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.

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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“. 

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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.”

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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“.

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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.”

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Published in: on February 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm  Comments (56)  
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