In 1897 Mary Kingsley had completed her two momentous journeys to West Africa and spoke of the need for an African society that would bring together the disparate interests – academics, friends, political alliances and traders – she had ‘collected’ since her first visit to Africa in 1892. She envisaged the society as a place where men from all areas of commitment and interest could meet, exchange opinions and formulate alternatives to government policy, which she saw as harmful to traditional African custom and culture. It would also be a forum which would inspire serious ethnological study. Kingsley never organised a meeting; indeed the society would not be formed until a year after her death in 1900 at the age of 38. Granted a Royal Charter in 1968 it would later become known as The Royal African Society.
Mary Henrietta Kingsley was a contradictory character. Born in Highbury, London in 1862, only four days after her parents were married, she grew up as the emotional mainstay of her small family whilst from a young age fostering a deep desire for escape and exploration. Dr George Kingsley, Mary’s father, was the subject of both Mary’s anger and admiration. He was rarely in England but his books and passion for travel deeply influenced Mary. She devoured books in his library particularly those about ‘hostile savages’ and ‘exotic lands’ and took her inspiration from daring male travellers like de Brazza and Du Chaillu. She wrote of her childhood in her first book ‘Travels in West Africa’, “I had a great amusing world of my own other people did not know or care about – that was the books in my father’s library”.