Mary Kingsley

In 1893, for a thirty-year-old British spinster to take a cargo vessel to West Africa was an extraordinary step. The unorthodoxy of Mary Kingsley's response to her stifling domestic life has cast her in the mould of an isolated heroine, removed from the cultural milieu of late nineteenth-century Cambridge in which she was raised. But the long voyage from the confines of her mother's sickroom to the group rapids was a psychological as well as physical journey. Its roots lay in the dreams and aspirations shared by many middle-class Victorian women who responded in less dramatic and memorable ways. Mary Kingsley's contribution to the 19th-century image of Africa, her work as advisor and campaigner on colonial affairs, and the connections she made between theories of sexual and racial determinism, all reveal a woman firmly rooted in her time, not an individual divorced from it. Her very ordinary ambitions and desires are sometimes swamped amid the foreignness of the landscape in which they were realized.

Her gender was also responsible for the hidden, and now largely forgotten, methods through which she expressed and exercised her power. Although by the time of her death in 1900, while nursing Boer prisoners of war in South Africa, she was considered the leading Africanist of her time, as a Victorian woman she was excluded from many of the forums concerned with African affairs. Her informal and behind-the-scenes politicking has lain buried under the greater weight of government reports and public records.

Although bearing the name of Kingsley Mary had neither the education, money nor established class status her literary uncles and cousins enjoyed. Born only four days after Dr George Kingsley married his housekeeper, Mary Bailey in October 1862, Mary's first thirty years were consumed in tending to her sickly mother and acting as secretary to her father's amateur anthropological work.

When both parents died within weeks of each other in 1892, she felt like 'a boy with a new half crown'. Enticed by the tales of travel and adventure in her father's library, and with the intention of collecting 'fish and fetish', she sailed for West Africa, 'the white man's grave'. But alongside the spirits and jars for preserving her specimens packed in her large black waterproof bag, she took her cultural baggage. The Isolation of Mary's early life had forced her onto the companionship of books, and from these she culled an image of the 'Dark Continent' and its exotic 'savage' inhabitants prevalent in both the academic and popular press. So strong were these images, that when the SS Lagos drew towards the West African Coast in August 1893, it all seemed so familiar.

Canoeing down the group rapids and climbing 13,000 foot Mount Cameroon by a route unconquered by any other European brought not only physical but psychological challenges. Her passionate desire to 'penetrate the African mind-forest' made her travel as a trader, living as her African companions and depending entirely upon them for her safety and well-being. In a land where she was first of all white, and only secondly a woman, she found a new kind of freedom which 'took all the colour out of other kinds of living'.

By 1896, after two journeys to West Africa, Mary Kingsley was a celebrity, a regular presence in the daily press and an enormously popular lecturer. Her quest in search of 'fish and fetish' had led her into more far-reaching discoveries, and what she saw and recorded questioned the images she had taken with her. 'One by one I took my old ideas derived from books and thoughts based on imperfect knowledge and weighed them against the real life surrounding me, and found them either worthless or wanting ...the greatest recantation I had to make was my idea of the traders popularly derided as the palm oil ruffians, the European traders in West Africa were mostly single men, some with African wives, caricatured in the British press as debauched and drunken rogues who had reluctantly given up dealing in slaves when 'legitimate trade' offered greater financial inducements. For Mary Kingsley however, they were men she was 'proud to be allowed to call friends and know were fellow-countrymen'.

It was not only her trader friends she believed were maligned. Africans, at the hands of the missionary party - eager 'not to tell you how the country they resided in was but how it was getting towards being what it ought to be' - were portrayed unfairly. Kingsley challenged:

... the stay at home statesmen, who think that Africans are awful savages or silly children - people who can only be dealt with on a reformatory penitentiary line. This view is not mine ... but it is the view of the statesman and the general public and the mission public in African affairs.

Looking for consistency, practicality and humanity to be understood and explained, rather than vices and immorality to be manipulated and eradicated, she argued for a new approach to anthropological study by looking at African societies from the inside out, to 'think in black'. Long before anthropologists had developed the idea of fieldwork, she argued:

...unless you live among the natives you can never get to know them. At first you see nothing but a confused stupidity and crime; but when you get to see - well! see things worth seeing.

Although questioning many of the popular images of Africa, Mary Kingsley was steeped in the racial theories used to justify and support the expansion of British interests in West Africa. She espoused a by now out of fashion polygenesist outlook, believing that Africans and Europeans, as men and women, were essentially rather than evolutionary different. 'I feel certain that a black man is no more an undeveloped white man than a rabbit is an undeveloped hare, and the mental difference between the races is very similar to that between men and women among ourselves'. The fault of the missionary endeavour, she believed, was in trying to Europeanise Africans. Missionary-educated Africans were the curse of the Coast, embracing a secondhand rubbishy white culture rather than traditional African social customs. When writing about her travels, she focused on her contacts with the Fang people of Gabon, 'unadulterated Africans', as she called them, 'in the raw state'.

