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HomeArts/LeisureA Victorian Woman Goes to Africa, Deprived of Formal Education

A Victorian Woman Goes to Africa, Deprived of Formal Education

Clarksville, TN – Most people in our society when they hear the term “Victorian woman” imagine someone in a long dress having afternoon tea with her friends. They picture a woman with very strict manners who might faint at the slightest disturbance. Many men in Victorian times would not even let the women in their families read the newspaper!

That description would not fit Mary Kingsley, daughter and oldest child of doctor, traveler and writer George Kingsley and Mary Bailey. She was the niece of Charles Kingsley who most enduring work is The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby.

With her father away traveling most of the time, Mary was considered fit for dusting furniture and looking after her ailing mother and brother, Charles, (a year younger than she) when the occasions arose that their health was jeopardized. She was not considered a candidate for Cambridge where her brother was sent at a cost of two thousand pounds. Mary did have lessons with her brother until he went away to school. She learned German in order to assist her father with his “research” and somehow learned a bit of Latin as well.

I read about this intrepid woman in a book entitled A Victorian Lady in Africa by Valerie Grosvenor Myer; I bought it in a thrift shop. Ms. Myer describes how Mary found herself alone when her parents died within a few weeks of each other and her brother sailed for the Far East. She was 30 years old and had an annual income of five hundred pounds.

Mary Kingsley
Mary Kingsley

Born in 1862, Mary Kingsley had educated herself by reading books in her father’s library. Out of her pocket money, she bought one book, The English Mechanic, and became a “handy man.” This served her well when she left England for Africa in 1863. The only European women at that time who were ordinarily seen in Africa were wives of missionaries, farmers or government representatives. African women constantly asked Mary where her husband was and why she was alone.

Told on the ship going over almost every horror story imaginable by members of the crew and other passengers, Mary wrote that she believed 75 per cent of West African insects stung, five per cent bit and the rest were either permanently or temporarily parasitic on the human race. She vowed to leave them all alone.

Mary Kingsley, contrary to reports in England that she wore “trousers” (too unladylike for any Victorian lady to contemplate), insisted that she had never done so. One can only imagine her walking through the jungles, crossing swamps, and encountering muddy fields in a long black dress of the day. On the other hand, she did not support women’s suffrage.

Nothing seemed to stop her inquisitiveness. She would take walks alone for miles and encounter all types of wild animals and reptiles. She was the first woman to climb the 13,760 feet of Mount Cameroon. She explored parts of Africa where no European had been before and became acquainted with tribes (rumored to be cannibals with some substantiating evidence to that claim) that other African natives feared. During her second trip to Africa in 1894, one of her explorations in Gabon took her on the Ogooue River where she discovered fish species later named for her.

Meeting a Scottish missionary, Mary Slessor, Mary Kingsley became aware of the custom of some tribes who believed that twins were evidence that the mother had been impregnated by the devil; since no one knew which twin belonged to the devil, both were killed and sometimes the mother was killed as well. Mary Slessor made every effort to take in the mother and babies when possible.

A fascinating person who encountered hippos, elephants, crocodiles and had amusing stories about each, Mary Kingsley is little known in this country but her life story is readily accessible on the Internet. She died at age 38 in 1900 when she returned to Africa for the third time to nurse patients from the Boer War.

So what possible relevance could her activities have to those of people who live in middle Tennessee?

The mere fact that her life was incredibly shaped by the absence of formal education is a beacon to those in our area who have not had the opportunity to go to college, or to even finish high school. In the age of the Internet the amount of information available to anyone who is computer literate is staggering.

It is not unusual in Tennessee to know parents who still believe that women have no need for higher education—or even to feel that their sons would be just as well off without going to college. The fact that a college education means about one million dollars in the potential for salary in a lifetime doesn’t faze these people.

When we have a candidate for the Presidency, himself with three higher degrees, calling our current President “a snob” for wanting all children to have the possibility of a college education, it is not farfetched to believe that higher education is not something that everyone values.

Mary Kingsley was one of the women who was denied the opportunity to enrich her life through advanced formal study, but that did not keep her from becoming a scientist, an adventurer, and a woman who made a real difference in the world. (I have barely touched on her life and her achievements.)

If you find yourself in her position, don’t give up. Follow your dreams by teaching yourself as much as possible and by taking advantage of every opportunity you can.

After all, you probably aren’t going to be facing the challenges of walking through the jungle in a long black dress!

Audio Book

“Travels in West Africa” by Mary H. Kingsley

Her adventures were extraordinary and fascinating. Among other things she fought with crocodiles, fell into native spear traps and was caught in a tornado on the slopes of Mount Cameroon. She traveled in West Africa wearing the same clothes she always wore in England: long, black, trailing skirts, tight waists, high collars and a small fur cap. These same clothes saved her life when she fell into a game pit, the many petticoats protecting her from being impaled on the stakes below.

This is her story in her own words of her adventures and the people and culture of West Africa.


Sue Freeman Culverhouse
Sue Freeman Culverhousehttp://culverhouseart.com/
Author of Tennessee Literary Luminaries: From Cormac McCarthy to Robert Penn Warren (The History Press, 2013) Sue Freeman Culverhouse has been a freelance writer for the past 36 years. Beginning in 1976, she published magazines articles in Americana, Historic Preservation, American Horticulturist, Flower and Garden, The Albemarle Magazine, and many others. Sue is the winner of two Virginia Press Awards in writing. She moved to Springfield, Tennessee in 2003 with her sculptor husband, Bill a retired attorney. Sue has one daughter,  Susan Leigh Miller who teaches poetry and creative writing at Rutgers University. Sue teaches music and writing at Watauga Elementary School in Ridgetop, Tennessee to approximately 500 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. She also publishes a literary magazine each year; all work in the magazine is written and illustrated by the students. Sue writes "Uncommon Sense," a column in the Robertson County Times, which also appears on Clarksville Online. She is the author of "Seven keys to a sucessful life", which is  available on amazon.com and pubishamerica.com; this is a self-help book for all ages.
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