Ah me! Give me a West African river and a canoe for sheer good pleasure.
Have you met Mary Kingsley? Usually I would ask if you had read her, but to read her books is to meet her. Travels in West Africa is the delightful account of her travels through the bush of equatorial West Africa in 1894 and '95.
The only child of a union between a Victorian gentleman and his cook, Mary Kingsley was born four days after her parents' wedding in 1862. She endured a lonesome adolescence, caring for her neurasthenic mother and reading the books in her father's study when he traveled away from home.
The great age of African exploration produced a wealth of printed matter ? newspapers, journals, and books ? that detailed the travels of Stanley, Livingstone, Burton, Speke, and du Chaillu. Mary read them all, and would grow up to become a better writer than most of them.
Mary read Richard Burton's Two Trips to Gorilla Land repeatedly. We have a copy of the 1876 London printing, complete with map. Mary must have looked at that map hundreds of times. When her parents died and she was freed from the doleful duties of a Victorian daughter, she went to West Africa, to the coast known as the "White Man's Grave."
Note the area on Burton's map just above the words "Gorilla Country." It reads "Fan (Cannibals)." That's where Mary went exploring.
"The West Coast of Africa is like the Arctic regions in one particular, and that is that when you have once visited it you want to go back there again," Mary writes in the opening to Travels in West Africa. "There is another particular in which it is like them, and that is the chances you have of returning from it at all are small, for it is a Belle Dame sans merci."
Mary Kingsley wasn't just a brave Victorian lady who ventured to Africa two times to live to tell of it (the third time would kill her); she was also an ichthyologist and ethnologist. On her travels on the rivers of the French Congo she collected specimens of freshwater fish for the British Museum, and studied "Fetish," i.e. the "African form of thought." Missionaries went into the bush to find and convert the natives, but Mary went to collect fish and find peoples not yet influenced by the missionaries. She took trade goods with her, too, and bartered for fetish items.
The instances for which Mary is best known ? the fall into the game pit filled with spikes, and the time she clubbed a crocodile on the head as it tried to climb into her canoe ? are told with humor and a sweet sense of "next time I'll know better." Of the fall into the pit, she writes:
It is at these times that you realize the blessing of a good thick skirt.
Mary Kingsley returned to Africa a third time to nurse prisoners of the Boer war. She died of fever in South Africa on June 3, 1900. We have never had her books Travels in West Africa or West African Studies in first edition, but I hope to see them someday. Handling them will be like greeting an old friend.
Note: Katherine Frank's A Voyager Out is a very good biography of Mary Kingsley, and Richard Bausch brings her into a fictional world in Hello to the Cannibals.