A tall tale about the tallest peak in Africa
There’s an apocryphal tale about how the border between Kenya and Tanzania was drawn, charming in the same way Downton Abbey is (read: isn’t it SILLY how privileged the aristocracy were!).
According to the story, the line between the two countries—then colonies of England and Germany, respectively—was originally straight, stretching from its current position on the Eastern coast all the way up to Lake Victoria. Then one day, Victoria’s grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm (yes, the aristocracy of old Europe WAS that inbred), got in touch with granny to…well, pout, essentially.
“It’s unfair that you have two mountains while I have none, Grandmamma,” he whined (if the story is made up, the quotes can be, too).
Then indulgent granny Victoria decided to give him not just any mountain, but the taller—Kilimanjaro—as a birthday gift.
Sure beats $5 tucked into a card, huh?
Tragically, there’s no evidence it really happened that way (the story was likely a satire meant to skewer the arbitrary way nations really were divided up in the “Scramble for Africa” of the 1880s), but there is a thrilling—and dastardly—tale of what did happen between Germany, England, and the (essentially steamrolled) Africans.
In 1884, Germany had essentially no presence in East Africa, and Wilhelm seemed to have little interest in pursuing a colonial footprint.
But that didn’t matter to Carl Peters.
In 1884, Peters returned to Berlin from his studies in London (where he absorbed plenty about British imperialism), and promptly formed the Society for German Colonization. Together with two friends, he set out for East Africa, armed with dozens of official-looking documents printed with the society’s name. Peters used these to sign “treaties” with several of the East African chiefs he met while exploring the interior, despite having received no official support from the German state.
Eventually, however, those documents would prove very important.
Upon his return in 1885, Peters formed the German East Africa Company, and began to pressure the German government to recognize the holdings he’d “procured,” usually via incredibly underhanded means (Peters’ dealings in East African have justly come under scrutiny, and, given his belief in Social Darwinism, were unlikely to have been motivated by anything laudable).
The German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, refused Peters’ offers; not only was the Kaiser uninterested in colonizing Africa, his Chancellor feared that a land-grab in the region could problematize relations with Britain, who unofficially controlled much of the region, due to their power-behind-the-throne influence over the Sultanate of Zanzibar, the country officially claiming the lands Peters was offering (no one, apparently, worried about what the tribes actually living in the interior thought of as the ownership structure of the disputed lands).
Peters, however, was relentless. He eventually forced Bismarck’s hand by threatening to sell the lands to Belgium, then looking to expand its Congo holdings. Unwilling to face that possibility, Bismarck issued an imperial charter to Peters’ German East Africa Company.
Of course the Sultan of Zanzibar, who claimed possession of those same lands, was livid.
Bismarck responded by sending five warships to the island to train their guns on the Sultan’s palace. The message was received, both by the Sultan of Zanzibar, and by his backers in Britain: Germany would be staying in East Africa.
Where they would be staying had already been carved out, at least in part, by Peters during his earlier explorations: his treaties covered the rich lands surrounding Kilimanjaro. While Britain would have greatly preferred to keep the mountain as part of its own territories to the north, it agreed to give it to Germany, so as not to inflame relations between the two countries (so much of Africa was assigned, in the end, so as not to “inflame relations”).
But all good compromises involve a little tit for tat; Germany could keep Kilimanjaro, but just beyond the mountain, the border moved further south, granting Britain more lands.
Tanganyika, of course, wouldn’t stay in Germany’s possession for long, eventually reverting to British control before peacefully transitioning to independence. The border, however, stayed in place.
Surely Queen Victoria would have preferred it that way; whether or not she was a generous grandmother, she was indisputably one thing: pro-tradition.