Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mary Kingsley -Travels in West Africa - 1895

In 1892, after spending most of her adult life as nurse to her mother and secretary to her father's travel notes, Mary Kingsley sails from Britain to West Africa. The success of her first trip encourages her to make a second on behalf of the British Royal Geographic Society to collect new zoological specimens.

Her memoir, Travels in West Africa, is an account of this second trip in 1895. With African tribesmen, about whom she later writes mostly in admiration, she treks overland and by canoe through hitherto seldom traveled areas of the French Congo. In her luggage, along with her umbrella, she carries a vicious and self-deprecatory sense of humour. Ironically, it is her humility, her unstoppable demeanour, her reflections on her own growth, and her curiosity that earn her the respect of both Europeans and Africans:

She had an individuality as pronounced as it was unique with charm of manner and conversation, while the interplay of wit and mild satire, of pure spontaneous mirth and of profoundly deep seriousness, made her a series of surprises, each one tenderer and more surprising than the foregoing. (Gwynn 278).

Kingsley is the first European woman to traverse both the swamps and the highlands of the interior of West Africa without a husband. And, unlike many of her predecessors in West Africa, she attempts to look through the eyes of the Africans with whom she is traveling to see the world from their perspective. She describes the native wild life from the purview of those who show her where to find it.

Kingsley's stories prove that this trip not only changed her own view of West Africans, but also her self-image. By accepting the tribal/family interactions of West Africans, Kingsley repeatedly proves that she agrees with Robyn Davidson, a twentieth century Australian traveler: If I had any kind of creed in regard to living among strangers it was this: one could criticize one's own place, indeed one had a duty to do so, but when crossing a cultural border one left behind judgments as to how life would be organized (Davidson 124).

On her second trip to West Africa, Kingsley steams up the Ogowe River to Lambarene, where she leaves the steamboat to paddle in canoes through the rapids above Njole with eight Igalwas, fishermen of the region. Early, her humour takes a primary role. A keen sense of the absurd often carries Kingsley through difficult times and death-defying treks in muddy swamps in the company of cannibals. Laughter, even a chuckle deep in her throat, while in the midst of fear, seems most often to see her through.

Leaving the Njole, she travels across swamplands to her eventual destination of Agonjo on the Rambwe River, from which she returns to the Atlantic Coast. In the final two chapters of her account, her dry sense of humour accompanies her to the top of Mt. Cameroon, the 28th European and the first woman to climb this 4194-metre (13,630 feet) peak. Surely she is the first and last person ever to do so in full female Victorian attire.

A primary issue discussed by Kingsley is that the European and African traders, rather than the missionaries, deserve credit for the positive changes in African life in the 19th century. Her respect for these traders grows as she apprentices as one herself:

What I had expected to find them [traders] was a very different thing to what I did find them; and of their kindness to me I can never sufficiently speak . . . I learnt on the West Coast in 1893 [Kingsley's first trip to Africa] that I could trust them . . . Thanks to the Agent, I have visited places I could never otherwise have seen; and to the respect and affection in which he is held by the native, I owe it that I have done so in safety (5).

Of the native African traders, with whom she spent much of her travel time, she is also complimentary: 'And down he came, in a state of considerable astonishment, not unmixed with alarm, for no white man of any kind had been across from the Ogowe for years, and no one had ever come out of N'dorko. Mr. Glass I found an exceedingly neat, well educated M'pongwe gentleman in irreproachable English garments, and with irreproachable, but slightly floreate, English language (197).

Except in her travels with Captain Johnson, Kingsley refuses to take credit for her successful trekking in equatorial West Africa. She gives the credit instead to the traders who are willing to honour the chits with which she pays village people for carrying goods, locating wildlife, and leading her through the rain forest.

However, Captain Johnson, who took her out to the west coast of the French Congo along the Rembwe River, receives a humorous description:'His name was Obanjo, but he liked it pronounced Captain Johnson, and his profession was a bush and river trader on his own account. Every movement of the man was theatrical, and he used to look covertly at you every now and then to see if he had produced his impression, which was evidently intended to be that of a reckless, rollicking skipper. . and if I should ever want to engage in a wild and awful career up a West African river I shall start on it by engaging Captain Johnson. (218).

