Primary Source

British Empire: Travel Narrative, Mary Kingsley


Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) is one of the best known British women to have visited West Africa during the period historians call the Age of New Imperialism. Her early life gave no indication of her future renown. She spent the early part of her life confined to her home taking care of an invalid father. In possession of a small income following the death of her parents, she made two trips to Africa, one in 1893, and then another two years later. While in West Africa, she stayed with missionaries whose work she admired. She also traveled up rivers in a canoe collecting fish specimens for the British Museum and making ethnological observations on the people she met. On her return to Britain, she found people were fascinated by her experiences. She published a book Travels in West Africa (1897), and became a very popular speaker on the lecture circuit, talking about her experiences in Africa. She died of typhoid during the South African War (1899-1902), having traveled to Africa to nurse British soldiers. Despite the fact that she made choices in her own life that challenged the accepted gender norms for middle-class Victorian women, she was not in favor of giving women the vote. She argued that women were not well educated and well informed enough to vote responsibly. This excerpt from a lecture Kingsley gave highlights her attitude to Africa and Africans. Imagine if you were in the audience what you might understand about racial difference and the importance of the role of the British Empire in Africa. This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.


“Regarding the climate of West Africa, I have no hesitation in saying that it is a very deadly one for Europeans. This may seem a mere truism, but every now and again a dangerous nuisance of a person arises in England who says it is not so, leastways that it is no worse than India, and that men who did there have mainly got themselves to blame. People who say these things ought to go to West Africa and be buried there. I don’t mind whether it is in a cemetery or in a swamp, but somewhere, because these foolish statements not only cost men who believe in them their lives, but detract from the hard-earned sympathy and honour due to the soldier, missionary, trade ad government official who work for faith and country in West African regions . . .Next we will take the native as a hindrance to improvement. In my opinion he is the greatest hindrance of all. I hardly dare express this opinion, for fear of being gone for by some of his more enthusiastic admirers; but as I am known to be an admirer of him myself, I will say it and take the consequences, for it seems to me that if the monogenity of the human race is granted, and had the African been that way disposed, there was nothing to have prevented his forming a great powerful culture state of his own before white aid or hindrance came. He flourishes in his climate; physically taken as a whole he is splendid; his country is fertile, rich in minerals from gold to coal, and well watered by a set of rivers which, also taken as a whole, you cannot surpass in the whole world. Mind, I do not say that it might have been expected he would turn out a European in form or civilization, because we will allow his climate is too warm; but if it had been in him, there is no outside hindrance that would have prevented him rising to the level in culture of the Asiatic, as the little boys would say, all out of his own head.”


“Life in West Africa” in British Empire Series II. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Truber and Co., 1899.

How to Cite This Source

"British Empire: Travel Narrative, Mary Kingsley," in World History Commons, [accessed December 7, 2023]