History of Kilimanjaro: Rebmann’s journey and the discovery of snow

An elderly, bearded Johannes Rebmann, seated on the left, with a Tanzanian man standing on the right

Johannes Rebmann and friend

And so, armed with only his trusty umbrella, Rebmann set off for Chagga on 27 April 1848. He was accompanied by Bwana Kheri and eight porters. A fortnight later, on the morning of 11 May, he came across the most marvellous sight:

At about ten o’clock, (I had no watch with me) I observed something remarkably white on the top of a high mountain, and first supposed that it was a very white cloud, in which supposition my guide also confirmed me, but having gone a few paces more I could no more rest satisfied with that explanation; and while I was asking my guide a second time whether that white thing was indeed a cloud and scarcely listening to his answer that yonder was a cloud but what that white was he did not know, but supposed it was coldness – the most delightful recognition took place in my mind, of an old well-known European guest called snow.

All the strange stories we had so often heard about the gold and silver mountain Kilimandjaro in Jagga, supposed to be inaccessible on account of evil spirits, which had killed a great many of those who had attempted to ascend it, were now at once rendered intelligible to me, as of course the extreme cold, to which poor Natives are perfect strangers, would soon chill and kill the half-naked visitors. I endeavoured to explain to my people the nature of that ‘white thing’ for which no name exists even in the language of Jagga itself… Johannes Rebmann from his account of his journey, published in Volume I of the Church Missionary Intelligencer, May 1849

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The cold temperature of the higher regions constituted a limit beyond which they dared not venture. This natural disinclination, existing most strongly in the case of the great mountain, on account of its intenser cold, and the popular traditions respecting the fate of the only expedition which had ever attempted to ascend its heights, had of course prevented them from exploring it, and left them in utter ignorance of such a thing as ‘snow’, although not in ignorance of that which they so greatly dreaded, ‘coldness’.

Still bent on spreading Christianity, and undeterred (or perhaps ignorant) of the scepticism with which his reports in the Intelligencer had been met back in Europe (popular opinion back in Europe, which was influenced largely by armchair academics such as WD Cooley, refused to believe that there could be snow on the African equator – even though they knew of the existence of snow on the equator in South America.

Rebmann returned to Rabai-mpia but continued to visit and write about Kilimanjaro and the Chagga region for a few more years.

His second trip, made in November of the same year, was blessed by favourable weather conditions, providing Rebmann with his clearest view of Kilimanjaro, and the outside world with the most accurate and comprehensive description of the mountain that had yet been written:

There are two main peaks which arise from a common base measuring some twenty-five miles long by as many broad. They are separated by a saddle-shaped depression, running east and west for a distance of about eight or ten miles. The eastern peak is the lower of the two, and is conical in shape. The western and higher presents the appearance of a magnificent dome, and is covered with snow throughout the year, unlike its eastern neighbour, which loses its snowy mantle during the hot season.

On this second trip Rebmann was also able to correct an error made in his first account of Kilimanjaro: that the local ‘Jagga’ tribe were indeed familiar with snow and did have a name for it – that name being ‘Kibo’!

A third and much more organized expedition in April 1849 – at the same time as the account of his first visits of Kilimanjaro was rolling off the presses in Europe – enabled Rebmann, accompanied by a caravan of 30 porters (and, of course, his trusty umbrella), to ascend to such a height that he was later to boast that he had come ‘so close to the snow-line that, supposing no impassable abyss to intervene, I could have reached it in three or four hours’.

After Rebmann’s pioneering work it was the turn of his friend Krapf, now risen from his sickbed, to see the snowy mountain his friend had described in such detail. In November 1849 he visited the Ukamba district to the north of Kilimanjaro, and during a protracted stay in the area Krapf became the first white man to see Mount Kenya. Perhaps more importantly, he was also afforded wonderful views of Kilimanjaro, and was able to back up Rebmann’s assertion that the mountain really was adorned with snow.

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