Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1862-1900): She Flouted Convention to Explore Africa, Providing a Better Understanding of Africa's Peoples and Its Natural History. (Late Great Geographers)

Geographical, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1862-1900): She Flouted Convention to Explore Africa, Providing a Better Understanding of Africa's Peoples and Its Natural History. (Late Great Geographers)


What was she famous for? For her travels in western and equatorial Africa, and for becoming the first European to enter parts of Gabon. She also climbed volcano Mount Cameroon (4,095m) and Mungo Mah Lobeh (4,194m). Intrepid expeditions like these were rarely undertaken, even by men. As it was frowned upon for a lady to walk the streets of London unaccompanied at this time, for a woman to head off into remote areas of Africa alone was practically unheard of. In Britain, public acknowledgment of Mary's achievements were consolidated by three years of lectures, and her books, which include Travels in West Africa (1897), exuding both her knowledge and her sense of humour.

Why did Mary become an explorer? She had helped her father, the adventurer and writer George Henry Kingsley, in his studies of African religions and laws, but it wasn't until she was 30 years old, when her parents died within a week of one another, that Mary made the decision, or had the opportunity, to make it her career. A niece of the clergyman author Charles Kingsley, travel and writing appear to have been in her blood, but by 30, Mary had been overseas just once -- on a week-long trip to Paris. She had no formal education and at 17 was described as "quiet and of domestic habits". She was, however, a keen reader. Following her parents' deaths, suddenly alone and with no responsibilities, she set off for the Canaries where she made the brave decision against studying medicine, and to continue her father's work.

What did she encounter in Africa? She found inspiration, adventure, sexism and cannibalism. …

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