Mary Kingsley

Mary Kingsley

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 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 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, she was given 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 invalids, 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.

Mary arrived at Sao Paulo de Luanda in Angola in August 1893. She lived with local people who taught her how to fish using nets made of pineapple fibre. After learning the necessary skills, she went off alone to search the mangrove swamps in search of rare specimens. 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."

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.

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Kingsley, article in the journal, Mainly About People (1899)

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, 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. But this was not superiority of mind in me, at all; the truth was I had a great amusing world of my own other people did not know, or care about - that was in the books in my father's library.

They were mostly old books on the West Indies, and old medical books, and old travel books and what not; fiction was represented in it by the works of Smollett, and little else. No one would believe the number, or character, of the books I absorbed. My favourites among them were Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Johnson's Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, and Bayle's Dictionary. When my father was home from one of his long and many journey's, new books used to come into the house, and although I did not like them as the old, yet they had to be read too. But just as I was coming to the conclusion that new books were unworthy of my serious attention, one turned up that fascinated me wildly. It was Solar Physics, by Professor Norman Lockyer. That book opened a new world for me.

(2) Mary Kingsley, Notes on Sport and Travel (1900)

I confess that in the old days I used to contemplate with a feeling of irritation the way in which my father used to reconcile and explain it to himself, that because he had a wife and family it was his dire and awful duty to go and hunt grizzly bears in a Red Indian infested district, and the like. I fancy now that I was wrong to have felt any irritation with him. It is undoubtedly true that he could have made more money had he settled down to an English practice as a physician; also undoubtedly true that he thoroughly enjoyed grizzly bear hunting and "loved the bright eyes of danger"; still there was in him enough of the natural man to give him the instinctive feeling that the duty of a father was to go out hunting and fighting while his wife kept the home. But I am fully convinced that his taking this view of life really caused the illness which killed my mother. For months at a time she was kept in an unbroken strain of anxiety about him.

(3) Mary Kingsley, letter to Rev Dennis Kemp (1897)

I have always a feeling of responsibility. All through the fifteen years during which I nursed my mother and watched over my brother's delicate health, I never felt "it was all for the best", but only that perhaps I could make things better for them - if only I knew how, or were more able; and I tried my best, and I know I failed, for my mother's sufferings were terrible, and my brother's health is still far from what I should wish.

(4) In her book, Travels in West Africa Mary Kingsley explained how she wore a pair of her brother's trousers under her skirt.

It is at these times that you realize the blessings of a good thick skirt. Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone and done for. Whereas, save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fullness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort.

(5) Mary Kingsley, West African Studies (1899)

My first friends, among them my fellow-passengers on the Lagos, failing in inducing me to return from Sierra Leone did their best to save me by means of education. The things they thought I "really ought to know" would make wild reading if published in extenso. Led by the kindest most helpful of captains, they poured in information. To my listening to everything that was told me by my first instructors, and believing it, undoubtedly I have often owed my life.

(6) Mary Slessor, letter to Mr. Irvine (12th December, 1903)

Miss Kingsley cannot be portrayed. She had an individuality as pronounced as it was unique, with charm of manner and conversation, while the interplay of wit and mild satire, of pure spontaneous mirth and of profoundly deep seriousness, made her a series of surprises, each one tenderer and more surprising than the foregoing.

(7) Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (1897)

The mangrove swamp follows the general rule for West Africa, and night in it is noisier than the day. After dark it is full of noises; grunts from I know not what, splashes from jumping fish, the peculiar whir of rushing crabs, and quaint creaking and groaning sounds from the trees; and - above all in eeriness - the strange whine and sighing cough of crocodiles. I shall never forget one moonlight night I spent in a mangrove swamp. I was not lost, we had gone away into the swamp from the main river, so that the natives of a village with an evil reputation should not come across us when they were out fishing. Now and again the strong musky smell came that meant a crocodile close by.

(8) Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (1897)

There is nothing so fascinating as spending a night out in an African forest but, I do not advise anyone to follow the practice. Nor indeed do I recommend African forest life to anyone. Unless you are interested in it and fall under its charm. It is like being shut up in a library whose books you cannot read, all the while tormented, terrified, and bored. Still it is good for a man to have experience of it, whether he likes it or not, for it teaches you how very dependent you have been during your previous life on the familiarity of those conditions you have been brought up among, and on your fellow-citizens.

As it is with the forest, so it is with the minds of the natives. Unless you live alone among the natives, you never get a light into the true state of their mind forest. At first you see nothing but a confused stupidity and crime; but when you get to see - as in the other forest - you see things worth seeing.

(9) In 1895 Mary Kingsley visited the Fan tribe. She described this meeting in her book, Travels in West Africa.

The next morning the Fans started selling me their store of elephant tusks and rubber. I did not want those things then, but still felt too nervous of the Fans to point this out firmly, and so had to buy. I made it as long an affair as I could and I gradually found myself the proud owner of balls of rubber and a tooth or so and alas my little stock of cloth and tobacco all going fast. Now to be short of money anywhere is bad, but to be short of money in a Fan village is extremely bad, because these Fans, when a trader has no more goods to sell them, are liable to start trade all over again by killing him, and taking back their ivory and rubber and keeping it until another trader comes along.

All my trader stuff was by now exhausted, and I had to start selling my own belongings, and for the first time in my life I felt the want of a big outfit. My own clothes I certainly did insist on having more for, pointing out that they were rare and curious. A dozen white ladies' blouses sold well. I cannot say they looked well when worn by a brawny warrior in conjunction with nothing else but red paint and a bunch of leopard tails, particularly when the warrior failed to tie the strings at the back. But I did not hint at this, and I quite realize that a pair of stockings can be made to go further than we make them by using one at a time and putting the top part over the head and letting the rest of the garment float on the breeze.

