Geography and Imperialism: Halford Mackinder and the first ascent of Mount Kenya

Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) is mainly known as the father of modern British geography, thanks to his relentless academic activity during the Edwardian era. However, he also became famous in his era for the first successful ascent of Mount Kenya in 1899, when he reached the peak of this great African mountain after three months of dramatic efforts. Indeed, this achievement is still highly debated among biographers of the character, due to the obscure events surrounding its lucky conclusion.

Located around 150 kilometres northeast of Nairobi, Mount Kenya is the second highest peak of the African continent after Kilimanjaro, measuring more than 5,000 meters with 11 small glaciers on the top of its summit. It was first sighted by a European in 1849, when the German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf explored the surrounding area in search of the sources of the White Nile. Thirty-four years later, a British expedition led by Joseph Thomson tried to ascent the mountain, but it failed for the hostility of the local Kikuyu tribes. This dismal result was not repeated in 1887, when a second expedition lead by Count Samuel Teleki, a dashing Hungarian adventurer, reached ca. 4,350 meters on the south western slopes, collecting precious data on the flora and the fauna of the region. But the peak remained untouched by European explorers until the summer of 1899, when Mackinder and his équipe arrived in Mombasa with the firm intention of conquering Mount Kenya for scientific and political reasons. Indeed, the expedition was implicitly conceived as a propaganda move against the contemporary spread of German influence across East Africa, thus restoring British imperial prestige in this pivotal area on the sea road to India. At the same time, Mackinder also hoped to use his personal success in favour of British geography, persuading the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) of the validity of his educational projects at Oxford.

Apart for Mackinder, the leading members of the expedition were Sidney Hinde, a Canadian doctor with some exploratory experience in the Congo, and Campbell B. Hausburg, a fine photographer who had also contributed to the financial costs of the expedition. Then there were also two collectors, selected by the Natural History Museum of London, and two French alpine guides, highly experienced in the ascent of similar Alpine slopes. Arrived in Mombasa, however, Mackinder and his group began to encounter serious problems: the coastal area of Kenya was in fact plagued by famine, and the local British authorities initially refused to give precious supplies to the expedition. Using his connections with the RGS, Mackinder was able to receive enough food for his adventure, but the absence of any serious support from colonial officials instilled a vivid anxiety among the members of the group. This was destined to have dramatic consequences in the following weeks.

After recruiting some Swahili porters in Nairobi, the party began its northward march in early August, constantly negotiating with local Masai and Wakikuyu chiefs the right to pass across their territories. A veteran of the Belgian campaign against the Congo Arabs, Hinde imposed a draconian discipline on the porters, whipping them for any minor infraction; it does not seem that Mackinder ever questioned this brutal approach toward African people. Instead, his diary is full of contempt for the Swahilis, described as “faithful dogs” and “poor devils”, while the Masais are generally respected for their martial virtues. This initial ambivalence became more marked during the central stages of the expedition, when the modest supplies collected at Mombasa and Nairobi began to run out, without any possibility to find other food in the surroundings. Stricken by famine, several porters tried to desert the party, and they were only checked by Hausburg’s violent display of firearms. Mackinder decided then to disband the party, sending Hausburg toward Lake Navaisha in search of food: it was a dramatic race against time, culminated in the brutal shooting of eight porters for desertion or insubordination. The event is still debated by scholars; documentary evidence is in fact quite fragmentary, giving way to pure speculation on the real circumstances and responsibilities of the massacre. It is true, however, that both Hausburg and Mackinder did not show any humanitarian concern in the fulfilling of their ambitious African project, sharing the crude racial prejudices of their time. In this sense, the expedition to Mount Kenya perfectly represent the spirit of European imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century, full of violence, greed, and psychological obsession. A toxic mixture well captured by Joseph Conrad in his great novel Heart of Darkness, published some years later as part of the wide international campaign against Belgian atrocities in the Congo.

Finally, solved the food crisis toward late August, Mackinder and the two French guides began the real ascent of the mountain, establishing a first field base in the Hohnel Valley. Then, after some failed attempts across the Darwin Glacier, the three men reached the summit of the peak at noon of September 13, surveying the snowed soil and collecting important scientific specimens. Mackinder was completely exhilarated by such final success, and his diary is full of joyful and cheerful expressions: “The peaks were again clear. What a beautiful mountain Kenya is, very graceful, not stern, but, as it seems to me, with a cold feminine beauty.”

