“…and as for the husband, neither the Royal Geographical Society’s list in their ‘Hints to Travellers,’ nor Messrs. Silver, in their elaborate lists of articles necessary for a traveller in tropical climates, make mention of husbands.” – Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa
Happy International Women’s Day, one and all! Being as it was originally instituted to celebrate the contribution of Soviet women to “communistic construction” and commemorates the day in 1917 when Russian women went on strike for “bread and peace”, precipitating the revolution, it is a day off here, which is most civilised. I am celebrating with bread (well, a croissant is close enough) and peace (a long lie-in) of my own, and by dusting off the blog, which I hope in the future will have slightly more life in it than in recent months.
A rundown of Tbilisi’s myriad charms will have to wait, however; since today is all about celebrating impressive women (communistic and otherwise), I want to talk about a particular hero of mine, the explorer and ethnographer Mary Kingsley. Being someone who is fond of getting to interesting places whenever possible, and inevitably doing so while being a) alone and b) female, a state of affairs that still raises the occasional eyebrow, I have long admired the Victorian ladies who upped sticks and headed with enthusiasm for the farthest corner of empire and beyond, often on the most tenuous of excuses, at a time when a woman alone faced considerably more difficulties than the odd amorous taxi driver. They wrote books with excellent titles like A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, and had unsubtle between-the-lines affairs with all sorts of interesting characters and in general lived a life full of excitement and incident, at a time when this was considered somewhat less than decorous. The considerably less intrepid nature of my own excursions notwithstanding, it is sometimes comforting to know that whatever slightly idiotic situation I may have gotten myself into, someone else has got out of much worse, often while wearing long petticoats and a corset, and Mary Kingsley is particularly useful for this.
Kingsley was hugely impressive: aged thirty, she set out alone for the West African coast, which at the time was considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for Europeans. She had received no formal education; the first thirty years of her life were spent acting as a secretary for her father, writing up his amateur anthropological work and later on, nursing her invalid parents. She read widely though, and from her father’s library picked up an interest in anthropology and West Africa, and when her parents died in 1892, she was determined to set off on a scientific expedition and see these places for herself. After a scouting trip to the Canary Islands, in 1893 she packed up her things and boarded a steamship for the West African coast. Independent travellers of any sort were rare to non-existent in this part of the world; needless to say, a woman alone was considered thoroughly peculiar at best, and mad at worst. Undaunted, she landed in what is now Sierra Leone and over the next few years on two trips she explored several major rivers by canoe, discovered three new species of fish (later named after her), lived with local tribes and becoming the first European to venture into large areas of inland Cameroon and Gabon. She returned to Britain where in between lecturing on her travels and campaigning against the acticvities of Protestant missionaries, she wrote Travels in West Africa.
One of the reasons I admire Kingsley so much is that her writing is genuinely fantastic. Travels in West Africa beats most other Victorian travel literature for me because it’s so entertaining: witty, sharply observed, and always cut through with a self-awareness acknowledging the inherent peculiarities of character that make a person charge off into the middle of a large swamp just to see what’s there. There are long, sometimes rather dry (but still interesting) sections on the animist religions of the local tribes she encountered, and several lengthy and dull appendices about how great British traders are, but the bits where she gathers herself and plunges into the unknown are brilliant. For example, here she is exploring the mangrove swamps at the mouth of the Ogooué River in what is now Gabon:
“On one occasion… 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 (it is no use saying I was frightened, for this miserably understates the case), and fetch him a clip on the nose with the 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.”
Given that Kingsley herself immediately hopped back in the canoe and went out again as soon as she could, this encounter appears not to have put her off much.
Throughout the book, her intermittent interjections that she is only in Africa on a thoroughly scientific and entirely decorous anthropological and biological expedition are rather endearing, as every other page gives the lie to this as she merrily climbs Mount Cameroon, faces down leopards, falls into swamps, shoots rapids on the Congo river in tiny local canoes, and gives every impression of having a marvellous adventure (which isn’t to say she wasn’t a remarkably skilled anthropologist and naturalist as well). While being remarkably candid about her fears and the discomfort of travel, the upper lip remains stiff and her tone is always modest and self-deprecating; she maintained that in her entire career, the achievement of which she was most proud was learning to handle the local canoes with a degree of skill (while the approach she took – i.e. untie the nearest canoe, regardless of ownership, and start practicing – might be frowned upon these days, it was undeniably effective).
Kingsley is a huge role model for me and by modern standards I would consider her actions in challenging the societal expectations for a woman in her situation so profoundly to be entirely feminist, but interestingly, she considered herself quite the opposite. Despite her groundbreaking explorations, she completely refuted any suggestions she was a “new woman”; indeed, she wrote many an outraged letter to any newspapers which might suggest as such, and dismissed women’s suffrage as a “minor issue”. She vehemently opposed female entry to the Royal Institution, where she had herself lectured many times (she did however, propose that women form their own equivalent institutions). She had always refused to wear men’s clothes while on her travels (perhaps to her ultimate benefit; one of the most well-known passages from Travels in West Africa concerns her musings on “the blessings of a good thick skirt” as she falls into a large, heavily-spiked, animal trap) and insisted that none of her achievements would have been possible without the assistance of the (European) men she encountered on her travels. Reading her writing, that last statement is impossible for me to believe: the courage and determination shown in her travels and by her determination to challenge the government to rectify the injustices she saw in colonial policy are all her own, and she did things that no other European, male or female, had done before.
Kingsley only managed two “voyages out” to West Africa. Constrained by a lack of finances and what she saw as her duty to look after her brother back in London, she threw herself into lecturing and campaigning for changes in colonial policies, challenging in particular the predominate view that Africans were “foolish, drunken children” who required a benevolent colonial hand to look out for their best interests. In this she was in part successful, and received the dubious accolade of being described by the Colonial Office as “the most dangerous person on the other side” (the other side to the Colonial Office probably being where one wanted to be, given what went on in most European colonies in the 1890s). In public she was the face of a movement; in her private letters, she admitted to missing Africa terribly and couldn’t wait to be back. In 1900 she was once more “homeward bound”, this time to South Africa where she worked as a journalist and nurse in the Boer war; after just two months she caught typhoid and died aged just 38.
Travels in West Africa is available for free as an ebook all over the place (for example, here and here), and I thoroughly recommend it, because it contains some fantastic writing. While I am unlikely to ever head up a Gabonese river in a canoe or, frankly, engage in any kind of similar activities even in a more congenial climate, Mary Kingsley is my inspiration in situations when I am losing my nerve, sense of humour and occasionally, both. Because in the end, if she could do it in a good thick skirt, I really have no excuse.