The Adventures of Mary Gaunt, Alone in West Africa in 1910

Not an explorer – too late for that – but certainly one of the most interesting travelers in Africa during the colonial period, whose insights bring to life colonial times along the west African coast.

This is the first of several blogs about Mary Gaunt.

Source: Mary Gaunt-Alone in West Africa

Source: Mary Gaunt-Alone in West Africa

Gaunt-Alone in west africa.

A little known Australian writer, Mary Gaunt (1861–1942), has been described as:

She traveled to West Africa, China, and elsewhere, writing over 70 pieces, finally settling in France during World War II.   These adventures followed the death of her husband in Australia, after which she traveled to England where she wanted to settle down and write.  However:

I discovered that it was simply hopeless for me to think of writing stories about English life. The regular, conventional life did not appeal to me; I could only write adventure stories, and the scene of adventure stories was best laid in savage lands. West Africa was not at all a bad place in which to set them. Its savagery called me. There and then I started to write stories about it…

Thereafter, she successfully wrote a novel about African adventures, which had a reasonably good reception.  But her wish to travel to and in Africa remained, and so:

Elder Dempster, instigated by the kind offices of Sir Charles Lucas, the permanent head of the Colonial Office, who knew how keen was my desire, offered me a ticket along the Coast [of west Africa], so that I actually had all the money I had earned [by her previous novel] to put into land travel, and Mr Laurie, my publisher, fired by my enthusiasm, commissioned a book about the wonderful old forts that I knew lay neglected and crumbling to decay all along the shores of the Gold Coast

Source: Mary Gaunt – Alone in West Africa

And so:

… Setting out with a ‘cabin trunk of pretty dresses, rose trimmed hats, gloves’, photographic equipment, and a retinue of bearers, she was the only white woman on what proved an often dangerous journey. Her account of it was published in London in 1911 as Alone in West Africa.

Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981 

Arriving at Banjul, the first stop on her African adventures and the capital of The Gambia, she immediately looked for a way to travel up the Gambia river and into the interior:

…the Governor told me he had made arrangements for me to go in the French Company’s steamer, the Mungo Park. She was going up the river [the Gambia] with general cargo; she was coming down again with some of the groundnut crop, little nuts that grow on the root of a trefoil plant, nuts the Americans call pea-nuts, and the English monkey-nuts

Watershed of the Gambia river.  The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa, being a long, thin 'finger', extending several hundred miles from the Atlantic into the interior, and surrounded by Senegal, a former French colony.   Source: Wikipedia

Watershed of the Gambia river. The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa, being a long, thin ‘finger’, extending several hundred miles from the Atlantic into the interior, and surrounded by Senegal, a former French colony. Source: Wikipedia

The Mungo Park was a stern-wheeler of 150 tons, drawing six feet of water, and when first I saw her you could hardly tell steamer from wharf, so alive were they both with crowded, shrieking people, all either wanting to get on, or to get off, which was apparently not quite clear. After a little wait, out of chaos came a courteous French trader and a gangway. The gangway took us on board, and the trader, whose English was as good as mine, explained that he, too, was going up the river to look after the houses belonging to his company along the banks. Then he showed me my quarters, and I was initiated into the mysteries of travelling in the interior of Africa…

Along the banks of the Gambia River.  Source: hilarysplaces.com

Along the banks of the Gambia River. Source: hilarysplaces.com

It is the custom to speak with contempt of a mangrove swamp, as if in it no beauty could lie, as if it were only waste land-dreary, depressing, ugly. Each of those epithets may be true-I cannot say except the last, and that is most certainly a falsehood. What my impressions would be if I lived in the midst of it day after day I cannot say, but to a passer-by the mangrove swamp has a beauty of its own.

Source: leicestershirevillages.com

Source: leicestershirevillages.com

When first I saw the Gambia I was fascinated, and found no words too strong for its beauty; and, having gone farther, I would take back not one word of that admiration. But I am like the lover who is faithless to his first mistress-he acknowledges her charm, but he has seen someone else; so now, as I sit down to write, I am reminded that the Volta is more ravishingly lovely, and that if I use up all my adjectives on the Gambia I shall have no words to describe my new mistress.  Therefore must I modify my transports, and so it seems to me I am unfair. As we moved up the river we could plainly see the shore on either side, the dense mangrove swamp, doubled by its reflection, green and beautiful against its setting of blue sky and clear river.

Crocodiles lay basking in the golden sunshine on the mudbanks, white egrets flew slowly from tree to tree, a brown jolah-king, an ibis debased for some sin in the youth of the world, sailed slowly across the water, a white fishing-eagle poised himself on high, looking for his prey, a slate-blue crane came across our bows, a young pelican just ahead was taking his first lesson in swimming, and closer to the bank we could see king-fishers, bright spots of coIour against the dark green of the mangrove.

” The wonder of the Tropics” The wonder of the Tropics “-the river seemed to be whispering at first, and then fairly shouted- ” can you deny beauty to this river? ” and I, with the cool Harmattan blowing across the water to put the touch of moisture in the air it needed, was constrained to answer that voice, which none of the others seemed to hear, ” Truly I cannot.” It would be impossible to describe in detail all the little wharves at which we stopped; besides, they all bore a strong family resemblance to one another, differing only when they were in the upper or lower river…

…One hundred and fifty miles up we came to MCCarthy Island, five miles long by a mile wide, and markedly noticeable because here the great river changes its character entirely, the mangrove swamps are left behind, and open bush of mahogany, palm, and many another tree and creeper, to me nameless, takes its place.