Her attitude towards women's rights shared this conservative and separatist philosophy. When approached by petitioners for women's admission to the learned societies she brushed aside their entreaties. 'These androgynes I have no time for', she complained. Women and men were different in kind rather than degree, as Africans to Europeans, and these differences should be recognised and encouraged rather than glossed over. While not denying a hierarchy within these differences constructed on racial and sexual lines, she nevertheless argued for areas of specialist knowledge, in line with the popular doctrine of 'separate spheres'. Opposed to the admission of women to societies of travellers, she argued for a separate women's meeting where things could be discussed without the presence of men. 'Women like myself know many things no man can know about the heathen' she told the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society 'and no doubt men do ditto'. On her return from West Africa in December 1895, her first venture into print was not, as commonly believed, in defence of European traders or 'real Africans' but in response to an article in the Daily Telegraph describing her as a New Woman. Infuriated by this label, she wrote to the Editor denying any such allegiance. 'I did not do anything', she wrote, 'without the assistance of the superior sex' denying the independence she had so desperately sought.

Mary Kingsley's philosophy of separate development of the races and sexes led her into direct opposition to the missionary party and their stress on a common humanity. Her defence of polygamy, domestic slavery and even cannibalism as appropriate social forms in West Africa, shocked the conservative press and quickly brought her notoriety. But with this came a popular platform from which to air her views. Her first book, Travels in West Africa, published in January 1897, was an immediate bestseller. Based on an account of her second journey, its vast amount of new anthropological material established herbs the leading West Africanist of the time. But Mary Kingsley was no longer content with confining herself to the issue of entomology. Soon she was arguing for the recognition of anthropology as a tool of imperialist expansion; to govern the African, she argued, you must first know him. She wrote to the eminent Oxford anthropologist E.B. Teylor:

... I will force upon the politicians the recognition of anthropology if I have to do it with the stake and thumbscrew. Meanwhile the heathen unconsciously keeps on supporting anthropology gallantly, and officialdom says it won't have anything but its old toys - missionaries, stockbrokers, good intentions, ignorance and maxim guns. Well we shall see.

The imperial expansion Mary Kingsley envisioned was of a very different kind to that the new Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, had in mind. In opposition to his plans for administrative intervention in West Africa and the establishment of the Crown Colony system, supported the missionary parties. Mary Kingsley advocated informal economic imperialism, looking back to a mythical golden era when British interests in West Africa were protected by European traders and fair commerce between African and European flourished. Economic ties under British merchants rather than administrative control under 'pen-pushers and ostrich feathers' was her aim. She argued:

England is the great manufacturing country of the world, and as such requires markets, and requires markets far more than colonies. A colony drains from the mother country, yearly, thousands of the most able and energetic of her children, leaving behind them their aged incapable relations. Whereas the holding of the West African markets drains a few hundred men, only too often for ever; but the trade they carry on and develop enables thousands of men women and children to remain safe in England in comfort and pleasure, owing to the wages and profits arising from the manufacture and export of articles used in that trade.

Only this system - eventually outlined in her 'Alternative Plan' would, she claimed, also benefit Africans, by leaving their cultural and social organisations intact.

Mary Kingsley's means of raising support and realising her plans were limited, for her gender excluded her from the burgeoning number of forums concerned with African affairs. The admission of women to the Royal Geographical Society in 1892 had drawn such fierce opposition that the decision was hastily rescinded. Other societies of travellers were equally hostile to women's participation. Outspoken women's activities were confined to the field of missionary and philanthropic work, but even here public speaking could be frowned upon. For a woman to actively campaign against the missionary endeavour and on behalf of the palm oil ruffians and heathen Africans threatened her feminity in a way less controversial standpoints would not have done. Mary Kingsley's response was to emphasize her ladyhood, almost to the point of caricature, reminding her audience at public lectures that she appeared as their maiden aunt, dressed as a woman far beyond her mid-thirties. She appealed to a close friend to help her in the maintenance of this public persona, 'I implore if you hear it said in Society that I appear on platforms in African native costume, a billy cock hat, and a trade shirt, to contradict it', she wrote, 'honour bright I'd got my best frock on'.

