Exploring the Meaning of Place in 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro'

Surveying the myriad ways this fabled mountain has inspired cultures around the globe, across the centuries

Ernest Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" begins, "Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa."

"Its western summit is called the Masai "Ngaje Ngai," the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."

Plate from Across East African Glaciers; Research Trips in the Kilimanjaro Area (1890) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Critical interpretation of Ernest Hemingway’s epigraph to his great short story is continually debated. Death, failure, perseverance, heroism, redemption, and purity can be read into the opening lines of The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

In a few dramatic, sparse words, the mountain is introduced as a powerful symbol. There are hints of its meaning in the following narrative with the contrast of its icy slopes at high elevations with the sweltering plains below.

A writer, Harry, is dying of gangrene in a safari camp while waiting for a rescue plane. Kilimanjaro is not mentioned again until the end, when the author is flying in his last imagination.

"Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going."

Blakely 2ostafrikanische00meye_0168Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

A dormant volcano, Mount Kilimanjaro is the largest free-standing mountain in the world. Near the border with Kenya in the country of Tanzania, it rises 19,341 feet officially (well below Hemingway’s stated 19,710). One of the “Seven Summits”—the highest mountain on each continent – Kilimanjaro is called “The Roof of Africa.” Uhuru Peak is the highest point, on a crater rim. When the mountain was part of German East Africa, the top was known as Kaiser-Wilhelm- Spitze. In the geopolitical maneuvering of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that name was later dropped as the country came to be administered by the British Empire. The summit was re-named Uhuru, Kiswahili for "Freedom," Peak in 1961 when Tanganyika gained its independence. The country later joined with the islands of Zanzibar to form Tanzania.

The snows of Mount Kilimanjaro are shrinking and will soon disappear entirely. It will be a shocking sight when the summit is no longer shrouded in white. For the local inhabitants, who have long held the mountain as a sacred place, the declining water supply from the snow melt will be a danger.

Fig. 59 - “The Dome of Kibu from an altitude of 11,000 feet” (1886) by Harry JohnstonSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Since antiquity, the mountain has invoked awe and mystery. Located about 186 miles below the Equator, Kilimanjaro is a wondrous vision as it rises from the grasslands. It is one of the few tropical glaciers in the world. Its slopes provide an economic livelihood to many who accommodate the multitudes of adventurers who seek its splendor and experiences or bragging rights of ascending to the top. What will it mean and what will be lost when this iconic cultural landscape is gone?

Map from Across East African Glaciers; Research Trips in the Kilimanjaro Area (1890) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

The large stratovolcano of Kilimanjaro, formed from volcanic ash, lava, pumice, and tephra, has three cones...



...and Shira.

Opinions about the origin and meaning of the name “Kilimanjaro” are many and varied and there is no consensus. The mountain was only consistently called Kilimanjaro (in variant spellings) when it became a symbol of power and control, and claimed by Western explorers.

Blakely 3ostafrikanische00meye_0325Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

The Western Summit (an area known as the Western Breach), mentioned twice in Hemingway’s epigraph, is not commonly referred to as “The House of God” but reflects that Kilimanjaro has long been a spiritual place.

Through Masai Land - Title Page (1887) by Joseph Thompson, F.R.G.S.Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

An avid reader of travel books and guides, Hemingway may have picked up that reference from Scottish geologist and explorer Joseph Thomson’s Through Masai Land (London, 1885).

Thomson (1858-1895), who arrived in 1883 on a Royal Geographical Society expedition, was the first to report on the “northern aspects” of the mountain although he failed in his attempt to climb Kilimanjaro.

Thomson’s book was a best-seller and the famous African gazelle, Eudorcas thomsonii, was named for the explorer.

Suma de Geographia Illustration (1546) by Martin Fernández de EncisoSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Aeschylus wrote in 500 BC of “Egypt nurtured by the snows.” To those plying the trade and slave routes along the coast of the Indian Ocean, the mountain, about 170 miles inland, might have been glimpsed through the humidity and clouds.

Despite the ancient legends from non-indigenous peoples, including Ptolemy’s writing of “moon mountain,” Arabic writings, and the 1519 account by Spaniard Martin Fernández de Enciso, Summa de Geografia...

...glaciers in the continent of Africa, particularly one that lay three degrees south of the Equator, were not to be believed.

"Slug Map" including Kilimanjaro (1856-06) by Jakob ErhardtSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

The German missionaries Johannes Rebmann and Johan Ludwig Krapf in the mid-nineteenth century sent reports of a snow-capped mountain in East Africa back to an incredulous Europe.

