Kingsley, Mary H. (1862–1900)

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Kingsley, Mary H. (1862–1900)

Victorian Englishwoman, famous for her adventures in West Africa, who wrote several books detailing her trips and caused considerable controversy with her ideas about how West Africa should be governed. Born Mary Henrietta Kingsley on October 13, 1862, in Islington, England; died on June 3, 1900, in South Africa, of typhoid fever; daughter of George Kingsley (a physician) and Mary (Bailey) Kingsley; educated mostly through reading her father's library of travel books; never married; no children.

Following the death of both parents, used her inheritance for a visit to the Canary Islands (1892); inspired by the previous journey, set sail for Freetown, West Africa (August 1893); spent 11 months in West Africa leading an expedition of Africans in exploring the Ogooué River, crossing overland from the Ogooué to the Ramboé River, and becoming the first person, along with her African assistants, to ascend the southeast side of Mount Cameroon (1895); after four years back in England, departed in March for South Africa, where she nursed military prisoners of the Boer War (1900).

Selected publications:

Travels in West Africa, Congo Français, Corisco and Cameroons (Macmillan, 1897); West African Studies (Macmillan, 1899); The Story of West Africa (Horace Marshall, 1900).

In the small grass hut where she lay dozing, Mary Kingsley was awakened suddenly by a violent smell, later described in her book Travels in West Africa, as being of "an unmistakably organic origin." Inside the hut cleared for her by the village chief, she found a small bag hanging from the roof. In it, she found a human hand, three toes, four eyes, and two ears. "The hand was fresh," she later wrote, "the others only so so."

Kingsley was deep in Fang country, the lands of a West African tribe known for ritual cannibalism. The year was 1895, and she was crossing a 50-mile stretch of land between the Ogooué and Ramboé rivers, unspectacular except for the fact that no white man—and certainly no white woman—had ever set foot on this part of the "Dark Continent." During this period, West Africa was also known as the "white man's grave" because of the abominable rate at which disease claimed traders, missionaries, and government officials sent off to this part of Africa from Europe as if sentenced to a very short life in prison.

Though Kingsley spent barely spent two years traveling in West Africa, it was the highlight of her life. The activities of her first 30 years hardly indicated that this singular woman would go on to become a daring adventurer or a famous spokesperson for West African affairs. She was born in Islington, England, in 1862. Until her parents' death in 1892, she lived entirely at home, caring for her invalid mother and looking after the needs of her father during his infrequent stays. Except for a trip to Paris when she was in her mid-20s, she never stepped out-side Great Britain, and there is no record that she traveled much there. Her experience was confined mostly to London and to Cambridge, where the family moved in 1886.

Voluminous reading, however, allowed Mary Kingsley to explore the world mentally. Her father, a physician, generally worked in the service of aristocrats and spent much of his life traveling with his wealthy patients to such far-off places as the South Pacific and the American "Wild West." George Kingsley had a passion for travel and a library filled with the serious travelogues of his time, written by such famous adventurers as Sir Richard Burton and Mungo Park. Dr. Kingsley even co-authored his own travel book, South Sea Bubbles by the Earl and the Doctor, recounting his journeys in the South Seas with the Earl of Pembroke. It was from this library of books about far-off lands that Kingsley filled her developing mind.

On his returns from abroad Dr. Kingsley brought back strange tales and bags of exotic artifacts; his arrivals also ended Mary's use of the library and returned her to the rigid role that he felt all Victorian women should fill. Unlike her younger brother, Mary was never formally educated, but was relegated to helping her mother Mary Baker Kingsley with the housework while her mother was still well. Later, she became her mother's full-time nurse.

She dies at last a woman's death in the centre of civilisation, but perhaps that will only strengthen people's memories to recall that she had lived like a man in strange countries where civilisation had not gained mastery.

The Lady, June 21, 1900

Mary's mother had originally been George Kingsley's cook. They married when she learned she was pregnant with Mary, who was born only three days after the nuptials took place, and this near-illegitimacy was never publicly revealed during Mary's life. As an adult, she often lied about her age to aid in the deception, which she apparently found out about only at the death of her parents. Mary Baker Kingsley was from a working-class background and had little in common with her husband, which may help to explain why he spent so much time abroad. His absences probably played on his wife's frailty, however, and it is suspected that this life of bitter loneliness helped to erode her sanity and cause nervous attacks. When Mary was 28, one such attack left her mother paralyzed.

The constant attention that her mother required, sometimes through the night, put an end to Mary Kingsley's socializing within the small circle of stimulating friends she had begun to make in Cambridge. This full-time charge would have locked out any possibility of finding a suitor or husband, if that had been her desire, although there is little evidence to suggest that it was.

In 1892, when both her parents died within a few months of each other, Mary was nearly 30. In the next few years she would make up for the routineness of a life which had tied her to the confines of a few city blocks. The inheritance she received was not large, but it was enough to allow her to live independently and to indulge in some travel. In June 1892, therefore, just five weeks after her mother's death, she set off by ship due south, to "the closest least civilized part of the globe," the Canary Islands. She traveled alone, refusing requests from friends to accompany her.