As the corridors of official power were closed to her, she began to exploit unofficial methods and behind-the-scenes networks. Soon earning the name of 'Liverpool's hired assassin' for her pro-trader politics and clandestine ways of operating, in private she asserted pressure on individual politicians, exploited old networks and created new ones, and encouraged new venturers into the political arena. Her political development was inextricably knitted to the ways and means through which she could work. It is this informal, behind-the-scenes, nature of her politics that has often led to an underestimation of her influence in West African affairs.

Mary Kingsley felt bound to defend the European traders, Africans, and her own reputation against the allegations being paraded in the press. The first public debate in which she became involved was over the 'liquor traffic'. In 1895 a combination of factors - humanitarian and commercial - launched the 'liquor traffic' debate into a new phase, to which Kingsley's own efforts would soon be added. The British fear of the domination of the West African spirit trade by Hamburg firms reached a new height. The return to power of Salisbury in June, with the temperance supporter Joseph Chamberlain as his Colonial Secretary, was cited by Colonel Frederick Lugard, commissioner for the hinterland of Nigeria, as giving 'hope to those interested in the question that the time had at last come when effective steps would be taken to deal with this evil'. The language of the 'liquor traffic' debate became the 'demoralisation of the native' and 'the evil trade' versus 'legitimate commerce' - all reminiscent of earlier anti-slavery arguments - rather than profit and administrative control.

Sir John Kirk's enquiry following the 1895 Brass uprising had reopened the debate around the future control of the Niger Delta, and different interests were vying for influence in the area - the Royal Niger Company under the persuasive leadership of Sir George Goldie, the Niger Coast Protectorate government, Liverpool and Manchester trading houses, the Colonial Office, and the missionary bodies. The liquor traffic was, to a large extent a pawn in this contest, a highly emotional issue which could be used to draw public support in the propaganda war.

For Mary Kingsley, the temperance party's argument had two main fallacies. Firstly it painted a picture of an African population easily manipulated and less able to resist the enticements of alcohol than Europeans. Secondly, the curtailment on the importation of trade alcohol to West Africa would inhibit the 'freetrading' practices of the Liverpool merchants, who used it as a form of currency to obtain the palm oil and other raw materials of their trade. The pro-liquor lobby however, had little ability to raise the sympathies of the general public against the appeal of the temperance party's tales of the degradation wrought by 'trade gin'. In Kingsley the pro-liquor party found an advocate who could couch their economic arguments in terms more acceptable to the popular palate. While the leading Liverpool merchant John Holt had earlier complained that the anti-liquor leaders were 'professional agitators and old women', within a few years he would be extremely grateful that someone conforming to this image had come over to nice traders' side.

The debate took place as much in extra-governmental forums as behind the walls of the Colonial Office. Lugard spoke to the Colonial Institute, the letters pages of The Times were dominated by the altercation between West African bishops and Governors, and missionary societies hosted public discussions. The thrashing out of the issue in these unofficial forums allowed Kingsley, excluded from the official arena, to be fully immersed in the centre of the debate.

Mary Kingsley's first attacks on the temperance party were made from her position as an ethnologist, to counter the image of the African as a 'drunken child'. She was drawn into the fray by an article appearing in the Spectator accusing Africans of being 'a people abnormally low, evil, cruel ... It is in Africa that the lowest depth of evil barbarism is reached, and that we find the races with the least of humanity about them except the form . . . they are all degraded'. Kingsley's reply argued for an understanding of African culture:

I do not believe the African to be brutal, degraded, or cruel. I know from wide experience with him that he is often grateful and faithful, and 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.

Although a reluctant speaker, Kingsley embarked upon a vigorous and exhausting programme which took her throughout the country, from local geographical societies to 'magic lantern at YMCA'. The popular image of an intrepid lady explorer in the jungle which had initially so angered her could draw large crowds who would then receive political statements sugared in tales of African adventure.

While the propaganda war was being fought out in the pages of the press and on the public platform, in private the correspondence between Kingsley and her temperance adversaries was more wordy and considered. 'I am going for this mission party with feminine artfulness, not like a bull at a gate', she told Holt. As Lugard's damning account of the 'witty and amusing Miss Kingsley' appeared in The Nineteenth Century, in private his correspondence with her was a more mutual exchange of information and opinion. And while The Times paid her the ultimate insult and ignored the publication of her book, widely reviewed elsewhere, she met the editors for dinner. In this she hoped to exert private where public access was manner influence denied.

Kingsley was building up a network of contacts throughout the political spectrum, exploiting the social sphere controlled by women. Her first approach to her Liverpool ally Holt was made by writing to his wife who had invited her to attend a meeting of the local Literary and Scientific Society. The wife of the Assistant Under Secretary at the Colonial Office, Reginald Antrobus, provided her with invaluable information and insight into Colonial Office wranglings by spying on her husband's papers. The leading Anglo-Irish social hostess Alice Stopford Green's ability to speak French enabled Kingsley to keep in contact with members of the French embassy in London.

