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Mary Henrietta Kingsley
Part 1: Early Life in England.
 More of this Feature
• Part 2: Travels in West Africa
• Part 3: On the Lecture Circuit
 Related Resources
• African Explorers
 Book Reviews
• Travels In West Africa

Mary Henrietta Kingsley (13 October 1862 – 3 June 1900) was an British explorer and writer who greatly influenced European ideas about Africa and its people. Kingsley was an outspoken critic of European colonialism, a champion for indigenous customs, and a dedicated campaigner for a revised British policy which supported traders and merchants over the needs of settlers and missionaries.

Mary Kingsley was born on 13 October, 1862, in Islington, London, the daughter of a medical doctor. Her father, George Henry Kingsley (1827–1892) travelled extensively, accompanying various nobles on journeys around the world, keeping diaries and notes which he hoped to publish at some future date. For much of her life Kingsley led a sheltered existence. She was educated at home by her father – when he had the time – and expanded her knowledge of natural history through the books in her father's library. She noted in her journals that the only money spent on her education was a little tutoring in German, so that she could help her father with the translation of scientific texts. In comparison, over £2,000 was spent on her brother Charles' education at Cambridge.

The family moved to Cambridge in 1886, partly because her brother was to attend Christ's College, but also because her father was now too ill to travel. It was time for him to get his enormous collection of notes and translations ready for publication. His life's work would be a comparative study of sacrificial rites around the world – a task that required Mary Kingsley's untiring assistance, and which came to a sudden halt a few years later with his death in February 1892. An event magnified by the death of Kingsley's mother just six weeks later.

Mary Kingsley from 'West African Studies', Macmillan, 1899.
Mary Kingsley
from West African Studies, Macmillan, 1899.

Kingsley re-appraised her life and discovered that she had few friends and no outside interests – in her journal she says that she sought "something to do that my father had cared for." She decided to travel to West Africa to continue her father's "study of early religion and law."

Unfortunately, Victorian social convention required that Kingsley stay at the beck-and-call of her brother, who controlled the family finances, and so she moved to his home at Addison Road, London. Charles, capricious and selfish by nature, did not have their father's redeeming charm, and it was to Kingsley's great relief that he decided to travel through China, departing from England in 1893, leaving her free to travel.

Apart from a brief trip to the Canaries in 1892, shortly after her parents' death, Kingsley had not travelled abroad. She set out to learn as much as possible about the nature of travel and exploration in the untamed reaches of Africa. She asked for advice from her few friends and acquaintances – "One lady remembered a case of a gentleman who had resided some few years at Fernando Po, but when he returned an aged wreck of forty he shook so violently with ague as to dislodge a chandelier, thereby destroying a valuable tea-service and flattening the silver teapot in its midst."

She next "cross-examined" various medical doctors who cheerfully displayed maps showing the geographical distributions of tropical diseases. They all advised her not to go, but asked that if she did, could she please be on the lookout for suitable specimens.

Her third avenue of enlightenment was missionary literature, only to discover "that these good people wrote their reports not to tell you how the country they resided in was, but how it was getting on towards being what it ought to be, and how necessary it was that their readers should subscribe more freely, and not get any foolishness into their heads about obtaining an inadequate supply of souls for their money." This was the start of a growing distrust for missionary work in Africa, a vocation Kingsley would campaign against on her return to England.

Fortunately Kingsley had one final source of information: an individual who "had lived on the Coast for seven years." Although this was not the same stretch of West African coast she intended exploring, his advice proved to be the most useful.

"When you have made up your mind to go to West Africa the very best thing you can do is get it unmade again, and go to Scotland instead; but if your intelligence is not so strong enough to do so, abstain from exposing yourself to the direct rays of the sun, take four grains of quinine every day for a fortnight before you reach the Rivers [Oil Rivers Protectorate, now known as Nigeria], and get some introductions to the Wesleyans; they are the only people on the Coast who have got a hearse with feathers."

Next page > Part 2: Travels in West Africa > Page 1, 2, 3

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