Mary Kingsley (1862-1900)
“West Africa amused me and was kind to me and was scientifically interesting.”
Born on October 13, 1862 in Islington, London, Mary Kingsley was the daughter and oldest child of doctor, writer, and traveler George Kingsley and Mary Bailey. After her parents passed—when she was only 30 years old—Mary was inspired to travel to West Africa to complete her father’s research in western and equatorial Africa. Her quest led her on a path that few Europeans (let alone European women) had taken. During her extensive travels throughout West Africa she built warm relationships with the locals and survived harrowing challenges—fending off crocodiles, nearly being impaled on game traps set with spikes, and much more. Eventually she wrote two books describing her experiences: Travels in West Africa (1897) and West African Studies (1899). Both publications earned her a great deal of respect and prestige inside the scholarly community, though she wasn’t always well-received.
As a scientific and ethnographic writer and explorer, Mary did something that few other women did at the time: she traveled extensively without a man to accompany her. Nor was she the wife of a missionary or an explorer. Unlike most explorers of the time she seemed to prefer traveling alone and deemed the usual entourage that accompanied other explorers as unnecessary, showing a fierce independence that many felt bordered on eccentric. During her travels she studied African cultures, and even became known for criticizing missionaries’ attempts at converting the African people, saying that they were corrupting their culture. She climbed Mt. Cameroon via a route that no other European had previously attempted, learned how to navigate rivers in a native canoe, collected samples of previously unknown fish, waded through chest-deep swamps, and trekked through jungles—all in a skirt.
During the Second Boer War, Mary went to Cape Town to volunteer as a nurse. After volunteering for two months at Simon’s Town hospital where she was stationed, she developed symptoms of typhoid. She died on June 3, 1900, at the age of 37, and as per her wishes, was buried at sea. A true trailblazer, Mary Kingsley challenged the assumptions of her time, immersed herself in cultures vastly different from her own, and met amazing challenges head on with an impressive amount of humor, courage, and pluck.