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Mary Kingsley: Among Women Who Changed the World

By Edited Aug 19, 2016 2 2

Her birth was one of those scandalous 1862 English events that overshadowed her childhood. Mary Kingsley was born four days after her parents marriage! In those Victorian days, family rifts were plentiful in her circumstances. She had really no childhood at all as to education and friends and play. Although she was curious about learning, and wanted desperately to be taught things, she was made to run the house, take care of her younger brother, and figure life out on her own. Such was the state for many females of those times, definitely second class citizens.

Mary Kingsley

Women who changed the world, or even had ideas that changed the world at that time were easily dismissed. There is no certainty as to how Mary learned to read as she had no formal education (her brother did). Her mother took to her bed when Mary was only 8 years old and it was up to her to take care of everyone, except her father, who was a physician with traveling noblemen and he was rarely home. When he was home, she loved to help him by getting facts from his books for him to write about. He had a library of books of novels, poetry, travel, adventure, history and science. Books were her caregivers, she was so isolated that they were her life, that and being a dutiful daughter to her family.

Eventually, at the age of thirty when both her parents were dead, she thought she could be free to travel, like her father had. Unfortunately her 26 year old brother expected her to take care of him. Mary was still of the generation subjugated to men, and she dutifully accepted this task. Luckily her brother took off for Asia several months later so Mary could pursue her travel yearning - Africa was where she yearned to go.

When her father had quit traveling due to poor health, he moved the family to Cambridge, England (her brother was attending school there). Since her dad was trying to get his science and travel notes together to be published, he used Mary for help and even paid for her to have German lessons. Some German articles he needed had to be translated so he finally made a solo contribution to his daughter's education. This along with the scholars, writers, and other intellectuals he was interacting with, gave Mary her first opportunity to a social life and learned discussions. She was able to forge a few friendships.

After her brother left, Mary could only afford to go to the Canary Islands for her first trip. It took a week on a steamship to get there and she loved it. She began her changing world as a single woman exploring the Canaries. She traveled to see a volcano and spent the night camped outside. She also discovered the traders: men who travelled alone through brush country by canoe or foot to trade goods. Many Europeans who had protected themselves from the notorious deadly diseases (malaria, etc.) had died, so the undertaking even to the Canaries was quite a learning experience for Mary.

She returned to London and made plans to return to West Africa. She left for the coast and traveled as far south as Luanda, Angola. She learned to eat, sleep, trade and get around in a place that had smallpox epidemics, sleeping sickness, horrible abuse and slavery of African people, and murders of thousands. She was gathering "fodder" for later speeches she gave in England where she shared ideas that changed the world of paternalistic, imperialistic English superiority of Africans. She also began to collect fish and fetishes. Her wandering was made more of a serious nature with the stamp of approval by a British museum expert zoologist. When she returned from this trip she brought samples of her fish to the museum and was given professional collecting equipment for her next trip. She got more support from publisher George Macmillan with a writing agreement to publish her travel accounts.

West Africa 1898 Boundaries

The next trip to West Africa cemented her reputation as great traveler and an authority on West African witchcraft (from her fetish studies). She journeyed to the Ogowe River, south of Libreville, in Gabon. There she could search for a new fish species, and meet the Fang tribe. She later wrote about them as the Fan tribe because she thought the name "Fang" was too horrific for the English readers. En route she learned to paddle a canoe and fend off crocodiles. In one swamp an eight foot crocodile "chose to get his front paws over the stern of my canoe," she said, "I had to retire to the bow, to keep the balance and fetch him a clip on the snout with a paddle. This was only a pushing young creature who had not learnt manners."

Elephants, snakes, hippos, monkeys, spiders and uncommon (to her) insects didn't faze her. Neither the scorching heat or soggy air overcame her love of travel in places no foreign woman had been. Her river trips made her happy..."Ah me! Give me a West African river and a canoe for sheer pleasure."

One of the new fish species she delivered to the British Museum was named after her, Ctenopoma kingsleyae. She was proud of her scientific studies and made some wonderful drawings of African fish. A narrative, Travels in West Africa, was hugely popular and published in 1897. Later she published, West African Studies (in 1899). Not bad for an uneducated single woman. She gave many lectures and promoted tolerance for the African culture. She openly disliked "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." These ahead of her time views made her a controversial figure. Now her books, speeches, and lobbying for West Africans is seen as changing the world. Then, her opinions had little influence on the British colonial powers.


Ctenopoma kingsleyae

She traveled back to West Africa during the Boer war. She volunteered as a nurse in a hospital in Simonstown, South Africa. She caught the fever that was epidemic and died. She was buried at sea, off the African coast, with full military honors.




Nov 25, 2011 2:40am
WOW!!! Absolutely great read about one really obscure woman in history, and the kind of work I truly love!! Good detail, excellent pacing -- an excellent effort. A thumb (I don't gush often).
Nov 25, 2011 10:45am
Thank you, I enjoyed writing it and value your feedback.
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  1. Women of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  2. Uncommon Traveler Mary Kingsley in Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
  3. "Women of Discovery: Mary Kingsley." Living on Earth. 19/November/2011 <Web >

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