Mary Kingsley would have been a very familiar name to anyone concerned with African matters, anthropology or natural history in the early twentieth century. Not technically a trowelblazer, she was however most definitely a trailblazer, being the first white person, in 1894, to paddle up the Ogowe river  (in what is now Gabon, West Africa) and cross the jungle to the Remboue river with the help of the local Fan people. Reputed at the time to be cannibals, according to her account of her travels, Mary thought they were wonderful.

It was on the Ogowe river that she had a run-in with a crocodile who tried to improve their acquaintance (her words).

I had to retire to the bows, to keep the balance right, and fetch him a clip on the snout with a paddle… It is no use saying because I was frightened, for this miserably understates the case.

On her return to England she wrote books about her time in West Africa (full of wonderful description and frequently very funny), lectured to scientists and the interested public about foreign policy towards these, as she demonstrated, varied cultures, and longed to go back. Describing her memories of travelling:

It sends up a vision of a wall of dancing white, rainbow-gemmed surf playing on a shore of yellow sand before an audience of stately coco palms… and you hear, nearer to you than the voices of the people round, nearer than the roar of the city traffic, the sound of the surf that is breaking on the shore down there… and everything around you grows thin and poor in the face of the vision…

She did go back to Africa, volunteering as a nurse in the Boer War. She died of typhoid fever while out there and was buried with full honours at sea.

Whilst an ardent colonialist in her time, and frequently expressing views that many now would find unacceptable, Mary’s achievements in exploration are still huge and worthy of celebration.

Written by @kimbiddulph

Sources: Kingsley, M 1897. Travels in West Africa. London, Macmillan & Co.

Reid, S, 2003. Groundbreakers: Mary Kingsley. Heinemann Library.

Edited and posted by Becky (@LeMoustier)

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