Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo


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A leopard, which had ventured into her camp and was now confronting her at close range, was discouraged by a number of random items thrown in his direction. On more than one occasion she fell into a game trap, a deep pit dug by hunters to catch unwary animals, and she found that her skirts saved her legs by snagging on the sharp spikes of ebony.

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She did carry a weapon — a Bowie knife — but she had left her revolver at the French outpost, reasoning that if she brandished it among the African people she would be asking for trouble. After two visits to west Africa she was gaining widespread recognition for her achievements, and she mingled with politicians and diplomats, writers and statesmen.

She expressed herself as a staunch imperialist, but she advocated a deeper sympathy with the African people. Wholesale subordination was not the answer. Very soon, people were eyeing Mary with poorly concealed antagonism, and a public exchange of letters in the Spectator only fuelled the flames. Mary had been provoked into replying to a typically patronising view of the future of Africa, in which the perceived values of its people were dismissed with contempt.

Africans were not brutal, or degraded, or cruel, she wrote. They had a sense of honour and justice, and in terms of good temper and patience they bore comparison with any other human beings. That, of course, was the spark. The stiff-backed figures of state and empire were incensed, and made no attempt to conceal their scorn.

Mary had unwittingly found a chink in their armour, because if the equality of all humanity could be acknowledged across the globe, there would be no high ground from which to dominate. For that reason alone she was seen as a dangerous woman. Mary provided more proof of the capability of women, both mentally and physically, than she would ever actually admit.

It was her actions, rather than her words, that spoke most clearly: she negotiated with honesty and fairness, and she received honesty and fairness in return. Her courage only seemed to falter when she was asked to speak to august institutions such as the Royal Scottish Geographical Society: rather than address the audience herself, she requested that her paper be read for her.

Mary Kingsley: Demystifying Africa

Her stories sparkle with the most delicious humour, and in many ways her voice is so timeless that she could have been writing yesterday. She regularly mocks the excruciating dilemmas that she found herself in, but her observations are acute.


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You feel yourself wanting to be her friend, and suddenly you can understand why she succeeded. There are two large maps, which have been collected at the end of the volume. The full-size maps can be opened by clicking on the smaller image. I pray you who may come across this book to distinguish carefully between the part of it written by others and that written by me. Anything concerning West Africa written by M. John Harford, of Bristol, does not require apology and explanation; while anything written by me on this, or any subject, does. I have always wished that men having this kind of first-hand, well-tested knowledge regarding West Africa could be induced to publish it for the benefit of students, and for the foundation of a true knowledge concerning the natives of West Africa in the minds of the general public, feeling assured that if we had this class of knowledge available, the student of ethnology would be saved from many fantastic theories, and the general public enabled to [Pg viii] bring its influence to bear in the cause of justice, instead of in the cause of fads.

I need say nothing more regarding Appendix I.

Mary Henrietta Kingsley

It would not be too much to say that, with the exception of the important series of works by the late Sir A. Ellis, and a few others, so few that you can count them on the fingers of one hand, and Dr. The general public have been dependent on the work of great East and Central African geographical explorers, like Dr. Livingstone, Mr. Stanley, Dr.

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Gregory, Mr. Scott Elliott, and Sir H. Johnston, men whose work we cannot value too highly, and whom we cannot sufficiently admire; but who, nevertheless, were not when describing Africans describing Negroes, but that great mixture of races existing in Central and East Africa whose main ingredient is Bantu. To argue from what you know about Bantus when you are dealing with Negroes is about as safe and sound as to argue from what you may know about Eastern Europeans when you are dealing with Western Europeans. Nevertheless, this fallacious method has been followed in the domain of ethnology and politics with, as might be expected, bad results.

I am, therefore, very proud at being permitted by M. John Harford, the man who first [1] opened up that still little-known Qua Ibo river, another region of Negroes, also requires no apology.

I most sincerely wish that the whole of this book had been written by such men as the authors of Appendices I. We are seriously in want of reliable information on West African affairs. It is a sort of information you can only get from resident white men, those who live in close touch with the natives, and who are forced to know the truth about them in order to live and prosper, and from scientific trained observers.


