The Voyage Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley


by Katherine Frank

Can you imagine a very straight-laced lady in long skirts and mutton sleeves travelling up  the French COngo in the 1890s with wares to trade in exchange for rubber or ivory? Mary Kingsley had previously led a very limited life, forced to care for her invalid mother and later to keep house for her brother. Finally set free, she headed off for Africa to study the native peoples.

the very prim Victorian,  Mary Kingsley

the very prim Victorian, Mary Kingsley

Mary was particularly interested in African religion and fetishes. She also collected many specimens of rare fish or other small creatures which she donated to the museum of Natural Science. It is rather amazing that she was asked to address the National Geographic society at a time when women had never done so before, especially considering she had never been to school and was entirely self-educated. From an early age she was fascinated by the works of African explorers Richard Burton and Brazzi.

Travelling to Liberia, Cameroon and Gabon, Kingsley opted to trade with the natives as a way to get close to them. She ate what the villagers ate and slept in their huts. Later she published two books about her travels, particularly the best-selling Travels in West Africa.

Mary Slessor, missionary

Mary Slessor, missionary

Unusual for the time, Kingsley opposed direct colonial control in favor of trade with the African village chiefs left to govern as they were accustomed. She loved the African people and respected their native beliefs. Therefore she was quite put off by missionaries in general. She did become close friends with Mary Slessor however, and spent quite a bit of time with her in Calabar. Kingsley was won over by Mary Slessor’s  love of the African people, as well as by  her warmth and good humor. Of Slessor, we are told

(Kingsley)” was entranced by this unassuming , warm woman who, though 46 in 1895, looked far younger and almost boyish with her short, cropped hair…She lived in a mud and thatch house, subsisted entirely on local “chop”… and went for months or even years without returning to Calabar or seeing another white person.”

Slessor with her household at Calabar

Slessor with her household at Calabar

She reported that Mary Slessor took the time to learn the language and the mind of the African people. She was called Eka Kpukpro Owo or “Mother of All the Peoples.” Kingsley spent there in the village of Ekenge and the two women formed a deep friendship.

The most amazing thing about Mary Kingsley was how she utterly changed her life at an age when most of us would start becoming cautious about our future. She ventured into an area where women just did not go. Though denied formal education, she taught herself and was driven by great curiosity to investigate uncharted territory and catalog unknown species. Her books were read widely because she wrote so vividly and entertainingly in language that appeals to ordinary people.

Never having previously known about her, I was intrigued to find out about this fascinating and brave woman. A very well-written biography.