The Royal Geographical Society dismissed their account, published in 1849 in the Church Missionary Intelligencer, with mockery. Rebmann was armed with an umbrella and a Bible approaching “the high mountain of Jaggaland” to convert “superstitious” Africans.

Reisen in Ost-Afrika in den Jahren (1869) by Baron Carl Claus von der DeckenSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

The data that proved to Europeans that a snow-clad mountain existed in Africa was collected in 1861 by Carl Claus von der Decken (1833-1865), who was accompanied by an English geologist, Richard Thornton (1838-1863).

Thornton had been on Livingstone’s Zambezi expedition; the pair journeyed inland to verify the claims. They ascended only a few thousand feet on Kilimanjaro before bad weather turned them back.

Decken’s Reisen in Ost-Afrika in den Jahren 1859 bis 1861 (Leipzig, 1869-1879) describes the attempt and the area and its natural history.

Lobelia deckenii (1889-12) by William L. AbbottSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

The other-worldly looking Lobelia deckenii was named for the German adventurer.

This lobelia is the only alpine species that is native to Kilimanjaro, growing between 12,500- and 14,100-feet elevation.

Portrait of Charles News and Title Page (1873)Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

Another missionary, Charles News (1840-1875), made it up to 13,000 feet, reaching the snow line of Kilimanjaro, in 1871.

He relayed his attempt in Life, Wanderings, and Labours in Eastern Africa: with an Account of the first successful ascent of the equatorial snow Mountain, Kilima Njaro, and Remarks upon East African Slavery (London, 1873).

Summit of Kilimanjaro (1873) by Charles NewsSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

News produced this expressive rendering of Kilimanjaro.

Helichrysum newii (1891) by J. BuchananSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

At the request of John Kirk, he collected plant specimens...

...including the beautiful white variety of everlasting flowers, now known as Helichrysum newii.

“The First View of Kilima-Njaro”, opposite page 71 (1886) by Harry JohnstonSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Sir Henry Hamilton Johnston (1858-1927) authored The Kilima-njaro Expedition: A Record of Scientific Exploration in Eastern Equatorial Africa (London, 1886). This volume is one of thirty-five titles (in addition to manuscript materials) of Johnston’s in the Smithsonian Libraries. The British explorer was also a botanist and linguist adept at many African languages. With the support of the Royal Geographical Society and the British Association, Johnston led an 1884 expedition to Kilimanjaro.

“A Corner of Our Settlement” (1886) by 1886 and Sir Henry Hamilton JohnstonSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

During this trip, he also acted as negotiator to establish treaties with tribal chiefs to accept British protection. Johnston felt entitled to the mountain and was annoyed at having to pay tributes to gain permission to climb. The Train Collection has his four-part account from the serial The Graphic in 1885: “A Journey to Mount Kilima-Kilima-njaro, Africa.”

In the second part, Johnston reported:
For nearly four months I chafed under my sense of impotence. Here I had come to Kilima-njaro expressly to visit and collect the fauna and flora living at high altitudes near the snow line, and owing to the obstacles arising from the hostility and suspicion of the natives I was continuously repelled in my various attempts to ascend the mountain and make my habitation in the upper region above the inhabited zone.
Johnston eventually made it as far as an elevation of about 16,315 feet on Kilimanjaro.

Taf. 7 - Across East African Glaciers; Research Trips in the Kilimanjaro Area (1890) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

The first recorded summit of Kilimanjaro was by geologist Hans Meyer (1858-1929) and mountaineer Ludwig Purtscheller in 1889. The success of this climb, on Meyer’s third attempt, was attributed in part to two natives: Mwini Amani of Pangani and Yohani Kinyala Lauwo of Marangu.

Taf. 2 - Ostafrikanische Gletscherfahrten: Forschungsreisen im Kilimandscharo-Gebiet (1890) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

This set the pattern for all subsequent expeditions, reliant on guides, porters, managers of men, cooks, translators, and those with crucial local knowledge.

Indeed, this is still the norm for climbs of global tourists on Kilimanjaro.

Cover. Der Kilimandjaro. (1900) by Dr. Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Meyer’s earlier expedition around and on the mountain resulted in a wonderfully illustrated publication: Zum Schneedom des Kilimandscharo (Berlin, 1888).

Taf. 7 & 8. - Zum schneedom des Kilimandscharo (1888) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

It contains forty stunning photographs and a detailed map.