Communications with West Africa were also developed, as Kingsley kept in regular contact with Africans on the Coast and hosted them on their visits to London. 'I have quantities of blacks here', she wrote to Holt - including the leading lawyer Samuel Lewis and Edward Blyden, editor of the Sierra Leone Weekly News.

The value of this diverse network of contacts would prove itself in the 'hut tax' controversy in the Protectorate of Sierra Leone. The British merchants had always opposed a tax on African property accurately predicting that the resulting opposition would disrupt trade. When the first outbreak of resistance to payment occurred in early 1898 their fears were proved founded, but a wavering Colonial Secretary was reluctant to remove a tax in the face of persistent support for its implementation by the Governor of Sierra Leone and allegations by humanitarian pressure groups that clamping down on slavery had caused the rebellion. Realising she had once again to fight opponents who appeared to have humanitarian concerns entirely on their sides Kingsley pleaded for an understanding of Afncans - sympathy for the black man as she put it, 'not emotional but common sense and honour and sympathy appreciation'.

But the sympathy she invoked also recalled earlier arguments with the temperance lobby over their misunderstanding of the African situation. The pro-hut taxers, she believed, suffered from a similar ignorance of African society though a different aspect - not the misrepresenation of the African as a 'drunken child', but of the acre and value of indigenous African legal systems. The hut tax, Kingsley argued, offended African law. 'One of the root principles of African law is that the thing that you pay any one a regular fee for is a thing that is not your own - it is a thing belonging to the person to who you pay the fee'. But behind these initial objections lay her deeper objections to an interventionist policy in West Africa. The real cause of the rebellion was the 'reasonable dislike to being dispossessed alike of power and property in what they regard as their own country'. While publicly sticking to her claim that the tax was the root cause of the disturbances, in private she admitted that it was 'merely the match to a train of gunpowder'. By 'sticking severely to native law' however, other arguments would 'come by and by'.

How can the influence of someone who operated in such a behind-the-scenes and informal way be measured? Her prominent position on African affairs led the Colonial Secretary to write to her at this critical time. But he was reluctant to be seen to countenance the opinion of such a controversial figure. He sought her advice, therefore, as covertly as possible. 'He is horribly frightened of being known to communicate with the witch of Endor', Kingsley told Holt. She responded in kind, marking all her letters to him 'Private' and 'Strictly Confidential' doubly underlined. When Sir David Chalmers was sent out to Freetown as Special Commissioner to investigate the cause of the disturbances, Chamberlain first briefed him on Kingsley's views. Governor Cardew of Sierra Leone paid her frequent visitors on his return to London, and the Acting-Governor Matthew Nathan, sent out in his place, zealously courted her friendship before his departure. His reading on board ship from Liverpool to Sierra Leone was Mary Kingsley's second book, West African Studies. In this manner she was in touch with all those involved in policy-making around the hut tax.

As her political experience grew, her methods of politicking became more sophisticated, subtle and therefore hidden from subsequent history. Not wanting to appear as an one- woman opponent to the hut tax, she encouraged others to commit themselves to print. Using her contacts with leading pressmen such as St Loe Strachey, editor of the Spectator and, Kingsley thought, a 'backstairs to Chamberlain, she introduced young journalists into print, most notably E.D. Morel, correspondent for Pall Mall Gazette. She encouraged Holt to write to the papers, but warned him 'don't for goodness gracious sake let the mention of me occur'. As her contacts grew, she increasingly relied on these methods. 'The truth is Mr Holt', she wrote in 1899, 'every bit of solid good work I have done has been done through a man. I get more and more fond of doing things this way. It leaves me a free hand to fight with'. To St Loe Strachey she wrote, 'In the seclusion of private life, in the gentle course of private friendship, I shall do my best in language worse than you have ever heard from me, to weld my men together and I'll fight to the last shot in my locker against the existing system'. Soon the Colonial Office christened her 'the most dangerous person on the other side'.

