The Conquest of Kilimanjaro
British, Boers, Belgians and Portuguese Invade German East Africa

By Edwin E. Slosson

[The Independent; July 3, 1916]

The complaint that war has lost its picturesqueness may be true of Europe, but it does not apply to the African campaign. Here nature provides the strongest contrasts of climate and contour and here primitive savagery is allied with modern science in the art of destruction. This is the last of the world's great game preserves. The ultimate survivors of the grotesque mammals of the Cenozoic era have found refuge in these, forests and plains where they greet the shrapnel's shriek with a morituri salutation of roarings, bellowings and gruntings.

Campaigning in German East Africa must seem like fighting in Hagenbeck's menagerie. Here is a recent despatch from the front:

Gen. Smuts and his staff were held tip by lions near Kilimanjaro, German East Africa. They were obliged to sit in automobiles all night firing revolvers.

The invaders have difficulty in keeping up their lines of communication for the giraffes break down the telegraph wires by using them as neck scratchers and the elephants pull up the poles out of pure mischief. As the troops on either side advance they drive into the enemy's lines herds of wilde-beestes and harte-beests, gemsbok and springbok, elands and buffaloes, zebras and ostriches. The soldiers complain that they cannot sleep because of howling of the jackals, the laughing of the hyenas and the grunting of wild pigs. Naval combats on the lakes between the British and German motor boats, are made extra-hazardous by the crocodiles and hippopotami which lie in wait for the castaways.

German East Africa is the last and largest of the German colonies. It is nearly twice the size of Germany, but there are probably not more than four thousand Germans to defend it. For nearly two years they have been cut off from the Fatherland and surrounded by enemies, yet they are still holding out. At Tabora, on the highlands in the middle of the country they have constructed a stronghold and armed it by guns from the warships driven on shore by the British. Here the Germans will probably make their last stand, for the Allies are advancing from all sides toward this center.

Portugal was brought into the war in March, so that Portuguese East Africa could be utilized as a base for the invasion of the country from the south. While the British fleet guards the coast line the allied forces have entered German East Africa from all the frontiers. On the south Portuguese troops have crost the Rovuma River. Between Lakes Nyasa and Tanganyika British troops under General Northey have entered from Nyasaland and Rhodesia. The Belgians from the Congo have invaded the country on both sides of Lake Kivu and the British from Uganda are advancing west of Lake Victoria Nyanza.

But the chief point of invasion was just east of Mount Kilimanjaro. Here the British railroad running from Mombasa on the coast led right toward Taveta on the frontier, just as tho it were made for the purpose. The Germans on their side of the line had constructed a strategic railroad leading from Tanga on the coast to Moshi at the foot of the mountain. Earlier in the war the British tried to capture this railroad from the seaward end at Tanga with the aid of the fleet, but their attempt met with disaster. The Germans likewise failed in their attempt to capture the British railroad from Mombasa by a raid over the border. Now the British are trying to get possession of the German railroad by beginning at the mountain end and working down to the sea.

The British began their campaign on March 9 with the recapture of Taveta, which the Germans had taken early in the war. Then General Smuts with his army of combined Boers and British crost the border and took Moshi, the head of the German railroad. Here the invading force divided into three columns. One swept westward around the base of Kilimanjaro, as far as Arusha, to get possession of the rich German plantations on the southern slope of the mountain. The second under General Van Deventer marched south arid defeated the Germans at Kondoa, only a hundred miles from the central German railroad. With the third and main force, General Smuts is driving the Germans before him down the northern railroad toward the sea. The German commander in chief, General von Lettow-Vorbeck, has most of his troops on the central railroad which connects Dar-es-Salaam, "the harbor of peace," with Lake Tanganyika.

A glance at the map will show that the boundary line between British and German East Africa makes a queer curve at one point, so that Mount Kilimanjaro is thrown into the German territory. This is because when the boundary was drawn in 1890 the Kaiser insisted on having the biggest mountain in Africa conceded to him. He already had the top of it on his desk as a paperweight, and he wanted the rest of it. Dr. Hans Meyer, who made the first ascent of Kilimanjaro in 1889 to the tiptop of the Kibo cone, 19,321 feet above the sea, named it "Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze" and put the pinnacle of the peak in his pocket for its godfather. The mountain had in fact been discovered in 1848 by a German, Johann Rebmann, who was sent out by the English Church Missionary Society to convert the natives. Perhaps we should say he rediscovered it, since it was known to Aristotle and Ptolemy as the Great Silver Mountain in which the Nile arose, a natural name since the cone of this extinct volcano is mostly covered by a perpetual ice-cap two hundred feet thick from which deep glaciers flow, altho it stands within three degrees of the equator.

English geographers scoffed at the German missionary for his alleged discovery and even after Baron von der Decken in 1861 had explored the mountain they were incredulous and wrote of it in this fashion :

Snow! in the hottest part of the year with the sun standing vertically overhead! It is easier to believe in the misrepresentations of man than in such an unheard-of eccentricity on the part of Nature.

Kilima-Njaro—to give its proper spelling for once—is not quite so high as our own Mount McKinley, but McKinley arises out of the Alaskan ice, while at the foot of Kilimanjaro one can pick bananas while feasting his eyes on the eternal snows above. This climate contrast, producing an island of alien vegetation, most struck our American traveler-poet, Bayard Taylor.

Hail to thee, monarch of African mountains,
Remote, inaccessible, silent, and lone —
Who, from the heart of the tropical fervors,
Liftest to heaven thine alien snows,
Feeding forever the fountains that make thee
Father of Nile and Creator of Egypt!
I see thee, supreme in the midst of thy co-mates,
Standing alone 'twixt the Earth and the Heavens,
Heir of the Sunset and Herald of Morn.
Zone above zone, to thy shoulders of granite,
The climates of Earth are displayed, as an index,
Giving the scope of the Book of Creation.
There, in the wondering airs of the Tropics
Shivers the Aspen, still dreaming of cold:
There stretches the Oak, from the loftiest ledges,
His arms to the far-away lands of his brothers,
And the Pine tree looks down on his rival, the Palm.

