Mary Kingsley, seated, c.1893. Source: Keeling, Chapter X. [Click on this and the following images to enlarge them.]

The African explorer Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) deliberately cultivated a prim and proper appearance in photographs and public appearances, as if she wanted to deny in her outward form that she had ever done anything more challenging than sit in a parlour. Yet, even in the stiffly posed photograph alongside, she seems to have a far-away look in her eyes. In fact, she had paddled up swamps, braved predators and cannibals, and performed a mountaineering "first": to the right person, someone she knew well, she could call herself a "bushman" (qtd. from a letter in Frank 207). One of her legacies was the discovery of some new species of African fish, such as the Ctenopoma Kingsleyae or Tailspot Ctenopoma. Her larger legacy was to help to demystify the African continent and probably, for all her own fundamentally imperialistic notions, in so doing to hasten the progress of its individual nations towards independence.

Family Background

Speaking at a Woman Writers' dinner soon after the news of Mary Kingsley's death, the novelist Mrs Humphry Ward described her as "the heir and sustainer of a great name" ("Mrs. Humphry Ward and the Late Miss Kingsley"). Mary was a niece of Charles Kingsley, whose fantastic underwater world in The Water Babies gives only a hint of his serious interest in marine biology. Another uncle was the novelist Henry Kingsley, who had spent several years on the Australian goldfields, failing to make his fortune. Mary's own father George also felt the lure of the strange and the wonderful. As a London doctor he regularly accompanied wealthy people on their tours abroad, providing medical support while indulging his own "insatiable hunger for travel and experience" (Frank 18). In the process, he built up a huge stock of travel books, and amassed too an intriguing collection of curiosities.

Like many other Victorian girls at this time, Mary Kingsley never went to school. Indeed, her narrow domestic life was even more circumscribed than most. Her mother, Mary Bailey, was a servant whom George had made pregnant, and felt obliged to marry. Left alone with two small children, the older Mary had soon fallen into ill health and dependency, leaving the younger one to run the household. Nevertheless, with such a well-stocked and unusual library at her disposal, the girl found time to cultivate her own interest in the wider world which so absorbed her father. Later, she had a chance to catch up with new ideas when her far less gifted brother Charley, who of course was expensively educated, went up to Cambridge to study law.

Travels in West Africa

Left to right: (a) Equatorial West Africa, from Kingsley, West African Studies, facing p. 35. (b) Fish species discovered by Kingsley, with Ctenopoma Kingsleyae in the middle, from Travels in West Africa, Plate I in Appendix III. (c) Fans [or Fangs], a cannibal tribe, from Travels in West Africa, facing p. 257.

Apart from a week in Paris in 1888 with an old family friend, Mary Kingsley had never been abroad. Neither of her parents lived to a good age, and after dutifully caring for them in their final years, and wrapping up their affairs (probably, in dealing with the paperwork, discovering that they had married only four days before her birth), she was free to set off at last. Impelled not simply by a spirit of adventure, but also perhaps by a need to escape the confines and lies of her past, she first chose the Canary Islands, and then, beyond them, the part of the world that fascinated her most: Africa. She went about it methodically, kitting herself out with the means to collect samples of unusual insects, fish, plants and so on, and writing to English missionaries, traders and government officers there to say that she was coming. In August 1893, she sailed to Freetown in Sierra Leone on her first great expedition. It was an extraordinary venture for a single unprotected woman at that time, especially as so many Europeans fell ill in West Africa and never came back. But she returned safely in December — only to set out again about a year later, in late December 1894. This time she planned to write a book as well as to collect specimens.

On these two trips, still dressed head-to-toe in the black she had worn since her parents died (though she does twice mention a red silk tie), she braved everything from disease and cannibals to foaming rapids, in order to obtain specimens and reach areas where no European had previously trod. She was probably the first woman, and certainly the first European woman, to reach the summit of West Africa's highest peak, Mount Cameroon. On that expedition, only two of her small support team agreed to accompany her on the last lap, and neither proved equal to the task, one of them failing in the attempt for the third time. Her success was indeed "the stuff of heroic achievement" (Birkett 54).

