Originally published for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge: The Early Years on 14 December 2022.
My previous post about Mary Gaunt, ended around 1910 just after the publication of three very popular books co-authored with John Ridgewell Essex. These three successful books about Africa [The Arm of the Leopard: A West African Story (1904), Fools Rush In (1906) &The Silent Ones (1909)] gave Gaunt the financial freedom she had been craving for a long time. The freedom to build her own house and to travel.
There are a number of unexplained curiosities in the story of Mary Gaunt’s life. One being what happened to her journals and diaries at the end of her life. They were supposedly stored after her death by a church in Bordighera, to be sent back to Australia after the war. If they were, no one knows where they now are.
Another curiosity is John Ridgewell Essex.
He doesn’t appear to exist. I searched the internet and could find no reference to him, except as co-author of these three books. Bronwen Hickman speculates (in her 1998 thesis) that it is the pen name of someone who either spent time in Africa or worked in the Colonial Office but wished to remain anonymous. However, by the time she had published her book in 2014, she had unearthed the mystery.
A gentleman called, T.J. Tonkin regularly wrote pieces for a periodical called The Empire Review (as did Gaunt). His essays where about life in Africa during the time he was there as a medical officer. Apparently Gaunt decided to contact him, so that they could discuss his travels and to see if they might write a fictional story together. He agreed. Worried about what his patients might think, he decided to use a pen-name. John ‘the everyman’ as well as the name of the town he was born in – Ridgwell, Essex.
I can only imagine how satisfied Hickman felt when she finally solved the mystery of John Ridgewell Essex. I’d love to know the story of how she worked it out.
Mary had her own problems to work out – namely how to get to Africa by herself?
She could not afford to travel in the style of someone like the wealthy American, May French Sheldon who travelled through Africa in 1891 in a state of great luxury, or count on the kind of funding from newspapers that got Henry Moreton Stanley to Africa in 1871, or hope for a family inheritance like the one that provided Mary Kingsley the means to travel in 1893. Gaunt instead had to rely on ‘family connections’, the hospitality of colonial officials and her own gumption.
Her publisher, Mr Laurie found her desire to travel to West Africa rather odd, he also feared that she would die before she could write up a full account of her expedition. He was reluctant to advance her very much as she was a “middle-aged overweight lady, prone to asthma” (de Vries). Armed with little more than letters of introduction from a friend of her father, Sir Charles Lucas, who happened to be the head of the British Colonial Office, Mary finally set off for Bathurst (now Banjul) in Gambia at the end of 1910. She carried with her,
a set of maps in a long metal cylinder, a canvas folding bed and folding bath, a roll of mosquito netting, a heavy glass plate camera, a folding brass tripod, chemicals for developing photos, a compass to chart bearings and a well stocked medicine chest and encyclopedia.
After acclimatising in Bathurst, her first trip saw her traveling by steamer up the Gambia River, down the coast to Sierra Leone before spending a few days in Liberia. Another trip took her to Axim in Ghana before treking off up the Ivory Coast with a Forestry Officer. She did the return to Axim on her own before ending up in Sekondi, grateful for the company of an Australian nurse, running the local hospital.
Her next trek, with the help of 17 porters, was to Chama and then Kommenda before ending in Elmina, to see the former slave fort. She then moved on to Cape Coast, Anomabu and Accra before stopping to rest for a month.
Gaunt’s next excursion was north to Akuse and the Volta River (now part of Kpong Dam),
the Volta River is entrancingly lovely. It’s quiet reaches are like deep lakes in whose clear surface is mirrored the calm blue sky, the fleecy clouds and hills clothed in the densest green. Beneath the vivid blue sky are tangled, luxuriant feathery palms, tall cotton trees bound together with twining creepers and trailing vines. Here are broad leafed bananas, handsome mangoes, fragrant orange trees, patches of lighter coloured cocoa and cassava. Men fish from canoes…
The next trek was via the ‘unmapped jungle’ of the Togo Mountains into German occupied Togo. From Kpalime, she caught the brand new railway into Lome. She wrote,
A beauty spot to the Germans is a beauty spot, whether it be in the Fatherland or in remote West Africa, while in contrast the English in Africa seem indifferent to aesthetics or beauty.
A steamer returned her to Sekondi so she could begin her next train excursion into the Ashanti Protectorate and Kumasi, via the gold mines at Tarkwa. She continued north to Sunyani to visit some of the more remote Ashanti tribes, before returning to Sekondi to sail back to England.
I give you all these details in the hope you will open up a map of West Africa on your browser to follow Gaunt’s journey as I did. It is over 2100 km from Bathurst, Gambia to Lome in Togo as the crow flies. Mary went the long way round via coastal steamer, by palaquin and by foot. Train trips took her into the interior of some of these countries, but again, most of it was by foot or by palaquin or canoe. I cannot imagine doing such a thing now, let alone over a hundred years ago.
