Who Was the Pioneering Explorer Mary Kingsley?

History Hit

4 mins

02 Jun 2019

On 3 June 1900 the British explorer, writer and adventurer Mary Kingsley died whilst voluntarily treating Boer prisoners of war in South Africa. She was just 38 years old.

Oddly, in an age that encourages the recognition of previously overlooked women,  and the understanding and celebration of a wide range of cultures, Kingsley’s pioneering work in Africa is little-known.

Yet it has had a marked impact on the history of Africa, the role of women in exploration, and the British Empire.

Early influences

Mary was the eldest child of George Kingsley, a moderately well-known traveller and writer in his own right. But while great things were expected of her brothers, Mary was encouraged to read Jane Austen and received no formal schooling.

She always displayed great interest in her father’s travels, in particular the trip he took in the 1870s to the United States of America. Only freak weather prevented him from joining up with General Custer before the disastrous battle of the Little Bighorn.

It is thought that George’s observations about the brutal treatment of the Native Americans piqued Mary’s interest in how the British Empire’s African subjects were faring under their new masters.

She read many explorers’ memoirs on travels through “the dark continent” and developed an interest in African culture, which she believed to be under threat from the clumsy if well-meaning efforts of western missionaries.

Africa in 1917. Whilst much had been claimed by European powers, the interior was largely unknown

Mary’s horizons were expanded in 1886, when her brother Charley gained a place at Christ’s College Cambridge, exposing her to a new network of educated and well-travelled people.

The family moved to Cambridge shortly afterwards, and Mary was able to gain some schooling in medicine – which would come in handy in the African jungle.

Family obligations kept her tied to England until the death of her parents 1892. Her inheritance finally enabled her to pursue her lifelong dream of exploring Africa.

She didn’t wait around, heading to Sierra Leone less than a year later. It was considered both exceptional and dangerous for a woman to be travelling alone at the time, especially in the still largely uncharted interior of the continent.

This did not dissuade her. After additional training in the treatment of tropical diseases, Mary set off into the Angolan jungle completely alone.

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There she lived alongside the local people; learning their languages, their methods of surviving in the wilderness, and seeking to understand them to a far greater extent than many of her predecessors.

After the success of this first trip, she returned to England to secure more funds, publicity and supplies, before returning as quickly as she could.

This second trip, in 1894, saw her taking even greater risks, traveling deeper into little-known territory. She encountered witch-doctors, cannibals and practitioners of bizarre local religions. She respected these traditions but was troubled by the crueller practices.

Her notes and memoirs were wry and witty, and contained many new observations about the practices and lifestyles of these untouched tribes.

To some, such as the Fang people of Cameroon and Gabon, she was the first westerner they had ever known, a responsibility that she seems to have enjoyed and cherished.

4-faced Ngontang mask of the Fang people

This second expedition was a great success. It even saw her become the first westerner – let alone woman – to climb Mount Cameroon by a new and dangerous route.

She returned to England a celebrity and was greeted by a storm of press interest – largely negative. The assertiveness of her published accounts and achievements lead the papers to describe her as a “new woman” – a largely derogative turn of the century term for an early feminist.

Ironically, Mary did all she could to distance herself from the early suffragettes, being more interested in the rights of African tribes. Yet despite the negativity of the press, Mary toured the UK giving lectures on African culture to packed audiences.

Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Self-Portrait (as “New Woman”), 1896

Her views were certainly ahead of her time. She refused to condemn some African practices, such as polygamy, out of Christian principle.  Instead she argued that they were necessary in the very different and complex fabric of African society, and that to suppress them would be damaging.

Her relationship with empire was more complex. Though she wished to preserve the many African cultures that she encountered, she was not the outright critic of imperialism that some of her modern admirers cast her as.

Lawrence James is an English historian and writer. He has written several works of popular history about the British Empire. Lawrence's latest book is entitled Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa.Listen Now

In light of her experiences, she concluded that the backwardness of African society did need a guiding hand, as long as it was gentle and understood the importance of local culture and tradition.

Though unpalatable today, her views were of her time and played an important role in shaping how the British Empire saw itself.

With a greater understanding of its subjects came a different and less exploitative behaviour toward them, which greatly contributed to the uniquely peaceful break-up of the Empire after the Second World War.

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