Mary Kingsley

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Mary Kingsley
Mary Kingsley West African Studies.jpg
Born (1862-10-13)13 October 1862
Islington, London
Died 3 June 1900(1900-06-03) (aged 37)
Simon's Town, South Africa
Nationality English
Known for Travels and writings on West Africa

Mary Henrietta Kingsley (13 October 1862 – 3 June 1900) was an English ethnographic and scientific writer and explorer whose travels throughout West Africa and resulting work helped shape European perceptions of African cultures and British imperialism.

Early life[edit]

Kingsley was born in London 13 October 1862, the daughter and oldest child of doctor, traveler, and writer George Kingsley[1] and Mary Bailey. She came from a family of writers, as she was also the niece of novelists Charles Kingsley and Henry Kingsley. The family moved to Highgate less than a year after her birth, the same home where her brother Charles George R. ("Charley") Kingsley was born in 1866, and by 1881 were living in Southwood House, Bexley in Kent.

Her father was a doctor and worked for George Herbert, 13th Earl of Pembroke and other aristocrats and was regularly away from home on his excursions. During these voyages he collected information for his studies. Dr. Kingsley accompanied Lord Dunraven on a trip to North America in 1870-1875. During this trip, Dr. Kingsley was invited to accompany Custer's U.S. Army expedition against the Sioux Indians. The reported massacre of Custer's force terrified the Kingsley family, but they were relieved to learn that bad weather had kept Dr. Kingsley from joining Custer. It is possible that her father's views on injustices faced by the Native Americans helped shape Mary's later opinions on British cultural imperialism in West Africa.[2]

In terms of Kingsley's education, she had little formal schooling compared to her brother, other than German lessons at a young age;[3] because, at that time, and at her level of society, education was not thought to be necessary for a girl.[4] She did, however, have access to her father's large library and loved to hear her father's stories of foreign countries.[5] She did not enjoy novels that were deemed more appropriate for young ladies of the time, such as those by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë but preferred books on the sciences and memoirs of explorers. In 1886, her brother Charley entered Christ's College, Cambridge, to study law; this allowed Mary to make several academic connections and a few friends.

With respect to religion, there is little indication that Kingsley was raised Christian; instead, she was a self-proclaimed believer with, "summed up in her own word [...] 'an utter faith in God'" and even identified strongly with what was described as 'the' African religion'.[6] She is known for criticizing Christian missionaries and their work for taking away African culture without proving any real benefits in return.[7]

The 1891 England census finds Mrs. Kingsley - Mary's mother - and her two children living at 7 Mortimer Road, Cambridge, where Charles is recorded as a BA Student at Law and Mary as a Student of Medicine.

In her later years, Kingsley's mother became ill, and she was expected to care for her well-being. Unable to leave her mother's side, she was limited in her travel opportunities. Soon, her father was also bedridden with rheumatic fever following an excursion. Dr. Kingsley died in February 1892, and Mrs. Kingsley followed a few months later in April of the same year. "Freed" from her family responsibilities and with an inheritance of £8,600 to be split evenly with her brother, Kingsley was now able to travel as she had always dreamed.[8] Mary decided to visit Africa, some say to finish collecting material for a book that her father had started on African culture.

Journeys to Africa[edit]

After a preliminary visit to the Canary Islands, Kingsley decided to travel to the west coast of Africa. Generally, the only non-African women who embarked on (often dangerous) journeys to Africa were the wives of missionaries, government officials, or explorers. Exploration and adventure were not seen as fitting roles for women in the Victorian era. African women were surprised that a woman of Mary's age was travelling without a man, as she was frequently asked why her husband was not accompanying her.

Mary landed in Sierra Leone on 17 August 1893 and pressed on into Luanda in Angola. She lived with local people, who taught her necessary skills for surviving in the African jungles and gave her advice. She often went into dangerous areas alone. Her training as a nurse at the Diakonissenanstalt Kaiserswerth had prepared her for slight injuries and jungle maladies that she would later encounter. Mary returned to England in December 1893.

