Ridicule of Krapf and Rebmann
By Daniel Karanja,
New Bedford, MA
As we know from our history classes, Dr. Krapf was the first European to see Mount Kenya in November 1849; he also saw the snow cap on top. This was later widely reported back home in England
Upon arrival at Kivoi’s village in Kitui, he mentioned the presence of snow on Kilimanjaro and Kivoi mater-of-factly told him of an even taller snow capped mountain nearby (Mt. Kenya). A few days later when the skies were clear, Krapf did see the mountain.
After Rebmann came back from his second trip to Mount Kilimanjaro in February 1849, he also reported the presence of snow on that mountain in an upcoming issue of the CMS magazine. As soon as these accounts of permanent snow right on the equator was made public, it made big news in Europe and a heated debate ensued with some questioning the missionaries truthfulness and others calling into question their intellect and character. Driven by various motivations, regular people, geographers and naturalists found such profound discoveries by such humble men irreconcilable with their expectations.
While these critics were many, by far the most famous and loudest of them all was an English geographer of some pedigree called William Desborough Cooley. Cooley had earlier on met with some people from East Africa and as a result of this interaction formed and published various ideas about the geography of a place he himself never visited.
In various writings most notably his Inner Africa Laid Open published in 1852, Cooley savaged the exploratory work of Rebmann and Krapf. Regarding the report of permanent snow cover on Mount Kilimanjaro, Cooley doubted whether Rebmann saw anything at all.
He found Rebmann’s gift of observation very wanting, asserting that he (Rebmann) had at one time failed to see the mountain while at a particular vantage point while it was visible to every one else “from three times that distance”. At another time he had also failed to see Lake Jipe through field glasses though his assistants could see it unaided.
As for Rebmann’s conclusion that the white substance on top of Kilimanjaro was snow, Cooley claimed that it was all a creation of Rebmann’s imaginative mind and “a dash of rhetoric”. Finally he found Rebmann a probable and unwilling liar possessing “weak powers of observation, strong fancy, an eager craving for wonders, and childish reasoning”.
He then continued a long the same lines to attack Dr. Krapf. While mentioning Krapf’s postulation that there were perhaps two elongated lakes on what is currently Western Tanzania, he ascribed Krapf’s line of thinking to “the discord in his own mind”.
Further on he accused Krapf of making “a statement with no foundation” by saying that the Nyamwezi regularly intercoursed with people from the Usambara region.
He also sarcastically said that Krapf’s claim that he (Krapf) “could travel through the wilds to Usambara only at the rate of 12.5 miles a day”, was doubtful because he (Cooley) only thought Africans’ of travelling less than 1.5 miles an hour at best since they travelled as fast as cattle “as they browse though a thicket”. This went on and on.
In conclusion, the two were at best totally incompetent as observers and in recording of their observations and at worst liars who exaggerated their observations and obfuscated evidence to gain fame.
While most of Cooley’s language was measured and scholarly, his tone was at times condescending and at other times insulting. In a rant regarding the position of Mount Kenya as Krapf placed it, he writes;
“It will be vain to contest the position which we have assigned to Dr. Krapf’s new snow mountain, or to endeavour to carry it further in. We have strained every point to spare the incorrectness we had to deal with.”
A little further on in a paragraph that summarized his frustrations with Krapf and offers a window into what he though of Krapf himself, Cooley wrote;
“In surveying the labours of Dr. Krapf as a traveler, it is impossible not to be struck with the loftiness of his ambition, and the resolute energy with which he aims at solving single-handed, for he repels every aid, all the great problems of African geography … the weakness of ambition is manifest in his bind attachment to grand problems, and his disinclination to relinquish the delusions connected with them.
Miserably poor in facts, he is profuse of theory, his distances are exaggerated, his bearings all in disorder, his etymologies purile, and he seems to want altogether those habits of mental accuracy without which active reason is a dangerous faculty. Discoveries and theories of so loose a texture as his must give rise to doubt and discussion.”
The unfortunate thing about Cooley’s conclusions about the geography of East Africa was not that he disputed the works of Krapf and Rebmann but that till the end of his life, he remained unmoved in his conclusions despite the availability of more and more evidence to the contrary.
When Otto Kersten and Baron von der Decken in 1863 climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to a point just below the snowline, Cooley was at it again calling Decken’s report a “misrepresentation” and the explorer essentially a liar.
This stubbornness made him a butt of jokes and a laughing stock amongst future explorers and natural scientists who referred to him with much derision and relegated his body of work to the trash heap.
On the other hand, Cooley got a number of key things right which got obscured in his derision of Krapf and Rebmann. For instance he correctly concluded that the elongated shape of Lake Malawi was due to its presence in a geological fault of some kind and that other rivers and lakes in East Africa were probably constrained by similar circumstances.
This correct observation referring to what is now known as the Great Rift Valley preceded Walter Gregory’s work by half a century. He was also the first to make a fair attempt at using the names of tribes and geographical features in local languages in his analysis of the region’s geography.
Cooley was also somewhat careful in framing his opinion regarding eternal snow on the equator. Even when he examined the missionaries’ journal entries, his arguments were quite logical. Admittedly, he later descended into personal attacks.
Krapf, Rebmann were not the only explorers Cooley took a dislike to; he had cut his teeth savaging J. B. Douville in the early 1830’s in a manner that would have delighted a modern tabloid publisher. Cooley also spent considerable effort attacking Livingstone, Burton and Speke who all reported facts contradicting his earlier writings.
He was obviously not the only one to find these ideas impossible, even Roderick Murchison, one time the president of the Royal Geographical Society, expressed doubts in 1857 about the presence of snow so near the equator. Livingstone too disbelieved John Speke’s reports regarding the geography of East Africa.
With such detailed and pointed criticism, one would wonder how Krapf and Rebmann's defended themselves. Stay tuned.
Some of these people were James Emery who had spent 2 years at Mombasa in the 1820’s and Khamis bin Othman who had earlier been an interpreter for Captain Owen during his survey of the East African coast. Khamis met Cooley when the former visited England while in the service of Seyyid Said, he also brought with him a slave named Nassib from the Yao tribe.
The lake is found on the Kenya-Tanzania border near Taveta
Inner Africa Laid Open pp 92
Cyclopedia of Missions By Harvey Newcomb pp 14
Inner Africa Laid Open pp 73
Inner Africa Laid Open pp 81
Inner Africa Laid Open pp 120-121
Inner Africa Laid Open pp 125-126
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