Mary Henrietta Kingsley

I think of myself as an intrepid traveler, but I’m no match for Mary Henrietta Kingsley.

Mary Henrietta Kingsley lived in a state of suffocating Victorian restriction, caring for her ailing parents like a dutiful daughter. And then both died suddenly. With that she went to Africa for no better reason than her father, an anthropologist, had never been there.

She decided to represent herself as a trader and laid in a supply of tobacco, fishhook sand other items. Once in the Congo she assembled an entourage from the cannibalistic Fort tribe to escort her as she marched and paddled north. When approaching a settlement, dressed in her trekking clothes of long, black English skirt, high-necked blouse, cummerbund and closely fitted hat, she’d emerge from the bush calling out reassuringly “It’s only me!”

She returned to England with crates of specimens and enough anthropological knowledge to address the London Society of Medicine for Women” “Therapeutics from the point of view of an African witch doctor.” The next year she was back again surrounded by cannibals and. paddling through the mangrove swamps. “On one occasion,” she wrote, “a crocodile chose to get his front paws over the stem of my canoe and endeavored to improve our acquaintance. I had to fetch him a good clip on the snout with my paddle.”

Remnants of cannibalism, failed to daunt her –  “The hand was fresh, the others only so-so.” In fact,  she recruited her entourage from the Fans, a tribe, as she wrote,” were known to eat human flesh, not merely on special occasions but rather often.”

Over nighting in a filthy Fan hut, she reported, “Never have I seen even in a picture book such a set of wild looking savages as those that night.”  She asked for a cup of tea, and then gave one of her blouses to a naked Fan who wore “nothing else but red paint and a bunch of leopard tails.”

One afternoon, while marching through the jungle, she dropped into a game pit, the bottom of which had been furnished with sharpened stakes. “It is at these times,” she observed.”you realize the blessing of a good thick skirt.” Hoisted out of the pit, she continued along.. Suddenly one of her entourage dropped from view with a despairing shock. Hoisted up his wounds had to be bandaged with green leaves “for he,not having a skirt,” she wrote, “had got a good deal frayed at the edges.”

There was an encounter with a hippopotamus that she persuaded to leave by poking it with her umbrella and with a leopard she released from a trap because it was beating itself to death against the bars. Freed, it staggered around in bewilderment until she stamped her foot and shouted “Now shooo!

I can confidently say, ” she wrote, “that I am not afraid of any wild animal. Until I see it – and then – well,  I will yield to nobody in terror.

She sailed down the Rembwe River in a canoe with a sail made from an old bed quilt; stopped in the Cameroons to climb West Africa’s highest peak, by its most difficult side. To do so there were rivers to ford, mud and flies and thorns. With mud-caked skirts, scratched and bitten until her face and hands were bloody, she approached a trading station operated by a German, who was appalled by what came marching out of the brush – undoubtedly yoo-hooing, “ It’s only me.”  He offered her a bath, which she declined. For how could she be expected to bathe in a house with inadequate shutters? “Men!” she lamented, “They can be so trying!”