Travels in West Africa, by Mary H. Kingsley

Preface to the Abridged Edition of Travels in West Africa.

When on my return to England from my second sojourn in West Africa, I discovered, to my alarm, that I was, by a freak of fate, the sea-serpent of the season, I published, in order to escape from this reputation, a very condensed, much abridged version of my experiences in Lower Guinea; and I thought that I need never explain about myself or Lower Guinea again. This was one of my errors. I have been explaining ever since; and, though not reconciled to so doing, I am more or less resigned to it, because it gives me pleasure to see that English people can take an interest in that land they have neglected. Nevertheless, it was a shock to me when the publishers said more explanation was required. I am thankful to say the explanation they required was merely on what plan the abridgment of my first account had been made. I can manage that explanation easily. It has been done by removing from it certain sections whole, and leaving the rest very much as it first stood. Of course it would have been better if I had totally reformed and rewritten the book in pellucid English; but that is beyond me, and I feel at any rate this book must be better than it was, for there is less of it; and I dimly hope critics will now see that there is a saving grace in disconnectedness, for owing to that disconnectedness whole chapters have come out without leaving holes.

As for the part that is left in, I have already apologised for its form, and I cannot help it, for Lower Guinea is like what I have said it is. No one who knows it has sent home contradictions of my description of it, or its natives, or their manners or customs, and they have had by now ample time and opportunity. The only complaints I have had regarding my account from my fellow West Coasters have been that I might have said more. I trust my forbearance will send a thrill of gratitude through readers of the 736-page edition.

There is, however, one section that I reprint, regarding which I must say a few words. It is that on the trade and labour problem in West Africa, particularly the opinion therein expressed regarding the liquor traffic. This part has brought down on me much criticism from the Missionary Societies and their friends; and I beg gratefully to acknowledge the honourable fairness with which the controversy has been carried on by the great Wesleyan Methodist Mission to the Gold Coast and the Baptist Mission to the Congo. It has not ended in our agreement on this point, but it has raised my esteem of Missionary Societies considerably; and anyone interested in this matter I beg to refer to the Baptist Magazine for October, 1897. Therein will be found my answer, and the comments on it by a competent missionary authority; for the rest of this matter I beg all readers of this book to bear in mind that I confine myself to speaking only of the bit of Africa I know — West Africa. During this past summer I attended a meeting at which Sir George Taubman Goldie spoke, and was much struck with the truth of what he said on the difference of different African regions. He divided Africa into three zones: firstly, that region where white races could colonise in the true sense of the word, and form a great native-born white population, namely, the region of the Cape; secondly, a region where the white race could colonise, but to a less extent — an extent analogous to that in India — namely, the highlands of Central East Africa and parts of Northern Africa; thirdly, a region where the white races cannot colonise in a true sense of the word, namely, the West African region, and in those regions he pointed out one of the main elements of prosperity and advance is the native African population. I am quoting his words from memory, possibly imperfectly; but there is very little reliable printed matter to go on when dealing with Sir George Taubman Goldie, which is regrettable because he himself is an experienced and reliable authority. I am however quite convinced that these aforesaid distinct regions are regions that the practical politician dealing with Africa must recognise, and keep constantly in mind when attempting to solve the many difficulties that that great continent presents, and sincerely hope every reader of this work will remember that I am speaking of that last zone, the zone wherein white races cannot colonise in a true sense of the word, but which is nevertheless a vitally important region to a great manufacturing country like England, for therein are vast undeveloped markets wherein she can sell her manufactured goods and purchase raw material for her manufactures at a reasonable rate.

Having a rooted, natural, feminine hatred for politics I have no inclination to become diffuse on them, as I have on the errors of other people’s cooking or ideas on decoration. I know I am held to be too partial to France in West Africa; too fond of pointing out her brilliant achievements there, too fond of saying the native is as happy, and possibly happier, under her rule than under ours; and also that I am given to a great admiration for Germans; but this is just like any common-sense Englishwoman. Of course I am devoted to my own John; but still Monsieur is brave, bright, and fascinating; Mein Herr is possessed of courage and commercial ability in the highest degree, and, besides, he takes such a lot of trouble to know the real truth about things, and tells them to you so calmly and carefully — and our own John — well, of course, he is everything that’s good and great, but he makes a shocking fool of himself at times, particularly in West Africa.

I should enjoy holding what one of my justly irritated expurgators used to call one of my little thanksgiving services here, but I will not; for, after all, it would be impossible for me to satisfactorily thank those people who, since my publication of this book, have given me help and information on the subject of West Africa. Chief amongst them have been Mr. A. L. Jones, Sir. R. B. N. Walker, Mr. Irvine, and Mr. John Holt. I have not added to this book any information I have received since I wrote it, as it does not seem to me fair to do so. My only regret regarding it is that I have not dwelt sufficiently on the charm of West Africa; it is so difficult to explain such things; but I am sure there are amongst my readers people who know by experience the charm some countries exercise over men — countries very different from each other and from West Africa. The charm of West Africa is a painful one: it gives you pleasure when you are out there, but when you are back here it gives you pain by calling you. It sends up before your eyes a vision of a wall of dancing white, rainbow-gemmed surf playing on a shore of yellow sand before an audience of stately coco palms; or of a great mangrove-watered bronze river; or of a vast aisle in some forest cathedral: and you hear, nearer to you than the voices of the people round, nearer than the roar of the city traffic, the sound of the surf that is breaking on the shore down there, and the sound of the wind talking on the hard palm leaves and the thump of the natives’ tom-toms; or the cry of the parrots passing over the mangrove swamps in the evening time; or the sweet, long, mellow whistle of the plantain warblers calling up the dawn; and everything that is round you grows poor and thin in the face of the vision, and you want to go back to the Coast that is calling you, saying, as the African says to the departing soul of his dying friend, “Come back, come back, this is your home.”

October, 1897.

[NOTE. — The following chapters of the first edition are not included in this edition:— Chap. ii., The Gold Coast; Chap. iv., Lagos Bar; Chap. v., Voyage down Coast; Chap. vi., Libreville and Glass; Chap. viii., Talagouga; Chap. xvi., Congo Francais; Chap. xvii., The Log of the Lafayette; Chap. xviii., From Corisco to Gaboon; Chap. xxviii., The Islands in the Bay of Amboises; Appendix ii., Disease in West Africa; Appendix iii., Dr. A. Gunther on Reptiles and Fishes; Appendix iv., Orthoptera, Hymenoptera, and Hemiptera.]

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