But the exhilaration was short-lived: six days later, the return journey began through the Aberdare Range, and there were new problems with the African porters, solved again through violence and threats. At the end of the month, the expedition reached Lake Navaisha, and Mackinder left immediately the party for Britain, due to his academic responsibilities at Oxford. Meanwhile, a short telegram announced the success of the expedition to the geographical community, reunited in Berlin for an international congress. This act was certainly a “slap” in the face of the hosting nation, considering that the German climber Hans Meyer hoped to conquer Mount Kenya in the next future, and it stresses again the imperialist dimension of Mackinder’s venture in East Africa. Satisfied by the success of its young member, the RGS gave its patronage to the establishment of an independent School of Geography in Oxford, which became quickly a respected educational institution, promoting the renewed geographical discipline across the country. Mackinder tried even to use his recent fame as an explorer to start a political career, presenting himself as a Liberal candidate in the Leamington constituency during the Khaki election of 1900, but he was easily defeated by his Conservative opponent Alfred Lyttelton. He became a MP only ten years later, after having joined the Tories’ ranks in the summer of 1903.

The notebooks and diaries of the Mount Kenya expedition should have been collected in a single volume for Heinemann, but Mackinder proved unable to respect the contract signed with such a prestigious publisher. Recently, some scholars have quite speculated on this editorial failure: Gerry Kearns, for example, is convinced that Mackinder did not write a complete review of the Mount Kenya ascent to hide his responsibility in the mistreatment and murder of African porters, while K.M. Barbour dismisses this charge underlining the multiple personal problems suffered by the geographer in the early years of the twentieth century. Indeed, the African venture proved more harmful than beneficial to his marriage with Emilie “Bonnie” Ginsburg, which painfully broke up in late 1900. Traumatized by this failure, Mackinder threw himself in educational and political duties, spending days and nights writing long essays or talking with acquaintances in several dining clubs. Thus he forgot the commitment with Heinemann, leaving his notes on the expedition in a very confused state. The separation with Emilie was permanent, and the married couple partially reconciled only in the late 1930s.

Mackinder’s achievement in East Africa remained unsurpassed until the end of World War I, when other British explorers reached the peak of Mount Kenya, paving new ways for the further survey of its splendid glaciers. Among them, the most brilliant figure was probably Eric Shipton, who climbed the mountain in January 1929 and then contributed to the creation of the Mountain Club of East Africa during the same year. But his exploits were quickly surpassed during World War II by three Italian POWs, who escaped from their concentration camp in Nanyuki, climbing the third peak of the mountain in their ill-fated flight: devoid of food and water, in fact, the three soldiers decided later to return to their original prison, receiving only 28 days of solitary confinement as a reward for their extraordinary exploit. Their leader, Felice Benuzzi, wrote a popular recount of such adventure in 1946, significantly entitled No Picnic on Mount Kenya. It is still considered a classic of the mountaineering genre, and in 1994 it has also been adapted into a movie called The Ascent by director Donald Shebib, with Ben Cross and Vincent Spano.

Today Mount Kenya is a great national park, officially included in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1978. Recently there has been some preoccupation for the retreat of its main glaciers, maybe due to the negative effects of global climate change. However, the site is still visited every year by hundreds of alpinists and naturalists, attracted by the beautiful scenery and the wide biodiversity of this part of Africa. Among the animals protected in the park, in fact, there are leopards, antelopes, porcupines, elephants, lions, and a rare species of owls (Bubo capensis mackinderi) named in honour of Halford Mackinder, the first unforgotten climber of Mount Kenya in 1899.

Simone Pelizza, University of Leeds

Suggested reading:

Felice Benuzzi, No Picnic on Mount Kenya (Lyons Press, 2005).

Brian Blouet, Halford Mackinder: A Biography (Austin, TX: A&M University Press, 1987).

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and other tales, edited by Cedric Watts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Gerry Kearns, Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Halford Mackinder, The first ascent of Mount Kenya, edited by K.M. Barbour (London: Hurst and Co., 1991).


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