“Being human, she must have feared some things, but one never arrived at what they were” – Rudyard Kipling
|Mary Kingsley in jungle dress|
Appearances were important, even in the sweltering jungle. It was her firm opinion that a lady had “no right to go about in Africa in things you would be ashamed to be seen in at home”. So she dressed in the tropics as she did in London – impeccably.
Her tall, slim frame was always covered from neck to toe by a prim cotton blouse, black shawl and long, black woollen skirt. She wore a corset. And her fair hair was always pinned back and covered by a neat black bonnet tied under her chin with a bow. Feminists suggested Mary try wearing men’s trousers, a more practical alternative in the African rainforest. “I would rather,” she said, “[have] perished on a public scaffold.”
Mary Kingsley was born in 1862 in Islington, north London, just four days after the shotgun wedding of her parents. Her dad was a doctor, her mum a cockney servant. Within a month of the marriage, Dr Kingsley had left the country for the first of many long journeys overseas. Mary would see little of him growing up.
Hers was a lonely, imprisoned upbringing. While Dr Kingsley roamed the world, Mrs Kingsley sank into chronic ill-health and depression. Mary was expected to play the role of dutiful daughter, nursing her mum round the clock, rarely going outside. While still very young, she took charge of running the household. “I knew nothing of play and such things,” she later wrote.
She was a bright girl, Mary, but was given no formal education. The only thing her mum seems to have taught her was how to talk cockney. All her life, Mary would drop her hs like an East End flower girl – a habit that always amazed her middle-class peers.
But when she wasn’t helping her mum, Mary educated herself. She spent hours in her absent dad’s library lost in his books. She studied physics, chemistry, biology and maths. She learned Latin and German. She even taught herself how to fix the plumbing in her home by subscribing to a trade magazine.
Then in 1891, the wandering Dr Kingsley returned after picking up rheumatic fever on his travels. Within months, he was dead. His invalid wife, who’d had a stroke, followed him to the grave a few weeks later. Mary’s grey, slavish existence was suddenly over. She was twenty-nine and, for the first time in her life, she was free.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that she should want to cut loose. But what the newly liberated Miss Kingsley did next was so bizarre, so unimaginable for a Victorian lady, so out of keeping with her life up to that point, it’s barely believable - she went to West Africa to study tropical fish and cannibals.
Women simply didn’t go it alone in Africa back then - and certainly not in malaria-ridden West Africa, the White Man’s Grave. A few brave married ladies ventured out, the wives of missionaries and colonial officials. But single female explorers were not only unheard of, they were unthinkable.
Mary made two long African journeys – in 1893 and 1895 - roaming up and down the West Coast and pushing deep into the rainforests of the interior. Unlike so many male explorers of her time, she travelled light with only a handful of hired Africans for company. There was no army of porters, no arsenal of rifles, no tin bath, not even a tent.
She made her way without any fuss by trading tobacco, cloth and gin. She hacked her own way through the bush with a machete and she paddled her own canoe. People downed tools and stared in astonishment as she marched unheralded into their remote villages, pale-faced, straight-backed, formally dressed in black. Children fled in terror. Africa had never seen anything like her.
Before she left Britain, a friend recommended a West African phrase book. This cheery language guide opened with the exclamation, “Help, I’m drowning!”. There was also, “Get up you lazy scamps!”. And it included the memorable question, “Why has this man not been buried?” to which the answer was, “It is fetish [magic] that has killed him, and he must lie here exposed… until only the bones remain.”
Mary didn’t bother with it. Nor did she take a hot water bottle sent to her by another well-meaning but clearly bemused acquaintance. Instead she stuffed her waterproof bag with blankets, boots, a bowie knife, a revolver, anti-malarial medicine and an old book of Latin poetry. She also found room for one little luxury: tea. Then she made out her will, headed to Liverpool and joined a cargo ship bound for Africa.
Ominously, shipping agents refused to sell Mary a return ticket (so few people came back from West Africa in those days it wasn’t considered worth it). The only two other women on board both got off at the Canary Islands. Baffled male passengers thought Mary was a mad missionary with a death wish. But for her, it all made perfect sense. She’d been reading about Africa – its exotic people, its strange animals – for years. Arriving in Angola in August 1893 felt like coming home.
The intrepid Miss Kingsley didn’t do anything too suicidal on that first African journey. This was something of a trial run, the first, she hoped, of many such voyages. But it was still a thousand times more adventurous than anything attempted by other white travellers of her day.
She spent six months moving north through Congo, Cameroon and Nigeria. She lived with local people in their thatched huts, eating the African “chop” of palm oil stew, smashed snails, plantain and yam. She spent hours “puddling about” swamps in dugout canoes, catching rare fish and insects which she pickled in jars and brought back to the British Museum. And she had endless scrapes and narrow escapes – “knockabout farces before King Death” she liked to call them.
