Johannes Rebmann the first European to discover or see Mount Kilimanjaro
Johannes Rebmann

Johannes Rebmann was the first European to see Mount Kilimanjaro, and that was in 1848. He and his colleague Krapf visited Mount Kenya the following year. The Rebmann Glacier on Mount Kilimanjaro was named after him. Read about the Rebmann Glacier here.

The two men left for Kenya’s interior on October 16, 1847. Eight tribesmen and Bwana Kheri, the local caravan commander, accompanied them. The establishment of some of the earliest mission outposts in the area was the main objective of this voyage. The missionaries and the tribesmen successfully completed their voyage, and on October 27 they arrived back in Mombasa.

Rebmann and Krapf discovered a large mountain known as “Kilimansharo” that was “crowned with silver” and that touched the clouds at some point during their trip or their stay in the area.

Learn how to pronounce and spell Mount Kilimanjaro here

The two men did not understand the importance of the mountain being “capped with silver,” as did other Europeans of the period, who believed that snow and ice could not exist so near to the equator.

Krapf requested the Mombasa governor’s approval for an expedition to the land of the Jagga, a people who are now known as the Chaga and who lived and still live on the actual slopes of Kilimanjaro. However, the two missionaries, who had become just as many explorers as they were missionaries, became quite interested in Kilimanjaro. Krapf informed the governor that this trip would be related to work. Despite this, only Bwana Kheri & Rebmann set off for Kilimanjaro on April 27, 1848; Krapf did not travel with them.

Rebmann and his guide were able to see the mountain in two weeks. He asked his guide what he believed the unusual white on Kilimanjaro’s top was after noting it in his diary. The guide “did not know what it was, but assumed it was coldness,” according to Rebmann’s journal. Rebmann then realized that Kilimanjaro actually has a snowy summit. These observations were made in 1849, but the majority of the scientific community at the time did not fully accept them. Some even thought that they were the consequence of hallucinations brought on by malaria. Rebmann made a note in his log about the peak on November 10, 1848:

This morning we discerned the Mountains of Jagga more distinctly than ever; and about ten o’clock I fancied I saw a dazzlingly white cloud. My Guide called the white which I saw merely ‘Baridi,’ cold; it was perfectly clear to me, however, that it could be nothing else but snow.

Krapf discovered Mount Kenya the next year, on December 3, 1849. Although the discovery of this mountain was likewise regarded with skepticism in Europe, the impact of these findings was sufficient to spur additional research into other parts of Africa, leading to an expansion of scientific understanding of the continent’s regions, inhabitants, history, and geography.

Related: Who was the first European to discover Mount Kenya?

Who was Johannes Rebmann?

Along with his colleague Johann Ludwig Krapf, a German missionary, linguist, and explorer Johannes Rebmann (January 16, 1820 – October 4, 1876) is credited with being the first European to reach Africa from the Indian Ocean coast. He was also the first European to locate Kilimanjaro. The Church Missionary Intelligencer publicized the news of Rebmann’s finding in May 1849, but for the following twelve years, it was dismissed as mere fiction. The Geographical Society of London believed the account to be the delusion of a missionary suffering from malaria and argued that snow could not possibly fall, much less linger, in such latitudes. Researchers didn’t start attempting to measure Kilimanjaro until 1861.

The German Baron Karl Klaus von der Decken’s expeditions to Tanzania between 1861 and 1865 corroborated Rebmann’s account. The first Europeans to visit and describe Mount Kenya were him and his colleague Johann Ludwig Krapf. They are also believed to have had an impact on Sir Richard Burton’s, John Hanning Speke’s, and David Livingstone’s experiences as well as other later European journeys to Africa. He had a brief marriage, lost most of his vision, and ultimately passed away from pneumonia.

First Europeans to set eyes on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya

Johann Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, two German missionaries, are the first Europeans to see Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro, respectively.

First exploration into Tanganyika

German missionaries Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann conducted what is regarded as the first exploration of Tanganyika in 1846. After spending two years in the Pangani Valley, they were the first to report seeing Kilimanjaro in 1848. The scientific community did not believe them when they said that the peak was covered with snow.

They were actually looking for stones, possibly gold

As recounted: Regarding North Eastern Tanganyika, I discovered a custom for myself. Long ago, white men from the coast arrived in the Southern Pare Mountains and set their camp there. They didn’t cause any harm or cause any conflicts with the locals while they were “Looking for stones,” perhaps panning for gold.

