Here is a second installment of famous women explorers you may never heard of. I’m please to say that I am on the final days of editing Rebel Green so I have put it up for pre-order: You can get it here I will be putting it up for beta reads in the near future and I would very much appreciate your opinions and sharp eyes to spot any typos. Watch this space for more info.
Mary Kingsley, the daughter of George Kingsley and Mary Bailey, and the niece of Charles Kingsley, was born in Islington in 1862. Her father qualified as a doctor and worked for the Earl of Pembroke. Both men had a love of travelling and together they produced a book of their foreign journeys, South Sea Bubbles. Her mother was an invalid, and she expected Mary to stay at home and look after her. Mary had little formal schooling but she did have access to her father’s large library of travel books.
When her father was at home Mary loved to hear his stories about life in other countries and willingly agreed to help him with his proposed book he was writing on the customs and laws of people in Africa. Although Kingsley did not consider taking his daughter with him on his travels, he gave her the task of making notes on relevant material from his large collection of books on the subject.
In 1891 Kingsley returned to England after one journey suffering from rheumatic fever. With both her parents bedridden, Mary took complete control over the running of the household. Mary even subscribed to the journal, English Mechanic, so that she could carry out repairs on their dilapidated house.
George Kingsley died in February 1892. Five weeks later her mother also passed away. Freed from her family responsibilities, and with a income of £500 a year, Mary was now able to travel. Mary decided to visit Africa to collect the material needed that would enable her to finish off the book that her father had started on the culture of the people of Africa. Mary also offered to collect tropical fish for the British Museum while she was touring the continent.
During 1893 and 1894 she visited Cabinda, the coastal enclave of Angola lying today between Congo (Kinshasa) and Congo (Brazzaville); Old Calabar in southeast Nigeria; and the island of Fernando Po, now part of Equatorial Guinea, near the Cameroon coast. Around the lower Congo River she collected specimens of beetles and freshwater fishes for the British Museum. Her adventures included a crocodile attacking her canoe and being caught in a tornado.
Kingsley returned in 1895 in order to study cannibal tribes. She travelled by canoe up the Ogowe River where she collected specimens of formerly unknown fish. Several times her canoe capsized in the river’s dangerous rapids. Mary also journeyed through dense forests infested with poisonous snakes and scorpions and wading through swamps trying to avoid the attentions of crocodiles. After meeting the cannibal Fang tribes, she climbed the 13,760 feet Mount Cameroon by a route unconquered by any other European.
News of Mary Kingsley’s adventures reached England and when she landed at Liverpool, she was greeted by journalists who wanted to interview her about her experiences. Kingsley was now famous and over the next three years she toured the country giving lectures on life in Africa. In her talks she challenged the views of the “stay at home statesmen, who think the Africans are awful savages or silly children – people who can only be dealt with on a reformatory penitentiary line.”
|Figure 1 Figure 1 Mary Kingsley sitting between Sir Claude and Lady Rose MacDonald in Calabar, 1895 (Royal Commonwealth Society Library, London).
Mary Kingsley upset the Church of England when she criticised missionaries for trying to change the people of Africa. She defended polygamy and other aspects of African life that had shocked people living in Britain. Mary argued that a “black man is no more an undeveloped white man than a rabbit is an undeveloped hare.”
The Temperance Society was also angered by Kingsley’s defence of the alcohol trade in Africa. The African, she argued, is “by no means the drunken idiot his so-called friends, the Protestant missionaries, are anxious, as an excuse for their failure in dealing with him, to make out.”
Kingsley held conservative views on women’s emancipation. When the Daily Telegraph described her as a “New Women” she wrote a letter of complaint argued that “I did not do anything without the assistance of the superior sex.”
In a speech she made on women’s suffrage in 1897 she argued against women being given the vote in parliamentary elections. Kingsley claimed that the country already suffered from having a poorly informed House of Commons and believed that the “addition of a mass of even less well-informed women would only make matters worse.” According to Kingsley, “women are unfit for parliament and parliament is unfit for them”. However, women she believed were well informed on domestic issues and fully supported women taking part in local elections.
Kingsley first book about her experiences, Travels in West Africa (1897) was an immediate best-seller. In her second book, West African Studies (1899) she described the laws and customs of the people in Africa and explained how best they could be governed. Joseph Chamberlain, the government’s Colonial Secretary, wrote to Kingsley seeking her advice. However, Kingsley was such a controversial figure he asked her to keep their meetings secret.
Kingsley’s descriptions of the behaviour of missionaries and traders in Africa inspired the young journalist, E. D. Morel, to carry out his own research into the problem. This resulted in a series of articles entitled The Congo Scandal (1900) that eventually had an impact on government policy.
On the outbreak of the Boer War, Kingsley volunteered to work as a nurse. When the editor of the Morning Post heard she was going, he asked her to report on the war. However, her work as a nurse in Simonstown kept her fully occupied. In a letter to a friend in England, Kingsley explained how typhoid fever was daily killing four of five of her patients. She also described fellow nurses dying of the disease and added that she thought it was unlikely that she would survive. Her prediction was unfortunately accurate and she died on 3rd June, 1900. As requested just before her death, Mary Kingsley was buried at sea.
Mary Kingsley once wrote that there were only two things of which she was particularly proud in her extraordinary, though short, life as an explorer: that her scientific mentor approved of the fish she collected on her travels, and that she learned how to paddle a canoe “pace, style, steering and all” as if she were an African. As was her style, she was being far too modest. By the time she died at age 38, after having traveled alone through West Africa on and off for seven short years, she had become the century’s foremost authority on the area.
This was no small feat, given the extreme rarity of women traveling in this part of the world. In fact, many of the African tribes she studied and befriended had never seen a white person, let alone glimpsed an unmarried woman by herself. A passage in her book West Africa Studies portrays this fact best. In the book she writes of walking through the forest and encountering a group of men highly bedecked in shells, beads and other ornaments. Assuming they were a secret society (death is often the punishment for an intruder to such gatherings) she turned and fled, but was caught by one of the men. They were not, in fact, a secret society, but a party of monkey hunters on a hunt. To catch monkeys they covered themselves in decoration and sat in a clearing, waiting for the curious monkeys to come down out of the trees.
Not bound by secrecy, they did not kill Mary. Instead, they had her sit with them in the clearing. Since they thought she was the “queerest object they had personally ever seen,” they assumed the monkeys would react that way, too, and come down to see this strange sight.
This “queer” woman who had no formal education did more, in some ways, for the people of West Africa than anyone had before her. Her two handbooks, Travels in West Africa, and West African Studies, as well as her speeches and lobbying back in England promoted a new understanding and tolerance of these little understood tribes.
Just before her first trip to Africa, Mary had written in a letter to a friend that she was going to Africa to die. Seven years later, her life had changed so dramatically for the better that it is clear she no longer wanted to. But her life ended as she had lived it, tending others.
I hope you enjoy these posts. Let me know if you have any questions about them or any of my books.