History and Historicals of the Mountains of the Moon

Many explorers and adventurers travelled around the Rwenzori much earlier the scientific expedition of the Duke of Abruzzi. From their experience many peaks and mountains derive their names, which make the Rwenzori range.


Sir Samuel White Baker
Romolo Gessi
Emin Pasha
John Hanning Speke
Sir Henry Morton Stanley
Dr. Franz Stuhlmann

Mount Speke from Bujuku Valley


The Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy, the father of the geography, in 150 AD speaks of the “Lunae Montes”, the “Mountains of the Moon”, high mountains covered by snow located in the inner Equatorial Africa and indicated as the source of the Nile. This resulted from the findings he had gathered at the Alexandria library, related to the oral stories coming from this unknown part of the world. The history of the Rwenzori is also that of the attempts made by explorers and researchers to actually locate the source of the Nile down from Sudan, following the Ptolemy’s first map. Finally, the expedition headed by John Speke in 1862 reached the point where the water of the Lake Victoria (then Nyanza) starts the course of the river Nile through the falls which he called Rippon, to honour the President of the Royal Geographical Society who funded the scientific mission.
The bad climatic condition of the Rwenzori region has prevented to reach and see the mountain for a long time. The photographs of Vittorio Sella in 1906 contributed to give a visible representation of the legend. The first European who has seen the mountains was Sir Henry Morton Stanley on 24th May 1888 from Lake Albert. Stanley has been one of the greatest explorers and he confirmed the findings made by Speke. Long before we have the technological perks of modern living, such as jet planes, the Internet, and Parking4less.com services, many explorers and adventurers travelled around the Rwenzori much earlier than the scientific expedition of the Duke of Abruzzi. From their experience many peaks and mountains derive their names, which make the Rwenzori range.
The origin of the name, “Mountains of the Moon”, perhaps derives from the mountains being considered at the limit of the acknowledged universe. The name could also translate the Arabic “Jebel Al Kamar”, “White Mountains”, where the reference to the “moon” is due to the “white” colour of the snow capped peaks.
The people living on the mountains call the “Rwenzori”, which means “rain maker” or “rain mountains” in the Bakonjo language. The Baganda, who could see the mountain range from far, use to call them “Gambaragara”, which means “My Eyes Pain”, a reference to the shining snow.
The first to attempt to survey the Rwenzori peaks was Dr. Franz Stuhlmann in 1891. He identified four of the six mountain groups and named them after German professors, Krapelin, Moebius, Semper, Weismann. Sir Harry Johnston in 1900 suggested to use names of explorers who actually contributed to the progress of the discovery of the African secrets, like Stanley, Emin, Stairs, Bagge, Stuhlmann; he named the Portal Peaks for the reason that they constitute a gateway to the Rwenzori. The Bakonjo had their own names for the peaks, however as they had never climbed them, it was difficult to clarify which peak was which. For example they had names for the three main peaks: Kiyanja, Duwoni and Ingomwimbi. The fact is that for the Bakonjo the high Rwenzori is the home of Kitasamba, god who resides at the high altitudes and cannot be accessed. Luigi Amedeo, the Duke of Abruzzi, in 1906 followed the idea of naming the peaks according to Victorian historicals, adding some Italian name to honour the Italian royal family (Margherita, Elena, Vittorio Emanuele, Iolanda, Umberto). The approval came from the British Royal Geographical Society, as the range was under the Britain’s Uganda protectorate. Other names: Prof. Scott Elliott gives the name to the Pass; he was the first to attempt the mountain from the Uganda Protectorate, but he did not reach up to the place which bears his name. Freshfield Pass derives from Douglas Freshfield, who was the President of th English Alpine Club, and he tried to climb on 1905, but he failed due to bad weather conditions.

Sir Samuel White Baker [ 1821 - 1893 ]

A wealthy and prodigiously strong Scotsman, was the first European to sight lake Albert just north of the Rwenzori. He also discovered Murchison Falls. After a long period in Mauritius and Ceylon, in 1861 he set out from Cairo to search for the source of the Nile with his beautiful and capable wife, a Transylvanian girl he had purchased at a slave bazaar in the Balkans. In 1862 they proceeded up the Nile to Juba, where they met British explorers John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant. Informed by Speke of a lake said to be crossed by the Nile on its course to Juba, the Bakers continued upriver and, on 14th march 1864, reached the Lake and named it Albert, in honour of Queen Victoria’s husband, who had died in 1861. From 1869 to 1873 Baker commanded an expedition on behalf of the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt to suppress slavery and open trade in the equatorial Lake region, and never saw the Rwenzori.
Mount Baker, 4.889 metres is named after Baker.


Romolo Gessi [ 1831 - 1881]

He was an Italian military officer who in 1874 joined the administration of General Charles Gordon in the Equatoria province of Egyptian Sudan and made the first circumnavigation of Lake Albert to the north of the Rwenzori. Remarkably, he did not see the mountains. Later, he became the governor of Bhar-el-Ghazal province, with the rank of Pasha. Though relatively obscure, he is considered to be one of the greatest Italian explorers on the Nile, a person for whom the tough and displined Gordon had utmost respect. In 1881, he was recalled from Bhar-el-Ghazal by the Egyptian government and was blocked for three months in the Sudd swamps of the Nile. Most of the 400 men in his party died of starvation and Gessi himself succumbed only two days after finally reaching Egypt.
Mount Gessi, 4.715 metres is named after Gessi.


