Mary Henrietta Kingsley

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Mary Henrietta Kingsley

Birthdate: (38)
Death: 1900 (38)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of George Henry Kingsley and Mary Bailey

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Immediate Family

About Mary Henrietta Kingsley

Mary Henrietta Kingsley (13 October 1862 – 3 June 1900) was an English ethnographic and scientific writer and explorer whose travels throughout West Africa and resulting work helped shape European perceptions of African cultures and British imperialism.

Early life

Kingsley was born in Islington, London on 13 October 1862, the daughter and oldest child of doctor, traveler, and writer George Kingsley and Mary Bailey. She came from a family of writers, as she was also the niece of novelists Charles Kingsley and Henry Kingsley. The family moved to Highgate less than a year after her birth, the same home where her brother Charles George R. ("Charley") Kingsley was born in 1866, and by 1881 were living in Southwood House, Bexley in Kent.

Her father was a doctor and worked for George Herbert, 13th Earl of Pembroke and other aristocrats, so he was regularly away from home on his excursions. During these voyages he collected information for his studies. Dr. Kingsley accompanied Lord Dunraven on a trip to North America in 1870-1875. During this trip, Dr. Kingsley was invited to accompany Custer's U.S. Army expedition against the Sioux Indians. The reported massacre of Custer's force terrified the Kingsley family, but they were relieved to learn that bad weather had kept Dr. Kingsley from joining Custer. It is possible that her father's views on injustices faced by the Native Americans helped shape Mary's later opinions on British cultural imperialism in West Africa.

In terms of Kingsley's education, she had little formal schooling compared to her brother, other than German lessons at a young age; however, she did have access to her father's large library and loved to hear her father's stories of foreign countries. She did not enjoy novels that were deemed more appropriate for young ladies of the time, such as those by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë but preferred books on the sciences and memoirs of explorers. In 1886, her brother Charley entered Christ's College, Cambridge, to study law; this allowed Mary to make several academic connections and a few friends.

With respect to religion, there is little indication that Kingsley was raised Christian; instead, she was a self-proclaimed believer with, "summed up in her own word [...] 'an utter faith in God'" and even identified strongly with what was described as 'the' African religion'. She is known for criticizing Christian missionaries and their work for taking away African culture without proving any real benefits in return.

The 1891 England census finds Mrs. Kingsley - Mary's mother - and her two children living at 7 Mortimer Road, Cambridge, where Charles is recorded as a BA Student at Law and Mary as a Student of Medicine.

In her later years, Kingsley's mother became ill, and she was expected to care for her well-being. Unable to leave her mother's side, she was limited in her travel opportunities. Soon, her father was also bedridden with rheumatic fever following an excursion. Dr. Kingsley died in February 1892, and Mrs. Kingsley followed a few months later in April of the same year. "Freed" from her family responsibilities and with an inheritance of £8,600 to be split evenly with her brother, Kingsley was now able to travel as she had always dreamed.[6] Mary decided to visit Africa, some say to finish collecting material for a book that her father had started on African culture.

Journeys to Africa

After a preliminary visit to the Canary Islands, Kingsley decided to travel to the west coast of Africa. The only non-African women who regularly embarked on (often dangerous) journeys to Africa were usually the wives of missionaries, government officials, or explorers. Exploration and adventure were not seen as fitting roles for a Victorian woman. Even African women were surprised that a woman of Mary's age was travelling without a man, as she was frequently asked why her husband was not accompanying her.

Mary landed in Sierra Leone on 17 August 1893 and pressed on into Luanda in Angola . She lived with local people, who taught her necessary skills for surviving in the African jungles, and often went into dangerous areas alone. Her training as a nurse at the Kaiserworth Medical Institute prepared her for slight injuries and jungle maladies that she would later encounter. Mary returned to England in December 1893.

Upon her return, Mary secured support and aid from Dr. Albert Günther, a prominent zoologist at the British Museum, as well as a writing agreement with publisher George Macmillan, for she wished to publish her travel accounts.

