Breaking the Mould

jo-woolfAs Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, Jo Woolf is delving into the archives and finding exciting tales of endeavour and exploration, many of which were told directly to audiences throughout the Society’s 130-year history.   She is working on a book entitled ‘The Great Horizon – 50 Heroes of Geography’, to be published next year.

Jo writes a blog at, and her articles are published in the Society’s quarterly publication, ‘The Geographer’.  Her other website, The Hazel Tree ( focuses on history and the natural world.

What makes a woman dangerous, in any era? In the case of Mary Kingsley, it was the threat that she posed to the widely accepted principles of 19th century society, and to the people whose status and reputation rested on the pillars of Victorian imperialism.

Not that Mary ever set out to topple the system. Self-deprecating to a fault, she claimed no sympathy with the women’s suffrage movement, and she took great pains to dress and behave with the propriety expected of an unmarried woman with modest means and a negligible degree of formal education. But her deepest beliefs, the ideals that guided her life, became apparent from the very moment she stepped off a ship in Sierra Leone and strode purposefully into the rainforests of equatorial Africa.

Even by the standards of her day, Mary’s early life was tightly restricted. She was born in Islington in 1862, the first child of George Kingsley, a physician and travel writer, and Mary Bailey, a London innkeeper’s daughter. From her father, she seems to have inherited her wanderlust and her fiery determination;  from her mother, a resourcefulness and adaptability and perhaps also the spirit that allowed her to speak freely to people, regardless of their race and class. Mary’s education was confined largely to what she could glean from her father’s ample library.  Not for her the dark romances of the Bronte sisters: she was a scientist by nature, and she mopped up books on anthropology and natural history while dreaming of voyages to distant lands.

Mary’s ailing parents claimed all her time and attention until 1892, when they both died within weeks of each other. By that time Mary was nearly 30, an ageing spinster by the standards of her day.  But she was suddenly and ecstatically free. Ignoring the horrified protests of her friends, she started to read about the requirements for travellers in the tropics and bought herself a one-way ticket to west Africa. Her purpose in going there was twofold:  she would study the ecology of the rivers, in particular the fishes, and send specimens home to the Natural History Museum in London; and she would travel into the interior of the continent to find out more about the sacrificial rites and spiritual beliefs of the tribes who lived there.

In the light of the 21st century it is difficult to fully appreciate the enormity of what Mary was contemplating. Not only was she journeying alone to the place known as the ‘white man’s grave’, where there were a thousand unpleasant ways to die; she was planning on staying with tribes known to be cannibalistic, who, it was safe to say, would never have seen anyone like Mary before. As for the European presence in Africa, most of the focus was on carving up the continent into portions that were ripe for exploitation and development by countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain. Africa was still the domain of men, all of them ambitious colonialists and pioneers, stiff-upper-lipped statesmen and weather-beaten traders who had seen and heard it all and were willing to pour their worst horror stories into the ears of naive travellers on their passage south. A woman in such an environment was unprecedented, and, quite apart from the scandal, she was unlikely to come out alive.

But Mary was slightly more prepared than her friends might have thought. She read as much as she could about tropical diseases, and she bought herself a big waterproof bag in which to carry her possessions. She also realised that she would need an identity, a kind of passport to win the trust of strangers, and for this reason she set herself up as a trader. It would give validity to her journey, and it would help to explain her otherwise astonishing appearance. She was already wise, but she had yet to prove that she was capable.

Mary’s insistence on feminine decency made no concessions in terms of clothing, and when she steered her canoe into the labyrinthine delta of the Ogowé river she was dressed in the same tight corset, voluminous skirts and high-collared blouses that she would have worn to a British tea party. By this time she had gained the support of diplomats in the coastal towns – crucial for her purpose – and she had gathered a handful of African companions who were willing to accompany her on her mission. She knew that she might be depending on these men for her life:  she never expected that they would be depending on her, for theirs.

The Fang tribe, whose reputation for capturing and eating their enemies was widely known, were more than willing to share their spiritual beliefs with Mary once they had overcome their initial surprise. Mary stayed with them as a guest, making a somewhat alarming find in her sleeping quarters that was obviously the remains of a recent feast, but at no time did she allow her fear to get the better of her. Her key, which was largely unrecognised in her own time, was that she met them with an open mind and treated them with respect. When her hosts found one of her assistants guilty of a crime and tied him up in readiness for a meal, it was Mary who found herself arguing for his release. The Fang trusted her judgment;  her reward was their confidence and cooperation, and she was allowed to hear the stories of ritual and lore that underpinned their society, the unique blend of legend and history that defined them as a people.