Back in London, she and Gertrude Bell were desperate to use the library at London’s Royal Geographic Society to help them with their writing and research, but all their requests to join were knocked back due the ‘no females allowed’ rule. They campaigned to change these rules. Under sufferance, they were eventually allowed to use the library if they were accompanied my a male friend who was a Fellow of the RGS. According to de Vries they were both “in advance of the time in their feminist ideals but were also imperialists, in love with the idea of the British Empire.”
During Gaunt’s time in London, she published her travel memoir, Alone in West Africa (1912) and another novel, Every Man’s Desire (1913) which told the story of what happens when white colonial officers live in places like Africa with an African cook or housekeeper as their mistress. Gaunt was certainly a curious mix of modern and traditional in her views. While subscribing to the right of the English to conquer the world with their vastly superior civilisation (in her opinion), she was also conscious of the double standards and immoral behaviours many of the Englishman took with them. While she was happy to lord over the locals who travelled with her, she was very quick to notice the lives of the women and children, who were poorly treated by everyone concerned.
Once these books were sent off to the her publisher, Gaunt was keen to travel again. This time the destination was China and the Silk Road.
She left London January 1913 starting with a twelve day train journey across Tsarist Russia via Irutsk to Peking. This time her travelling trunk included a portable Underwood typewriter and a Smith & Wesson pistol.
She arrived in Peking (Beijing) not long after the death of the Dowager Empress, which meant that her first hosts, the Morrison’s, were rather distracted and stressed by political matters. She embarked on various day trips and local excursions (Ming Tombs, Great Wall of China etc) before heading into the mountains to Chengde to view the Imperial summer residence and gardens (which is now a World Heritage Site and worth the visit if you ever get a chance).
The blue sky peeped through the branches, the sunshine dappled the ground with shadow and light, and the wind murmured softly among the evergreen foliage. Here was coolness and delight. Beyond the plateau lay a long grassy valley surrounded by softly rounded, tree-clad hills, and right at the bottom of the valley was a lake with winding shores, a lake covered with lotus lilies, with islands on it, with bridges and buildings, picturesque as only the ideal Chinese buildings can be picturesque.
However, the rest of her time in China was taken up with concerns about the brewing war in Europe. After a few more excursions around Peking, it became clear to Gaunt that she needed to return home.
She spent the war years writing, both fiction and non-fiction books about her time in China. As soon as shipping routes reopened after the war, Gaunt was on one of the first boats to Jamaica. The cold winters of England had not improved her health, and she hoped the warmer weather in the Caribbean would help. She stayed for eighteen months during which time she turned sixty and wrote another book.
Another winter in London did not appeal, so she moved to the south of France, to Sainte Agnes before settling across the border in Bordighera, Italy. She continued to write, in between visits from family and friends, including an autobiography. As World War Two approached, her health deteriorated to the point where so could no longer take her dog for walks. Everyone was urging her to leave and she eventually evacuated to Cannes. Her health continued to worsen throughout 1941, and she eventually moved into Sunny Bank, the English hospital in Cannes. She died there on the 19th January 1942.
Mary Gaunt is now a fascinating mix of enlightenment and Colonial white superiority to the modern reader.
On one hand we can but admire her daring and sense of adventure. She was conscious of racial prejudice and animosity towards people of different races by the colonial British and abhored it, yet she believed that such behaviour stemmed from an ‘unconscious’ awareness on behalf of white people that other races would lower ‘our’ standards of living. She believed in the superiority of the British Empire and their right to bring ‘civilisation’ to the rest of the world. She also observed the inequitities faced by women wherever they were in the world. Whether it was being treated almost like slaves by their husbands in West Africa, the feet binding she saw in China or the lack of opportunities for women to work and earn their own living in Western societies.
Bronwen Hickman agrees.
Mary Gaunt, by modern standards, was racist; she genuinely believed in the superiority of the British over the coloured people she met in Africa, China and Jamaica.
She goes on to say, though, that it is therefore more fruitful to judge Gaunt by how she treated the people she met on her travels, claiming curiosity, tolerance and acceptance, as possible ways of judging her more kindly.
Despite her superior attitude she was all of these things and more, especially when interacting with the people she met on her travels. She often deplored the mess the British were making of the countries they colonised, though never going so far as to say they should leave. She abhored the slave trade that made the fortunes of many great English families, upseting many by writing about these issues in a number of her books. While the rights and interests of women everywhere were her constant concerns. Her paternalistic style can grate at times, but there is no denying her enthusiasm, derring-do and compassion. She was a keen observor of the human condition as well as the surroundings in which she travelled.
Along with Bronwen Hickmen, I hope that one day Mary Gaunt’s lost letters and journals are found in an unopen suitcase in someone’s attic. Gaunt is an extraordinary woman whose life story deserves to be more fully appreciated and understood.
- Mary Gaunt: Independent Colonial Woman | Bronwen Hickman (2014)
- To the Ends of the Earth: Mary Gaunt, Pioneer, Traveller, Her Biography | Susanna de Vries (2010)
- Bronwen Hickman thesis on Mary Gaunt (1998)
- Alone in West Africa | Mary Gaunt (1912) Project Gutenberg eBook (2018)
- A Woman in China | Mary Gaunt (1914) Project Gutenberg eBook (2018)
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.