Birth of Mary Kingsley

The pioneering traveller was born on 13 October 1862.

Mary Kingsley

A niece of the author of The Water Babies, she was born Mary Henrietta Kingsley in London. Her father George Kingsley, a younger brother of Charles, was a doctor who spent much time away from home travelling the world. Her mother had been his housekeeper. Mary was not sent to school, but educated herself by reading the books in her father’s library. She spent years almost imprisoned at home, caring for her ill and paralysed mother.

In 1892 Mary’s father and mother died within weeks of each other, which in effect set her free. Longing to see the world, she went off alone on a journey to West Africa in 1893, when she was 30. It was a remarkable thing for a woman to do at that time, requiring courage, determination and self-assurance. She followed it up with more African journeys, which she paid for by trading in goods, including ivory. She mixed with Africans on friendly terms, travelled with Africans, ate African food, paddled her own canoe in rivers and swamps and brought home collections of animals, fish and plants, some of them previously unknown.

Mary paddled her own canoe in every sense. Her attitudes were extraordinary for her time and she expressed them in books, articles and lectures with a fluent pungency that made her a celebrity. She thought that colonial officials and missionaries were harming Africans by trying to Europeanise and Christianise them. She admired African tribal societies the way they were. Witch doctors, she believed, on the whole did more good than harm. Polygamy was a valuable and necessary institution and the women were its main supporters. Domestic slavery should not be condemned out of hand.

Mary never married and disapproved of both bicycles and women’s suffrage. In 1900 she went to South Africa during the Boer War and nursed South African prisoners-of-war. She caught typhoid fever and died the same year, aged 37. At her own wish, she was buried in solitude, at sea.