The last time I read a travelogue by an intrepid Victorian lady explorer, I had mixed feelings about it. Amelia B. Edwards’s A Thousand Miles Up the Nile was a fascinating look at 19th-century Egypt and what it was like to travel there, but her deeply-ingrained racism made some parts of it difficult to swallow. I therefore approached Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa with some apprehension. What would she have to say about a part of the world that so many people at the time regarded as brutal, savage, and irredeemably uncivilized?
I am happy to report that this book was an absolute joy to read from beginning to end. It’s not that Kingsley is not a product of her time — she absolutely is, and that’s to be expected — but she makes a serious effort to understand the indigenous Africans for who they are, as intelligent human beings with a history, a religion, a trade, and a way of life that belongs to them innately. She has strong reservations about missionaries who erase African culture and give nothing in return; she spends real time living with several different African tribes and learning about their lives, and learning to differentiate between tribal beliefs. She reserves her opinion on polygamy, as well as other aspects of African life that horrify her peers. She enjoys their company as individual people, rather than blurring them into one large group of “Africans” and dismissing them as savage. This makes the book specific, interesting, and personal.
Even better, the style is a complete and utter hoot. Travels in West Africa is written like a ripping yarn, a bit as if Jerome K. Jerome had been in on the deal. Mary Kingsley was obviously unstoppable, courageous, hard-headed, intrepid, intelligent, and scientific. she strode about the west coast of Africa, from mountains to thick forests to canoes to oceangoing vessels to mudslides, in Victorian ladylike attire — long skirts, petticoats, high collars. The narrative is self-deprecating, sprightly, and often extremely funny. I noted far too many places to quote, but here are a few:
This stinking, stoneless slime is honey-combed with crab holes, and the owners of these — green, blue, red, and black — are walking about on the tips of their toes sideways, with that comic pomp peculiar to the crab family. I expected only to have to sit in the boat and say “Horrible” at intervals, but no such thing; my companion, selecting a peculiarly awful-looking spot, says he “thinks that will do,” steers the boat up to it, and jumps out with a squidge into the black slime. For one awful moment I thought it was suicide, and that before I could even get the address of his relations to break the news to them there would be nothing but a Panama hat lying on the slime before me. But he only sinks in a matter of a foot or so, and then starts off, to my horror, calling the boys after him, to hunt crabs for me.
Now polygamy is, like most other subjects, a difficult thing to form an opinion on, if, before forming that opinion, you go and make a study of the facts and bearings of the case. It is therefore advisable to follow the usual method employed by the majority of people. Just take a prejudice of your own, and fix it up with the so-called opinions of people who go in for that sort of prejudice too. This method is absolutely essential to the forming of an opinion on the subject of polygamy among African tribes, that will be acceptable among enlightened circles.
Next to an English picnic, the most uncomfortable thing I know is an open-air worship service in this part of Africa.
[Upon fleeing from a group of large crocodiles] My vigorous and lively conscience reminds me that the last words a most distinguished and valued scientific friend had said to me before I left home was, “Always take measurements, Miss Kingsley, and always take them from the adult male.” I know I have neglected opportunities of carrying this commission out on both those banks, but I do not feel like going back. Besides, the men would not like it, and I have mislaid my yard measure.
I could go on and on, quoting this wonderfully lively book. There were so many delightful things about it. It is part travelogue, part ichthyology (Miss Kingsley was there to collect and study fish), part ethnology, part geography, part history. One thing I found particularly interesting was nearly a whole chapter devoted to the treatment of twins in West Africa, especially among the Yoruba and Igbo. This, of course, was fascinating because of Helen Oyeyemi’s books: both The Icarus Girl and White is for Witching draw on Nigerian beliefs about twins.
I am always looking for good books about exploration and travel. One of the great pleasures in life is to sit in my comfortable home and read about other people’s hardships. If you feel the same way, I absolutely recommend Miss Kingsley’s travels to you, especially if it’s cold where you are right now. This book should warm you right up.