Upon her return, Kingsley secured support and aid from Dr. Albert Günther, a prominent zoologist at the British Museum, as well as a writing agreement with publisher George Macmillan, for she wished to publish her travel accounts.

She returned to Africa yet again in December 23, 1894 with more support and supplies from England, as well as increased self-assurance in her work. She longed to study 'cannibal' people and their traditional religious practices, commonly referred to as 'fetish' during the Victorian Era. In April, she became acquainted with Scottish missionary Mary Slessor, another female living among native populations with little company and no husband. It was during her meeting with Slessor that Kingsley first became aware of the custom of twin killing, a custom which Slessor was determined to stop. The native people believed that one of the twins was the offspring of the devil who had secretly mated with the mother and since the innocent child was impossible to distinguish, both were killed and the mother was often killed as well for attracting the devil to impregnate her. Kingsley arrived at Slessor's residence shortly after she had taken in a recent mother of twins and her surviving child.[9]

Later in Gabon, Mary Kingsley canoed up the Ogooué River, where she collected specimens of previously unknown fish, three of which were later named after her. After meeting the Fang people and travelling through uncharted Fang territory, she daringly climbed the 4,040 metres (13,250 ft) Mount Cameroon by a route not previously attempted by any other European. She moored her boat at Donguila.[10]

Return to England[edit]

When she returned home in November 1895, Kingsley was greeted by journalists, who were eager to interview her. The reports that were drummed up about her voyage, however, were most upsetting, as the papers portrayed her as a "New Woman," an image which she did not embrace. Kingsley distanced herself from any feminist movement claims, arguing that women's suffrage was "a minor question; while there was a most vital section of men disenfranchised women could wait".[11] Her consistent lack of identification with women's rights movements may be attributed to a number of causes, such as the attempt to ensure that her work was received more favorably; in fact, some insist this may be a direct reference to her belief in the importance of securing rights of British traders in West Africa[12]

Over the next three years, she toured the country giving lectures about life in Africa to a wide array of audiences. She was the first woman to address the Liverpool and Manchester chambers of commerce.[13]

Mary Kingsley upset the Church of England when she criticised missionaries for attempting to convert the people of Africa and corrupt their religion. In this regard, she discussed many aspects of African life that were shocking to English people, including polygamy, which, she argued was practiced out of necessity.[14] After living with the African people, Kingsley became directly aware how their societies functioned and how prohibiting customs such as polygamy would be detrimental to their way of life. She knew that the typical African wives had too many tasks to manage alone. Missionaries in Africa often required converted men to abandon all but one of their wives, leaving the other women and children without the support of a husband –thus creating immense social and economic problems.[15]

Kingsley's beliefs about cultural and economic imperialism are complex and still widely debated by scholars today. Though, on the one hand, she regarded African people and cultures as those who needed protection and preservation,[14] she also believed in the necessity of British economic and technological influence and indirect rule, insisting that there was some work in West Africa that had to be completed by white men.[16] Yet, in Studies in West Africa she writes: "Although a Darwinian to the core, I doubt if evolution in a neat and tidy perpendicular line, with Fetish at the bottom and Christianity at the top, represents the true state of affairs."[17] Other, more acceptable, beliefs were variously perceived and used in Western European society - by traders, imperialists, women's rights activists and others - and, articulated as they were in great style, helped shape popular perception of "the African" and "his" land.


Kingsley wrote two books about her experiences: Travels in West Africa (1897),[18] which was an immediate best-seller, and West African Studies (1899), both of which gained her respect and prestige within the scholarly community. Some newspapers, however, such as the Times colonial editor Flora Shaw, refused to publish reviews of her works. Though some argue this is likely on the grounds that her beliefs countered the imperialistic intentions of the British Empire and the notion that Africans were inferior peoples, this is not entirely true, as she did support British traders and British indirect rule in Africa,[11][3] and thus cannot entirely explain her sometimes unfavorable reception.

