Mary Henrietta Kingsley (October 13, 1862 – June 3, 1900) was an English writer and explorer who greatly influenced European ideas about Africa and African people.
Kingsley was born in Islington. She was the daughter of George Kingsley (himself a travel writer) and Mary Bailey, and the niece of Charles Kingsley. Her father was a doctor and worked for George Herbert, 13th Earl of Pembroke. Her mother was an invalid and Mary was expected to stay at home and look after her. Mary had little formal schooling but she did have access to her father's large library and loved to hear her father's stories of foreign countries.
Her father died in February 1892. Her mother also died just five weeks later. Freed from her family responsibilities, and with an income of £500 a year, Mary was now able to travel. Mary decided to visit Africa to collect the material she would need to finish off a book that her father had started on the culture of the people of Africa.
Mary arrived in Luanda in Angola in August 1893. She lived with local people who taught her necessary skills for surviving in the African jungles, and often went into dangerous areas alone.
She returned to Africa in 1895 in order to study cannibal tribes. She traveled by canoe up the Ogowe River where she collected specimens of previously unknown fish. After meeting the
Kingsley wrote two books about her experiences: Travels in West Africa (1897), which was an immediate best-seller, and West African Studies (1899).
During the Second Boer War, Kingsley volunteered as a nurse. She died of typhoid at Simon's Town, where she was treating Boer prisoners. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried at sea.
Gender and race
Studying Kingsley is an interesting way to study the way women were expected to behave in Victorian era United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Empire. Kingsley believed that she was inherently inferior to the "superior sex", but that she was superior to native races:
"I...feel certain that a black man is no more an undeveloped white man than a woman is an undeveloped man. The difference in the comparative level of the black and the white is very much the same as between women and men among ourselves. A great woman, mentally or physically, will excel an indifferent man, but no woman has ever equalled a really great man."
Source: Dea (1992) p. 69
It is believed that Kingsley used her travel as a way to escape the confines of Victorian Britain, and to assume the status of the imperial ruler. However, through meeting African peoples, she believed it wrong to interfere with their lifestyle, and to try to 'civilise' them:
"I do not believe the African to be brutal, degraded, or cruel. I know from wide experience with him that he is often grateful and faithful... [he is] by no means the drunken idiot... [that] the Protestant missionaries are anxious... to make him out."
Source: 'The Negro Future' Spectator 28 December 1895
- Blunt, A. Travel, Gender and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley and West Africa, Gilford Press 1994
- Davidson, L.C. Hints to Lady Travellers, London 1889
- Dea, B. Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress, Palgrave Macmillan 1992
- Kingsley, Mary  (2002). Travels in West Africa. National Geographic. ISBN 0-7922-6638-2.
- Kingsley, M.H. West African Studies, Frank Cass Publishers 1964
- Kingsley, M.H. 'Travels on the western coast of Equatorial Africa' Scottish Geographical Magazine, 12, p. 113-124, 1896
- Middleton, D. 'Some Victorian Lady Travellers' The Geographical Journal, 139(1), p. 65-75, 1973
- 'Kingsley, Mary Henrietta' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press 2004
- Bausch, Richard Hello To The Cannibals, HarperCollins, 2002 (fictional approach)
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