Mary Kingsley

By: Elina Shatkin
October 13, 2013


A pillar of Victorian rectitude who would have perished on a scaffold before wearing trousers, MARY HENRIETTA KINGSLEY (1862–1900) preferred palm oil traders to politicians, cannibals to missionaries. Although she spent much of her life caring for her invalid mother and doing research for her mostly absent explorer father, she received no formal schooling. When both parents died, the 30-year-old spinster set out by herself for West Africa. Trading rum, gin, and fishhooks to finance her expedition, she befriended native guides and pioneered a route to the summit of Mount Cameroon. She trudged through swamps of chest-deep fetid water, never complaining about the stench or the heat. It was not until she arrived in Africa that Kingsley felt truly at home. Displaying a Doctor Doolittle-ish rapport with animals, she communed with hippos, tickled an elephant with an umbrella, and scolded a pushy alligator by beaning him on the snout with an oar. (These encounters are immortalized in Don Brown’s children’s book, Uncommon Traveler.) She became an astute proto-ethnologist, a wry entomological observer, and the namesake for three species of fish — all while attired in full Victorian garb. (“You have no right to go about Africa in things you would be ashamed of at home,” she said. Thanks to the “blessings of a good thick skirt,” she remained unharmed after falling into a spike-filled pit.) Travels in West Africa, Kingsley’s vivid and self-deprecating chronicle, was an 1897 bestseller. She volunteered to serve as a nurse in the Boer War, but within two months of arriving contracted typhoid fever and died. Before returning to her beloved Africa, she concluded her final lecture at the Imperial Institute: “Fare ye well for I am homeward bound.”


ADVENTURERS as HILO HEROES: Katia Krafft | Freya Stark | Louise Arner Boyd | Mary Kingsley | Bruce Chatwin | Hester Lucy Stanhope | Annie Smith Peck | Richard Francis Burton | Isabella Lucy Bird | Calamity Jane | Ernest Shackleton | Osa Helen Johnson | Redmond O’Hanlon | Gertrude Bell | George Mallory | Neta Snook | Jane Digby | Patty Wagstaff | Wilfred Thesiger | Joe Carstairs | Florence “Pancho” Barnes | Erskine Childers | Jacques-Yves Cousteau | Michael Collins | Thor Heyerdahl | Jean-Paul Clébert | Tristan Jones | Neil Armstrong

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Sacha Baron Cohen and Lenny Bruce.

READ MORE about members of the Plutonian Generation (1854-63).