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The exploration of Kenya (1883-1892)

Joseph Thomson (1858-1895), Scottish, geologist, naturalist and explorer, would finally open the inland Kenya to the knowledge and the imperialist domination of the western powers. When he was only twenty years old, he took part in an expedition on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, led by Alexander Keith Johnston. After Johnston's death from malaria, Thomson guided the party through the territories between lakes Nyasa (Malawi) and Tanganyika, but an attempt of incursion into Congo was frustrated by attacks from the Buye (Waruwa) natives. Returning to the coast through Tabora, the group led by young Thomson discovered Lake Rukwa. The details of this first journey were recorded in 'To the Central African Lakes and Back' (1881).

Thomson's second expedition was all but successful. Sultan Bargash from Zanzibar believed that there were rich coal deposits close to river Rovuma, at what today is the Tanzania-Mozambique boundary. In 1881 he funded a prospection trip to the area, a task for which he hired the geologist Thomson. The Scotsman accomplished his mission, but there were no such deposits. The sultan's dreams of finding his particular El Dorado were thence frustrated. Furious for the failure, he refused to send a rescue ship for the expedition and he denied receiving Thomson for three months.

Few years before, in 1874, Stanley had opened the court of king Mutesa I, in Buganda, to the European missionaries, who shortly after arrived to Kampala. The first were the English protestants, in 1877, followed by the French catholics in 1879. The difficulties of travelling to the Nile sources through the south routes propelled the necessity to build a railroad using the shortest way.

Thus, in 1882, the Royal Geographical Society organised an expedition to open the path through the Maasai land. The most thorny issue was to find who would be in charge of such a dangerous and suicidal journey: Stanley requested a full army, which was out of the Society's budget. The 25-year old Thomson offered himself unconditionally. With a reduced group and few weapons, on March 15th 1883 Thomson departed from Mombasa to cross the terrible Taru desert.

Before heading for his journey, Thomson had known to his disgust that another group, led by the German naturalist Gustav Fischer, had already departed towards the inner lands. Both expeditions were simultaneous, but Fischer would only manage to reach Lake Naivasha.

In April, Thomson bordered the Kilimanjaro and ventured into the Maasai land to find a proud and suspicious tribe, in the midst of decadence due to internal clashes and epidemics of cholera and smallpox. The explorer kept a cautious relationship with the Maasai, establishing agreements and overwhelming them with gifts. He made them believe he was a magician, speaking with gods and impressing them with his tricks, such as taking off his false teeth or adding effervescent powders to water. Moving forward with caution and coping with the Maasais' aggressiveness, Thomson reached the waterhole we call today Nairobi, spotted the Rift Valley, Lake Naivasha and Mount Kenya. He discovered Lake Baringo, named the falls in Ewaso Narok river after his father and the nearby range of mountains after Lord Aberdare, who was then the president of the Royal Geographical Society, to finally reach the shores of Lake Victoria on the 10th of December 1883. That day, the young champion of the shortest route to Uganda dressed his clan's tartan and by the lake he danced to his natal Scotland.

The journey back was long and tortuous. Thomson was severely gored in the thigh by a buffalo he failed to kill. However, the open wound in his leg, dysentery and the Maasais' raids could not force the explorer to give in. In May 1884, Thomson ended in Mombasa his historical journey which he accounted for one year later in his second book, 'Through Masai Land' (1885). Instead of retiring to enjoy his profits and his new fame, Thomson kept on wandering through Africa, with the only goal of fulfilling his dream of travelling, till in 1895 he died victim of the plentiful illnesses that had harassed him during his short life.

Other pioneers started to roam through the way opened by Thomson. The next one was the new anglican bishop of Kampala, James Hannington. In 1885 he came to take possession of his diocese through the new route, discovering a new lake he named after himself and that now we know as Lake Bogoria. Nonetheless, the unfortunate bishop would never reach his destination: he was murdered at the shores of Lake Victoria on behalf of the cruel king Mwanga II, who had inherited the crown of Buganda in 1884, started an intense prosecution of the christians and was distrustful of everyone coming from the east.

When the era of the great explorations was just about to end up, unknown corners yet remained in Kenya. In 1886, the Austro-Hungarian count Samuel Teleki von Szek (1845-1916) accepted a suggestion from his friend and benefactor, prince Rudolf, son of the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz-Josef I, to turn the safari he was planning into a journey of exploration of the territories north of Lake Baringo, beyond where Thomson had set foot. And so he did. Accompanied by lieutenant Ludwig von Höhnel (1856-1942), Teleki set on his way, being the first to climb Mount Kenya to later head on northwards and discover in 1888 the last of the Great Lakes, which he named after his friend the prince, and which we know today by the name of the tribe that inhabits its shores, Turkana. Teleki's and von Höhnel's journey also unveiled a smaller lake, Stefanie, soth of Ethiopia, re-named later as Chew Bahir.

Years after, in 1892, von Höhnel received a proposal from a young millionaire from New York, William Astor Chanler, to join him and Donaldson Smith in the exploration of the region north of the Tana river, from Lake Rudolf to river Juba. The expedition was scarcely successful, the porters quit and von Höhnel returned to the coast on a stretcher after being injured by a rhinoceros, closing in such a triumphless way the epic history of the exploration of Kenya.


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Cradle of Mankind
First migrations
Swahili coast
Portuguese empire
Omani domination
Mountains of the Moon
Inland peoples
Kenya exploration
Partition of East Africa
Protectorates & Lunatic Express
Settlers, hunters & sportsmen
African nationalism
Mau-Mau & end of the Colony
Uhuru, Jamhuri, Harambee
End of a century
Moi's decline & Constitution