Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 1, 2010

“It’s only me”

Travels in West Africa, Mary Kingsley (1897), Beacon Press, 736 pp.

Imagine this: It’s 1893, you’re 30, female, unmarried, and you have 6 months of free time. What do you do? If you’re Mary Kingsley, sister of novelist Charles Kingsley, you pack up what you need for a lengthy exploration of West Africa (to collect specimens of fresh-water fish) and leave before anyone can stop you.

Kingsley, who had had little previous travel experience, discovered her calling on her first trip and couldn’t wait to get back to this continent that fascinated her; the notes from her return in 1894 evolved into this book.

With native guides and only £300, she made her way up the Ogooué River in what is now Gabon (passing Lambaréné, where Albert Schweitzer would build his hospital in 1913), and then hiked overland to another river heading back to Libreville. In many areas, she wasn’t just the first European woman, but the first European the Gabonese had ever seen. And everywhere she went, people asked where her husband was (70+ years later, I got the same question when I taught English in a small Gabonese village).

Kingsley’s descriptions of the jungle make me wish I had looked harder and seen more when I had the chance. When her boat heads inland from the Atlantic coast, she notes:

The climbing plants are finer here than I have ever before seen them. They form great veils and curtains between and over the trees …. Sometimes these curtains are decorated with large bell-shaped, bright-colored flowers, sometimes with delicate sprays of white blossoms. This forest is beyond all my expectations of tropical luxuriance and beauty, and it is a thing of another world to the forest of the Upper Calabar [in Nigeria], which, beautiful as it is, is a sad dowdy to this. There you certainly get a great sense of grimness and vastness; here you have an equal grimness and vastness with the addition of superb colour. This forest is a Cleopatra to which Calabar is but a Quaker.

Kingsley returned from her two journeys with an unusual point of view: preferring traders to missionaries, she argued in favor of maintaining the indigenous culture (including polygamy) and against Europeanization. She wasn’t anti-Europe; she hadn’t “gone native”. But she had seen what most of the male European explorers and settlers hadn’t: a fully functional way of life, suitable for the conditions under which it had evolved.

Once in England, Kingsley refused to ally herself with any feminist causes and never saw herself as a pioneer among women. She never seemed to think she’d done anything extraordinary. The local agents of Hatton & Cookson (they supplied food and materials to Europeans settled in Libreville) reported her habit of saying “It’s only me” whenever she arrived “unheralded out of the bush in a dilapidated state”.

In 1989, Caroline Alexander published One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley (Vintage); it’s a lovely footnote to Kingsley’s tome. Read together, the two are an object lesson in history as well as geography. Of course the world has changed in a century, but it’s also surprising how much is still the same.

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