One night Mary was woken by a savage growling outside her hut and emerged to see a black leopard attacking a dog a few yards off. The sensible option would have been to retreat back inside, pulling the hut door firmly behind her. Instead Mary went to the rescue with a chair, hurling it at the deadly cat.
The counterattack worked; the dog broke free. But now the leopard turned on her, crouching to spring, its eyes “green balls of fire”. Mary picked up an earthen water jug and chucked it with all her strength at the wild animal. Bull’s-eye! The jug exploded like a shell on the cat’s head. “This discouraged the creature,” she writes to a friend. And the startled beast fled back into the darkness all around.
More knockabout farces followed on Mary’s second African adventure in 1895. This time she really went for it, pushing deep into the bush, going boldly where no white man – and certainly no white woman – had gone before. She was there a year. She ran into gorillas, scorpions and poisonous snakes, some of which she ate for lunch. She saw a man savaged to death by another leopard. When dozy hippos blocked her path Mary used her umbrella to prod them out of the way.
The hairiest moment came when a crocodile clambered onto the back of her canoe and, in her words, “endeavoured to improve our acquaintance”. Mary shuffled to the front of the unsteady little dugout, took aim, and gave the monster an almighty whack on the snout with her paddle. It did the trick. The reptile retreated. And Mary brushed off the incident: at just eight feet long, she says, the animal was “only a pushing young creature who had not learnt manners”.
But it was Africa’s people, not animals, who really excited her. She was fascinated by local rituals and customs. She was enthralled by African witchcraft and magic, what she called “fetish”. And above all she was drawn to the Fang, a fierce tribe who lived in the forest and were renowned for their cannibal feasts.
Despite the Fang’s spine-chilling reputation for dining on passers-by, Mary had her heart set on meeting them. So she took a steamboat as far as it was possible to go up the Ogooue River, deep into Fang territory in what was then the French Congo. And from there she continued alone on foot and by canoe, pickling interesting fish as she went and getting to know the locals.
They didn’t eat her of course. Far from it. The Fang proved a surprisingly friendly bunch. Instead of putting her in the pot, they showed her the best way to cook snake. She taught them a few English phrases, enjoying hearing them say “Dear me, now” and “Who’d have thought it?”. A dozen white ladies’ blouses were traded for ivory and rubber. And all in all, the prim Victorian spinster found her cannibal hosts a bright lot “full of fire, temper, intelligence and go”.
Mary’s adventures in Fang country continued with a brutal trek across the dangerous, slimy swamplands to the north of the Ogooue River. No European had ever set foot here before. It was what Mary liked to call a “choice spot”. She took four Fang “gentlemen” and six other African guys with her. And pretty soon the lot of them were, in a very literal sense, up to their necks in shit.
The worst stretch of swamp took more than two hours to cross. Plucky old Mary plunged in and waded through without fuss, the filthy, stinking water coming up to her chin. When she finally clambered out at the other side her exposed hands and neck were completely covered in leeches. She nearly fainted from loss of blood.
Another time she was walking through the forest when she stepped on a camouflaged animal trap. Its cover of leaves and branches gave way beneath her. She plunged fifteen foot into a pit. And she landed, in a most unladylike heap, on a bed of spikes. “It is at these times you realised the blessing of a good thick skirt,” she writes. “Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England… and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone, and done for.”
Mary was lucky. “Save for a good many bruises,” she continues, “here I was with the fullness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out.” Her African companions gathered at the rim of the hole and peered down. “You kill?” asked one. “Not much,” responded Mary. They pulled her out with a bush rope and the party marched resolutely onwards.
Just a few minutes later, however, one of her men – a quiet chap she nicknamed Silence - also disappeared through the forest floor into another spiked animal pit. Silence was less fortunate than his boss. He survived. But since he didn’t have the benefit of a good thick skirt, he emerged, Mary reports, “a good deal frayed at the edges”. His wounds had to be bound up with large jungle leaves.
One night the eleven exhausted travellers arrived at a Fang village called Efoua. Mary was given a hut to sleep in and she crashed out as once, fully dressed and still wearing her wet boots. But a few hours later she was woken by a gruesome smell. It had, she says, “an unmistakable organic origin”. And it was coming from an odd collection of bags hanging from the roof.
She pulled the biggest one down, untied it and carefully poured its contents into her hat. No wonder things were wiffy. Mary found herself staring at a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears and other bits and bobs that clearly belonged underground. “The hand was fresh,” says Mary, “the others only so so and shrivelled.” Not wishing to pry further, she popped the human parts back in the bag, carefully re-fastened it, and stepped outside for spot of fresh air.