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The transient traveller, passing rapidly through such a region as West Africa, is not so valuable an informant as he may be in other regions of the Earth, where his observations can be checked by those of acknowledged authorities, and supplemented by the literature of the natives to whom he refers. You must, therefore, go down to Urstuff and rely only on expert observers, whose lives and property [Pg x] depend on their observing well, or whose science trains them to observe carefully. Now of course I regard myself as one of the second class of these observers: did I not do so I would not dare speak about West Africa at all, especially in such company; but whatever I am or whatever I do, requires explanation, apology, and thanks.

It did not work out in the way he prophesied. Chief among all these creditors of [Pg xi] mine I must name Mrs. Green, Mrs. It is merely that I have the power of bringing out in my fellow-creatures, white or black, their virtues, in a way honourable to them and fortunate for me. I must here also acknowledge the great debt of gratitude I owe to Mr.

John Holt, of Liverpool. A part of my work lies in the affairs of the so-called Bubies of Fernando Po, and no one knows so much about Fernando Po as Mr. He has also been of the greatest help to me in other ethnological questions, and has permitted me to go through his collections of African things most generously. It is, however, idle for me to attempt to chronicle my debt to Mr. Holt, for in every part of my work I owe him much. I do not wish you to think he is responsible for any of it, but his counsels have ever been on the side of moderation and generosity in adverse criticism.

I honestly confess I believe I am by nature the very mildest of critics; but Mr. Holt and others think otherwise; and so, although I have not altered my opinions, I have restrained from publishing several developments of them, in deference to superior knowledge. I am also under a debt of gratitude to Professor Tylor. I will merely add that to all my own West Coast friends I remain indebted; and that if you ever come across any one who says I owe them much, you may take it as a rule that I do, though in all my written stuff I have most carefully ticketed its source.

I now turn to the explanation and apology for this book, briefly. Apology for its literary style I do not make. I am not a literary man, only a student of West Africa. I am not proud of my imperfections in English. I would write better if I could, but I cannot. I find when I try to write like other people that I do not say what seems to me true, and thereby lose all right to say anything; and I am more convinced, the more I know of West Africa—my education is continuous and unbroken by holidays,—that it is a difficult thing to write about, particularly when you are a student hampered on all sides by masses of inchoate material, unaided by a set of great authors to whose opinions you can refer, and addressing a public that is not interested in the things that interest you so keenly and that you regard as so deeply important.

In my previous book I most carefully confined myself to facts and arranged those facts on as thin a line of connecting opinion as possible. I was anxious to see what manner of opinion they would give rise to in the minds of the educated experts up here; not from a mere feminine curiosity, but from a distrust in my own ability to construct theories.

On the whole this method has worked well. Ethnologists of different theories have been enabled to use such facts as they saw fit; but one of the greatest of ethnologists has grumbled at me, not for not giving a theory, but for omitting [Pg xiii] to show the inter-relationship of certain groups of facts, an inter-relationship his acuteness enabled him to know existed.

Therefore I here give the key to a good deal of this inter-relationship by dividing the different classes of Fetishism into four schools. In order to do this I have now to place before you a good deal of material that was either crowded out of the other work or considered by me to require further investigation and comparison. As for the new statements I make, I have been enabled to give them this from the constant information and answers to questions I receive from West Africa. For the rest of the Fetish I remain a mere photographic plate.

Regarding the other sections of this book, they are to me all subsidiary in importance to the Fetish, but they belong to it. They refer to its environment, without a knowledge of which you cannot know the thing. What Mr. Macmillan has ticketed as Introductory—I could not find a name for it at all—has a certain bearing on West African affairs, as showing the life on a West Coast boat. I may remark it is a section crowded out of my previous book; so, though you may not be glad to see it here, you must be glad it was not there.

The fishing chapter was also cast out of Travels in West Africa. Critics whom I respect said it was wrong of me not to have explained how I came by my fishes. This made me fear that they thought I had stolen them, so I published the article promptly in the National Review , and, by the kindness of its editor, Mr. Maxse, I reprint it. It is the only reprint in this book. The chapter on Law contains all the material I have been so far able to arrange on this important study.

Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo
Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo
Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo
Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo
Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo
Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo
Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo
Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo
Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo Mary Kingsley: Explorer of the Congo

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