The Congo and the Cameroons – Penguin Great Journeys

The Congo and the Cameroons contains excerpts from Mary Kingsley’s memoir Travels in West Africa, published in 1897.  The first two sections cover some observations and anecdotes about West African flora and fauna, while the last two-thirds of the book follow Mary’s climbing of Mount Cameroon.

Normand Roy [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary – like her fellow solo traveler Isabella Bird – was a tough cookie.  She was only about 33 years old when she decided to become “the third Englishman to ascend the Peak [of Mount Cameroon] and the first to have ascended it from the southeast face” (p. 33–34).  With her trusty umbrella, some German camping gear, and a small group of native assistants, she set off into the jungle.  Surviving rain, mud, tornadoes, and a range of minor accidents, Mary was determined nothing, even her own moments of discouragement, would keep her from achieving her mission.

Apart from bravely facing the elements and all kinds of creepy-crawlies, Mary was also quite a character.  She writes much in the style of a male British officer of the day, referring to her assistants as “the men” or “my boys.”  Natives and Germans alike feature heavily in her jokes, so it is hard to tell whether she was racially prejudiced, misandrist, or simply impatient with anyone less committed to her goal than herself.  Either way, I really didn’t care for her sense of humor.

While I may not read the full memoir, I’ll probably seek out a biography on Mary Kingsley, because it sounds like she had a very interesting life.  (I was particularly interested to learn on Wikipedia that she met Mary Slessor, a missionary whose story fascinated me as a child.)  Sadly, she died when she was only 37, serving as a volunteer nurse in the Second Boer War.  I can imagine how many more adventures she would have gone on had she lived a longer life, but it’s amazing what she accomplished in the years she had.


  1. mudpuddle Avatar

    wow. never heard of Mary K or her expedition… but it does sound fascinating; i'll look around and see if i can find anything by her… many tx..


  2. mudpuddle Avatar

    travels in west africa, from abebooks $4.09 can't wait there's another work there the hippo's bath i think it was, more about her travels elsewhere…


  3. Marian H Avatar
    Marian H

    Good deal… looking forward to your thoughts on it!!


  4. Carol Avatar

    Sounds like an interesting woman. Have you heard of Beryl Markham? She was an adventurer & pilot who wrote 'West With the Night,' – memoirs of her experiences of growing up in Kenya. I haven't read it yet but it's on our bookclub list for this year. Your post reminded me of it.


  5. Anchors To Windward Avatar
    Anchors To Windward

    Hi again Marian,This sounds very interesting, even to a man! I particularly like memoirs in this style, especially expeditions. It sounds sort of reminiscent of Churchill's memoirs while he was in British India and the Sudan – and I liked those very much. I hope you won't mind, but I added you to my blogroll. Kindest thoughts.


  6. Marian H Avatar
    Marian H

    No I hadn't… looking her up now!


  7. Marian H Avatar
    Marian H

    Yeah, there's something really enjoyable about adventure books from this period. I think the explorers, for all their faults, had an infectious enthusiasm that made for a unique moment in history.And re: blog-roll, I don't mind at all! I actually have a separate program for my own blog roll (because I follow so many!), but I'm very grateful when people include my blog on theirs…it helps spread the word. 🙂


  8. February Reading – Classics Considered Avatar
    February Reading – Classics Considered

    […] this book, only English women were noted for solo travel. I’m reminded of Isabella Bird and Mary Kingsley…. A naive interpretation might be that the British Empire enabled these women to feel […]


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