After leaving the Fang, Mary returned to the coast and rounded off her epic adventure by climbing Mount Cameroon. She was, she says, “the third Englishman” to scale the 13,760-foot peak (the first was Sir Richard Burton). She was also the first white woman to do it (perhaps the first woman full-stop, white or black). And she reached the wind-battered, rain-soaked summit completely alone, her five male companions having abandoned the tough climb halfway up.
News quickly spread of the mountain-climbing, fish-collecting, cannibal-studying spinster. And by the time Mary got back to Liverpool in November 1895 she was already an unlikely celebrity. For the next three years she would travel up and down the country, lecturing to thousands. She wrote two rollicking bestsellers, modestly titled “Travels in West Africa” and “West African Studies”. And she waded into controversy with the same guts and gusto that she had marched through fetid swamps.
She accused Christian missionaries of trying to “murder” African culture. She attacked do-gooders who would ban booze exports to Africa. She defended the African man’s right to have more than one wife. And she took regular pot-shots at ignorant Brits who saw black people as savages in need of salvation.
“I do not believe the African to be brutal or degraded or cruel,” Mary writes in a letter to the Spectator magazine. “I know from wide experience… that he is… by no means the drunken idiot his so-called friends, the Protestant missionaries are anxious… to make him out.” The Spectator called her views “cynical”.*
When Mary wasn’t off lecturing round the country she kept her small London flat heated at tropical temperatures. She filled it with African souvenirs: wooden masks, ivory carvings, musical instruments. She spent all her free time planning her next big trip, her next chance to “skylark and enjoy myself in Africa”. The so-called Dark Continent had put light and joy and hope back into her lonely life; she couldn’t wait to get back there.
But this story ends on an unhappy note. When the Boer War broke out Mary volunteered as a nurse and sailed not to her beloved West Africa but to war-ravaged South Africa. She was posted to an overcrowded prisoner of war hospital on the Cape. And she endured two terrible months there, a time of misery and horror and death.
Mary had more than a hundred Boer prisoners under her care, farm boys mostly; young men brought in with festering bayonet and bullet wounds and appalling blast injuries. Typhoid fever was rife. Bugs and lice were everywhere. Mary would see five or six men die on the wards every shift. “Killing work,” is how she describes it.
In the evenings she would call on her friend Rudyard Kipling who lived nearby. The poet listened to her speak about her work with calm dignity and admired her bravery. “Being human,” he said “she must have feared some things, but one never arrived at what they were.” Then one morning in late May 1900 Mary woke in pain and knew that she too had the fever.
It didn’t take long. On 1 June a doctor confirmed the worst. By the following day it was clear Mary was in a losing battle. And that afternoon, before delirium took hold, this fearless and funny young woman did a curious thing: she asked her colleagues to withdraw from her room and allow her to face death as she had faced life, alone.
Mary Kingsley died in the early hours of 3 June, aged thirty-seven. She was buried at sea, her final wish. Enemy Boers were among those who paid their respects as soldiers carried her casket onto a torpedo boat. The vessel steamed out into the Atlantic. And Mary’s body was lowered overboard a few miles off the coast of her beloved Africa.
And that would have been that were it not for one final twist in the tale of the magnificent Miss Kingsley, a last little joke that would certainly have made her smile: instead of sinking like a stone, her coffin floated. It popped back up to the ocean’s surface and sat bobbing about cheerily on the waves. No one, it seems, had thought to weight it.
Mourners on the deck of the torpedo boat watched in disbelief as Mary’s mortal remains floated gently away on the sea current. “Dear me,” you can imagine her saying, “what a knockabout farce.” Then a lifeboat rushed out to catch the runaway coffin, a sailor hooked a spare anchor to its brass fittings, and the wooden box with Mary inside (still no doubt impeccably dressed) was sent hurtling to the ocean floor.
* Footnote: It wasn’t just Africa that got contrary Mary fired up. She disapproved of bicycles, disliked London’s omnibuses, and was against votes for women because “women are unfit for Parliament and Parliament is unfit for them”.
* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my facebook.com/historynuts. Thanks again!
Frank, Katherine, A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley (London, 2005)
Simpson, Helen, A Woman Among Wild Men (London, 1938)
Kingsley, Mary, The Congo and the Cameroons (extracts from Travels in West Africa) (London, 2007)
Russell, Mary, The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and Their World (London, 1986)
Robinson, Jane, Wayward Women: A Guide to Women Travellers (Oxford, 1990)
Robinson, Jane, Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers (Oxford 1994)