Kingsley begins to see the world through African eyes as she heads into the bush, accompanied only by the people who call it home. Her humour offers insight into her personality as she jokes at the expense of the British Royal Geographical Society:'Always take measurements, Miss Kingsley, and always take them from the adult male.' I know I have neglected opportunities of carrying this commission out on both those banks, but I do not feel like going back. Besides, the men would not like it, and I have mislaid my yard measure (146).

Although she has been encouraged to carry a gun, like Bird, she refuses to heed the advice. However, that does not mean that she failed to aim accurately at the wild life endangering her on a variety of occasions:'I have never hurt a leopard intentionally; I am habitually kind to animals, and besides I do not think it is ladylike to go shooting things with a gun. Twice, however, I have been in collision with them. On one occasion a big leopard had attacked a dog, who with her family, was occupying a broken-down hut next to mine. . . I fired two mushroom-shaped native stools in rapid succession into the brown of it, and the meeting broke up into a leopard and a dog. The leopard crouched, I think to spring on me. I can see its great, beautiful lambent eyes still, and I seized an earthen water-cooler and flung it straight at them. It was a noble shot; it burst on the leopard's head like a shell and the leopard went for bush (319).


She is very aware of the necessity of protecting herself in the face of unforeseen events: 'You walk along a narrow line of security with gulfs of murder looming on each side, and where in exactly the same way you are as safe as if you were in your easy chair at home, as long as you get sufficient holding ground; not on rock in the bush village inhabited by murderous cannibals but on ideas in those men's and women's minds; and these ideas, which I think I may say you will always find, give you safety. (214).

Coincidently, her sense of humour rises to confront difficulties. For instance, as Kingsley paddles up the rapids of the Ogowe River with the Igalwa, the French official at the trading station says he does not like to take the responsibility of allowing me to endanger myself in those rapids. I explain I will not hold any one responsible but myself, and I urge that a lady has been up before, a Mme. Quinne. He says, 'Yes, that is true, but Madame had with her a husband and many men', whereas I am alone and have only eight Igalwas . . . I only want to go sufficiently high up the rapids to get typical fish. And these Igalwas are great men at canoe work, and can go in canoe anywhere that any mortal men go . . . and as for the husband, neither the Royal Geographical Society's list, in their Hints to Travellers, nor Messrs. Silver, in their elaborate lists of articles necessary for a traveller in tropical climates, make mention of husbands (87).

In the midst of a harrowing canoe trip, she reminds us that there is not another white station for five hundred miles. She describes 'the forested hillsides and the little beaches of glistening white sand . . . one of the most perfect things I have ever seen' (88). Leeches, ticks, leopards, elephants, rhinos and cannibalistic Fans don't seem to bother Kingsley.

However, while pausing overnight in an Ajumba village, she is wakened to an unusual sight that might cause a fright for some: 'Am aroused by violent knocking at the door in the early grey dawn–so violent that two large centipedes and a scorpion drop on to the bed. . . Well, when ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise, particularly along here. I get up without delay, and find myself quite well . . . These Ajumba seem pleasant folk. They play with their pretty brown children in a taking way (138).

Like other women in this research, Kingsley frequently writes of her lack of fluency in the languages of the cultures in which she travels. Sign language is inadequate and translators are essential. While trying to orient herself on her map of the region, she notes that none of them, however, seem to recognise a single blessed name on the chart, . . . I am sure the Royal Geographical Society ought to insert among their Hints that every traveller in this region should carefully learn every separate native word, or set of words, signifying 'I don't know' (40).

As she paddles the largest of the lakes, replete with rhinos, Kingsley understates, 'Most luxurious, charming, and pleasant trip this. The men are standing up swinging in rhythmic motion their long, rich red wood paddles in perfect time to their elaborate melancholy, minor key boat song' (141-142).

