Mary Henrietta Kingsley, 1862-1900

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Biographical note

English traveller, ethnologist and author, daughter of George Henry Kingsley [1827-1892], was born in Islington, London, on the 13th of October 1862. Mary Kingsley's reading in history, poetry and philosophy was wide, but she was most attracted to natural history. Her family moved to Cambridge in 1886, where she studied the science of sociology.

The loss of both parents in 1892 left her free to pursue her own course, and she resolved to study native religion and law in West Africa with a view to completing a book which her father had left unfinished. With her study of raw fetish she combined that of a scientific collector of fresh-water fishes. She started for the West Coast in August 1893; and at Kabinda, at Old Calabar, Fernando Po and on the Lower Congo she pursued her investigations, returning to England in June 1894. She gained sufficient knowledge of the native customs to contribute an introduction to Mr R. E. Dennetts Notes on the Folk Lore of the Fjort [1898]. Miss Kingsley made careful preparations for a second visit to the same coast; and, in December 1894, provided by the British Museum authorities with a collectors equipment, she proceeded via Old Calabar to French Congo, and ascended the Ogowe River. From this point her journey, in part across country hitherto untrodden by Europeans, was a long series of adventures and hairbreadth escapes, at one time from the dangers of land and water, at another from the cannibal Fang. Returning to the coast Miss Kingsley went to Corisco and to the German colony of Cameroon, where she made the ascent of the Great Cameroon (13,760 ft.) from a direction until then unattempted. She returned to England in October 1895. The story of her adventures and her investigations in fetish is vividly told in her Travels in West Africa [1897].

The book aroused wide interest, and she lectured to scientific, gatherings on the fauna, flora and folk-lore of West Africa, and to commercial audiences on the trade of that region and its possible developments, always with a protest against the lack of detailed knowledge characteristic of modern dealings with new fields of trade. In both cases she spoke with authority, for she had brought back a considerable number of new specimens of fishes and plants, and had herself traded in rubber and oil in the districts through which she passed. But her chief concern was for the development of the negro on African, not European, lines and for the government of the British possessions on the West Coast by methods which left the native a free unsmashed man, not a whitewashed slave or an enemy.

With undaunted energy Miss Kingsley made preparations for a third journey to the West Coast, but the Anglo-Boer War changed her plans, and she travelled to South Aftrica, where she died while nursing Boer prisoners.

Edited extract from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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