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Mary Kingsley

From Women in European History

Written by Jacob Hanebutt in the spring of 2010 based on:

Kingsley,Mary H.. Travels in West Africa. Lexington: BiblioBazaar, 2006.

Miss Kingsley[1]

Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1862-1900) was a remarkable woman, who through her voyages in Africa was able to disprove two European stereotypes. First, she disproved the commonly held belief that Africans were primitive savages with no culture. She did this by writing about the complexity of their societies in her two works, Travels in West Africa and West African Studies. Second, she challenged ideas of gender. In Victorian England women did not participate in sciences, yet Kingsley outshone her contemporaries in geographical and anthropological studies of West Africa. Despite being a top source on West Africa, in England she was still subject to discrimination based on her gender.


Critical Biography

Early Life

Mary Henrietta Kingsley was born in 1862 to Mary Bailey and George Kingsley in Islington, England. Her father came from a prominent literary family and spent much of his life travelling around the world, documenting his journeys. Her mother, who was originally a servant, was an invalid during her childhood, leading to young Mary assuming the roles of her mother in the household. Her childhood was occupied with chores of cleaning and doing odd jobs around the house. Although she had little formal education, Kingsley had a strong intellectual curiosity. She was particularly interested in tales of voyages, reading about many different ones in her father’s large library. Understandably she took a keen interest in her father's own voyages, including his trips to the Pacific Island to study the Maori people. In 1891 Mary’s father returned from one of his voyages with rheumatic fever. With both of her parents invalids Mary continued to take care of the household. Based on Victorian custom her brother did not have to help her with any of this work. In fact Kingsley was subservient to her brother. In 1892 her father passed away and five weeks later her mother passed away as well. After the deaths her brother left England to travel throughout China.[1] With both of her parents dead, Kingsley, at the age of 30, was freed from her responsibilities of taking care of her parent’s household. She remained single, so she was truly an independent woman at this point with no domestic responsibilities. This was a massive change from her life that, “for many years had been an entirely domestic one in a University town.”[2]

Kingsley in Africa

After being relieved of her feminine household duties Kingsley found herself with a strange amount of free time. She wrote, “it was in 1893 that, for the first time in my life, I found myself in possession of five or six months which were not heavily forestalled, and feeling like a boy with a new half-crown, I lay about in my mind, as Mr. Bunyan would say, as to what to do with them.”[3] During this period she had an annual income of £500, so she could afford to travel. At the age of thirty, Mary Kingsley decided to travel to an exotic part of the world. She wanted to go to a tropical location, so she had to decide between South America, Malaysia, and West Africa. Kingsley always had an interest in these tropical areas. She decided on West Africa, for it was more affordable than Malaysia and less was known about West Africa than South America. [4] In order to prepare for her trip, she studied as much about the region as she could.

During this period of time Africa was becoming more colonized, economically and politically. In fact the economic exports of the area dramatically increased between 1891 and 1913, with the typical example of cocoa exports from the Gold Coast growing from nearly nothing to 50,000 tons during this time period.[5] All of Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, was controlled by imperialist European powers by the time of her voyages.[6]Different parts of Africa were viewed as being either more or less suitable for colonization. In the opinion of Sir George Taubman Goldie, a prominent English administrator in Africa, there were three different zones: one that could be completely colonized and settled by whites (South Africa), one that partially colonized and settled by whites (highlands Africa and North Africa), and one that could be colonized to a small extent but not settled by whites (West Africa).[7] A major problem with colonization during this period was the prevalence of diseases. Kingsley writes that most Europeans in West Africa either die or become used to the fragility of life there. [8] In fact when she consulted doctors on their opinions of travelling there, they referred to it as “the deadliest place on Earth.” Similarly her friends referred to it as “the white mans grave.” [9]

Mary Kingsley first set out for Africa in August of 1893 and headed for Sierra Leon. Her motive for going to Africa was to study fetishism, a European term for African religions, and fish. [10] Kingsley had always been interested in other cultures, as seen through her constant reading of foreign and exotic societies in her father's library, hence she ended up studying such things. Her first trip was mainly composed of touring the coast and ended in December, five months after it had begun. [11] Kingsley took a second trip to West Africa, departing from Liverpool on December 23rd, 1894. [12] This time she traveled throughout the interior of the continent. She traveled by canoe through major waterways with the help of a crew of natives. Her crew consisted of members OF many different West African tribes, including the Fans, Ilgawas, and M’pongwes. They travelled in the Gabon, Rembwe, and Ogowe rivers, even going through large rapids in the Ogowe River and the mangrove swamps of the Rembwe. Towards the end of her trip she ascended to the top to the Mount Cameroon. [13] She returned to England in November of 1895, spending nearly a year exploring all over Africa and going to places few had ever seen. [14] Her trips to Africa hold importance for two reasons. First, she traveled to an foreign location that was considered to be hazardous for Europeans, and even more important she did this trip as a female. These trips were almost exclusively dominated by males. Second, with this trip she illuminated African culture to all of Europe.