Mohammed Emin Pasha [1840 - 1892]

Originally Eduard Schnitzer, was a Prussian doctor who had been tutor to the children of a Turkish pasha, had an affair with their mother and, after his employer’s death, became head of the family. Leaving them all behind in 1875, he journeyed to Cairo where he was appointed medical officer in the Egyptian army under General Charles Gordon, who named him governor of Equatoria Province in Sudan in 1878. In that capacity Emin Pasha made explorations of eastern Sudan and central Africa that contributed greatly to the geographical and scientific knowledge of the region. In 1883 a revolt broke out in Sudan under the leadership of Mahdi; the Egyptian government abandoned the province in the following year and Emin Pasha found himself isolated by the rebel forces. In April 1888 he was rescued by Sir Henry Morton Stanley who tried in vain to persuade him to return to Egypt. In a second Mahdist revolt later that year, Emin Pasha was deposed and imprisoned. After his release he returned to Egypt and resigned his office. In 1890 he was commissioned by the German East Africa Company to lead an expedition into the regions of central Africa claimed by Germany. He was murdered by Arab slave traders in October 1892 at Kanema in Congo.
Mount Emin Pasha (4.719 metres) is named after Emin Pasha.


John Hanning Speke [1827 - 1864]

He joined an expedition to explore Somaliland led by the linguist, diplomat and writer Sir Richard Burton in 1854. They were lucky to survive the trip, but only two years later, in 1856, they set out together again on an expedition sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society to search for the great East African equatorial lake that were believed to exist and thought to be the source of the Nile.
They found Lake Tanganyika in 1856. When Burton became too ill to travel, Speke set out alone and became the first European to sight lake Victoria, which he belied was the source of Nile even though this was hotly disputed by Burton. On a later expedition in 1862 with James Augustus Grant, Speke discovered Ripon Falls and descended the Nile as far as Juba, meeting Sir Samuel Baker and his wife, who were ascending the river. Despite his observations and beliefs, Speke never proved conclusively that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile, and the day before he was to debate the subject publicly against Burton, a forceful and convincing speaker, Speke died in a shooting accident that many, including Burton, suspected was suicide.
Mount Speke, 4.889 metres is named after Speke.


Sir Henry Morton Stanley [1841 - 1904]

Whether he actually said it or not, will always be remembered for the phrase, ” Dr Livingston, I presume?” Controversial yet popular, Stanley was an Anglo-American journalist and a leading figure in the exploration and colonisation of Africa. Born in Wales as John Rowlands, he sailed at the age of 18 to New Orleans, where he took employment with an American merchant named Henry Morton Stanley, and adopted his name.
He fought with the rebel Confederate army during the American Civil War and was captured at the battle of Shiloh in 1862. After the war he began his African explorations, at first as a correspondent for the New York Herald. Stanley made six major trips to Africa, during which death was no stranger to his travels. Hundreds of his men perished of disease, starvation or violence.
In his career as a journalist – explorer he accompanied the British punitive expedition in 1868 against the Ethiopian king, Theodore II.

In 1871 he located the ailing Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingston and together with him explored Lake Tanganyika; in 1873 he reported on the British campaign against the Ashanti in Ghana; from 1874 to 1877 he circumnavigated both Lakes Tanganyika and Victoria and crossed the continent from east to west descending to the Atlantic Ocean along the Congo river. In 1879 he returned to Congo for five years under the sponsorship of King Leopold of Belgium. In 1887 Stanley led an expedition to rescue the German explorer Emin Pasha, the governor of Equatoria Province of Egyptian Sudan, who was surrounded by rebellious Mahdist forces, but when he found Emin Pasha in 1888 he was unable to persuade him to return to Egypt. It was on this expedition that Stanley made a definite sighting of the Rwenzori. From 1895 to 1900 he sat in the British Parliament and was knighted in 1899.
The biggest mountain of the Rwenzori is Mount Stanley, 5.109 metres.


Dr. Franz Stuhlmann

For centuries there had been rumours of the existence of the snowy mountains that fed the Nile. About 1800 years ago, Ptolemy showed them on a map and called them the Lunae Montes, the Mountains of the Moon. But it was not earlier than 1891 that Dr. Franz Stuhlmann led a 5day trip into the heart of the Rwenzori.
In June 1891 F. Stuhlmann, following on Emin Pasha’s expedition, ventures for five days into the upper Butagu valley, one of the most important on the western side of the range. He reaches 4036 meters, in the sight of two snow-capped peaks, and is then obliged to turn back. On his return he relates the succession of the various phases of vegetation with an abundance of details, but above all he describes the Rwenzori as a real mountain range, composed of four principal groups, and certainly not of volcanic origin.

From “Uganda Rwenzori – A range of Images”, by David Pluth, 1996 Little Wolf Press, Switzerland. 

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