Explorations by mankind have changed the shape of history. They have brought forth new knowledge, opened up new avenues of conquest and trade. Though on the darker side explorations have been the means of human enslavement but this human endeavor showed mankind that the differences between human beings are superficial and in truth we are all the same.
Explorations were deadly undertakings and usually the domain of men. Yet there was one British woman who broke all taboos, gave up her domestic comforts and set sail to what was then called ‘the deadliest place on earth’, Africa. She returned home with unprecedented perspectives on the cultural and biological richness of Africa. When all narrative of Africa was dominated by its ‘sub-human inhabitants,’ who needed to be ‘shown the way’ by the Christian Missionaries, she came back like a breath of fresh air, bringing in truth about the continent and its inhabitants. “If the aim of life were happiness and pleasure, Africa should send us missionaries instead of our sending them to her,” Said She. She changed the narrative and was a pioneer in human rights without ever consciously trying to be one. All her life she denied being a feminist and refused ideological labels that could dilute the truth. She was Mary Henrietta Kingsley, the woman who refused to acknowledge any limitations to what her life could be.
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. Until the age of thirty she was confined to her home, caring for her invalid mother and later invalid father who became bed ridden after a deadly attack of rheumatism. Her formal education was limited to basic lessons in German at home. Her real education came from an indefatigable curiosity, delving into her father’s rich library from which she read over and over again, all books related to travel, exploration and exotic cultures. She also learned a lot by reading his notes and listening to his stories when he came back after a journey abroad. She thus nurtured a deep interest in ethnography and biology. Her brother meanwhile was given the best education and entered law school at Cambridge. This discrimination hurt her but also spurred her to disregard social expectations from a woman in her situation and to work on fulfilling her own interests.
Both her parents died when she was 30, leaving her suddenly alone, with few friends and enough money and time on her hands. She had always wanted to carry on her father’s research on early religion and law which was cut short by his illness. She decided to travel to West Africa for this purpose. Having no real experience of such arduous travel, she was dissuaded by everyone, especially when people realised she intended to do it all by herself. Africa was called the ‘white man’s grave’ and most people had horrifying stories of deadly disease and afflictions caught by those who had travelled there. With some good advice and lots of dubious warnings, in 1893, Mary Kingsley took a cargo vessel to Africa. It was an extraordinary initiative by a young single woman of the Victorian era. The only other non-African women there were wives of missionaries and officials.
Mary landed in Sierra Leone on 17 August 1893 and went further into Angola. She lived with local people, who taught her necessary skills for surviving in the African jungles. She often went into dangerous areas alone. Her training as a nurse at the Kaiserworth Medical Institute had prepared her for slight injuries and jungle maladies that she would later encounter. She collected many scientific specimens, including insects and fresh-water fishe, for the British Museum. She explored the lower Congo River. She also did a lot of geographical mapping of areas not previously explored by Europeans. The work she did was path breaking not just as a woman but as an explorer.
Mary returned to England in December 1893. Upon her return, she secured support and aid from Dr. Albert Günther, a prominent zoologist at the British Museum, as well as a writing agreement with publisher George Macmillan, for she wished to publish her travel accounts.
She visited Africa a second time. In Gabon, today a country in African continent, she canoed up the Ogooué River, where she collected specimens of previously unknown fish, three of which were later named after her. She daringly climbed the 4,040 m (13,255 ft) Mount Cameroon by a route not previously attempted by any other European, even though her guide had deserted her mid way. When she returned home in November 1895, Kingsley was greeted by journalists, who were eager to interview her.
Over the next three years, she toured the country giving lectures about life in Africa to a wide array of audiences. She was the first woman to address the Liverpool and Manchester chambers of commerce.
She upset the Church of England when she criticised missionaries for attempting to convert the people of Africa and corrupt their religion. In this regard, she discussed many aspects of African life that were shocking to English people, including polygamy, which, she argued was practiced out of necessity. After living with the African people, Kingsley became directly aware how their societies functioned and how prohibiting customs such as polygamy would be detrimental to their way of life. She knew that the typical African wives had too many tasks to manage alone. Missionaries in Africa often required converted men to abandon all but one of their wives, leaving the other women and children without the support of a husband –thus creating immense social and economic problems.
Kingsley wrote two books about her experiences: Travels in West Africa (1897), which was an immediate best-seller, and West African Studies (1899), both of which granted her vast respect and prestige within the scholarly community.
During the Second Boer War, Kingsley travelled to Cape Town and volunteered as a nurse. She was stationed at Simon's Town hospital, where she treated Boer prisoners of war. After contributing her services to the ill for about two months, she developed symptoms of typhoid and died on 3 June 1900. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried at sea.
Mary Kingsley's tales and opinions of life in Africa helped draw attention to British imperial agendas abroad. She fearlessly spoke the truth and educated the European masses on the native customs of African people that were previously little discussed or misunderstood. She was an outspoken critic of European colonialism and a dedicated campaigner for a revised British policy which supported traders and merchants vis a vis the settlers and missionaries. In her lifetime she was greeted with a mixture of ardent admiration by some, skepticism by others, and censure by those whose agendas would be disrupted if everyone began to agree with her. In spite of all the opposition she forged on regardless, knowing that socially she was in a delicate position and would be ostracised by some sections of society for daring to break the norms. Her legacy only became stronger after her death, as the legacy of truth always does. The Fair Commerce Party formed soon after her death, pressuring for improved conditions for the natives of British colonies. Various reform associations were formed in her honour. Her works became reference points for governments to form new strategies for international cooperation and collaboration.