The Canary Islands, just a hundred miles from the West Coast of Africa, were a gateway to that region as well as to Mary Kingsley's roaming, adventurous spirit which had been stifled for so many years. She wrote home that she had been having "a wild time since I left." On the island of La Gomera, she slept beneath a boulder at the center of an enormous volcanic crater. But most of her time was spent, she wrote, "on vessels going to and from the coast of Africa, on their way out with iron bedsteads, sperm candles and saltpeter or on their way home with black people of all ages and sexes, monkeys, parrots, snakes, canary birds, sheep, palm oil, gold dust and ivory." Taken with everything that went into trading as a line of work, she began to develop strong opinions about British traders in Africa.

When Kingsley returned to England she found that her brother Charley had rented a top-floor apartment for them in London. It was not to her liking, and she began to plan another journey. Since traveling to Africa as a single female tourist was not seen as appropriate behavior for a Victorian woman, she felt she needed a purpose for the trip. First she contacted the British Museum of Natural History and obtained a "collector's outfit"—bottles, nets, jars filled with liquids to preserve fish and insects—then she bought a revolver, and set off under the guise of doing scientific research for the museum. One of the last tasks she performed before embarking once more for the "white man's grave" was to make out her will.

This second trip to Africa lasted considerably longer than her first. It brought her initially to Freetown, Sierra Leone, a place she had seen so often in her mind's eye that she couldn't believe she was finally experiencing it firsthand. To be there, she later wrote in West African Studies, was "a thrill of joy." Aboard the Portuguese mailboat Lagos, she continued down the coast of Africa to Liberia, where, she wrote at one point to a friend, "there is another drenching sheet of rain wrapped round us."

On the West Coast of Africa, the sight of a white woman alone, dressed in mourning from head to foot, was as strange to the people she met as everything was to her. In this uncomfortably hot part of the world, there were no tourists, and when the only other white female on the boat got off in the Canary Islands, the white men on board were amazed that Kingsley remained. At first, they thought she was a missionary or perhaps a botanist—which was in fact the impression she tried to leave; she collected plants, fish, and rocks and took copious notes everywhere she went. Botanists from Kew had been known to explore the coast, but all of them were now dead.

Kingsley finally got off the Lagos in Cabinda, a trading station just north of the mouth of the Congo River. The European men at the station were astonished at her unexpected arrival. Kingsley's explanation was that she was waiting for the English mailboat to take her home, and hunting meanwhile for "fetish and fish." Sleeping in the same hut that the explorer Henry Morton Stanley had slept in on his first trans-African expedition, she stayed with the traders for two weeks. She shared their meals and came to trust these hard-living men. They in turn accepted her presence, calling her "Aunty." By the end of December, Kingsley arrived back in Britain with a trunkload of tales to tell and strolled irreverently in the streets of Liverpool with a pet monkey on her back.

Short trips upriver toward the heart of Africa had fueled her thirst for adventure. Kingsley wrote to a friend during this trip that she would cut all frivolous expenses out of her life when she returned to England, in order to save for another such journey. The sights, smells, the heat and the people of Africa had flooded her senses, and after this new world, a dream almost, the conventions of Victorian society clung to her like a damp rag. During the journey, when a fellow passenger asked if she was shocked upon seeing half-naked men paddling out to their boat in long canoes, she had become annoyed. Back in England she argued that her trip had not been a lark, and that "collecting" was a respectable pastime for a "middle-class spinster"; indeed, she had gathered a fine collection of fish, flies, beetles, plants and geological specimens. But her collection was too varied, and geological work was still considered the sole domain of men. Botany was a better bet, as there were several women who had already made names for themselves in the field, and she contacted the British Museum about her collection. She also contacted Macmillan, the publisher, about writing an account of her trip as a book.

A year after her return, she was back on the boat sailing south again toward Africa, this time accompanied by Lady Ethel MacDonald , who was going to join her husband, Sir Claude MacDonald, the first commissioner and consul general of the Niger Coast Protectorate. Because of her distinguished companion, Kingsley traveled this time in relative style and comfort. She was to stay for four months in Calabar, the site of the Colonial Government, helping to nurse men back to health who had succumbed to a smallpox epidemic. She also took short trips into the bush, pursuing her work as a naturalist and amateur anthropologist, studying the culture and legal systems of the indigenous peoples.

On one of several extended trips she took to visit missionaries, Kingsley was the guest of a French missionary couple at Talagouga when she decided to head up the Ogooué River in search of a species of fish she wanted to collect. She hired eight Galoas (Igaluas) as paddlers for her canoe. The French official protested that such a venture was unheard of, reminding Kingsley that the only white woman ever to go up the Ogooué had been accompanied by her husband and a number of other white men. Kingsley countered by making her own trip sound like a leisurely Sunday afternoon in the park. The Madame Quinee he mentioned had gone much further upriver than she planned; she would go a much shorter distance, for the purpose of collecting a few fish.

