Mary Kingsley

All quotations and info from Barbara Holland's They Went Whistling.

Guys, I freaking love Mary Kingsley. There are two types of ladies I like in history: the ones who live with the words "Eff you!" always ready to be shouted, and the ones who cheerfully go about their very dangerous business with unflagging good nature, because they're just so happy to be doing what they're doing. Mary Kingsley is one of the latter. (Please note that Isabella Bird does not fall into either of these categories).

Mary Kingsley was born in 1862 and she adored her father even if, from what I understand, he was a bit of a cad. The travel bug ran in her blood, since he would kind of abandon his invalid wife and children to go on hunting and exploring trips, mooching off of wealthier people to pay his way and feed his family at home. Her only real education came from writing up his travel notes when he finally showed up.

Much like Isabella Bird, family duty came first, but the second it was over, she was out of England like a shot and never looked back: "She nursed her sick mother until she died; she nursed her sick father until he died; and then her brother announced that he didn't feel so well himself and she'd better stay home and nurse him. Finally, all duties discharged, age thirty, she took her five hundred pounds a year and headed for West Africa, with a commission from the British Museum to collect snakes, fish, beetles, rocks, worms, and whatever else looked interesting" (139).

Much like Samwise Gamgee, "Nothing ever dampens her spirits". You can hear it in her writing. When she came back to her canoe and discovered there was a hippo looming over it (they look cute and goofy, but they are just as dangerous as lions and crocodiles), she said, "I scratched him behind the ear with my umbrella and we parted on good terms." (137)

She trekked through jungles and swamps dressed "as an impeccable Victorian Englishwoman, though often caked with mud or chin-deep in slimy mangrove swamps, in corset and high collar and black skirts. The outfit, she insisted, was highly practical, since when she fell into a pit dug for game its ample skirts padded her against the sharpened stakes at the bottom" (137).
I cannot begin to imagine walking through a jungle dressed like this, but it seemed to make her happy.

A crocodile once "chose to get his front paws over the stern of my canoe, and endeavored to improve our acquaintance. I had to retire to the bows, to keep the balance right, and fetch him a clip on the snout with a paddle". She waves off this incident because it was a small crocodile, only eight feet long. She says he was just young one "who had not learnt manners" (138). Jesus. Maybe she's too good-natured, even for me. The Mary frigging Poppins of a fetid, West African swamp-hell.

She once sat "very still for twenty minutes just three feet from a leopard, both of them pinned among some rocks by a tornado" (138).

She found her real calling whilst dealing with various West African native tribes. She hated British Imperial administration–you try to administrate West Africa and see how reasonable a goal that turns out to be–and thought that Christianizing the natives not only was a kind of pointless exercise, but it could also cause more harm than good: the missionaries kept putting naked tribal women in big flowing garments, which would catch them on fire when they stood too close to their cooking. She thought the church's stance against polygamy was also stupid, since it was necessary in tribal life; she thought we'd do best not to project our European morals in a land where they make no practical sense. A remarkably open-minded and intelligent woman, that Mary.

Then she discovered a tribe called the Fan (or Faung). "Only Mary Kingsley could love the Fan. They gave new resonance to the word "savages." They were feared and avoided by black and white alike; traders dispatched into their areas were routinely eaten . . . The Fan weren't fussy; they also ate neighbors, relatives, and citizens of other Fan villages" (141). Ain't no party like a relative-meat party.

She was fascinated by the Fan and wanted to be the first to get proper information on them. She decided to make friends with them by trading cloth and tobacco she had brought. When that ran out, worried that they might just kill her, take back all the goods, and repeat the cycle with the next trader, she began trading her clothes. She was amused by seeing one of her white blouses "worn by a brawny warrior in conjunction with nothing else but red paint and a bunch of leopard tails" (141-2). They got to be such good friends (maybe she didn't look like eating material, since she wore so much) that they taught her how to use their native canoes and went with her on some of her collecting expeditions.

One of the Fan's most dangerous aspects was their belief in witchcraft. Nothing unfortunate was ever an accident or the result of the jungle law, but was rather a curse laid on by a witch. Leopard ate your baby? A witch did it. Grandma died of old age? A witch did it. Your neighbor is an asshole? He's probably the witch that did it. And, as with typical witch-believing communities, witch-hunts and torture were the norm. Human body parts were supposed to be the greatest talisman against witchcraft, especially the eyeball of a white man.

In fact, one night in her hut, Mary started smelling something particularly ass-nasty, and traced it to a bag hanging from the roof. ""I then shook its contents out in my hat, for fear of losing anything of value. They were a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears, and other portions of the human frame" . . . She replaced the keepsakes, hung up the bag, and went back to sleep. (Her hat, presumably, she put on in the morning; it's not as if she had a spare.)" (142)

And despite this, she liked them, anyway. Her life was like a really messed up version of Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai. She was probably the only white person to survive a prolonged encounter with the Fan. How she did it, I don't know. Maybe she was just too polite to eat.

She brought back several new specimens to England and got a fish named after her for its discovery. She also wrote two books which shed a great deal of ethnological light on the tribes she was with, as well as providing the people back home with a scathing critique of British colonial administration.

She had done all of this unarmed, by the way–perhaps her one facet of irrationality: "I do not think it ladylike to go shooting things with a gun" (138). Yeah, well, it's probably not ladylike to scratch a hippo with your parasol and go hobnobbing with cannibals, either. Just sayin'.

After her return to England, she went to Cape Town to nurse Boer prisoners. She caught typhoid and died at thirty-seven, which I find depressing as hell. Screw your sappy tear-jerkers; give me a film where someone dies before they can go on all the adventures they wanted to and I'll be bawling like a baby.

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3 Responses to Mary Kingsley

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