Antique map of Mount Kilimanjaro created in the 19th century
Hans Meyer is a name most Kili trekkers recognize; the first man to officially summit Kilimanjaro, in 1889, he long ago secured his place in the history books. It’s rare to talk about trekking Kilimanjaro in any depth without mentioning Meyer’s famous ascent.
That’s not the case with the name “Johannes Rebmann.” In fact, many trekkers probably haven’t even heard of him. Yet without him, Meyer’s famous trek may never have happened…
The first recorded mention of Kilimanjaro occurred around 100 AD, when the philosopher Ptolemy wrote of a “great snow mountain” in the interior of Africa. Though references to Kilimanjaro occurred periodically over the following centuries, however, Westerners remained essentially unaware of the mountain well into the 19th century.
That is, until Johannes Rebmann traveled to Africa.
Born in a tiny German town in 1820, Rebmann knew, even as a child, that he wanted to become a minister. As he grew older, his zeal only grew; indeed, many have described Rebmann’s faith throughout his life as bordering on obsessive.
By the time he reached his mid-20s, Rebmann had decided that the best way for him to achieve his goals would be to serve as a missionary to Africa. It was a risky plan; at that time few Westerners—let alone ministers—had explored the African continent. But Rebmann saw it as a land in dire need of Christianity, and he was determined to spread the word.
In 1846, Rebmann headed to Africa, where he met up with a fellow German missionary, Johann Krapf, near Mombasa, Kenya.
Rebmann and Krapf as young men
From the beginning, the outlook for the pair in East Africa was inauspicious; at the time of Rebmann’s arrival, Krapf had only recently recovered from the same bout of malaria that killed his wife and newborn daughter, and neither man had funds to purchase the vast quantities of goods that explorers of the era were expected to bring with them as gifts for local chiefs. Nevertheless, they set up a missionary base near the coast, and started making plans to convert as many Africans as possible.
At that, they failed fairly spectacularly. Most of the peoples they encountered were utterly indifferent to the missionaries’ religion (particularly since the men didn’t come bearing gifts). But while they may not have racked up many converts, Rebmann and Krapf’s trips to the interior—they would alternate, leaving one man at the missionary base near Mombasa as the other ventured out—paved the way for future explorations.
No single journey resonated more, however, than one Rebmann undertook in early 1848. Braving the heavy April rains, Rebmann made his way deep into Chaggaland. On the morning of May 11, exceptionally clear skies allowed Rebmann to see a distant mountain, some 70 miles to the west of his camp. He asked his guide about the ring of “dazzlingly white cloud” he saw near the summit. The guide corrected Rebmann; that wasn’t cloud, it was beridi, or “cold.” After more discussion with his guides and porters, Rebmann realized that he was looking at a snow-capped peak, mere miles from the equator.
Of course a man with Rebmann’s luck (by the time he left Africa, he’d not only failed at his primary mission of conversion, he’d gone blind) couldn’t expect such a discovery to go well. As soon as Rebmann reported his findings, the Royal Geographical Society (the final word on far-flung exploration at the time) mocked his claims of snowy Kilimanjaro as “betraying weak powers of observation, strong fancy…and childish reasoning.”
It wasn’t until 1861, 13 years after Rebmann’s discovery, that his claim was vindicated, and only then because another German, Baron Karl Claus von der Decken was able to corroborate Rebmann’s observations during his own (failed) attempt to scale the mountain.
Though Rebmann’s loudest declaimers still refused to believe in Kilimanjaro’s snows, the Royal Geographical Society officially vindicated Rebmann that year.
After 13 years of derision, though, it must have come as somewhat…cold comfort.