Tuesday, October 13, 2009
History of Kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro’s early history
Thanks to several primitive stone bowls found on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro, we know that man has lived on or around the mountain since at least 1000BC. We also know that, over the last 500 years, the mountain has at various times acted as a navigational aid for traders travelling between the interior and the coast, a magnet for Victorian explorers, a political pawn to be traded between European superpowers who carved up East Africa, a battlefield for these same superpowers, and a potent symbol of independence for those who wished to rid themselves of these colonial interlopers. Unfortunately, little is known about the history of the mountain during the intervening two thousand five hundred years.
It’s a fair bet that Kiliman-jaro’s first inhabitants, when they weren’t fashioning stone bowls out of the local terrain, would have spent much of their time hunting and gathering the local flora and fauna, Kilimanjaro being a fecund source of both.
Add to this its reputation as a reliable region both for fresh drinking water and materials – wood, stones, mud, vines etc – for building, and it seems reasonable to suppose that Kilimanjaro would have been a highly desirable location for primitive man, and would have played a central role in the lives of those who chose to take up residence on its slopes.
Unfortunately, those looking to piece together a comprehensive history of the first inhabitants of Kilimanjaro rather have their work cut out. There are no documents recording the life and times of the people who once lived on the mountain; not much in the way of any oral history that has been passed down through the generations; and, stone bowls apart, little in the way of archaeological evidence from which to draw any inferences.
So while we can assume many things about the lives of Kilimanjaro’s first inhabitants, we can be certain about nothing and if Kilimanjaro did have a part to play in the pre-colonial history of the region, that history, and the mountain’s significance within it, has, alas, now been lost to us.
Early historical references to Kilimanjaro
The Periplus and Ptolemy
And so it is to the notes of foreign travellers that we must turn in order to find the earliest accounts of Kilimanjaro. These descriptions are usually rather brief, often inaccurate and more often than not based on little more than hearsay and rumour rather than actual firsthand evidence.
One of the first ever descriptions of East Africa is provided by the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written anonymously in AD45. The Periplus – a contender for the title of the world’s first ever travel guide – is a handbook for seafarers to the ports of Africa, Arabia and India and includes details of the sea routes to China. In it the author tells of a land called Azania, in which one could find a prosperous market town, Rhapta, where ‘hatchets and daggers and awls … a great quantity of ivory and rhinoceros horn and tortoise shell’ were all traded. Yet interestingly, there is no mention of any snow-capped mountain lying nearby; indeed, reading the Periplus one gets the impression that the author considered Rhapta to be just about the end of the world:
Beyond Opone [modern day Ras Harun on the Somalian coast] there are the small and great bluffs of Azania … twenty-three days sail beyond there lies the very last market town of the continent of Azania, Rhapta …
Less than a hundred years later, however, Ptolemy of Alexandria, astronomer and the founder of scientific cartography, wrote of lands lying to the south of Rhapta where barbaric cannibals lived near a wide shallow bay and where, inland, one could find a ‘great snow mountain’. Mountains that wear a mantle of snow are pretty thin on the ground in Africa; indeed, there is only one candidate that is permanently adorned in snow, and that, of course, is Kilimanjaro.
How exactly Ptolemy came by his information is unknown, for he almost certainly never saw Kilimanjaro for himself. Nevertheless, based on hearsay though it may have been, this is the earliest surviving written mention of Africa’s greatest mountain. It therefore seems logical to conclude that the outside world first became aware of Africa’s tallest mountain in the years between the publication of the Periplus in AD45, and that of Ptolemy’s work, sometime during the latter half of the second century AD.
History of Kilimanjaro: the outsiders arrive
Arab geographers, an anonymous Chinaman and some Portuguese
Following Ptolemy’s description, almost nothing more is written about Kilimanjaro for over a thousand years. The Arabs, arriving on the East African coast in the sixth century, must have heard something about it from the local people with whom they traded. Indeed, the mountain would have proved essential to the natives as they travelled from the interior to the markets on the East African shore: as one of the few unmissable landmarks in a largely featureless expanse of savannah and scrub, and with its abundant streams and springs, the mountain would have been both an invaluable navigational tool and a reliable source of drinking water for the trading caravans.