Dangerous Encounters

Kingsley encountered other challenges besides the terrain and the elements. There were the predators, for example — some very small but so many in number as to make life almost unbearable. "Never have I seem sandflies and mosquitoes in such appalling quantities," she complained once, not querulously but with her usual accepting humour (Travels in West Africa, 131-32). As well as being infuriating, both of these carry diseases that can be fatal without treatment (leishmaniasis, for example, and malaria). But she had to face larger, more immediately life-threatening predators: on one celebrated occasion, a huge crocodile began heaving itself into her canoe. Giving it "a clip on the snout with a paddle" (Travels in West Africa, 89) she paddled quickly away. One of the most feared predators inspired as much awe as fear. Clambering out of a forest stream in a tornado, she almost stumbled into a leopard:

The great trees creaked and groaned and strained … and their bush-rope cables groaned 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. I was making bad weather of it, and climbing up over a lot of rocks out of a gully bottom where I had been half drowned in a stream, and on 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 fore-paws were spread out in front of him and he lashed the ground with his tail — 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 observation 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 judgment puts the time down at twenty minutes; and at last, on taking another cautious peep, I saw he was gone…. It was an immense pleasure to have seen the great creature like that. He was so evidently enraged and baffled by the uproar and dazzled by the floods of lightning that swept down into the deepest recesses of the forest, showing at one second every detail of twig, leaf, branch, and stone round you, and then leaving you in a sort of swirling dark until the next flash came; this, and the great conglomerate roar of the wind, rain and thunder, was enough to bewilder any living thing.

Having recorded her "pleasure" in seeing such a majestic creature at close quarters, and shown her ability to empathise with its terror, she adds, "I have never hurt a leopard intentionally; I am habitually kind to animals," and then (apparently still remembering her drawing-room audience, and making it clear to these readers that she maintained feminine codes of behaviour even in the bush) "besides I do not think it is ladylike to go shooting things with a gun" (Travels in West Africa, 544-45).

Trading Roles

Photograph of Mary Kingsley, c.1897,looking equally self-consciously posed but more feminine than she did in the earlier photograph. Frontispiece to her second book, West African Studies (2nd ed.).

Undoubtedly, when this intrepid and strong-minded adventurer was out in Africa, she benefited from the sense of authority attendant on colonial (male) power, making it hard to hold on to her feminine persona. She herself chose to act as a "white man" not only by mountaineering, but also by trading. The latter helped her both to support herself, and to gain the acceptance of tribal peoples. Once, she reports: "I bought some elephant-hair necklaces from one of the chiefs' wives, by exchanging my red silk tie with her for them, and one or two other things" (Travels in West Africa, 272). She does not seem to have associated herself with traders because of her mixed-class background, as has been suggested (see Kearns 455); she was clearly proud of these exchanges. Talking of traders, she wrote later, "such men are a mere handful whom a so-called Imperialism can neglect with impunity, and even if it has for the moment to excuse itself for so doing, it need only call us 'traders.' I say 'us,' because I am vain of having been, since my return, classed among the Liverpool traders by a distinguished officer" (West African Studies, 2nd ed., 47).

One way of retrieving her womanly image was through her demure apparel (apart from those daring crimson ties!), another through straightforward reference to her gender (as in words like "ladylike"), and another through a sort of self-deprecating humour, amounting, as Alison Blunt has pointed out, to self-parody (73). Was she not simply "a colossal ass" for "fooling about in mangrove swamps" (Travels in West Africa, 89)? She undercuts her canoeing skills, for example: "My reputation as a navigator was great before I left Gaboon," she says, only to explain that it was an outstandingly bad one:

I had a record of having once driven my bowsprit through a conservatory, and once taken all the paint off one side of a smallpox hospital, to say nothing of repeatedly having made attempts to climb trees in boats I commanded; but when I returned, I had surpassed these things by having successfully got my main-mast jammed up a tap, and I had done sufficient work in discovering new sandbanks, rock shoals, &c., in Corisco Bay, and round Cape Esterias, to necessitate, or call for, a new edition of The West African Pilot (West African Studies, 2nd ed., 76).

