Geographical Heroes: Mary Kingsley

Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) was the first European to visit several parts of West Africa. She was the daughter of the Doctor, naturalist and writer George Kinglsey, and many of her fathers interests became her own. She was self-taught, using her fathers library, to study natural history, and when her father began to study ‘primitive’ societies, particularly sacrifical rites, Mary worked for him, gathering accounts of travellers. After the the death of her parents in 1983 she joined a cargo ship bound for West Africa.

Mary Kingsley

The ship sailed along the coast of Africa from Freetown, Sierra Leone to a port on the coast of what is now Nigeria, from where she traveled inland at a time when a woman simply did not travel alone anywhere: ‘A quest for fish and fetish’ is how she described her journey. While exploring the lower Congo river she studied African religious practices and collected insects for the British Museum. Rather than march along as an ‘intrepid explorer’, Kingsley merged quietly into the areas she visited all the while observing.

African culture impressed her and she compared it with the rubbishy white culture that British officials and missionaries where trying to impose. ‘As it is with the forest’ she wrote ‘so it is with the minds of the natives. Unless you live among the natives, you never get to know them. If you do this, you gradually get a light into the true sate of their mind and forest. At first you see nothing but confused stupidity and crime , but when you get to see – well! As in the other forest, you see things worth seeing!’  Though she did not chart rivers or map geological features like many of the explorers from her era, she was in at least one way more signifcant than other explorers: she was a freethinker, exceptionally untainted by the cultural prejudice of her time.

In 1895 in order to study tribes. She travelled by canoe up the Ogowe River where collected specimens of fish. Several times her canoe capsized in the rivers dangerous rapids. Mary also travelled through dense forests infested with poisonous snakes and scorpions and wading through swamps trying to avoid the attention of crocodiles.  After meeting the cannibal Fang tribes she climbed Mount Cameroon by a route unconquered by any other European.

In 1899 Kingsley left Britain for a third time, intending to continue her exploration of West Africa but with the outbreak of the Boer War found herself travelling to South Africa instead. She worked in Cape Town as a journalist and nurse, caring for Prrisoners of War, but at the age of 38 she caught typhoid fever and died.

Her most famous publication was entitled: Travels in West Africa

The Mary Kingsley society of West Africa, later renamed the African society, was established in her memory. She is remarkable not just for her spirited travels, but also for her defence of African peoples against the destructive influences of Western civilization.

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