A Photograph of Miss Kingsley [2]

Study of African Societies

A major aspect of Kingsley’s trips to West Africa was the chance to study the native people. In her works she describes native societies in great detail. During this period most Europeans viewed Africans as a very low race, one of simplicity and savagery. In Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness," a popular novel published in 1899, the native Africans are portrayed as a savage and very primitive culture. This is particularly shown when Conrad has the Africans view Kurtz as God.[15] In contrast, Kingsley shows that the Africans have a complex social system, albeit different from the European style.

Kingsley writes a great amount about fetish, a term used by Europeans to describe African religions. The name itself shows the ignorance of Europeans. The term comes from the Portuguese word “fetico,” directly translated as the little images and relics of saints. The Portuguese thought that natives worshiped objects and coined the term. Additionally, the French word “ju-ju” was used to describe African religions, coming from the French term for toy and doll.[16] Europeans mainly believed that African religions were based solely on worshiping inanimate objects. Kingsley showed that this was completely wrong. She writes that one must “burn all your notions about sun-myths and worship of the elemental forces. My own opinion is you had better also burn the notion, although it is fashionable, that human beings got their first notion of the origin of the soul from dreams.” [17] Here she is directly pointing that the popular European stereotypes are completely wrong. Kingsley even points out where she believes these misconceptions originate from, believing that the Europeans in West Africa did not really take the time to have a complete study of the religion but instead focused on the most graphic parts.[18] She shows the complexities of the African religions and writes that although they do have religious objects, these objects are not the main part of their religion, instead they are a result of their religious beliefs.

Some of the religious beliefs of the Africans in her work seem to be very radical and border on the edge of savage when viewed from a European perspective, but she points out that fetish is there for a reason. “It must be held in mind that in those regions ruled by Fetish law, there are neither asylums, prisons, nor workhouses; yet the same classes-the sick, criminal, and idle-exist, and under Fetish law none of them starve.” [19] She draws a connection between African religion and keeping their societies in order. With this connection she shows that Africans have established complex and well-ordered societies, using methods different from the ones Europeans use. The legal system as well shows strong complexities. Her description of the system seems to parallel the European one in many ways, with Africans using circumstantial evidence and direct testimony in their trials. She even writes that, “laws relating to mortgage are practically the same among Negroes and Bantu and Europeans.” [20] By writing this she disproves the European stereotype of the simple savage. She not only shows that the religious system is complex and keeps their societies in order, but as well shows Africans have a strong justice system.

Although she does show the Africans to be a complex race, that does not mean she views them as equals. Kingsley does fall into the common view of European superiority. She does regard the Africans as an intelligent people, but she still views Europeans as a more advanced people. In her estimates she relates African societies to 13th century European societies. As well she regards these people to be ‘savages’ and acts motherly towards them. She constantly takes a tone of superiority throughout Travels in West Africa. Yet, even though she does view the African as inferior, the differences between her views and the European stereotypes are significant. Her enlightened views helped show the world the complexities of African people.

Criticism of Missionaries

Another point where she diverges from popular European sentiment is her criticism of missionaries. During this period missionaries were sent throughout Africa to try and convert the natives to Christianity. Kingsley writes against this in her book. Her main problem with the missionaries arises with their erasing of African culture. Kingsley regards the Africans as an interesting people and shows how complex their culture is, but the missionaries in this case are replacing the Africans' complex culture with a European culture. The primary action of the missionaries convincing the Africans that their own God is actually Jehovah. In essence they were Christianizing the Africans and destroying their societal structure. Kingsley defends the African social structure and writes against these actions. [21]

Traveling As A Woman

One of the most remarkable aspects of Kingsley’s voyages to West Africa was her gender. She was traveling at a time when women did not often take such dangerous trips to exotic locations. Few men even went on the kinds of trips she did. When she writes about trade and labor in West Africa she starts the chapter by stating that, “my chief excuse for [discussing this topic] lies in the fact that independent travelers are rare in the Bights.”[22] This demonstrates two exceptional aspects of herself, first that she is publishing on a topic, trade and labour, which in Victorian England was solely in the sphere of males. Second, she continues to show that she is not only going to a place where women do not travel but men as well. Kingsley’ adventure was not only remarkable for a woman, but a human being as well.