(10) Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (1897)

My nervousness regarding the big game of Africa is of a rather peculiar kind. I can confidently say that I am not afraid of any wild animal - until I see it - and then - well I will yield to nobody in terror; fortunately my terror is a special variety. You can suppress alarm, excitement, fear, fright, and all those small-fry emotions, but the real terror is as dependent on the inner make of you as the colour of your eyes, or the shape of your nose; and when terror ascends its throne in my mind I become eternally artful, and intelligent to an extent utterly foreign to my true nature.

I have no hesitation is saying that the gorilla is the most horrible wild animal I have seen. I have seen at close quarters specimens of the most important big game of Central Africa, and with the exception of snakes, I have run away from all of them; but although elephants, leopards, and pythons give you a feeling of alarm, they do not give that feeling of horrible disgust that an old gorilla gives on account of its hideousness of appearance.

(11) Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (1897)

I had got caught in a tornado in a dense forest. The massive mighty trees were waving like a wheatfield gale in England. The great trees creaked and groaned and strained against it and the bush-rope cables strained and smacked like whips, and ever and anon a thundering crash with snaps like pistol shots told that they and their mighty tree had strained and struggled in vain. The fierce rain came in a roar, tearing to shreds the leaves and blossoms and deluging everything.

Climbing up over a lot of rocks out of a gully bottom where I had been half drowned in a stream, and getting my head to the level of a block of rock, I observed right in front of my eyes, broadside on, maybe a yard off, certainly not more, a big leopard. He was crouching on the ground, with his magnificent head thrown back and his eyes shut. His forepaws were spread out in front of him and he lashed the ground with his tail, and I grieve to say, in face of that awful danger - I don't mean me, but the tornado - that depraved creature swore softly, but repeatedly and profoundly.

I did not get all these facts up in one glance, for no sooner did I see him than I ducked under the rocks, and remembered thankfully that leopards are said to have no power of smell. But I heard his observations on the weather, and the flip-flap of his tail on the ground. Every now and then I cautiously took a look at him with one eye round a rock-edge, and he remained in the same position. My feelings tell me he remained there twelve months, but my calmer judgments puts the time down at twenty-minutes; and at last, on taking another cautious peep, I saw he was gone. He had moved off in one of those weird lulls which you get in a tornado.

(12) Mary Kingsley, letter to The New Africa (March, 1900)

The white race seems to me to blame in saying that all the reason for its interference in Africa is the improvement of the native African, and then to start on altering African institutions without in the least understanding them. It seems to me that the leading men among the European educated Africans have depended too much on the religious side of the question.

I know that there is a general opinion among the leading men of both races that Christianity will give the one possible solution to the whole problem. I fail to be able to believe this. I fail to believe Christianity will bring peace between the two races, for the simple reason that though it may be possible to convert Africans en masse into practical Christians it is quite impossible to convert Europeans en masse to it.

(13) Mary Kingsley, letter to Mrs. Green from Simonstown during the Boer War (May, 1900)

Whether I shall come up out of this, I don't know. It is a desperate game I am playing here, and it is doubtful. One nurse and an orderly who have only been on two days are down themselves. The stench, the washing, the enemas, the bed pans, the blood, is my world. Not London society, politics, that gateway into which I so strangely wandered.

(14) Dr. Carre, letter to Miss Johnson (June, 1900)

I was sent to Simonstown to combat the crisis created by the outbreak of enteric fever among the Boer prisoners of war, and after I had been here about a week Miss Kingsley joined me in the capacity of a Nursing Sister and between us in an incredibly short time we converted chaos into order, or as she herself has written it, converted "a mortuary into a sanitarium".

Unfortunately as events have shown she greatly overtaxes her strength, and this wretched war claims yet another brilliant victim, a thoroughly good woman of giant intellect whom this world can ill spare. I shall always recall Miss Kingsley's memory as one of the saddest and greatest friendships of my life.

It will be of great satisfaction to her brother and her friends to know that though only two months in Simonstown she had won the love and respect of all, and her funeral at sea, in accordance with her most definitely expressed wishes, was I suppose the most imposing obsequies this small place has ever witnessed.

(15) The Athenaeum (16th June, 1900)

It is difficult in speaking of the premature death of Miss Mary Kingsley not to use language which to those who did not know her, or only knew her as it were, from the outside, may seem to savour of exaggeration. To those, on the other hand, who knew her as she was, with all the variety of her richly endowed nature, her commanding intellect, her keen insight, her originality, her tenderness, her simplicity, her absolute freedom from cant or pretense, her delightful humour, her extraordinary grasp of the problems, physical, ethnological, or political, to which as occasion arose she turned her attention, any attempt to portray her character or to estimate by how much the world is the poorer for her loss must fall short of reality.

(16) E. D. Morel, The Speaker (15th June, 1901)

It was written on the book of Fate that she (Mary Kingsley) should die just as the practical usefulness of her work, its high morality and extreme accuracy, were forcing themselves upon the notice of her contemporaries in politics, administration and commerce, and upon the imagination of thinking England.

Those who knew her, and believed in her knowledge and capacity, are asking themselves today whether she died too soon for her counsels to have made any but a fleeting impression upon the minds of men, or whether they have taken root and are destined to bring forth fruit.