Mary H. Kingsley, 1862-1900

Saturday marks the 150th birthday of a fascinating Victorian woman, Mary Kingsley. Her father, George Henry Kingsley, was a physician and world traveler. Young Mary led a rather secluded life, but had free access to her father’s library of travel and scientific books. She made her first trip abroad when she was in her 20s, when a family friend took her to Paris for a brief vacation. She caught the travel bug in 1892 during a trip to the Canary Islands, and decided to make an anthropological and scientific expedition to west Africa. From August-December 1893, she traveled solo from Sierra Leone to Angola, collecting scientific specimens.

The success of her first expedition won her support for a second. Kingsley returned to Africa in December 1894 for another solo expedition through Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon. She collected specimens of animals, plants, shells, and insects, and when she returned to England in November 1895, she was invited to give numerous lectures and to write scientific papers based on her journey. She argued against the “Europeanization” of African peoples and advocated a system of indirect rule for Britain’s African colonies in order to preserve African culture and society.

Kingsley returned to Africa in 1900, sailing to Cape Town, South Africa, where she attended Boer prisoners of war. She succumbed to typhoid during an epidemic in June 1900. She left behind two published books about her expeditions, Travels in West Africa (1897) and West African Studies (1899). First editions of both books can be found in Special Collections, as can a letter Kingsley wrote in Calabar, Nigeria during her second trip (MSS SC 673).

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