Monday, September 3, 2012

Travels in West Africa

Book: Travels in West Africa by Mary H. Kingsley

Country: Guinea

Description: Unique perspective: Until 1893, Mary Kingsley led a secluded life in Victorian England. At age 30 however, Kingsley defied convention and arranged a trip to west Africa to collect botanical samples for a book left unfinished by her father. Such a daring adventure was unheard of for women at the time. Kingsley traveled through western and equatorial Africa and became the first European to enter parts of Gabon. Her story--as an explorer and as a woman--offers an enduring tale of adventure. Adventure writer and historian Tony Brandt sets Kingsley's Africa against the history of other European explorations of the continent and details her contributions not only to literature, but science as she collected more than 400 samples--some now extinct--of plants and insects. Handsome editions, competitively priced: Gathered together for the first time in inexpensive, accessible editions, Adventure Press Classics offer readers the opportunity to build a comprehensive library of the most adrenaline-packed tales of adventure ever written. She was the first Englishwoman and the "third Englishman," as she put it, to climb the great peak of the Cameroons. She traveled with native guides but otherwise without a man along into some of West Africa's most dangerous jungles, up its most dangerous rivers. She fought off crocodiles with a paddle, hit a leopard over the head with a pot, fell into an animal trap lined at the bottom with sharpened sticks, waded through swamps in water chin deep. Then she wrote this book, which describes her adventures in detail, as well as her discoveries as a naturalist and her observations of the Africans and their customs. She writes a brisk engaging prose and she is clearly dauntless. The book was no. 18 on the Adventure list of the 100 best adventure books. It's a wonderful read. (from

Country: Guinea

Time: Set in 1893

My Review: 

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the humor--very dry and British, and exactly how I like it. Here are a few examples: 
When you spend the day on shore and when, having exhausted the charms of the town, - a thing that usually takes from between ten minutes to a quarter of an hour, - you apply to an inhabitant for advice as to the disposal of the rest of your shore leave, you are told to “go and see the coals.”  You say you have not come to tropical islands to see a coal heap, and applying elsewhere for advice you probably get the same.  So, as you were told to “go and see the coals” when you left your ship, you do as you are bid.  These coals, the remnant of the store that was kept here for the English men-of-war, were left here when the naval station was removed.  The Spaniards at first thought of using them, and ran a tram-way from Clarence to them.  But when the tramway was finished, their activity had run out too, and to this day there the coals remain.  Now and again some one has the idea that they are quite good, and can be used for a steamer, and some people who have tried them say they are all right, and others say they are all wrong.  And so the end of it will be that some few thousand years hence there will be a serious quarrel among geologists on the strange pocket of coal on Fernando Po, and they will run up continents, and raise and lower oceans to explain them, and they will doubtless get more excitement and pleasure out of them than you can nowadays. (chapter II) 
All West African steamers have a mania for bush, and the delusion that they are required to climb trees.  The Fallaba had the complaint severely, because of her defective steering powers, and the temptation the magnificent forest, and the rapid currents, and the sharp turns of the creek district, offered her; she failed, of course - they all fail - but it is not for want of practice.  I have seen many West Coast vessels up trees, but never more than fifteen feet or so. (Chapter IV)
The one problem I had with the humor was that sometimes it was aimed at the Africans and often (but not always) came off as critical and snobbish.

The other aspect of this book that I really enjoyed were the descriptions of Africa--the various tribes and their cultures, the white society there, the traveling, and most especially the African landscape: 
The beauty of the night on Kondo Kondo was superb; the sun went down and the afterglow flashed across the sky in crimson, purple, and gold, leaving it a deep violet-purple, with the great stars hanging in it like moons, until the moon herself arose, lighting the sky long before she sent her beams down on us in this valley.  As she rose, the mountains hiding her face grew harder and harder in outline, and deeper and deeper black, while those opposite were just enough illumined to let one see the wefts and floating veils of blue-white mist upon them, and when at last, and for a short time only, she shone full down on the savage foam of the Alemba, she turned it into a soft silver mist.  Around, on all sides, flickered the fire-flies, who had come to see if our fire was not a big relation of their own, and they were the sole representatives, with ourselves, of animal life.  When the moon had gone, the sky, still lit by the stars, seeming indeed to be in itself lambent, was very lovely, but it shared none of its light with us, and we sat round our fire surrounded by an utter darkness.  Cold, clammy drifts of almost tangible mist encircled (Chapter V).  

I decided to read this book because heard that Kingsley one of the few travelers of the time who respectived African culture, and I largely found this to be true. She respected not only African culture, but also Africans themselves: "I confess I like the African on the whole, a thing I never expected to do when I went to the Coast with the idea that he was a degraded, savage, cruel brute; but that is a trifling error you soon get rid of when you know him" (Chapter XXI). Kingsley acknowledged that African culture was different than European culture, and that customs that worked in Europe might or would not work in the competeley different culture (and climate) of Africa (not even beginning to think about each unique tribe). She therefore blamed the missionary schools for a lot of the problems in West Africa (present-day Guinea) because they unsuccessfully tried to tranplant Africans into a European way of thinking and really just confused/ruiend them (morally, I mean--they were often very successful traders). At the same time, though, Kingsley out and out says that she thinks African culture is inferior to European culture and that Africans are incapable of reaching the "heights" of European culture. I don't agree (although it's not true that European culture is "best"--we have plenty of our own problems--and so there's no reason for Africans to be forced to Europeanize), but I think it shows how illogical we can all be at times. In many ways this book was extremely honestly written, and it reveals a lot about Kingsley's thought processes and biases. 

Kingsley's ideas on gender also complex. Kingsley was a white woman, alone, journeying through dangerous country, searching for scientific specimens--not exactly traditional. She makes several comments about the cluelessness of men, she seems to almost relish her freedom from a husband: "as for the husband, neither the Royal Geographical Society’s list, in their ‘Hints to Travellers,’ nor Messrs. Silver, in their elaborate lists of articles necessary for a traveller in tropical climates, make mention of husbands" (Chapter V). At the same time, though, she could be very traditional: she wore a skirt for the whole journey, and even says once that men are superior to women.

Be warned, however, that parts of the book could be boring, such as Kingsley's recommendations on creating a trade empire in British Africa.

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