So much for her competence. As for bravery, that too must be played down. Recounting another close encounter with a leopard, for instance, she describes how she hurled a couple of stools and a water-cooler at it, but adds quickly and surely disingenuously, "Do not mistake this for a sporting adventure. I no more thought it was a leopard than that it was a lotus when I joined the fight (Travels in West Africa, 546).

Yet she was not disadvantaged by her femininity. On the contrary, it was an asset, and she used it as one. The different way in which presented herself allowed her to get closer to the tribal peoples. This included offering the nursing skill that she had acquired as the daughter of two ailing parents, making her the very epitome of nurturing womanhood. Even the fierce tribe of the Fangs, who lived in the rainforest, came to trust her. As another modern critic suggests, it was first-hand experience of tribal life like this, rather than imperialistic representations of it, that influenced her thinking (Marin 754). As in the case of her encounter with the leopard in the typhoon, her willingness to observe, and to put herself in the position of others, stood her in good stead, tempering fear, distrust, and above all prejudice, and enabling her to form her own opinions.

This was important, for Kingsley's stories about crocodiles, leopards and so forth are generally told in the context of describing their place in tribal culture, and as part of her exploration of the numerous and (to European eyes) strange fetishes associated with them. The critic Gerry Kearns therefore introduces her first as an anthropologist (450), within which general area she was an ethnographer of some skill and value. In this, she was carrying on the work of her father, who had once involved her in research for a projected, but never completed, book on sacrificial rites. Her work was the more valuable because it really was fieldwork, carried out in direct contact with, and through clear-sighted and sympathetic observation of, the people she traded with and stayed among — fieldwork, moreover, written up in detail, and analysed and discussed at length, later.

Writings and Talks

Left to right: (a) Sirimba Players, Congo, from Kingsley's West African Studies (2nd ed.), facing p. 56. (b) Oil River Natives, from Kingsley, West African Studies, (2nd ed.), facing p. 206. (c) Making a charm in the Upper Ogowé Region, from the chapter on Fetish in Travels in West Africa, p.446.

Kingsley brought back from her African trips some rare specimens, like the fish that were named after her, and a live reptile that she took to London Zoo. More importantly, she brought back her ethnographical findings, which she wrote up in two informative and entertaining books about her experiences. Travels in West Africa (1897) and West African Studies (1899). These not only contained ground-breaking accounts of "that intricate system which we find among the Africans and agree to call Witchcraft, Fetish, or Juju" (West African Studies, 2nd ed., 396), including initiation ceremonies, body decoration and so on, but also expressed a range of challenging and daringly thought-provoking views about the imperialist project in West Africa. While this catapulted her into territory as dangerous and swampy as any she had encountered on her travels, it also made her an important voice for Africa — and for women — in the political scene.

She was openly critical both of the missionary endeavour, and the colonial administration. Both, she felt, meddled in traditional ways of life that had evolved to suit the African context. She understood, for example, that polygamy and domestic slavery answered specific needs. As for the former (to give only one reason), "it is totally impossible for one woman to do the whole work of a house — look after the children, prepare and cook the food, prepare the rubber, carry the same to the markets, fetch the daily supply of water from the stream, cultivate the plantation, &c, &c." (Travels in West Africa, 211). And as for the latter, even several wives were not enough to cultivate those plantations: "Among the true Negroes of the West Coast of Africa, a so-called system of slavery is the essential basis of society" (West African Studies, 2nd ed., 397). She threw herself into two further debates. One concerned liquor duties, which she insisted had more to do with raking in profits than removing temptation: "I have no hesitation in saying that in the whole of West Africa, in one week, there is not one-quarter the amount [of inebriation] you can see any Saturday night you choose in a couple of hours in the Vauxhall Road" (Travels in West Africa, 663). The other concerned the unpopular "hut tax" which was to be levied on Sierra Leone, as a more overt way of raising revenue for the colonial administration. Here, she argued that such a regular payment was simply unjust, for, in African law, it contravened the right of possession.