As she marched through humid rainforests and paddled around the mangrove swamps, Mary faced extreme situations that tested her resourcefulness to the utmost. She had never wondered, for example, how she would deal with a crocodile that was attempting to board her canoe:  a quick sharp rap on the nose with her paddle seemed to do the trick. A leopard, which had ventured into her camp and was now confronting her at close range, was discouraged by a number of random items thrown in his direction. On more than one occasion she fell into a game trap, a deep pit dug by hunters to catch unwary animals, and she found that her skirts saved her legs by snagging on the sharp spikes of ebony. She did carry a weapon – a Bowie knife – but she had left her revolver at the French outpost, reasoning that if she brandished it among the African people she would be asking for trouble.

Back in the drawing rooms of polite Victorian society, people didn’t quite know what to make of Mary. After two visits to west Africa she was gaining widespread recognition for her achievements, and she mingled with politicians and diplomats, writers and statesmen. The trouble was that they couldn’t quite understand her message. She spoke out against the proposed hut tax in Sierra Leone, which she believed was an infringement of the people’s inherent right to possess their own property. She expressed herself as a staunch imperialist, but she advocated a deeper sympathy with the African people. Wholesale subordination was not the answer. British civilisation, she argued, had taken centuries to develop and it was a mistake to imagine that these ‘improvements’ could be rolled out across Africa in the space of a few years.

Very soon, people were eyeing Mary with poorly concealed antagonism, and a public exchange of letters in the Spectator only fuelled the flames. Mary had been provoked into replying to a typically patronising view of the future of Africa, in which the perceived values of its people were dismissed with contempt. Africans were not brutal, or degraded, or cruel, she wrote. They had a sense of honour and justice, and in terms of good temper and patience they bore comparison with any other human beings.

That, of course, was the spark. The stiff-backed figures of state and empire were incensed, and made no attempt to conceal their scorn. Mary had unwittingly found a chink in their armour, because if the equality of all humanity could be acknowledged across the globe, there would be no high ground from which to dominate. For that reason alone she was seen as a dangerous woman.

Mary provided more proof of the capability of women, both mentally and physically, than she would ever actually admit. It was her actions, rather than her words, that spoke most clearly: she negotiated with honesty and fairness, and she received honesty and fairness in return. Her courage only seemed to falter when she was asked to speak to august institutions such as the Royal Scottish Geographical Society: rather than address the audience herself, she requested that her paper be read for her.

Mary’s extraordinary spirit is still alive in her books. Her stories sparkle with the most delicious humour, and in many ways her voice is so timeless that she could have been writing yesterday. She regularly mocks the excruciating dilemmas that she found herself in, but her observations are acute.  You feel yourself wanting to be her friend, and suddenly you can understand why she succeeded. And if a solitary and apparently defenceless woman could achieve so much in such unlikely circumstances, it is no wonder that her peers, raised on a diet of military glory, should have seen her as a threat.

There was no chance of Mary ever agreeing with this concept, simply because her low self-esteem would not allow it. And in any case, the potential never had a chance to develop. In 1900, moved by the plight of soldiers wounded in the Boer War, she travelled to South Africa where she became a nurse at a hospital in Simon’s Town. Disease was rife, and within a few months she had died of typhoid.  She was 37.



Miss M. W. Kingsley (1896) ‘Travels on the western coast of equatorial Africa’, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 12:3

‘Travels in West Africa, Congo Francais, Corisco and Cameroons’ by Mary Kingsley (1897)

‘West African Studies’ by Mary Kingsley (1899)

‘A Voyager Out:  The Life of Mary Kingsley’ by Katherine Frank (1986)

‘Women Against the Vote:  Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain’ by Julia Bush (2007)



2 thoughts on “Mary Kingsley

  1. I lived with my family for 22 years in Sierra Leone. Thank you for sharing this story of Mary Kingsley! Through the peaceful years and through the war and during recovery from the war, Sierra Leone was home. And we were blessed through the relationships and the experiences.

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