the pursuit of fish and fetish

Mary Kingsley (1862 – 1900) was an English writer and explorer. She was the daughter  of doctor, traveller and writer George Kingsley and the niece of novelists Charles Kingsley and Henry Kingsley.

image found here

Dr. Kingsley died in February 1892 and Mrs. Kingsley followed a few months later. Freed from family responsibilities and with a small inheritance, Mary was able to travel as she had always dreamed, her reason for going being “the pursuit of fish and fetish“. 

image found here

As Kingsley set off on her first trip to Africa she was referred to a new “French book of phrases in common use in Dahomey.” The opening sentence of the book was “Help, I am drowning.”, followed by “Get up, you lazy scamps!” This was shortly followed by the question “Why has not this man been buried?” and its expected answer “It is fetish that has killed him, and he must lie here exposed with nothing on him until only the bones remain.”

image found here

Mary landed in Sierra Leone on 17 August 1893 and pressed on into Angola . She lived with local people who taught her necessary skills for surviving in the African jungles, and often went into dangerous areas alone. She longed to study ‘cannibal’ peoples and their traditional religious practices, commonly referred to as fetishes during the Victorian Era. 

While in Gabon, Mary Kingsley travelled by canoe up the Ogooué River where she collected specimens of previously unknown fish, three of which were later named after her. After meeting the Fang people and travelling through uncharted Fang territory, she climbed 13,760 ft Mount Cameroon by a route not previously attempted by any other European. Her adventures also included a crocodile attacking her canoe and being caught in a tornado.

more tornado images here

Once when staying in a Fang hut, a violent smell alerted her to a bag suspended from the roof. Emptying the contents into her hat, she found a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears and other portions of the human frame. She showed no squeamishness, saying “I learnt that the Fang will eat their fellow friendly tribesfolk, yet they like to keep a little something belonging to them as a memento.”

you can purchase this cannibal hat here

She travelled in West Africa wearing the same clothes that she habitually wore in England: long, black, trailing skirts, tight waists, high collars, and a small fur cap. These same clothes saved her life when she fell into a game pit, the many petticoats protecting her from being impaled on the stakes below. Later that same day, returning to her moored canoe, she found a hippopotamus standing over it and “scratched him behind the ear with my umbrella until we parted on good terms.”

mouth of a hippo found here

When she returned home in November 1895 Kingsley was greeted by journalists who were eager to interview her. Reports in the papers portrayed her as a “New Woman”, an image which she did not embrace. She distanced herself from any feminist movement claims, arguing that she had never worn trousers during her expedition.

Women in trousers found here

Mary Kingsley upset the Church of England when she criticised missionaries for attempting to change the people of Africa. She defended aspects of African life that had shocked many English people, including polygamy. For example explaining the “seething mass of infamy, degradation and destruction going on among the Coast native… as the natural consequence of the breaking down of an ordered polygamy into a disordered monogamy“.

image found here

Here she describes the process of bartering with natives with a certain sense of humour. “All my trader stuff was by now exhausted, and I had to start selling my own belongings, and for the first time in my life I felt the want of a big outfit. My own clothes I certainly did insist on having more for, pointing out that they were rare and curious. A dozen white ladies’ blouses sold well. I cannot say they looked well when worn by a brawny warrior in conjunction with nothing else but red paint and a bunch of leopard tails, particularly when the warrior failed to tie the strings at the back. But I did not hint at this, and I quite realize that a pair of stockings can be made to go further than we make them by using one at a time and putting the top part over the head and letting the rest of the garment float on the breeze.”

image found here

Published in: on February 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm  Comments (56)  
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  1. Mary Kingsley had the right idea. My many petticoats have protected me from impaling on several occasions. They’re also lovely and warm on a frosty winter’s day.

    • I need a petticoat or two. Or three.

      • Do they sell those at Petticoat Junction? Is that joke lost on anyone not from the US?

      • I used to watch that show when I was a kid. Betty Jo, Bobbi Jo, Billie Jo…..

  2. she was only 38 when she died? probably had nothing to do with the cannibals. more likely, civilization got to her…

    • 38 seems impossibly young from where I’m standing.

      • Me too!!!!