Kingsley's initial description of the cannibalistic Fans displays her courage and her sense of power as a European. Her continued dealings with the Fan show how much she has changed since she acted as nursemaid to her dying mother:
Things did not look restful, nor these Fans personally pleasant. Every man among them . . . was armed with a gun and they loosened their shovel-shaped knives in their sheaths as they came . . . I got up from my seat in the bottom of the canoe and leisurely strolled ashore, saying to the line of angry faces 'M'boloani' in an unconcerned way, although I well knew it was etiquette for them to salute first . . . I must say that never–even in a picture book–have I seen such a set of wild wicked-looking savages as those we faced this night, and with whom it was touch-and-go for twenty of the longest minutes I have ever lived, whether we fought–for our lives, I was going to say, but it would not have been even for that, but merely for the price of them . . . You would have thought, from the violence and vehemence of the shouting and gesticulation, that we were going to be forthwith torn to shreds; but not a single hand really touched me, and as I . . . went up to the town in the midst of the throng, the crowd opened in front and closed in behind, evidently half frightened at my appearance (148-149).

Kingsley's first impression of the Fan, about which she writes frequently, changes markedly as she describes their traverse of the rain forest and as her own courage grows: 'The Fans were evidently quite at home in the forest, and strode on over fallen trees and rocks with an easy, graceful stride. What saves us weaklings was the Fans' appetites; every two hours they sat down, and had a snack of a pound or so of meat and agama apiece, followed by a pipe of tobacco (158).

Even among the native peoples, her sense of humour is evident. As she moved
ahead of the group during one of the Fan's snack breaks, she
saw in the bottom, wading and rolling in the mud, a herd of five elephants . . . I crept forward from one tree to another, until I was close enough to have hit the nearest one with a stone, and spats of mud, which they sent flying with their stamping and wallowing came flap, flap among the bushes covering me . . . when they had gone I rose up, turned round to find the men, and trod on Kiva's back [a Fan carrier who had been beside her watching the elephants] and fell sideways down the steep hillside until I fetched up among some roots . . . In spite of my determination to preserve an assumed and unmoved calm while among these dangerous savages, I had to give way and laugh explosively (158- 159).

Traveling with these cannibals, Kingsley notes the joys of personal discovery and communal sharing. For instance, after a snake drops from a nearby tree limb
[the Fan] stepped forward and with one blow flattened its head against the tree with his gun butt, and then folded the snake up and got as much of it as possible into his bag . . . We had the snake for supper, that is to say the Fan and I; the others would not touch it, although a good snake, properly cooked, is one of the best meats one gets out here (163 -165).

It is, however, Kingsley's humanity that repeatedly surfaces. Her ability to laugh, her white skin, and her attire (full Victorian skirts and long sleeved, high necked blouses), give her sufficient presence to deter any thoughts the Fan may have had of enjoying her for dessert: 'A certain sort of friendship soon arose between the Fans and me. We each recognised that we belonged to that same section of the human race with whom it's better to drink than to fight. We knew we would each have killed the other, if sufficient inducement were offered, and so we took a certain amount of care that the inducement should not arise (162-163).

Kingsley often defends the social practices of the Africans. Her rational rather than emotional approach to these tribes illustrates her practical point of view, and her equanimity can be seen in her description of the contents of bags sequestered inside a hut made available for her accommodation in one Fan village: 'Waking up again I noticed the smell in the hut was violent, from being shut up I suppose, and it had an unmistakably organic origin . . . I then shook its [a woven bag] 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. The hand was fresh, the others only so, and shrivelled. Replacing them I tied the bag up, and hung it up again. I subsequently learnt that although the Fans will eat their fellow friendly tribes folks, yet they like to keep a little something belonging to them as a memento (170).

In the last four chapters of Travels in West Africa, Kingsley chronicles her trek up Mt. Cameroon, which sits on the equator, surrounded the tropical rain forest's abysmal weather. During this climb, in frustration, she criticizes the Africans, who find themselves in unfamiliar weather and territory. They cannot lead in this territory.

Kingsley's ability and her stubborn courage prevail as she pushes the group towards the top of the mountain. It becomes obvious that reaching the mountaintop, a goal for her, does not reflect the aspirations of the Africans. One may wonder why it is so important to Kingsley that she reach the top. She is the first woman to do so, the only European woman in the 19th century. It is testament to her character and to her changing sense of self that she reaches the pinnacle where she undergoes an epiphany concerning her motivation for adventure (321-322).

