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.

Mont-Cameroun
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.