Cover - Hans Meyer’s Der Kilimandjaro. (1900) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

The German explorer subsequently published a follow-up to that book, Across East African Glaciers; an Account of the First Ascent of Kilimanjaro (London, 1891). It is this work that Hemingway almost certainly knew and referenced.

Der Kibokrater, Südwestseite (1900) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Meyer wrote that the Swahili name means “Mountain of the spirit Njaro,” while the local inhabitants have given it no name at all but call the western peak “Kibo” (the bright).

Karte I. - Across East African Glaciers; Research Trips in the Kilimanjaro Area (1890) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Across East African Glaciers contains accounts of previous expeditions, the author’s biography, descriptions of the physical geography along with climate zones of vegetation, and appendices with systematic lists, including the work of German botanists. Continuing the work of Meyer’s undertaking is the monumental Die Pflanzenwelt Afrikas by Adolf Engler (Berlin, beginning in 1895) which provides descriptions of several new plant species in the Kilimanjaro region.

Taf. 9. - Across East African Glaciers; Research Trips in the Kilimanjaro Area (1890) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

The Chagga, not the Masai, have called Kilimanjaro their homeland. They are the third-largest ethnic group in the country but were not the unified “tribe” thought of today. The term ‘Chagga’ was once associated with colonial rule, but it is now accepted as a common identity as the local population sought to lay claim to the area’s natural resources.

There were once fifteen separate clans and chiefdoms that claimed Kilimanjaro’s slopes, and some now lend their names to the routes to the summit. For the Chagga, “Kibo”— “white mountain” —is a colloquialism meaning astonishment.

Taf. 7 & 8. - Zum schneedom des Kilimandscharo (1888) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

For them, along with other African populations, Kilimanjaro’s landscape has dimensions both religious (home to mountain spirits) and emotional (as control goes more and more out of local hands), even as global tourism has taken over from agriculture and the gathering of grass and wood on the mountain. Kilimanjaro has been declared a World Heritage Site and is carefully administered by the Tanzania National Parks Authority.

The European explorations of the nineteenth century gave way to tourism of modern times, with its attendant benefits and harm.

- Landorossi Gate

Taf. 7 & 8. - Zum schneedom des Kilimandscharo (1888) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Remarkably, since his popular image is of a hyper-macho author and hunter and not an environmentalist, Hemingway wrote in his mostly nonfictional Green Hills of Africa (New York, 1935):

A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water, so that the water supply is altered, and in a short time the soil, once the sod is turned under, is cropped out, and next it starts to blow away as it has blown away in every old country and as I had seen it start to blow in Canada. The earth gets tired of being exploited.

“Kilima-Njaro, Seen from Lake Jipe” (1886) by Sir Henry Hamilton JohnstonSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Hemingway never attempted a Kilimanjaro trek, staying at camp while on safari near the base in early 1934.

Suffering from amoebic dysentery, he was flown by plane, en route to Arusha, past Mount Kilimanjaro, providing the material and inspiration for the end of his short story.

Taf. 13. Ostafrikanische Gletscherfahrten: Forschungsreisen im Kilimandscharo-Gebiet (1890) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro was first published in Esquire magazine in 1936, and then was selected for The Best American Short Stories, 1937 (Boston, 1937). Its first appearance in a 1938 compilation of Hemingway’s own works is entitled The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. A copy is in the Train Collection of the Cullman Library.

One of the great appeals of climbing Kilimanjaro is passing through the five distinct ecological zones of the mountain: Bushland or Lower Slope, Rainforest, Heather or Moorland, Alpine Desert, and Arctic.

It is as if one is walking from high summer to deep winter in a few days.

This wide variety of ecosystems support a diversity of species. There are more than 1800 types of flowering plants growing in the volcanic soils: the famous groundsels (Senecio johnstonii), Protea kilimandscharica, Impatiens kilimanjari, and the fiery-red Gladiolus watsonioides.

As for fauna, Johnston saw three elephants at a height of 13,000 feet and Meyer reported seeing one on the slopes in 1889. There have been more recent sightings of leopards (professional climbers Rick Ridgeway and Geoffrey Salisbury).

Blue and colobus monkeys are most common at the forest level, but other mammals include olive baboons, civets, mongooses, badgers, bush babies, and servals. There are now reports that animals are being seen at higher and higher elevations. This is also true of birds: turaco, hornbills, robin chat, white-necked raven.