These views were expressed not only in Kingsley's two principal books, but also in talks all over the country. The first two were to the Scottish and Liverpool Geographical Societies, at each of which she sat on the platform while one of the male members read out her lecture. But later she (literally) came into her own, becoming the first woman to address both the Liverpool and Manchester Chambers of Commerce. At Newcastle she lectured to 2,000 people, at Dundee to 1,800, and so on (see Frank 275). Again, she had to walk a tightrope. On the one hand she dressed in her customary "maiden aunt" fashion; on the other, she spoke her mind with the assurance that came from her unparalleled first-hand knowledge. As Christopher Lane says, "She succeeded very well in being heard" (103) — with, in addition to her first two books and these country-wide talking engagements, a shorter book, The Story of West Africa for "The Story of the Empire" series (1900); a collection of her father's writings with her own memoir of him (Notes on Sport and Travel, by George Henry Kingsley, also 1900); and a stream of articles in important journals like the Cornhill and the Spectator.


Smiling children of Cape Coast, Ghana. Left to right: (a) Kosi Appiah, the son of a garage mechanic. (b) Boys on Biriwa beach. (c) A girl carrying her baby brother in Cape Coast market. Kingsley describes Cape Coast in Chapter II of Travels in West Africa, noting that it had "the largest and most influential Protestant mission on the West Coast of Africa" (28). She could not have envisaged that Ghana would declare its independence in 1957, and become the first African country to free itself from colonial rule. [Photographs taken by the author in c.1971, when teaching at the University of Cape Coast.]

Mary Kingsley was very much of her time in many ways. She took no issue with imperialism as such. In fact, she was proud of Britain as an imperial power, and included herself not only among traders but also among "old-fashioned Imperialists" (West African Studies, 2nd ed., 418). What troubled her was the way colonial power was exercised. From her ethnographical findings, she saw the Africans she met as inhabiting a world of spirit rather than matter, and lacking in "mechanical aptitude" (Travels in West Africa, 670). She could not imagine the kind of changes that would bring them into the modern world. All this makes uncomfortable reading today. Nevertheless, she wanted a British approach based on justice and respect for native institutions, rather than the imposition of an alien system — one based on co-operation for mutual benefit rather than exploitation. Proposing what would, in effect, be indirect rule by a trading partner, she talked of "the government of Africa by Africans" (Travels in West Africa, 358). Above all, her work did much to demystify life on the African continent. She does not always hit the right note. She sounds facetious in her defence of cannibalism, which on one occasion she reduces to a menu choice: "The Fan is not a cannibal from sacrificial motives…. He does it in his common sense way. Man's flesh, he says, is good to eat, very good, and he wishes you would try it (Travels in West Africa, 330). But humour is just one of her tactics for demystifying Africa, a process which would make it easier for African nations to gain independence later on.

