Great Species Seekers: The Amazing Mary Kingsley
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 8, 2011
Late one afternoon in 1895, that rare animal, a female species seeker, was hiking alone through a forest in the interior of Gabon. It was treacherous country. Her guides had pointed out the shredded bark of trees along the forest trail, meaning leopards in the neighborhood. The human inhabitants were also fearsome, said to be cannibals.
But Mary Kingsley was in equal parts self-assured and self-deprecating, an attractive unmarried woman in her 30s with an independent income, roaming footloose over “the white man’s grave.” Where male explorers often resorted to the chest-thumping language of conquest, she relied instead on her understated wit. She was also unmistakably intrepid.
This time, though, going ahead on her own proved foolish. It was five p.m., and the path through the woods grew indistinct–she could just pick it out. But then she came to a place where it vanished completely. She peered ahead, and thought she saw it resume again on the other side of a clump of brush. So she pushed on—and plunged to the bottom of a 15-foot-deep pit lined with sharpened spikes.
“It is at times like these that you realise the blessing of a good skirt,” Kingsley wrote. “Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England, who ought to have known better … and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone, and done for. Whereas, save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fulness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out. “
Like other naturalists, Kingsley wanted to find new species, and in 1896, she eagerly reported the “verdict” on the haul from her second expedition to West Africa: “one absolutely new fish” and one equally new snake, among other treasures. Kingsley was relieved, “for I was beginning to fear I was an utter wind bag.”
You can read more about Mary Kingsley in Richard Conniff’s new book The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, praised by New Scientist as “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes.”