce great art but she vehemently disagreed that Africans were socially or morally inferior, possessing ‘both a sense of honor and justice’ while ‘in rhetoric’ the African ‘excels and for good temper and patience he compares favorably with any set of human beings’
Of the European men she encountered in Africa, she preferred traders to missionaries and colonial officers, arguing that the former should have more influence over policy. She enjoyed a friendship, too, with Sir George Goldie, head of the Royal Niger Company ‘a rebel, a wanderer and an atheist’. Imperialist though he was he was also a ‘humanitarian’ who ‘wished to preserve and protect the people’s who inhabited the territory under his company’s dominion.’
She was, however, fairly conservative on other issues and did not support the women’s suffrage movement. She rebutted accusation that she wore ‘trousers’ while on her travels, which was deemed to be very shocking. However, she has been described as deliberately assuming an asexual or male persona in order to pursue her interests in African exploration, which was a male preserve. Frequently asked where her husband was, she resorted to saying that she was on her way to meet him. Blunt (1994) writes that among the Fans, for example, she developed a ‘masculine camaraderie’. While many explorers suffered ill health, she apparently did not, until her final journey though oddly she did not enjoy such good health when in England. She almost never had to use’ her medical kit on herself, except perhaps for minor bruises.’ Both Blunt and Frank speculate that Kingsley’s afflictions when in England and apparent robust health in Africa was symptomatic of how much freer she felt to be herself in what she called the great Continent.
Kingsley wrote two books about her experiences: Travels in West Africa (1897), which was an immediate best-seller making three thousand pounds within a year of publication, and West African Studies (1899) in which she set out her political ideas, although she spoke of her ‘feminine hatred of politics’. Yet Kingsley’s major contribution as an ethnographer was, ‘her political role in colonial affairs: her overriding insistence that African culture be protected from the “smash” of British colonial policy.’She famously called the presence of Europeans in Africa the “black man’s burden,” mocking the characterization of the imperial project as the ‘white man’s burden’, that is, to civilize the non-white world and in her turn was labeled ‘the most dangerous women’ by the British Colonial Office. Just as she was critical of colonial policy, so she criticized the journalism establishment, which, she said, was dominated by people who are or had been in the Diplomatic Service and who did not really know Africa at all. But would die rather than admit this. Kingsley defended her writing in letters to the press. Her second book was more favorably reviewed by academics. One review commented on her ‘unladylike style’ but another described the book as a ‘weighty contribution’ praising her ‘painstaking research’ and ‘immense powers of observation’ Her writing was popular with general readers and was full of humor, even self-mockery as she related her encounters with such dangers as hippopotami, cannibals and crocodiles. With reference to the latter, she reports slapping one with her paddle when it decided to ‘improve their acquaintance.’ Speaking at Cheltenham Ladies College, she recounted how she and a hippopotamus had shared an island together. She wanted one of them to leave and ‘I preferred it should be myself, but the hippo was close to my canoe, and looked like staying, so I made cautious and timorous advances to him and finally scratched him behind the ear with my umbrella and we parted on good terms. But with the crocodile it was different….” She did not take herself too seriously and initially wanted her first book to be called Log of a Light Hearted Lunatic, but her publisher, Macmillan, did not approve.
In 1899, during the Second Boer War, Kingsley volunteered as a nurse. She had for some time supported, and spoke on behalf of, the Colonial Nursing Association urging the establishment of a regular Nursing corp. No one too surprised when she volunteered herself. She also explored the possibility of ‘covering the war as a correspond’ and planned to return to West Africa once the conflict was over. She has been trying to get back there over the last four years but had delayed this because she was enjoying her popularity on the lecture circuit. At the Cape, in a relatively short time she endeared herself to her fellow nurses and to the men whom she nursed. She died June 3, 1900 of typhoid at Simon’s Town, where she was treating Boer prisoners, including Typhoid patients. Expressing the desire to die alone, she asked her companions to leave the room so that she could make her own terms with death. She also said that she did not want her friends to see her in her weakness. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried at sea, receiving full military honors. A touch of comedy, which would ‘have amused’ Kingsley herself, was added when the coffin refused to sink and had to be hauled back on board then thrown over again weighed down this time with an anchor. She had died serving her country, however she had opposed its imperial policy. She asked to be buried in the sea, at the bottom of the Continent she loved, so that ‘the heart-shaped continent that had governed her life would … claim her as one of its own’.
In 1897, Kingsley suggested that a Learned Society was needed that would provide a meeting place especially for those who thought government, that is, imperial policy in Africa misguided and detrimental to African people. Although the African Society was not established until after her death, in 1900 (it received its Royal Charter in 1968) it acknowledges Kingsley’s suggestion as its founding vision. The Journal bore the words ‘founded in memory of Mary Kingsley’ and until 1923 also carried her image (being then replaced by an image of Africa). In 1998, a Centennial Exploration of Gabon’s Freshwater Biodiversity expedition named for Mary Kingsley, aided with a grant from the Geographical Society, followed her footsteps.
Her ideas on racial equality, that Africans and Europeans belonged to the same ‘section of the human race,’ were pioneering at a time when the superiority of the white race was almost universally taken for granted. Blunt (1994) describes Kingsley as ‘an outspoken figure in imperial debates of the 1890s’. She has been ‘described in fictionalized accounts in children’s books’ and in ‘virtually all accounts of women travel writers.’ Blunt suggests that Kingsley’s legacy is of special significance in terms of how a nineteenth century woman explorer negotiated her way through gender and race related issues. Blunt says that by traveling outside the home context, Kingsley was able to regender her ‘positionality’ as she wrote of her travels. However, concern, for example, for her appearance represents a feminine trait. In obituaries of her, she was ‘elevated to the status of Florence Nightingale’
She transcended ‘gender’, too, because her ‘wealth of adventurous experience which’ belonged ‘to few men, and to no other woman’ of her generation.. Did Kingsley ‘recognize’, asks Frank, ‘the essential pattern of male exploration in Africa, a pattern of masculine penetration, conquest and ultimately self-aggrandizement, if not outright plunder’, pointing out that there were no ‘female role models in African exploration’ for her to emulate and that even the men whom she did admire entirely escaped enacting the above. Blunt points out that the way in which she planned her journeys, mapping out the route, had a lot in common with those Orientalists who saw Africa and the East as territory to be ‘possessed’, as places that ‘shimmered with possibility’ for travel and adventure. Imperialism made her travel a possibility, even if she did not fully share imperialist convictions.