Travelling enables us to explore new places. We see unfamiliar landscapes, encounter new people and their cultures. At the same time, perhaps sometimes subconsciously, we bring our own imaginations of environments along with us which help us to deal with alienation and give us comfort – ultimately, one’s individual understanding of the natural world, shaped by numerous factors, is reflected in the various ways of re-telling it. Thus, this contribution seeks to unravel some of the descriptions and imaginations of forest ecologies from the challenging, yet worthwhile first-person narrative perspective in Mary Kingsley’s travel writing account Travels in West Africa (1897).
Mary Kingsley was a pioneering woman: despite the strict corset of the British Empire, she travelled on her own through parts of West Africa, now Ghana, in the late 19th century to expand the anthropological knowledge of this area. Her account features numerous observations and descriptions about the forests she encounters. For instance, about the first impressions of the arrival at Sierra Leone she writes that there are “[l]ow hills covered with tropical forest growth rise from the sandy shores of the Cape” (Kingsley 11) which illustrates the diverse landscape of the West African coast. Later she notes that Cape Coast Castle, a building particularly known for the transatlantic slave trade, “is surrounded by low, heavily-forested hills, which arise almost from the seashore” (Kingsley 16) – this again highlights the diversity and contrasting characteristics of the landscape. About the volcanic island Fernando Po, today known as Bioko, Kingsley writes that “[t]he while island is […] heavily forested to its peak, with a grand and varied type of forest, very rich in oil palms and tree-ferns” (31). Moreover, she points out that “[s]ugar-cane also grows wild here, an uncommon thing in West Africa” (Kingsley 31).
The reader is presented here a rather descriptive account of West Africa’s forest ecologies, exactly what one would expect from a travel writing account, which arguably makes us forget about Kingsley’s unreliable first-person narrative at times. Her descriptions appear legit, leaving the reader not doubting her experiences and observations.
Interestingly though, there are also some text passages in Kingsley’s account which arguably bring interpretations of the forests she encounters to the surface. For example, as Kingsley notes about the vessel “Fallaba” which she boards to travel the Ogowe, a river running from the Republic of Congo to Gabon, that “[a]ll West African steamers have a mania for bush, and the delusion that they are required to climb trees. The Fallaba had the complaint severely, because of her defective steering powers, and the temptation of the forest […]” (67). She also points out: “I have seen many West Coast vessels up trees, but never more than fifteen feet or so” (Kingsley 67). Here, Kingsley portrays man-made vessels in competition to nature as it evokes “temptation”, implying that men feel invited to conquer it. However, the vessels never manage to pass the tall trees and are in fact set up for failure against nature which illustrates nature’s power and grandeur.
As Kingsley describes, she decides to travel on a canoe on the river Karkola after the Fallaba has faced issues with sandbanks. She wanders around the area of the Karkola which seems to pique her interest: “I, after having had my tea, wander off, and find behind our high sandbank […] a forest, and entering this I notice a succession of strange mounds or heaps, made up of branches, twigs, and leaves, and dead flowers” (Kingsley 143). Eventually, she notes after her first observation that “[i]nvestigation shows that they are burial places” which “look entirely unhuman in this desolate reach of the forest” (Kingsley 143). Her description here depicts the forest’s impact on how she experiences a human memento such as the burial site. One may wonder: would she find the burial site more human if the forest’s vegetation was more lush? This connected to Kingsley’s notion on the vessels trying to compete with the forest’s height, her expression of the burial site appearing unhuman to her somewhat supports the idea that men should ideally live with nature instead of invading and competing against it.
Seemingly, the more Kingsley progresses in exploring West Africa’s ecologies, her descriptions of the forests increasingly start to intermingle with metaphorical meaning. This finds its climax when she later writes about a morning in Cameroon: “the grey-white mist in the forest makes it a dream of Fairyland, each moss-grown tree stem heavily gemmed with dewdrops” (Kingsley 345). The forest being covered in mist creates a mysterious atmosphere in which one can only gather what is going on, thus leaving room for interpretation and imagination. Kingsley describes the dewdrops looking like gemstones on the trees which contributes yet again to a magical image somewhat reminiscent of fairies in glowing lights surrounded by precious imaginations of nature. Moreover, Kingsley’s portrayal of the forest as a fairyland supports the common notion of enchantment, a world different to ours most likely because of its wilderness. Arguably, with the imagination of the forest as fairyland, Kingsley is able to appreciate such wilderness as a special characteristic of the forest, which discards ideas of exploitation. In a way, the description also creates a bond with nature which we do not find in her earlier observations about forest ecologies, leaving her in awe of what she is able to see. While we do not know what the forest actually looks like, most readers will have an understanding of what she means by fairyland, thus making her description more emotional and accessible in a way.
Mary Kingsley’s travel account serves as an example that ecological readings of travel writing can shed light on some of the author’s attitudes toward nature. What an author observes and describes while travelling is just as important as to how it is written. Kingsley’s observations seem to shift from being descriptive to being metaphorical, portraying a growing understanding and interest in the natural world to the reader.
Kingsley, Mary. Travels in West Africa. 1897. National Geographic, 2002.