When in Cameroon, Kingsley climbed to the top of the Mount Cameroon. Europeans during this period tended to climb large mountains as a symbol of their technological knowledge and masculinity. A woman climbing large mountains during this period was unheard of, yet Kingsley scaled to the top of the mountain, reaching the 13,255 ft peak. She was not the first to reach the top of the peak, with Sir Richard Francis Burton being her inspiration to climb the peak, yet she was the first European to climb the southeast face to her knowledge. She spent a long time going through dangerous rivers, river rapids, and mangrove swamps during her trip, something women did not do during this period. Kingsley did more than most of her gender and even Europeans as whole had ever done in the interior of West Africa.

Mount Cameroon, where Kingsley was the first to climb the southeast face [3]

Kingsley’s scientific research during this period was something women did not often conduct during the Victorian era. She not only conducted huge amounts of anthropological research on the African people, but as well recorded a vast amount of data on the geography of West Africa and collected samples and data on local flora and fauna. In Victorian England geography was considered to be a male-only science. [23] Kingsley as woman recorded large amounts of geographical data on areas that were poorly known by Europeans. She was conducting scientific research, something very unfeminine. This directly went against the established male dominance in science at this time.

Return to England

Upon her return home to England Kingsley was regarded as part of the “New Woman” idea. [24] Travels in West Africa was published on January 21st, 1897 and was wildly successful. It was so successful that Macmillian, her publisher, released the fifth edition by June. She even went on to publish another work, "West African Studies." With this success in a male dominated field the feminists of this period embraced her as “the explorer in petticoats.”[25] This was highly problematic for her, for her reputation in British society was at stake, which was still based on specific gender roles.[26] If Kingsley was to accept this role as the "New Woman" she could have been ostracized by many people in England, including her friends and family. As well any of her research could be brought into question by her male peers. With this she began to publicly engage in rejections of feminism. This was a necessary consequence of living English society, for she needed to maintain her reputation.

The style of "Travels in West Africa" reflects this rejection of feminism. Instead of writing the book like a scientific journal she writes in the style of narrative. She goes into details of the geography and the African culture, but the style of "Travels in West Africa" overall is story-based. If she was to accept feminism, she would have written about her travels in a more scientific form, including maps and data sets. But Kingsley does not do this, for she forgoes writing in any scientific manner, choosing instead to write her works as a story. With this Kingsley does not challenge the current social norms, for she writes in an acceptable manner for women at the time. As well in many points throughout the book she writes things that are anti-feminist, such as regarding women as the lesser sex and mentioning the women’s sphere.[27] As well she does not include any maps in "Travels in West Africa," a thing typically included in books about voyages. Many parts of the book seem to be a way Kingsley removes any connection with the feminists, so she could be taken seriously in British society.

In academic circles Kingsley was well regarded, giving lectures of her travels around England to various clubs and societies.[28] However, as a woman she did face many difficulties. Most of the exploration and scientific clubs during the Victorian era were very conservative and male only. In fact when Kingsley was to present to a paper to the Liverpool Geographical Society her paper had to be read by a man, for women were not allowed to present research papers to the society. However, twenty months late, the group suspended its rules to allow her to address them in person.[29] Kingsley faced another problem when wanting to join the Anthropological Society in Oxford. She had to privately ask Edward Tylor to be invited, for these clubs were very conservative.[30] Women were not supposed to be in the Anthropological Society, so she had to get help from a highly influential member such as Tylor to grant her admission. Kingsley had to deal with many issues of being a woman in academic circles. Although her works were both wildly popular and academically significant, she was not allowed the same level of academic acceptance as her contemporaries.

During the second Boer War Kingsley signed up to be a nurse. A role that was completely acceptable for women in England at this time. As a nurse she treated many people ill with typhoid. As a nurse she was highly susceptible to catching this disease and eventually contracted it. She passed away June 3rd, 1900 in Africa, a continent she became connected with and vice versa. As Africans say to the soul of a dying friend, "Come back, come back, this is your home."[31] Kingsley did return to her adopted home before she passed away, a home about which she helped illuminate the truths to the European continent.


Mary Kingsley led an amazing life. She challenged gender roles by traveling to Africa and studying African societies, both of which were almost exclusively dominated by males. Her studies of Africans contrasted previously held beliefs, replacing the view that Africans are simple people with little to no culture with the view that Africans indeed have a very complex culture. Kingsley even showed that some parts of African societies are very similar to Europeans, e.g. legal systems. Kingsley expanded the roles of females by challenging gender roles of women in European history. During her time women were not supposed to participate in scientific endeavors. This lead to Kingsley facing many challenges from being a female social scientist. She was not allowed to join certain geographical and anthropological societies back in England and had act as an anti-feminist. Her life is highly important, for she pioneer in a male dominated science. She was able to provide a different view of Africans to Europe.

Additional Background Material

Kingsley's Description of African Fetish

Quick Details of Kingsley's Life

Annotated Biblography

Kearns, Gerry. "The Imperial Subject: Geography and Travel in the Work of Mary Kingsley and Halford Mackinder." Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 22, no. 4 (1997): 450-472.

