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Kingsley was born in Islington. She was the daughter of George Kingsley (himself a travel writer) and Mary Bailey, and the niece of Charles Kingsley. Her father was a doctor and worked for George Herbert, 13th Earl of Pembroke. Her mother was an invalid and Mary was expected to stay at home and look after her. Mary had little formal schooling but she did have access to her father's large library and loved to hear her father's stories of foreign countries.
Her father died in February 1892. Her mother also died just five weeks later. Freed from her family responsibilities, and with an income of £500 a year, Mary was now able to travel. Mary decided to visit Africa to collect the material she would need to finish off a book that her father had started on the culture of the people of Africa.
She returned to Africa in 1895 in order to study cannibal tribes. She travelled by canoe up the Ogowe River where she collected specimens of previously unknown fish. After meeting the Fang tribe she climbed the 13,760 feet Mount Cameroon by a route unconquered by any other European.
News of her adventures reached England and when she returned home in October 1895 she was greeted by journalists who were eager to interview her. She was now famous and over the next three years she toured the country, giving lectures about life in Africa.
Mary Kingsley upset the Church of England when she criticized missionaries for attempting to change the people of Africa. She talked about, and indeed defended, many 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". She argued that a " black man is no more an undeveloped white man than a rabbit is an undeveloped hare" as well asserting that she did not regard "the native form as 'low'. or 'inferior'... but as a form of mind of a different sort to white men's - a very good form of mind too, in its way". She was, however, fairly conservative on other issues and did not support the women's suffrage movement.