But whether the merchants from the Middle East actually ventured beyond their trading posts on the coast to see the mountain for themselves seems doubtful, and from their records of this time only one possible reference to Kilimanjaro has been uncovered, written by a thirteenth-century geographer, Abu’l Fida, who speaks of a mountain in the interior that was ‘white in colour’.
The Chinese, who traded on the East African coast during the same period, also seemed either ignorant or uninterested in the land that lay beyond the coastline and in all their records from this time once again just one scant reference to Kili has been found, this time by an anonymous chronicler who states that the country to the west of Zanzibar ‘reaches to a great mountain’.
After 1500, and the exploration and subsequent conquest of the African east coast by Vasco da Gama and those who followed in his wake, the Arabs were replaced as the major trading power in the region by the Portuguese. They proved to be slightly more curious about what lay beyond the coast than their predecessors, perhaps because their primary motives for being there were more colonial than commercial.
A vague but once again unmistakable reference to Kilimanjaro can be found in a book, Suma de Geographia, published in 1519, an account of a journey to Mombasa by the Spanish cartographer, astronomer and ship’s pilot Fernandes de Encisco:
West of Mombasa is the Ethiopian Mount Olympus, which is very high, and further off are the Mountains of the Moon in which are the sources of the Nile.
Amazingly, in the fourteen hundred years since Ptolemy this is only the third reference to Kilimanjaro that has been found; with the return of the Arabs in 1699, it was also to be the last for another hundred years or so. Then, just as the eighteenth century was drawing to a close, the Europeans once more cast an avaricious eye on East Africa
The history of Kilimanjaro: The 1800s - the pioneers...
With British merchants firmly established on Zanzibar by the 1840s, frequent rumours of a vast mountain situated on the mainland just a few hundred miles from the coast now began to reach European ears. British geographers were especially intrigued by these reports, particularly as it provided a possible solution to one of the oldest riddles of Africa: namely, the precise whereabouts of the source of the Nile. Encisco’s sixteenth-century reference to the Mountains of the Moon in which are the sources of the Nile (see above) is in fact a mere echo of the work of Ptolemy, writing fourteen hundred years before Encisco, who also cites the Mountains of the Moon as the true origin of the Nile.
But while these Mountains of the Moon were, for more than a millennium, widely accepted in European academia as the place where the Nile rises, nobody had actually bothered to go and find out if this was so – nor, indeed, if these mountains actually existed at all.
Interest in the ‘dark continent’ was further aroused by the arrival in London in 1834 of one Khamis bin Uthman. Slave dealer, caravan leader and envoy of the then-ruler of East Africa, Seyyid Said, Uthman met many of Britain’s leading dignitaries, including the prime minister, Lord Palmerston. He also met and talked at length with the leading African scholar, William Desborough Cooley. A decade after this meeting, Cooley wrote his lengthy essay The Geography of N’yassi, or the Great Lake of Southern Africa Investigated, in which he not only provides us with another reference to Kilimanjaro – only the fifth in 1700 years – but also becomes the first author to put a name to the mountain:
The most famous mountain of Eastern Africa is Kirimanjara, which we suppose, from a number of circumstances to be the highest ridge crossed on the road to Monomoezi.
Suddenly Africa, long viewed by the West almost exclusively in terms of the lucrative slave trade, became the centre of a flurry of academic interest and the quest to find the true origins of the Nile became something of a cause célèbre amongst scholars. Long-forgotten manuscripts and journals from Arab traders and Portuguese adventurers were dusted off and scrutinized for clues to the whereabouts of this most enigmatic river source.
Most scholars preferred to conduct their research from the comfort of their leather armchairs; there were others, however, who took a more active approach, and pioneering explorers such as Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke set off to find for themselves the source of the Nile, crossing the entire country we now know as Tanzania in 1857.
This was also the age of Livingstone and Stanley, the former venturing deep into the heart of Africa in search of both knowledge and potential converts to Christianity, and the latter in search of the former