How Kilimanjaro ended up in Tanzania

PHOTO | FILE The British gave up Mount Kilimanjaro to the German Tanganyika in exchange for the sultanate of Zanzibar which stretched all the way to the Kenyan coastline.

There is something odd about the map of Kenya. From Lake Victoria to the Coast, the borderline moves in a straight line that is only broken by a small kink. That unassuming curve would not be significant if it did not conveniently place Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, on Tanzanian soil.

The most popular myth about how the all-important curve came into being is that Queen Victoria bequeathed Mount Kilimanjaro to her nephew, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia, as a birthday gift. While the story is romantic to a point, and easy to use as proof of the insolent attitude of the European powers in their demarcation of Africa, it is untrue.

The borderline between Tanzania and Kenya tells the story of the arbitrary nature of the demarcation process that was later legitimised by an official mapping conducted in the early 1900s. While the Berlin Conference was indeed a party where different powers shared Africa like a giant pie, the notion that the Queen gave away an entire snow-capped peak on a whim is unsubstantiated.

There seems to have been an agreement between Germany and Britain as to the location of Mount Kilimanjaro, with the only point of contention being where the demarcation line from the mountain to Lake Victoria ended. The British proposed a line from Kilimanjaro to Speke Gulf while the Germans proposed a line from Kilimanjaro to North of Musoma. Another map from the German side shows a straight demarcation line from the North Eastern corner of Lake Victoria to Mombasa. In both maps, Kilimanjaro is part of what is today mainland Tanzania.

Schneppen Heinz’s Why Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania (1996) offers a more plausible reason for the anomaly. “Put more simply, the Germans had gained Kilimanjaro but not Mombasa, the British Mombasa but not Kilimanjaro. Now it becomes evident why Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania: because Mombasa is in Kenya.” (Page 18).

Schneppen’s assertion is based primarily on the terms of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1 July 1890. In the Treaty, Germany and Great Britain agreed on several territorial interests. Germany gave up its claim of Zanzibar Sultanate-which then stretched to what is today the Kenyan coast-in exchange for Heligoland and the coast of Dar es Salaam.

Heligoland is a strategic island that covers the approaches of Germany North Sea naval bases. Wilhelm viewed Heligoland as a primary strategic addition to his plan to outdo the British in naval power.

The young prince supposedly complained to his grandmother that she had two mountains while he had none. The matriarch, aptly referred to as the “grandmother of Europe”, then ordered her subjects to grant the future Kaiser one high snow-capped mountain in East Africa.

This sentimental “lavish royal gift” story was most likely the product of a Victorian satirist. It then flourished as a marketing gimmick fanned by tour operators and other tourism stakeholders.

In the years between the early 1880s and Germany’s defeat in World War I, its East African territory included what are now Burundi, Rwanda, and mainland Tanzania, then known as Tanganyika. The Zanzibar Sultanate was Britain’s proxy.

While the Heligoland treaty does not include any mention of a mountain, the demarcation lines do not seem to have changed around that part of the borderline. It seems more plausible that in giving away its claim on Zanzibar and its entire Sultanate, which then included what is now the Kenyan Coast, the Germans acquired Kilimanjaro.

Germany would not have been very concerned about giving up the Sultanate’s coastline because the deal left them with the Dar es Salaam coast.

The story of the Queen who gave away a mountain to her grandson has withstood the test of time, but it is a fabrication. While it does typify the excesses and arbitrary partitioning with which the boundaries of modern-day East Africa were determined, there is no single shred of evidence to support it. There is a Guinness World Record somewhere in the true story. Six years after the Heligoland Treaty, the pro-British Sultan Hamad died and was succeeded by Sultan Khalid. The British preferred Hamud, another pro-British, and used a clause in the 1886 treaty between Zanzibar and Britain to declare an ultimatum for Khalid to resign.

The battle to oust him begun at 9am on 27 August and ended at or before 9.40am, a mere 40 minutes later, booking its place as the shortest war in history.

The Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty ended Germany’s interests in the Zanzibar Sultanate, hence Schneppen’s assertion that Mount Kilimanjaro was part of the deal, albeit unrecorded in the terms of the treaty.

Queen Victoria might have had her moments of whims, but Mount Kilimanjaro was definitely not one of them. From a very East African perspective, it was either Mombasa or Mount Kilimanjaro. A coastline for a mountain sounds like a fair deal.