Travels in West Africa – Mary Kingsley

Sick again! Or possibly still sick. I had two days where I felt pretty okay, so am unsure if this is the same cold as previous or a new, improved cold. In either case, please excuse any asshattery on my part in this blog, as it is mucus-induced.


To kick off my year in getting my goddamned book done, I read the first of five books that fall into the category of “Historic Female Travel Writers” or something of that nature. It’s probably not the best title.

Anyway, I was supposed to start with one of Freya Stark’s travelogues, but I ordered the books for this section of my reading a few days too late and had to come up with an ebook (unfortunately). The only ebook on my list that I could easily find, however, was Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa. This was (also) unfortunate because, as it turns out, Travels is, by far, the longest of the five books and I had many other things to do these last two weeks (including being sick).

eBook in hand, I set to work.

Mary Kingsley was the (almost) illegitmate daughter of a chronically ill maid and a doctor. She did no travelling until after her parents died, and then set about it with a will to make up for lost time. (She only had seven years, sadly, as she died at 37 in South Africa from typhoid.)

Of the things you should know about Ms. Kingsley:

  1. She was an amateur ichthyologist and anthropologist.
  2. She had an excess very dry British wit that we are all acquainted with.
  3. She had no issue with putting herself in embarrassing and/or incredibly lethal situations in order to accomplish whatever idea had gotten into her head.

The eBook I ended up with was not the abridged version of Travels that Mary released before her death, but a partially unabridged version which included several lengthy chapters that went into far too much scientific detail (for me) of trees, mud, rock formations, and anything else that caught her eye. The first six chapters felt as though I was dragging my brain through a thick mud, trying to keep up anything resembling momentum and utterly failing.

However, once I was through those chapters, it suddenly became a travelogue! And there I was, traveling alongside Ms. Kingsley, jaunting through the jungle on a near constant hunt for the next source of tea, watching her fall time and time again off rocks, trees, boats, and anything else she could possibly attempt to ledge upon.

It was a joyous experience.

And it really put me in mind of all those preconceived notions of “the darkest jungle” that are put in our heads from childhood. Booby traps, spiked pits, witch doctors, machetes (the African equivalent of), leeches, flash floods, thunderstorms, tribal dances, and cannibalism. She brought them to life.

Mind you, most of it was in the lightest passing. She’d mention being sunburned so badly that she was bleeding from her face, then carry on discussing a group of unique plants she had seen on the path. She fell into spiked pit, was hauled out, and continued walking. She was the 28th person to scale a 10,000+ feet mountain, doing it alone when her entourage failed her. And all the while, she’s commenting on her idiocy, her slip-ups, her spills, and so on. She never aggrandizes.

I am not as willing to be abused by Africa as she clearly was. She had so much love for that country, and it showed in everything she wrote.

I wanted to throw some quotes in here so you could get a sense of her (she is wordy, so be patient, please):

[On her experience of getting stuck in a mangrove swamp at low tide.]

“In addition to this unpleasantness, you are liable–until you realise the danger from experience, or have native advice on the point–to get tide-trapped away in the swamps, the water falling round you when you are away in some deep pool or lagoon, and you find you cannot get back to the main river. Of course, if you really want a truly safe investment in Fame, and really care about Posterity, and Posterity’s Science, you will jump over into the black batter-like, stinking slime, cheered by the thought of the terrific sensation you will produce 20,000 years hence and the care you will be taken of then by your fellow creatures in a museum. But if you are a mere ordinary person of a retiring nature, like me, you stop in your lagoon until the tide rises again; most of your attention is directed to dealing with an ‘at home’ to crocodiles and mangrove files, and with the fearful stench of the slime around you. What little time you have over, you will employ in wondering why you came to West Africa, and why, after having reached this point of follow, you need have gone and painted the lily and adorned the rose, by being such a colossal ass as to come fooling about in mangrove swamps.”

“I can confidently say I am not afraid of any wild animal–until I see it–and then–well I will yield to nobody in terror; fortunately as I say my terror is a special variety; fortunately, because no one can manage their own terror. You can suppress alarm, excitement, fear, fright, and all those small-fry emotions, but the real terror is as dependent on the inner make of you as the colour of your eyes, or the shape of your nose; and when terror ascends its throne in my mind, I become preternaturally artful, and intelligent to an extent utterly foreign to my true nature, and save, in the case of close quarters with bad big animals, a feeling of rage against some unknown person that such things as leopards, elephants, crocodiles, etc., should be allowed out loose in that disgracefully dangerous way, I do not think much about it at the time.”

“I have never hurt a leopard intentionally; I am habitually kind to animals, and beside I do not think it is ladylike to go shooting things with a gun.”

“I write by the light of an insect-haunted lantern, sitting on the bed, which is tucked in among the trees some twenty yards away from the boys’ fire. There is a bird whistling in a deep rich note that I have never heard before.”

[While descending from a mountain.]

“One abominable place, a v-shaped hollow, mud-lined, and with an immense tree right across it–a tree one of our tornadoes has thrown down since we passed–bothers the men badly, as they slip and scramble down, and then crawl until the tree and slip and scramble up with their loads. I say nothing about myself. I just take a flying slide of twenty feet or so and shoot flump under the tree on my back, and then deliberate whether it is worthwhile getting up again to go on with such a world; but vanity forbids my dying like a dog in a ditch, and I scramble up, rejoining the others[…]”

She made me laugh but, more importantly, she made me sad whenever she departed from the travelogue to talk about fish or rocks, as her writing lost all personality at those times. It felt, randomly flipping back and forth between travelogue and science, as though she didn’t know what book she wanted to write. From what I can tell, though, she hadn’t been planning on writing a book at all–she went back to England and found herself a minor celebrity (a solo female traveler! in Africa!!) and thus wrote a book to answer all the questions she was besieged with.

Anyhow, if you are at all intrigued by the passages above, I highly suggest picking this book up, but perhaps go for the National Geographic version in the link at the top of this blagh, as (according to the introduction), that version is abridged and you should miss out on most of the drier chunks.