Once away from the mission, however, Kingsley ordered the men she now commanded to head towards the Alembe rapids at Kondo Kondo. In Travels in West Africa, she describes this whitewater journey:

When we were … paddling about the Okana's entrance my ears recognised a new sound. The rush and roar of the Ogowé we knew well enough.… But this was an ele mental roar. I said to M'bo: "That's a thunderstorm away among the mountains." "No, sir," says he, "that's the Alemba."

The rapids broke their paddles like matchsticks, but the voyagers lived to tell about it. For Kingsley,

the rapids were nearly as great a thrill as the freedom and power she felt in command of an expedition.

Her next expedition was the 50-mile over-land crossing between the Ramboé and Ogooué rivers; as the first white person to do so, she could put herself in the category of amateur explorer, looking up to the such masters of the game as DuChailla, Dr. Barth, and Livingstone. In yet another first, climbing the 13,760-foot Mount Cameroon (known as Mungo ma Lo-beth, or the Throne of Thunder, the first white climber of which had been Sir Richard Burton) began to seem too great a temptation for Kingsley to pass up. With the help of a number of porters, many of whom fell by the wayside along the trail during the week-long assault, Kingsley became the third English person to climb the mountain, and the first to reach the summit from the southeast face; she never mentioned in her books that she was undoubtedly the first woman to climb it.

Returning to England at the end of November 1895, Kingsley found she had been preceded by a flurry of press reports about her exploits. The public waited now with anticipation to hear more about the adventures of this daring traveler, touted by some as a "new woman." Despite her ability to excel in pursuits associated with the very essence of masculinity, Kingsley was no feminist, and on her return she stated bluntly, "I did not do anything … without the assistance of the superior sex." Ironically, she opposed female suffrage and believed throughout her life that a woman's place was in the home. In a profile article about Kingsley that appeared in Young Woman soon after her return, Sarah Tooley wrote:

It affords [Kingsley] some amusement that her travelling exploits are spoken of as something extraordinary for a woman to have accomplished, while no one would have marvelled if she had continued the heavy strain of her home duties to the end of her days.

Kingsley felt the physical strain of nursing was far greater than any adventure she had been on in Africa.

But Kingsley's next four years in England were not spent professing the proper place of women in Victorian society. Taking up the cause of West Africans, she believed that the British government was mismanaging its holdings in that part of the continent and would soon ruin it. She was against interventionist colonial rule and favored a loose system of government resembling economic imperialism that would allow free trade to continue unfettered. In Kingsley's eyes, the traders were the only ones who really knew Africa, and they should have a say in deciding how it was governed. From this position it was natural that she should oppose the anti-liquor lobbyists, who wanted to ban the sale of trade gin to Africans. Kingsley argued that the liquor was used in West Africa almost as a currency, and that she had seen no more deleterious effects of it there than could be seen on the streets of London. Because of her strong support for the traders, she became the first woman ever to speak to the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, with a talk appropriately titled "The Administration of Our West African Colonies."

Almost two years on the African continent had made Kingsley something of an expert. Nearly everyone, from academics at Oxford University to the top echelons of government, was interested in hearing her views. While Joseph Chamberlain was Secretary of State for the Colonies, he corresponded with Kingsley and was occasionally influenced by her views. Meanwhile, Kingsley earned much of her income from lectures given throughout the United Kingdom on a wide range of topics related to the region she had explored.

During these four years, she also published three books. Travels in West Africa came out in January 1897 and was an immediate bestseller. West African Studies, a more scholarly work published two years later in January 1899, was not as widely received. The Story of West Africa, a history of that part of the world, in which Kingsley now rated as a specialist, came out in January 1900. Kingsley also wrote a number of articles for such periodicals as the Spectator and Fortnightly Review, and kept up a voluminous correspondence. The intense work led to severe headaches, and Kingsley suffered a breakdown in early 1898, then recovered and continued at the same pace as before.

After four years of planning, Kingsley finally got the chance to sail south again. This time her destination was South Africa, where the Boer War was in full swing by early 1900 and casualties were mounting. Nurses were needed to care for the injured soldiers, and Kingsley had volunteered, intending to do her duty and then travel from there to West Africa once the war was over. She set sail in March and was stationed at Simonstown, where, instead of treating the British wounded, she tended to the needs of captured prisoners. Conditions were miserable at Palace Barracks, where the diseased and injured were crowded together and the medical help was severely understaffed. Kingsley worked furiously, cleaning and caring for the sick, and wrote home, "I am down in the ruck of life again." Typhoid was raging throughout the camp, and Kingsley came down with it, dying three weeks later. A mere seven years had passed since the death of her parents had freed her, at the age of 30, to travel. At that time it would have been hard for anyone, including perhaps even Kingsley herself, to imagine what she would accomplish in the time she had left.


Birkett, Dea. Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Kingsley, Mary H. Travels in West Africa, Congo Français, Corisco and Cameroons. London: Macmillan, 1897.

Taylor Harper , freelance writer, Amherst, Massachusetts

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Kingsley, Mary H. (1862–1900)

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Kingsley, Mary H. (1862–1900)