July 29, 2014

Mary Kingsley: Daring Female Explorer of Africa

In Victorian England, it wasn’t exactly popular for women to have careers, let alone careers that took them outside the home. Mary Henrietta Kingsley defied the social norm and set out to do that which she was passionate about: exploring West Africa in the name of science!

An artist's rendition of Mary Kingsley.

An artist’s rendition of Mary Kingsley.

That’s something we here at Travels with Gannon & Wyatt are all about. We love the idea that she could get past her own cultural expectations, and certainly her own comfort zone, in order to pursue something she truly believed in. Women of Victorian England did not, as a rule, participate in the sciences or anthropology, both of which Miss Kingsley excelled in. Truthfully, even most of the men of her time would not venture into the areas Kingsley did. Despite numerous warnings from doctors, scientist, and other explorers, Kingsley still set off for the interior of West Africa with an open mind.

Not only that, but her writing on the subject greatly helped to influence British thought at the time, in regards to African culture. According to her biography, “Kingsley was an outspoken critic of European colonialism, a champion for indigenous customs, and a dedicated campaigner for a revised British policy which supported traders and merchants over the needs of settlers and missionaries,” (Women in European History). Miss Kingsley published two works, both of which irrefutably disputed the stereotypes of Africa in the minds of the commonwealth of England: Travels in West Africa and West African Studies. While the stereotype was that the ‘savages’ of Africa had no culture, Kingsley disproved this by thoroughly examining the complexities of the cultures she encountered in her written works.

Kingsley studied, catalogued and took samples of all types of flora and fauna, and also helped fill in the map of West Africa, even though geography was considered to be a male-only profession at the time. Miss Kingsley was even so courageous as to be the first woman to climb Mount Cameroon, and the first known person to summit it from the South side. She is widely accepted as the inspiration behind the Royal African Society, a British organization whose goal is “to promote Africa in business, politics, culture and academia… a society that works to foster better understanding and strong relationships between Britain, Africa and the world,” (Royal African Society).

A map depicting the area in which Miss Kingsley studied West African culture.

A map depicting the area in which Miss Kingsley studied West African culture.

Mary Kingsley led a remarkable life. She challenged gender roles, contrasted previously commonplace beliefs, conducted strenuous scientific research, and faced many obstacles. She was a pioneer in her industry of choice, making her one of the most respected women in the history of the social sciences. We can only hope to embody the adventurous spirit Miss Kingsley must’ve had.

Happy Exploring!

Patti Wheeler


“Mary Kingsley” by Jacob Hanebutt, 2010. On www.womenineuropeanhistory.org Accessed 2/4/14.

“Mary Henrietta Kingsley” on www.newworldencyclopedia.org Accessed 2/4/14.

“About Us” on www.royalafricansociety.org Accessed 2/4/14.