starlady: "I can hear the sound of empires falling." (burning empires)
[personal profile] starlady
Kingsley, Mary. The Congo and the Cameroons. London: Penguin Books, 2007. [1897]

I first heard of Mary Kingsley in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, where she is singled out as one of the rare Victorian travelers to West Africa whose accounts were not completely racist. When I saw this extract from her 1897 book Travels in West Africa (this extract being part of Penguin Books' Great Journeys series - one of the many awesome Penguin editions we don't get in the States) at Half-Price Books for $2, I pounced.

The book has an extract on the Niger delta and another on the forests of the French Congo, but the meat of the book is the story of Kingsley's ascent of the southwest face of the Great Mount of the Cameroons, becoming the first Englishman (as she says) to reach the summit from that side, in 1893. I was surprised by how much I liked Kingsley - she is funny, self-aware, witty, and has a real gift for the pungent or poetic description, and was also clearly tough as nails. As a good chunk of the book is descriptions of the land and its flora and fauna, her gift for writing matters a lot. She was, one feels, someone one would have loved to have a drink with.

Travel writing always flirts with exoticization, though one suspects that given her audiences in Victorian England, Kingsley didn't need to do much more than tell her story as she saw it. For me one of the most interesting parts of the book was Kingsley's account of her encounter with an Alsatian engineer building a road in the Cameroons who had recently absconded from his post in the Congo Free State - this having been 1892/93, it's only about a year after Joseph Conrad's experience there which he later immortalized in Heart of Darkness. There's no hint in the extracts here of the mass atrocities that Conrad saw and documented in that book, though it was interesting to note that even white men weren't taken very good care of by Leopold's regime.

Although Kingsley's respect for African societies does show through, given that her porters are understandably skeptical of climbing a 13,000 foot mountain in tornado season, a good deal of the account is given over to her tribulations in getting all of them and herself up and down the mountain in one piece, which shows no one to their best advantage - if she isn't outright racist (and she mostly isn't; at one point she specifically disclaims the stereotype of the lazy African, and the Times refused to review her books for their anti-missionary stance), she certainly is patronizing, though it's also clear that she had a will of iron and the determination and ingenuity to match. Most people would probably seem incompetent to her, I'd imagine.