Her book, West African Studies, published in early 1899, contained a strong attack on the Crown Colony system. 'The sooner the Crown Colony system is removed from the sphere of practical politics and put under a glass case in the South Kensington Museum, labelled Extinct, the better for everyone', she wrote. She described its system of government as a waste of life and money and a destroyer of African social organisations on which peace and prosperity depended. In its place she drew up an Alternative Plan'. This was innovative firstly, in giving governmental and administrative control to European trading interests in West Africa embodied in a Grand Council who appointed a Governor General of West Africa, and secondly by officially incorporating African opinion - filtered through a council of chiefs - into the administrative network. But although the Alternative Plan' was presented as a new option for British control of West Africa, in fact it looked back to a former era rather than forward to a new one. The informal economic ties which Kingsley hoped would form the basis of British imperialism were central to this plan, as was their implementation by a European trading class. The failure of this scheme would depend not only on the impracticality of re-establishing an informal empire in a time of increasing European intervention in West Africa, but also the reluctance of British trading interests to take on the added responsibilities of government. British traders also wanted a non-trading European administrative class to run West African affairs and protect their markets from European and African rivals.

While on the public platform Kingsley appeared as the professional politician, in private she felt more and more drawn to the Africa she had left behind. While maintaining a professional facade of feminine conformity, in the privacy of her Kensington home she decorated her rooms with souvenirs from her journeys - enormous wooden drums and a yard-high nail fetish - and jangled about in her African bangles. To a childhood friend she wrote of the stresses of her two personalities, the public politician and the private African:

The majority of people I shrink from, I don't like them, I don't understand them and they most distinctly don't understand me . . . I cannot be a bush-man and a drawing-roomer. Would to Allah I was in West Africa now, with a climate that suited me and a people who understood me, and who I could understand.

She longed to return to 'skylark' in West Africa and experience a freedom 'this smug, self-satisfied, sanctimonious, lazy, Times-believing England' could never give.

Her identity with the African had been strong and heartfelt since her return from West Africa. Emotional revelations of this personal sympathy to close friends found more public expression in the use of terms usually reserved for non-European peoples to describe her own experience. Calling herself a savage and a 'member of the tribe of women', she would even describe herself as 'an African'. 'We Africans are not fit for decent society', she told Alice Stopford Green, and to the Indianist Sir Alfred Lyall, she wrote 'I am a firm African'. She compared her beliefs to those of Africans. '1 desire to get on with the utter Bushman', she declared, 'and never sneer or laugh at his native form of religion, a pantheism which I confess is a form of my own religion'.

This identity was also an expression of her own philosophy of polygenesism and separate development. Arguing for the promotion of women's traditional sphere and African traditional life (although not always consistent in the definition of either), she said the African is a feminine race' - misunderstood by a dominant culture. The most candid revelation of these feelings was to Nathan, with whom she was unhappily in love:

I will import to you, in strict confidence, for if it were known it would damage me badly, my opinion on the African. He is not 'half devil and half child', anymore than he is 'our benighted brother' and all that sort of thing. He is a woman . . . I know those nigs because I am a woman, a woman of a masculine race but a woman still.

Kingsley became increasingly dissatisfied with the isolation of her outspoken position, and the lack of support from disunited traders, and complained to Holt of loneliness. She secretly applied to nurse in South Africa, hoping to cover the Boer War for the Morning Post and travel northwards across the Orange River and far away from European settlements to her 'beloved South West Coast'. Letting only a few friends know of her imminent departure, she ended her final lecture at the Imperial Institute with the words 'Fare ye well for I am homeward bound'. On arriving at the Cape at the end of March 1900, the medical conditions horrified her, and soon she was absorbed in the immediate needs of hospital work. All this work here, the stench, the washing, the enemas, the bed pans, the blood, is my world', she wrote to Alice Stopford Green, 'not London Society, politics, that gallery into which I so strangely wandered - into which I don't care a hairpin if I never wander again'. Within two months the typhoid fever that was daily killing four to five of her patients struck Mary, and on June 3rd she died. She was buried at her own request, at sea. Full military and naval honours accompanied the funeral.

Commentators on Mary Kingsley's life and work have often accredited her with laying the political foundations for the introduction of indirect rule in Northern Nigeria. But it is in the informal sector, and not Colonial Office policy making, that we must look for her political legacy. Morel drew upon her inspiration, and continually agitated against Colonial Office politics, later leading the Congo Reform Movement, an informal pressure group relying on press coverage and public speaking in the Kingsley style. Alice Stopford Green, inheritor of Kingsley's behind-the-scenes politicking, formed the African Society in her memory as a forum for the exchange of information between traders, academics and officials involved in West African affairs. John Holt said, 'Miss Kingsley discovered me and made me think'.

By Deborah Birkett

Mary Kingsley
Further Reading
Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa
by Don Brown

A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley
by Katherine Frank

Mary Kingsley
by Cecil Howard

Travels in West Africa
by Mary Kingsley

West African Studies (Cambridge Library Collection - African Studies)
by Mary Kingsley

Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers
Ed by Jane Robinson


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