The nursemaid of her dying mother becomes the intrepid explorer. Her frustrations with the weather and her African carriers do not stop her from reaching the top of this 4194-metre, storm-circled peak: 'Nevertheless, I feel quite sure that no white man has ever looked on the great Peak of the Cameroon without a desire arising in his mind to ascend it and know in detail the highest point on the western side of the continent, and indeed one of the highest points in all Africa (321-322).

Her trek is fraught with irony and courage. She writes on the first night of the week-long climb: 'all the mist-streams coalesce and make the atmosphere all their own, wrapping us round in a clammy, chill embrace; it is not that wool-blanket, smothering affair that we were wrapped in down by Buna, but exquisitely delicate. The difference it makes to the beauty of the forest is just the same difference you would get if you put a delicate veil over a pretty woman's face or a sack over her head (336).

On the second day, the calamity begins to manifest. They have no water. Sending a carrier to seek help, Kingsley allows the native carriers to wait in camp. She continues up the mountain (338). Her desire to reach the top takes precedence. In these threatening conditions, she is willing to admit to some level of consternation: 'After taking some careful compass bearings for future use . . . I turned my face to the wall of Mungo, and continued the ascent. The sun, which was blazing, was reflected back from the rocks in scorching rays. But it was more bearable now, because its heat was tempered by a bitter wind (340).

She discovers her leadership capabilities in the most harrowing circumstances:
'My boys are quite demoralized by the cold . . . I believe if I had collapsed
too–the cold tempted me to do so as nothing else can–they would have lain down and died in the cold sleety rain . . . The men stand helpless under the trees, and I hastily take the load of blankets . . . throwing one blanket round each man, and opening my umbrella and spreading it over the other blankets. Then I give them a tot of rum apiece, as they sit huddled in their blankets, and tear up a lot of the brittle, rotten wood from the trees and shrubs, getting horrid thorns into my hands the while and set to work getting a fire with it and the driest of the moss from beneath the rocks . . . the fire soon blazes (349).

Exhibiting the traits of Europe's staunchest explorers, she has taken the Africans up the mountain. Here, she rescues them from a situation for which she feels responsible:'the weather is undecided and so am I, for I feel doubtful about going on in this weather, but I do not like to give up the peak after going through so much for it. I settle in my mind to keep on, and ask for volunteers to come with me . . . Later in the day, It is evil going . . . we strike the face of the peak, and then commence a stiff rough climb. . . [when] we are about three parts of the way up Xenia gives in. The cold and the climbing are too much for him, so I make him wrap himself up in his blanket . . . and shelter in a depression under one of the many rock ridges . . . if the worst comes to the worst; and for myself -–well – that's my own affair, and no one will be a ha'porth the worse if I am dead in an hour (354).

She reaches the top 'after a desperate flight . . . to find a hurricane raging and a fog in full possession, and not a ten yards' view to be had in any direction' (355). As the first European woman to climb the second highest mountain in Africa, she takes responsibility for the safe retreat of her party. Yet, on her last day while descending the mountain, she expresses her doubts. 'And with feminine nervousness began to fear that the rotten water-logged earth we were on might give way, and engulf the whole of us, and we should never be seen again' (363).

It is clear when we look at the topics discussed most frequently by Kingsley that her experiences while in the company of native Africans give her a sense of autonomy. She appreciates the Africans with whom she travels and is willing to see the world through their eyes to the degree that any outsider can. Her reflections on the challenges to her character are vivid. If we look at the issue of primacy in her writing, it is clear that beauty, resiliency, and adventure fill Kingsley with a sense of being alive. She begins three-quarters of her chapters with a celebration of the people, rivers, weather, and colours of West Africa, a place where she feels comfortable. She may use language that suggests that she thinks she is less than her male European counterparts, but her description of her experiences and her resourceful accomplishments decry those words. She comes to appreciate not only Africa and Africans, but Mary Kingsley as well.

••••••••
Davidson, Robyn. Desert Places. Victoria, Australia: Penuin Books Australia Ltd, 1996.

Gwynn, Stephen. The Life of Mary Kingsley. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd, 1933.

Kingsley, Mary. Travels in West Africa. London: Macmillan, 1897.