West Africa’s Mary Kingsley

‘England… requires markets more than colonies.’ Mary Kingsley’s espousal of the African cause was founded on the empathy between second-class citizens in a white, male-dominated society, as Deborah Birkett reveals.

In 1893, for a thirty-year-old British spinster to take a cargo vessel to West Africa was an extraordinary step. The unorthodoxy of Mary Kingsley's response to her stifling domestic life has cast her in the mould of an isolated heroine, removed from the cultural milieu of late nineteenth-century Cambridge in which she was raised. But the long voyage from the confines of her mother's sickroom to the group rapids was a psychological as well as physical journey. Its roots lay in the dreams and aspirations shared by many middle-class Victorian women who responded in less dramatic and memorable ways. Mary Kingsley’s contribution to the 19th-century image of Africa, her work as advisor and campaigner on colonial affairs, and the connections she made between theories of sexual and racial determinism, all reveal a woman firmly rooted in her time, not an individual divorced from it. Her very ordinary ambitions and desires are sometimes swamped amid the foreignness of the landscape in which they were realized.

Her gender was also responsible for the hidden, and now largely forgotten, methods through which she expressed and exercised her power. Although by the time of her death in 1900, while nursing Boer prisoners of war in South Africa, she was considered the leading Africanist of her time, as a Victorian woman she was excluded from many of the forums concerned with African affairs. Her informal and behind-the-scenes politicking has lain buried under the greater weight of government reports and public records.

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