Similarly, as will be clear from her careful cultivation of a feminine persona, Kingsley accepted and did not question the place of women in Victorian society. Indeed, like Mrs Ward and a number of other high-profile Victorian women, she completely rejected Suffragettism, despite her own incursions into the male preserves of exploration, trading, and political debate. Women, it seemed, were like Africans — different. They did not need to be admitted as members of the Royal Geographical Society. That would only "inhibit scientific discussion" (qtd. in Blunt 149). At best, they might have their own group instead, under its auspices. As time went by, she "began to make explicit connections and comparisons between the African and the female condition" (Birkett 150). Was it indeed "a fundamental and debilitating failure of nerve" on her part (Frank 209)? Perhaps. But, again, it hardly mattered what she supported or did not support, because of what she actually did. Her individuality, independence, courage, endurance and conviction all proved how strong a woman could be. Above all, she showed through her talks and writing that a woman's voice could be heard, and have an impact. From her idea for an African Society came the Royal African Society, founded by her friend Alice Stopford Green in 1900, which is still promoting African interests today. From her call for "Fair Commerce" with the African workers came the term "Kingsleyism," which usefully united critics of colonial policies. In such ways, her influence "spread out like ripples for decades after her death" (Birkett 170). Ironically, her life and achievements have now become a focus for feminist critics, who may try to avoid celebrating her, but cannot help but treat her as a "key figure of interest in the historiography of geography" (Morin 753).

Kingsley went out to Africa for the last time in March 1900. Before she could travel to the western part that she loved, she died in Simonstown in South Africa. As if to make up for her imperialistic stance, she was nursing prisoners taken by the British in the Boer War. Another way of putting it is that, feeling "worried and bored" by the conflict in her between "bushman" and "drawing roomer" (qtd. in Frank 207), she was following her heart but giving of it first. The men she volunteered to care for were dying in droves from the typhoid that had swept their trenches, and before long she contracted the fever herself. She was only 37, and such was her fame that her death provoked a national sense of shock and dismay. She seemed to have walked her tightrope successfully. The Graphic's tribute ran: "With all the go and independence of the New Woman she embodied the sterling qualities of the Old Woman — humility; love of home and family, and a simplicity of nature which was truly refreshing" ("The Late Mary Kingsley"). Warm tributes were paid to her womanliness: "such a womanly woman in every sense of the word," wrote Edmund Morel, another West African expert, admiring the skill with which she was able to "draw forth, by the magic of her earnest personality, the best in a man" (xiv). Substitute "human nature" for "a man," and the tribute can be usefully broadened and updated.


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

Blunt, Alison. Travel, Gender, and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley and West Africa. New York: Guilford Press, 1994. Print.

Frank, Katherine. A Voyager Out — The Life of Mary Kingsley. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987. Print.

Kearns, Gerry. "The Imperial Subject: Geography and Travel in the Work of Mary Kingsley and Halford Mackinder." Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. New Series. Vol. 22, No. 4 (1997): 450-472. Accessed via Jstor. Web. 18 September 2013.

Keeling, Anne. Great Britain and Her Queen (2nd ed. 1897), in Project Gutenberg. Web. 18 September 2013.

Kingsley, Mary H. Travels in West Africa: Congo Français, Corisco and Cameroons. London: Macmillan, 1897. Internet Archive. Web. 18 September 2013.

_____. West African Studies. London: Macmillan, 1901. Internet Archive. Web. 18 September 2013.

_____. West African Studies. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1901. Internet Archive. Web. 18 September 2013.

Lane, Christopher. "Fantasies of 'Lady Pioneers,' between Narrative and Theory." Imperial Desire: Dissident Sexualities and Colonial Literature. Eds. Philip Holden and Richard J. Ruppel. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 90-114. Print.

"The Late Mary Kingsley." The Graphic, Saturday, 16 June 1900: 886. 19th Century Newspapers (Gale). Web. 18 September 2013.

Morel, Edmund D. "Foreword: Mary Kingsley." Affairs of West Africa. xiii-xv. London: Heinemann, 1902. Internet Archive. Web. 18 September 2013.

Morin, Karen. Review of Travel, Gender, and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley and West Africa, by Alison Blunt. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Vol. 85, No. 4 (December 1995): 753-755. Accessed via Jstor. Web. 18 September 2013.

"Mrs. Humphry Ward and The Late Miss Kingsley." The Times, Tuesday 26 June 1900: 6. Times Digital Archive. Web. 18 September 2013.

"Royal African Society: Promoting Africa." Web. 18 September 2013.

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Last modified 23 September 2013