Travels in West Africa

Fantastic travelogue published at the end of the 19th century detailing Kingsley’s adventures in the Congo and Cameroon. I came across Mary Kingsley twice recently– mentioned in Woolf’s Three Guineas and in Welsh’s Unveiling of Timbuctoo. Freed from domestic servitude after her parents die within weeks of each other, Kingsley traipses off to Africa to collect specimens of fish and fetishes. Imagine a Victorian-era woman clad in thick skirts and boots fighting her way through the jungle and becoming chummy with cannibalistic natives. Her prose is delightful and made me laugh several times. This fearless woman steers canoes down rushing rivers at night while her companions are sleeping, climbs the nearly 14,000 foot peak Mungo Mah Lobeh in Cameroon, watches gorillas and elephants foraging, and goes deep into the jungle with her cannibal Fan friends. She has a fascinating account of how they hunt elephants– enclosing the animals into a pen and then drugging their water supply before shooting them.
On the benefits of wearing a skirt while galloping around Africa:

About five o’clock I was off ahead and noticed a path which I had been told I should meet with, and, when met with, I must follow. The path was slightly indistinct, but by keeping my eye on it I could see it. Presently I came to a place where it went out, but apeared again on the other side of a clump of underbush fairly distinctly. I made a short cut for it and the next news was I was in a heap, on a lot of spikes, some fifteen feet or so below ground level, at the bottom of a bag-shaped game pit.
It is at these times you realise the blessings of a good thick skirt. Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England, who ought to have known better, and did not do it themselves, and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone, and done for. Whereas, save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fullness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out. (p 125)

A description of battling a crocodile from her canoe:

On one occasion, a mighty Silurian, as The Daily Telegraph would call him, 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, when he withdrew, and I paddled into the very middle of the lagoon, hoping the water there was too deep for him or any of his friends to repeat the performance. (p 5)

Describing an elephant’s expression when smelling something bad:

It is very quaint the intense aversion the Africans have to this scent, and the grimaces and spitting that goes on when they come across it; their aversion is shared by the elephants. I once saw an elephant put his trunk against one of these scented bushes, have it up in a second, and fly off into the forest with an Oh lor! burn-some-brown-paper! pocket-handkerchief-please expression all over him. (p 48)

Explaining the prevalence of polygamy in non-slave-holding tribes (where essentially the women are slaves):

I well remember M. Jacot coming home one day at Kangwe from an evangelising visit to some adjacent Fan towns, and saying he had given to him that afternoon a new reason for polygamy, which was that it enabled a man to get enough to eat. This sounds sinister from a notoriously cannibal tribe; but the explanation is that the Fans are an exceedingly hungry tribe, and require a great deal of providing for. It is their custom to eat about 10 times a day when in village and the men spend most of their time in the palaver-houses at one end of the street, the women bringing them bowls for food of one kind or another all day long…
There are other reasons which lead to the prevalence of this custom, besides the cooking. One is that it is totally impossible for one woman to do the whole work of a house – look after the children, prepare and cook the food, prepare the rubber, carry the same to markets, fetch the daily supply of water from the stream, cultivate the plantation, etc. etc. The more wives the less work, says the African lady; and I have known men who would rather have had one wife and spent the rest of the money on themselves, in a civilised way, driven into polygamy by the women; and of course this state of affairs is most common in non-slave-holding tribes like the Fan. (p 88)

On reading travelogues:

My most favorite form of literature, I may remark, is accounts of mountaineering exploits, though I have never seen a glacier or a permanent snow mountain in my life. I do not care a row of pins how badly they may be written, and what form of bumble-puppy grammar and composition is employed, as long as the writer will walk along the edge of a precipice with a sheer fall of thousands of feet on one side and a sheer wall on the other. (p 174)