But Kilimanjaro has attracted the gaze not only of the poet, the missionary, the hunter and the statesman, but also of the Socialist, Dr. Theodor Hertzka, the Austrian economist, looking over the globe to see where he could best found his Utopia, selected the fertile and temperate plateau lying between Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenia as the most suitable site. His "Freeland; A Social Anticipation," published at Vienna in 1889, is the most carefully worked out of all the communistic schemes from Plato to Wells and allows greater freedom to the individual than is usual in Utopias. The colony, according to the story, was founded, by a German scientist, Karl Strahl, who furnished the ideas, and an American girl, Ellen Fox, who provided the capital. A Freeland society was founded to make the romance a reality, but so far as I know the colony was never started and "Eden Yale" is still untenanted. Perhaps this was because Ellen the Angel failed to appear; perhaps it was because England got the country north of Kilimanjaro.

The country south of it for which England is now fighting was more than once offered to her as a gift by the Sultan of Zanzibar and was refused! Even as late as 1884, when Germany had become aware of the future value of tropical territory, England was still but half awake and allowed German agents to gain control of a large part of East Africa. Dr. Karl Peters, then 28, and the author of a philosophical treatise on Willenwelt und Weltwille, disguised himself as a mechanic and with two companions made his way from Zanzibar into the interior, where he persuaded the chiefs to give him their signatures for a collection of autographs that his Imperial master was making. These autographs were made on a bundle of blank treaties that Dr. Peters happened to have with him so when he returned to Berlin he was able to show the Kaiser the title deeds to some 60,000 square miles of African real estate. The Kaiser promptly declared a protectorate over this territory and Peters proceeded to found the German Colonization Society and the German East African Company.

About this same time Sir Harry Johnston was getting the same chiefs to sign treaties ceding the same territories to the King of England. But the British Government in those days at least was not begrudging Germany "a place in the sun" and so did not give Johnston the backing that Peters got from his government. A still greater lack of foresight was shown in 1890, when the rival claims of England and Germany to African and Pacific territory were settled by mutual agreement. At that time Lord Salisbury in a fit of generosity or absentmindedness threw Heligoland into the bargain! Germany in exchange recognized the British protectorate over Zanzibar. The island of Heligoland has only 130 acres, while the island of Zanzibar has a thousand square miles, so the British press chuckled at the idea that Germany had "traded a coat for a button." But the loss of a button is inconvenient at times and England would probably now be willing to pay a million dollars a day for Heligoland which buttons up the Kiel Canal.

Dr. Karl Peters was put in charge of the Kilimanjaro district, but mistreatment of the natives was so brutal that it shocked the German Government and he was dismissed in disgrace. The wholesale execution of women as a deterrent measure was one of the charges against him. When Dr. Dernburg, a business man, was put into the colonial office, much to the disgust of the junkers he upset precedent by going to East Africa, to see for himself how things were going and an era of reform was inaugurated. The natives were treated more leniently, Hindus were imported and set to raising peanuts. The railroad from the ocean to Lake Tanganyika has been completed since the war began, so now German troops can be shipped from the eastern side of the country to the western over a route which used to take the caravans sixty days. Ujiji, the lake terminus of the railroad, is where Stanley met Livingstone. The German Government has been spending about $1,250,000 a year on East Africa,, but the money invested is likely to pay big dividends to whoever owns it in the future. An English review, rejoicing in the prospective acquisition of the German colonies, makes the amusing admission that it is lucky that Germany has had them hitherto for they have been explored and developed scientifically as England would never have done.

It was expected that "opening up the country" would mean opening it up to Christianity, but on the contrary it has turned out to be opening it up to Mohammedanism. In spite of earnest missionary work the natives of both German and British East Africa are rapidly becoming Moslemized. Mombasa, which means appropriately "the island of war" was an Arab stronghold in the fourteenth century, as those of our readers who know their "Paradise Lost" by heart will remember. The east coast natives speak Swahili, a hybrid of Arabic and Bantu.

In order to unite the Christian forces to meet the advancing wave of Mohammedanism the Bishop of Mombasa, Dr. W. G. Peel, organized a series of joint conferences of the missionaries in East Africa with a view to organizing a federation of churches. In the conference held at Kikuyu in June, 1913, he went so far in his Christian zeal as to admit the Presbyterian and Methodist pastors to the Lord's Table. For this he was denounced as a heretic by the Bishop of Zanzibar and a fierce theological controversy raged in the Church of England up to the beginning of the war. But the good Bishop of Mombasa died a few weeks ago of typhoid fever and the Christian forces are more divided than ever. The Christian converts who were gathered at communion in Kikuyu are now armed to fight one another by their Christian kings. From both sides we hear complaints of the brutal treatment of white men, women and children by their negro captors.

East Africa is the greatest prize the Allies have yet to gain from Germany. If the British conquer, the gap between Rhodesia and Uganda will be closed and the Cape-to-Cairo railroad may become a reality. If the Germans win in the war they will doubtless annex Belgian Congo and so get a thru route east and west from one ocean to the other. If neither side obtains a complete victory it is hard to see what can be done. For in any bargaining for peace Germany will insist upon the return of her colonies as the price of evacuating Belgium, France, Luxemburg, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and Russia. But the union of South Africa will never willingly consent to giving up German Southwest Africa which Botha has conquered or German East Africa which Smuts is likely soon to conquer.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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