Dressed in a prim, dark dress, Mary Kingsley appeared to be a proper Englishwoman of the Victorian Era. But she was also one of its greatest and bravest explorers.
Born in 1862, Kingsley spent her youth in seclusion, rarely leaving her home. When she was 29, both her mother and father died within months of each other, and her brother left to travel east.
Devastated, she took a holiday in the Canary Islands, where she heard colorful stories about Africa from sea captains and traders. Her imagination ignited, she visited the ports of West Africa in 1893, delighting in the exotic markets and people.
In December 1894, Kingsley returned to Africa, this time determined to explore parts of the continent and send samples of fish and beetles back to the British Museum for study.
Kingsley did not act like most previous European visitors. While the male explorers relied on guns and surrounded themselves with armed escorts, Kingsley used her self-confidence and a shrewd ability to trade.
On July 22, 1895, Kingsley entered the territory of Gabon in the French Congo and traveled up the Ogooue River. Kingsley knew the region was inhabited by the Fang, a tribe rumored to be cannibals, but she forged ahead, paddling with guides and stopping at villages to trade.
After seven days and 70 miles, her voyage ended. She had safely negotiated with tribes that routinely. killed and ate prisoners. When she returned to England she published an account, Travels in West Africa.
The book was an immediate success, but her harsh condemnation of European exploitation in Africa brought severe criticism. “What we do in Africa today,” she wrote, “a thousand years hence there will be Africans to thrive or suffer for it.”