  3. What a journey! What a woman!
    The full honour funeral at sea was highly deserved!

    • Yes, I so admire her courage.

      • Her stance towards “the savage” was an exception I think. I wonder what she thought of the “Völkerschau(en)”, the “anthropological-zoological exhibitions”.

        btw: I find this doll hat pretty disturbing.

  4. I loved this post! And I sort of feel the same way about stockings, they last so much longer if you just don’t wear them at all! But using them as a hat, now that is a novel idea. Very enjoyable read.

    • I love stockings. but I normally only wear them on my legs.

  5. What a cool life (albeit sort of short)! I particularly like her description of the warrior wearing her white blouse. It was the first Steve McQueen collection.

    • Or Alexander McQueen? 🙂

  6. Brave lady. She lived life on her own terms.

    • She had to wait for her parents to die, but she made up for lost time

  7. I love the idea of a warrior flaunting a stocking on his head. I wonder if it made him a bigger catch?

  8. I love that tornado picture.

    I’m pretty sure that if I ever put a random assortment of human body parts into my hat for any reason, I’d never wear that hat again.

  9. When I started this post I thought wow, she died so young. After learning how she spent her time, I’ve changed my perspective on that. Fun read!

    • i thought the same

  10. Reblogged this on Milenanik3's Blog and commented:
    what a woman can do…amazing

  11. Another feisty gal! Hooray! Hooray! 🙂

    • we like feisty girls at the Gimcrack

  12. Is Princess Anne sporting a camel toe?

  13. Not my idea of a good time – nor of the ideal hosts…

  14. SHe may have died young but she had quite a life!

  15. There are three fish named after her? That’s damned confusing. Do they all come if you call out their names?

    • haha…. most amusing

  16. Really, guy? No Tartar Sauce?

    • Not even a lemon wedge.

  17. Fish and fetish? I think it would be more fun to study things that rhyme rather than things that are merely alliterative.

    An expedition based on research into bees and cheese, or perhaps peas and fleas or how about monkeys and junkies…damn, this’ll keep me awake tonight.

    • raccoons and platoons, llamas and farmers, rabbits and habits…

  18. 38? I guess cannibalism is high in colesteral…

  19. Nothing like a seething mass of infamy.

  20. She has all those dangerous adventures, and then dies young in England?

    • Typhoid got her in the end. I doubt she contracted it in merry old England

  21. “Help, I am drowning.” – “Get up you lazy scamps”

    Where can I get a copy of that book? 😆

    • Stand in line duncan

  22. I’m sort of not shocked that a tribe called Fang would eat their fellow friendly tribesfolk.

    • What would it take to shock you Ms. J?

  23. A lot of outgoing women being discussed lately. My life really feels boring, I need to get out and do more things.

  24. I am going to devote my life henceforward to campaigning for free dentistry for hippopotamuses – if they are all like the one pictured here, they are in dire need.

  25. What is it with the British and their seemingly unquenchable thirst for dangerous, exotic travel? They’re like no other race of people! All of Graham Greene’s oeuvre is rooted in travel. I find it admirable. It’s yet another reason why I was born in the wrong country.

    • Hey UB, have you read Travels Without My Aunt? It’s by a woman who goes to the countries that GG visited. I borrowed it from the library years ago and just found a copy for myself last week at a garage sale.

      • I’ve never heard of it but I’m on my way over to Amazon right now.

  26. A friendly Hippo likes a scratch, an unfriendly hippo likes a dwarf, or so you might think…

    The King

    • amazing how those stories get reprinted as fact isn’t it?

  27. Brave lady and I like her sense of humour.

  28. I like the idea that the book opens with “Help, I’m drowning”

  29. …hey gal, do you have the most unusual pictures ever.

  30. my, my, my, i can relate. i can’t tell you how many times i’ve come back to my vehicle to find a hippo standing over it. Ohio is like that.

  31. Phwoooaaaarrrrr!

    I’d give Her Royal Highness Princess Anne one in those Jodphu…Jhod… Johdp…Troosers.

  32. […] the pursuit of fish and fetish « gimcrack hospital (PG) […]

  33. hate fish love fetish lol very good read xxjen

  34. Keeping my umbrella handy should I encounter a hippo. Nurse, this was a favorite post.

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