Saturday, 5 May 2012

There's Something About Mary

                              Miss Mary Henrietta Kingsley had a typical Victorian upbringing. Conceived out of wedlock, (her parents married four days before her birth, in 1862), Mary had almost no formal education; whereas the whole family moved to Cambridge so that her brother, Charley, could read law at Christ’s College. Her mother, Mary, was a cockney servant (her daughter dropped her aitches all her life), who was frequently ill. Her father, George, was a doctor who travelled extensively but he became bedridden with rheumatic fever. Young Mary was expected to remain at home and nurse her invalid parents. In February 1892 Dr Kingsley died, followed shortly after, in April, by his wife. At twenty-nine, Mary went into mourning, wearing a crisp white cotton blouse under a black shawl, a thick black woollen skirt and a black sealskin hat, tied with black ribbons in a tight bow under her chin. She continued to wear this same wardrobe for the rest of her life.

Miss M H Kingsley
Mary moved into her brother’s house – he now controlled the family finances - but to her relief he decided he would like to travel to China, leaving her alone in England with an allowance of £500 per year. Mary decided to use her new freedom to travel to Africa, to collect material in order to finish a book started by her father. She also offered to collect tropical fish for the British Museum.

In August 1893 she arrived in Sierra Leone, and returned home in December 1893. On December 23rd 1894, Mary left Liverpool on the Batanga, again bound for Sierra Leone, via the Canaries. She arrived on January 7th 1895. Dressed in her black mourning outfit – “… you have no right to go about in Africa in things you would be ashamed to be seen in at home,” this prim Victorian spinster in her early thirties set off for the interior. At the time, West Africa was regarded as ‘ the White Man’s Graveyard’. Missionaries and traders went there, and quite a lot did not return. When she arrived at Accra, a government official showed her two newly dug graves, adding, “We always keep two graves ready dug for Europeans.

In a mangrove swamp, Mary encountered a crocodile, “ … a mighty Silurian, as The Daily Telegraph would call him, chose to get his front paws over the stern of my canoe, and endeavoured to improve our acquaintance. I had to retire to the bows, to keep the balance right, [1] and fetch him a clip on the snout with a paddle, when he withdrew, and I paddled into the very middle of the lagoon, hoping the water there was too deep for him or any of his friends to repeat the performance. Presumably it was, for no one did it again. I should think that crocodile was eight feet long; but don't go and say I measured him, or that this is my outside measurement for crocodiles. I have measured them when they have been killed by other people, fifteen, eighteen, and twenty-one feet odd. This was only a pushing young creature who had not learnt manners. ([1] It is no use saying because I was frightened, for this miserably understates the case.)

When struggling with a machete through the jungle, Miss Kingsley fell into an animal trap, a bag-shaped pit, fifteen feet deep, with a bed of spikes at the bottom. “It is at these times you realise the blessing of a good thick skirt,” she wrote, “… had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England, who ought to have known better, and did not do it themselves, and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone, and done for.

One night a leopard entered her camp and attacked a dog. Mary went out into the dark and threw a couple of stools at them. The big cat turned its attention to her and crouched, ready to spring, so Mary picked up an earthenware water cooler and hurled at the beast. “It was a noble shot; it burst on the leopard's head like a shell and the leopard went for bush one time.

Modern reprint
After umpteen other escapades, scrapes and adventures (including the ascent of the 13,760 ft Mt Cameroon – her native male companions gave up halfway up), she returned to England and wrote two books, Travels in West Africa and West African Studies, which became best sellers and launched her on the lecture tour circuit. Although she advocated trade in Africa, she was wary of British Imperialism and spoke out against, "… stay at home statesmen, who think the Africans are awful savages or silly children - people who can only be dealt with on a reformatory penitentiary line." In her view the, “… black man is no more an undeveloped white man than a rabbit is an undeveloped hare," and she went on to upset the Church of England when she said the African was "… by no means the drunken idiot his so-called friends, the Protestant missionaries, are anxious, as an excuse for their failure in dealing with him, to make out."

Some have been keen to present Miss Kingsley as a feminist icon, but she had firm opinions on female emancipation, and opposed parliamentary votes for women. The House of Commons was already packed with uninformed men and the “…"addition of a mass of even less well-informed women would only make matters worse." "Women,” she said,” are unfit for parliament and parliament is unfit for them".

At the outbreak of the Second Boer War, she left again for Africa and worked as a nurse in the Cape, tending to Boer prisoners. In the evenings, she would call on Rudyard Kipling, who later wrote, "Being human, she must have feared some things, but one never arrived at what they were." In late May 1900, she contracted typhoid fever and died on June 3rd, aged thirty-seven, and at her own request, alone. She was buried at sea, but someone forgot to weight her coffin, which bobbed around on the surface until a sailor rowed out to it and attached a spare anchor to drag it down.

When I was a little boy, this was my favourite book. It is In the Wilds of Africa, by W H G Kingston, published in 1871.

It is, and always was, battered and filthy. But I loved this book – I would sit on my Grandfather’s knee and we would read it together. I could read and write before I went to school, and soaked up stories like this. In addition to the ripping yarn, it has all sorts of asides on natural history, and my love of all things zoological were born here. Obviously this is a novel (it’s subtitled A Tale for Boys), but there are parallels with Mary Kingsley’s real life adventures. These scans of the illustrations could just have equally come from her works.

Title Page and Frontispiece

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