Kearns goes into detail about how geography shaped the works of Mary Kingsley. One strong point he discusses is Kingsley’s ascent of Mount Cameroon, and how novel it is that as a female she participated in an activity dominated by males. Kearns also contrasts Kingsley’s treatment of Africans with that of a male contemporary.

Kingsley, Mary H. "The Fetish View of the Human Soul." Folklore 8, no. 2 (1897): 138-151.

Kingsley describes parts of African folklore that she studied while in Africa. This goes into detail about the practice of fetish and the necessity of preserving it. As well this allows for a greater understanding of the African culture during the Imperial era.

Johnson, Marion. "Cotton Imperialism in West Africa." African Affairs 73, no. 291 (1974): 178-187.

Johnson gives information on the economic conditions of West Africa during the colonial period. This paper primarily deals with the cotton industry. This allows for insight on labor relations between the Europeans and the Africans during this time. Johnson shows that during this period Africa economically went from a state of almost no exports to a new state of extreme exports. He does describe how the British had a very strong hold economically in the country and was able to manipulate Africa's economy.

Flint, J E. "Mary Kingsley-A Reassessment." The Journal of African History 4, no. 1 (1963): 95-104.

Flint analyzes the views of Mary Kingsley from a broad perspective. He uses these ideas to showcase how gender is involved with Kingsley’s ideas and major political groups during the colonial period. Flint draws a connection between Kingsley and African trade companies. He questions he motives in going to Africa.

Gwynn, Stephen. "The Life of Mary Kingsley." Journal of the Royal African Society 31, no. 125 (1932): 354-365.

This article concentrates on the biography of Ms Kingsley written by Stephen Gwynn. This article highlights some the important attributes of Ms Kingsley and the impact of her work through Mr. Gwynn’s. He describes how her personality and childhood impacted her later life, which he implies as a factor that drove her to Africa

Brisson, Ulrike. "Fish and Fetish: Mary Kingsley's Studies of Fetish in West Africa." Journal of Narrative Theory 35, no. 3 (2005): 326-340.

Brisson dissects some the important aspects of Kingsley’s work. This article looks into the aspects of gender and how it is important in Kingsley’s impact on society and the gravity of her travels. She points out that very few women ever went on such voyages. She implies that Kingsley had to act in an unscientific manner due to her gender, for in Victorian England women were not to participate in any form of science.

Conrad, Joseph. "Heart of Darkness." 4 ed. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Conrad’s classic novel describes Africa during the period, primarily through his own experiences in the Belgian Congo. Conrad describes the horrid conditions and danger of the lands. Conrad’s work also can be used to analyze the interactions between the Europeans in Africa and the native Africans. He mainly describes them as simple savages with no culture. He implies a lack of intelligence in them when he has Kurtz act as a god for them. As well this work can be used to analyze European's views on Africa during the colonial period. The novel portrays Africa as a dangerous wild area with no culture.


  1. Katherine Frank, A Voyager Out:The Life of Mary Kingsley (London:Tauris Parke, 2006), 269
  2. Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (Lexington: BiblioBazaar, 2006), 21
  3. IBID 17.
  4. IBID 17.
  5. Marion Johnson, “Cotton Imperialism in West Africa,” African Affiars 291 (1974): 178.
  6. Ulrike Brisson, “Fish and Fetish: Mary Kingsley’s Studies of Fetish in West Africa,” Journal of Narrative Theory 3 (2005): 327.
  7. Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (Lexington: BiblioBazaar, 2006), 17.
  8. IBID 68.
  9. IBID 18.
  10. IBID 28.
  11. IBID 372.
  12. IBID 26.
  13. ibid 338.
  14. Brisson 328.
  15. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (New York:W.W. Norton, 2006), 56.
  16. Mary Kingsley, “The Fetish View of the Human Soul,” Folklore 2 (1897): 139.
  17. Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (Lexington: BiblioBazaar, 2006), 215.
  18. Mary Kingsley, “The Fetish View of the Human Soul,” Folklore 2 (1897): 149.
  19. IBID 149.
  20. Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (Lexington: BiblioBazaar, 2006), 297.
  21. Mary Kingsley, “The Fetish View of the Human Soul,” Folklore 2 (1897): 142.
  22. Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (Lexington: BiblioBazaar, 2006), 385.
  23. Gerry Kearns, “The Imperial Subject: Geography and Travel in the Work of Mary Kingsley and Halford Mackinder,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 4 (1997): 457.
  24. Brisson 334.
  25. IBID 334.
  26. IBID 328.
  27. Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (Lexington: BiblioBazaar, 2006), 122.
  28. Brisson 335.
  29. Kearns 457.
  30. IBID 357.
  31. Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (Lexington: BiblioBazaar, 2006), 16.

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