“Some story of a Portuguese foundation in Jagga (Chagga) as having occurred approximately two centuries ago (i.e., about 1650) is, as my guide informed me, still prevalent among the Madjame (Machame) tribe,” wrote Rebmann (1849), the first person to make Kilimanjaro’s presence known in Europe.

A hill between the Pare Mountains and the Ruvu River is shown on a map that was published in the same journal in 1849 with the legend, “Hereabouts is a mountain on which the remnants of a castle and a shattered piece of cannon are reported to be seen.”

Rebmann’s journey and the discovery of snow

As a result, on April 27, 1848, Rebmann left for Chagga carrying nothing except his dependable umbrella. Bwana Kheri and eight porters were with him. On the morning of May 11, a fortnight later, he saw the most amazing sight:

I noticed something noticeably white on top of a tall mountain at around ten o’clock (I didn’t have a watch with me) and at first thought, it was a really white cloud, which my guide also agreed with. However, after walking a few more steps, I was no longer able to rest in peace with that explanation.

While I was asking my guide a second time whether that white object was really a cloud and barely paying attention to his response that it was a cloud over there but he didn’t know what that white was and assumed it was coldness, the most delightful recognition of an ancient and well-known European visitor named snow occurred in my mind.

I was now instantly able to make sense of all the bizarre tales we had frequently heard about the gold and silver peak Kilimandjaro in Jagga, which was rumored to be inaccessible due to bad spirits and had claimed the lives of many climbers.

Naturally, the intense cold, to which the poor Natives are complete strangers, would quickly freeze and kill the tourists in their underwear. I made an effort to explain to my people what that “white thing” was like since there is no term for it even in Jagga. From an account of his travels by Johannes Rebmann, Volume I of the Church Missionary Intelligencer, May 1849

The idea is continued in an excerpt from the journal’s following issue:

They feared not go any further because of the chilly temperatures in the upper altitudes.

The great mountain had naturally prevented them from exploring it, leaving them in complete ignorance of such a thing as “snow,” though not in complete ignorance of that which they so greatly dreaded, “coldness.” This natural disinclination, which existed most strongly in the case of the great mountain due to its intenser cold and the popular traditions regarding the fate of the only expedition which had attempted to ascend its heights, had of course prevented them from exploring it.

Still determined to spread Christianity, he was unafraid (or perhaps ignorant) of the skepticism that his reports in the Intelligencer had encountered in Europe, where the general public was skeptical of the possibility of snow on the African equator due in large part to the influence of armchair academics like WD Cooley.

Despite the fact that they were aware that South America’s equator had snow.

Returning to Rabai-mpya, Rebmann continued to go to and write about the Chagga area and Kilimanjaro for a few more years.

Rebmann’s clearest view of Kilimanjaro was obtained on his second journey, which was taken in November of the same year, and the outside world received the most exact and thorough account of the mountain that had yet been written:

A shared base that is about 25 miles long and that many miles wide gives birth to two primary summits. A saddle-shaped depression that runs around eight or ten miles east and west separate them.

The lesser of the two peaks, the eastern one has a conical form. The western, higher mountain resembles a majestic dome and is always covered in snow, unlike its eastern neighbor, which loses its white coat in the summer.

Rebmann was able to correct a mistake in his earlier report of Kilimanjaro on this second expedition, namely that the local “Jagga” tribe was aware of snow and did have a name for it. That name was “Kibo“!

With the aid of a caravan of 30 porters and, of course, his trusty umbrella, Rebmann was able to ascend to such a height during a third, much more organized expedition in April 1849 that he later boasted 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.” Rebmann was also accompanied on this expedition by his trusty umbrella.

Following Rebmann’s pioneering effort, it was his buddy Krapf’s turn to visit the snowy peak his friend had so vividly described after emerging from his sickbed.

During a lengthy stay in the Ukamba district, north of Kilimanjaro, in November 1849, Krapf became the first white person to observe Mount Kenya. Perhaps more significantly, he was given stunning views of Kilimanjaro and was able to confirm Rebmann’s claim that the peak was indeed covered in snow.

Read also: Mzee Kinyala Lauwo, the first Tanzanian to climb Kilimanjaro to the peak.


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