The notable success of Travels in West Africa was due in no small part to the vigour and droll humour of writing, that, in the guise of a ripping yarn, never wavers from its true purpose - to complete the work her father had left undone. Between poles of manifest wit and latent analysis Kingsley constructs in images -- "… not an artist’s picture, but a photograph, an overladen with detail, colourless version"[19] — a discourse of poetic thought; a phenomenon oft-noted in the texts of Walter Benjamin. Of her method she said: "It is merely that I have the power of bringing out in my fellow-creatures, white or black, their virtues, in a way honourable to them and fortunate for me."[20] Of her purpose she said: "[M]y motive for going to West Africa was study; this study was that of native ideas and practices in religion and law. My reason for taking up this study was a desire to complete a great book my father, George Kingsley, had left at his death unfinished."[19] Of her father she said: "The work that he did seemed to promise a career of great brilliancy and distinction – a promise which, unfortunately, was never entirely fulfilled."[21] In truth George Kingsley produced but a few scattered fragments, not a scrap of which found its way into the great book of Mary Kingsley. It is, rather, in the text of his daughter - a forerunner of Lévi-Strauss and his Tristes Tropiques[22] - that the dream wish of the father is finally accomplished; and family honour sustained.

Published works[edit]


During the Second Boer War, Kingsley travelled to Cape Town and volunteered as a nurse. She was stationed at Simon's Town hospital, where she treated Boer prisoners of war. After contributing her services to the ill for about two months, she developed symptoms of typhoid and died on 3 June 1900. An eyewitness reported: "She rallied for a short time but realised she was going. She asked to be left to die alone, saying she did not wish anyone to see her in her weakness. Animals she said, went away to die alone."[23] In accordance with her wishes, she was buried at sea.[24] "This was, I believe, the only favour and distinction that she ever asked for herself; and it was accorded with every circumstance and honour. … A party of West Yorkshires, with band before them, drew the coffin from the hospital on a gun carriage to the pier … Torpedo Boat No. 29 [] put to sea and, rounding Cape Point, committed her to the element in which she had chosen to be laid."[23] "A touch of comedy, which would 'have amused' Kingsley herself, was added when the coffin refused to sink and had to be hauled back on board then thrown over again weighed down this time with an anchor."[25]


Kingsley's tales and opinions of life in Africa helped draw attention to British imperial agendas abroad and the native customs of African people that were previously little discussed or misunderstood by the European masses. The Fair Commerce Party formed soon after her death, pressuring for improved conditions for the natives of British colonies. Various reform associations were formed in her honour and helped facilitate governmental change. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine founded an honorary medal in her name.

Kingsley House in Achimota School, in Ghana was also named in her honour.

See also[edit]


  1. ^  Seccombe, Thomas (1892). "Kingsley, George Henry". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 31. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  2. ^ Frank 2006, pp. 37-38.
  3. ^ a b Gwynn & Rattray 1932.
  4. ^ Wilcox 1975, p. 173.
  5. ^ Frank 2006, p. 28.
  6. ^ Gwynn & Rattray 1932, p. 362.
  7. ^ Kingsley & Brandt 2002, p. xiv.
  8. ^ Frank 2006, p. 57.
  9. ^ Frank 2006, pp. 130-131.
  10. ^ Alexander 1990, p. 254.
  11. ^ a b Flint 1963, p. 96.
  12. ^ Flint 1963, p. 95-104.
  13. ^ Matthew & Harrison 2004, p. 713.
  14. ^ a b Kingsley & Brandt 2002, Introduction.
  15. ^ Frank 2006, pp. 157-159.
  16. ^ Kingsley 1897, p. 454.
  17. ^ Kingsley 1901, p. 101.
  18. ^ "Review of Travels in West Africa: Congo Français, Corisco, and Cameroons by Mary H. KIngsley". The Athenæum (No. 3615): pp. 173–176. 6 February 1897. 
  19. ^ a b Kingsley 1901, p. xi.
  20. ^ Kingsley 1901, p. viii.
  21. ^ Kingsley & Kingsley 1900, p. 22.
  22. ^ Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1967). Tristes Tropiques: an anthropological study of primitive societies in Brazil. New York: Atheneum. 
  23. ^ a b Gwynn 1940.
  24. ^ Matthew & Harrison 2004, p. 714.
  25. ^ Frank 2006, pp. 298-299.


Further reading[edit]

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