She returned to Africa yet again in December 1894 with more support and supplies from England, as well as increased self-assurance in her work. She longed to study 'cannibal' peoples and their traditional religious practices, commonly referred to as 'fetish' during the Victorian Era. In April, she became acquainted with Scottish missionary Mary Slessor, another female living among native populations with little company and no husband. It was during her meeting with Slessor that Kingsley first became painfully aware of the custom of twin killing, a custom Slessor was determined to stop. The native people believed that one of the twins was the offspring of the devil who had secretly mated with the mother and since the innocent child was impossible to distinguish, both were killed and the mother was often killed as well for attracting the devil to impregnate her. Kingsley arrived at Slessor's residence shortly after she had taken in a recent mother of twins and her surviving child.

Later while in Gabon, Mary Kingsley travelled by canoe up the Ogooué River, where she collected specimens of previously unknown fish, three of which were later named after her. After meeting the Fang people and travelling through uncharted Fang territory, she climbed the daring 13,760 ft Mount Cameroon by a route not previously attempted by any other European. She is known to have moored her boat at Donguila.

Return to England

When she returned home in November 1895, Kingsley was greeted by journalists, who were eager to interview her. The reports that were drummed up about her voyage, however, were most upsetting, as the papers portrayed her as a "New Woman," an image which she did not embrace. Kingsley distanced herself from any feminist movement claims, arguing that women's suffrage was "a minor question; while there was a most vital section of men disenfranchised women could wait". Her consistent lack of identification with women's rights movements may result from a number of causes, such as the attempt to ensure that her work was received more favorably; in fact, some insist this may be a direct reference to her belief in the importance of securing rights of British traders in West Africa.

Over the next three years, she toured the country giving lectures about life in Africa to a wide array of audiences. She was the first woman to address the Liverpool and Manchester chambers of commerce.

Mary Kingsley upset the Church of England when she criticised missionaries for attempting to convert the people of Africa and corrupt their religion. In this regard, she discussed many aspects of African life that were shocking to English people, including polygamy, which, she argued was practiced out of necessity. After living with the African people, Kingsley became directly aware how their societies functioned and how prohibiting customs such as polygamy would be detrimental to their way of life. She knew that the typical African wives had too many tasks to manage alone. Missionaries in Africa often required converted men to abandon all but one of their wives, leaving the other women and children without the support of a husband –thus creating immense social and economic problems.

Kingsley's beliefs about cultural and economic imperialism are complex and still widely debated by scholars today. Though, on the one hand, she regarded African people and cultures as those who needed protection and preservation, she also believed in the necessity of British economic and technological influence and indirect rule, insisting that there was some work in West Africa that had to be completed by white men. Nevertheless, the ways in which her beliefs were perceived within various sectors of Western European society - be they traders or imperialists, women's rights activists, or others - impacted common perceptions of "the African" of the time.


Kingsley wrote two books about her experiences: Travels in West Africa (1897), which was an immediate best-seller, and West African Studies (1899), both of which granted her vast respect and prestige within the scholarly community. Some newspapers, however, refused to publish reviews of her works, such as the Times colonial editor Flora Shaw. Though some argue this is likely on the grounds that her beliefs countered the imperialistic intentions of the British Empire and the notion that Africans were inferior peoples, this is not entirely true, as she did support British traders and British indirect rule in Africa, and thus cannot entirely explain her sometimes unfavorable reception.


During the Second Boer War, Kingsley travelled to Cape Town and volunteered as a nurse. She was stationed at Simon's Town hospital, where she treated Boer prisoners of war. After contributing her services to the ill for about two months, she developed symptoms of typhoid and died on 3 June 1900. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried at sea.


Kingsley's tales and opinions of life in Africa helped draw attention to British imperial agendas abroad and the native customs of African people that were previously little discussed or misunderstood by the European masses. The Fair Commerce Party formed soon after her death, pressuring for improved conditions for the natives of British colonies. Various reform associations were formed in her honour and helped facilitate governmental change. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine founded an honorary medal in her name. Her understanding and empathy for the native African people and their interests, along with her stance on their so-called "savage" way of life earned her unwanted fame and a mislabel as a feminist, an image she countered whenever given the chance.

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Mary Henrietta Kingsley's Timeline

Age 38