In 1926, a “dried and frozen carcass of a leopard” was found by Donald Latham and his guide Offoro in the Arctic region at approximately 18,500 feet. There is now a “Leopard Point” commemorating the spot on the crater rim. Latham is said to be the first Englishman to reach the peak and described this trek in a December 1926 article, “Kilimanjaro and Some Observations on the Physiology of High Altitudes in the Tropics", for the Geographical Journal.

Suffering from altitude sickness, Latham pushed “to attack” the summit (stating this was at 19,710 feet, possibly the source of Hemingway’s statistic in the epigraph) and reported “A remarkable discovery was the remains of a leopard, sun-dried and frozen, right at the crater rim. The beast must have wandered there and died of exposure. I built a small beacon and recorded my visit therein.” A photograph in the serial attests to the discovery.

Tef. 10 Across East African Glaciers; Research Trips in the Kilimanjaro Area (1890) by Hans MeyerSmithsonian Libraries and Archives

Immortalized by Hemingway, the remains of the actual leopard, who was likely drawn up while stalking prey, have vanished. Hans Meyer’s earlier account in Across East African Glaciers distinctly echoes Hemingway’s “no one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude”:

We were about half-way through this terrific bit of work when we came upon what was perhaps as wonderful a discovery as any we made on Kilimanjaro. It almost savours of the fabulous, but here in this stern frost-bound region, at the very summit of a mountain 20,000 feet high, we lighted on the dead body of an antelope—one of the small species we had noticed on the pasture-lands below. How the animal came there it is impossible to say.

An earlier typescript version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro had an epigraph from a woman adventurer and writer whom Hemingway admired. Rather than his own words, the opening was a quote from Vivienne de Watteville’s Speak to the Earth: Wanderings and Reflections among Elephants and Mountains (London, 1935). A fellow of The Royal Society (1900-1957) and Hemingway’s contemporary, she sought to climb Kilimanjaro and was told that success would depend “on one’s ability to withstand the high altitude.” Her book (with a little-noted preface by famous novelist Edith Wharton, of all people) ends in part one with a vision of the sunlit snows of Kilimanjaro. On the advice of Hemingway’s Esquire editor, the passage was dropped in favor of the lines apparently based on Meyer’s passage.

Yet another missionary in the story of European exploration, Richard Gustavovich Reusch (1891-1975), who climbed Kilimanjaro perhaps seventy-five times and whose name is commemorated in the inner crater of Kibo, cut off an ear of the poor leopard as a souvenir in 1926.

The German mountaineer Meyer returned to Mount Kilimanjaro ten years after his initial summit. There are astounding photographs that Meyer took of these expeditions, recording the snow and ice fields. Even then, he was shocked at how far the glaciers had receded in the intervening decade. Because of this, former Vice-President Al Gore was criticized for using the receding glaciers of Kilimanjaro at the beginning of the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), as proof of global warming. However, there is significant scientific evidence that human activity and industry has greatly exacerbated the retreat of the glaciers, and not just the natural progression of snow on a volcano.

A complex combination of rising temperatures and humidity, decreasing precipitation, and changing cloud cover have led to a loss of more than 70 percent of the snow coverage since the mid- 1970s.

In addition, deforestation and encroaching farm lands, including coffee plantations, are said to have contributed to the lack of new snow pack.

A wonder of the world and a landscape of great spirituality, Mount Kilimanjaro will soon become a potent representation of climate change and human activity. Meyer described the splendor of coming upon the sight from the arid plains:

My troubles were all forgotten, however, when towards sunset the whole mountain for the first time unveiled itself from head to foot. … A more sublime spectacle could not be imagined than that on which we gazed entranced, as, that evening, the clouds parted and the mountain stood revealed in all its proud serenity. The south-west side of the great ice-dome blushed red in the splendor of the setting sun, while farther to the east the snows of the summit lay in deep blue shadow. Here and there the glistening, mysterious mantle was pierced by jagged points of dark-brown rock, as spots fleck the ermine of a king. And surely never monarch wore his royal robes more royally than this monarch of African mountains, Kilimanjaro. His foot rests on a carpet of velvety turf, and through the dark-green forest the steps of his throne reach downward to the earth, where man stands awestruck before the glory of his majesty. – Across East African Glaciers

Through Masai Land - Title Page (1887) by Joseph Thompson, F.R.G.S.Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

The Smithsonian Libraries’ dispersed collections, supporting a vast research institution, speak to each other. They tell of our relationships to the changing natural world.

These holdings (including a surprising number of fictional titles), telling stories of the historical layers of the landscape, will help to preserve what once was the awe-inspiring image of the white-draped mountain in equatorial Africa—the symbol of grace, of purity, in Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

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