Passing from mangrove swamp areas into more heavily forested country.  Source_ Mary Gaunt, Alone in Africa

Passing from mangrove swamp areas into more heavily forested country. Source_ Mary Gaunt, Alone in Africa

On McCarthy Island is a busy settlement, with the town marked into streets, lined with native shops and trading-houses. There are great groundnut stores along the river front…

M’Carthy was very busy; dainty cutters, frail canoes, and grimy steamers crowded the wharves, and to and fro across the great river, 500 yards wide here, the ferry, a great canoe, went backwards and forwards the livelong day, and I could just see gathered together herds of the pretty cattle of the country that looked not unlike Alderneys…

Ms. Gaunt’s insights on the colonial background of the Gambia, as a colonial herself from Australia, are interesting:

In the old days, when Charles the Second was king, the English held none of the banks of the river at all, but contented themselves with a barren little island about seventeen miles from where Bathurst [renamed Banjul] now stands. One bank was held by the French, the other by the Portuguese; and the English built on the island Fort St James to protect their interest in the great trade in palm oil, slaves, and ivory that came down the river.

Even then the Gambia was rich. It is richer far to-day, but the French hold the greater part of it. The [British] colony of the Gambia is at the mouth of the river, twelve miles broad by four hundred long, a narrow strip of land bordering the mouth of a river set in the heart of the great French colony of Senegal-a veritable Naboth’s vineyard that our friends the other side of the Channel may well envy us. It brings us in about 18o,ooo annually, but to them it would be of incalculable value as an outlet for the majority of their rich trade…

On McCarthy Island is a busy settlement, with the town marked into streets, lined with native shops and trading-houses. There are great groundnut stores along the river front, seven, or perhaps eight white people, a church, a hospital, obsolete guns, and an old powder magazine, that shows that in days gone by this island was only held by force of arms.

Source: Gaunt, Alone in Africa

Source: Gaunt, Alone in Africa

Jollof town [located on MacCarthy Island] looks as if it were made of basketwork; they call it here ” crinting,” and all the walls of the houses and of the compounds are made of this split bamboo neatly woven together. For Bathurst [Banjul, capital of the Gambia] is but a strip of sand-bank just rescued from the mangrove swamp round, and these crinted walls serve excellently to keep it together when the strong Harmattan threatens to blow the whole place bodily into the swamp behind.

My friend’s home was a very nice specimen of its class, the first barbaric home I had ever seen. The compound was surrounded by the crinted walls, and inside again were two or three huts, also built of crinting, with a thatched roof.

Crinilated walls.  Source: Gaunt-Alone in West Africa

Crinted wall made of bamboo strips.  Source: Gaunt-Alone in West Africa

Is this lowland Oxytenanthera abyssinica that we’ve seen described by Mungo Park (reference below)?  I expect so, but can find no confirmation.

… my pilot’s wife had a neat little home. There were no windows in it, but the strong sunlight came through the crinted walls, and made a subdued light and a pattern of the basket-work on the white, sanded floor; there were three long seats of wood, neatly covered with white napkins edged with red, a table, a looking-glass, and a basket of bread, for it appeared she was a trader in a small way. It was all very suitable and charming. Outside in the compound ran about chickens, goats, a dog or two, and some small children, another woman’s children, alas, for she told me mournfully she had none…

Village headman in front of 'bamboo'  Source: Gaunt-Alone in West Africa

Village headman in front of his storage container for groundnuts, made of ‘bamboo’ Source: Gaunt-Alone in West Africa

… That first night, absolutely in the open, everything took on a glamour which comes back to me whenever I think of it. A glorious night out in the open in the Tropics is one of the pure delights of life. A fire flickered in the centre of the compound; to the right in a palm-thatched hut we could see the cook at work, and we had hors d’oeuvre which here they call small chop, and the soup which my companion complained of, and fish and chicken and sweets and fruit as good as if we had been in a London restaurant. Better, for the day’s hammocking on the beach with the salt spray wetting our faces and the roar of the turbulent West-Coast surf in our ears had given us an appetite that required no tempting.

Mary Gaunt travelled over 700 miles in a hammock.  This method of transport was used prior to colonialism in west Africa and was adopted by all visitors.  Source:  Gaunt-Alone in West Africa

Mary Gaunt traveled over 700 miles in a hammock. This method of transport was used throughout much of (pre-colonial) Africa, being adopted then by colonials.  Source: Gaunt-Alone in West Africa
An upcountry chief in his hammock-chair.  Source: Mary Gaunt, Alone in Africa

An upcountry chief in his hammock-chair. Source: Mary Gaunt, Alone in Africa

However, in talking to the young British Forester stationed upcountry:

He looked at me a moment, seeking words to show his opinion of a woman who insisted upon going where he thought no white woman was needed.

“My Wife,” he said, with emphasis that marked his surprise, “MY WIFE?  Why, my wife has such a delicate complexion that she has to wash her face always in distilled water.”

It was sufficient. I understood when I looked in the glass that night the reproof intended to be conveyed.  In all probability the lady was not quite such a fool as her husband intimidated; but one thing is quite certain, she was buying her complexion at a very heavy cost if she were going to let it allow it to deprive her of the joy of seeing new countries…

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About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-West, Colonialism, European explorers, Explorers & exploration, Mary Gaunt, Mungo Park and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Adventures of Mary Gaunt, Alone in West Africa in 1910

  1. ritaroberts says:

    Diana, This a beautiful story. Mary Gaunt was surely an adventurous lady to be admired for she obviously enjoyed her venture I love those houses made of split bamboo. My little adventure was moving to Crete from England but would love to travel the world which is why I like your posts so much you bring me nearer to other countries and their people through your blog. Many thanks.

    Like

    • dianabuja says:

      Thank you, Rita, for the lovely thoughts. Mary Gaunt was indeed very special in her thoughts and travel, though little recognized. Ofthe the downside of women travelers, I’m afraid.

      Like

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