Johan M. Hildebrandt - 1847-1881 - Collectors in East Africa - 10.

By Bernard Verdcourt

Extracted from The Conchologists’ Newsletter, No. 88, pp. 141–145, published March 1984

Johan Maria Hildebrandt, born in Düsseldorf on March 19th. 1847, was one of the best botanical collectors ever to go to Africa. He made superb collections with copious duplicates and excellent notes. Very many of the specimens proved to be new and the collections were mainly written up by Wilhelm Vatke (1849–89). He also collected a few molluscs that were mostly dealt with by von Martens in 1878. His journeys were made in order to obtain botanical material not as adventure expeditions. As he put it himself "whilst these [other] explorers push restlessly forward and, as it were, do not let the grass grow under their feet, it was my task to collect this very grass". He was a doctor by profession and made three important journeys – 1872–4, 1875–7 and 1879–81.

His first expedition took him to Eritrea, Aden and Somaliland. From July 1873 to 1874 he was in Zanzibar and also visited the Wami and Kyngani rivers. In 1875 he visited Mombasa, then the Comoro Is., Pangani and Lamu before returning to Mombasa. In 1876 he was ill in Zanzibar but obviously recovered quickly because in November he was back in Mombasa and other parts of the coast. On 10th. January 1877 he set off for Mt. Kenya via Ndara, Ndi and Kitui (much of the track that the present railway and road follow). He collected a number of snails in the Kitui area but never reached Mt. Kenya and returned to Mombasa and Zanzibar in August. In 1879 he made his third and last voyage, this time to Madagascar, and revisited Zanzibar. He died in Madagascar on May 29th. 1881, in the Ankaratra Mountains.

First expedition

He left Berlin on 5th. March 1872, stayed in Egypt for a short time and then made his way to Aden via Djiddah, Hodeidah and Mochah arriving in June 1872. He made an interesting journey to Massaua in July 1872 in an English battleship the name of which I have failed to elicit from naval historical records, and there met Munzinger-Bey who was starting a military expedition to northern Ethiopia in order to occupy the province of Bogos at the behest of Egypt. He invited Hildebrandt to accompany him, which invitation was accepted. From July to October they passed through the provinces of Habab, Bedjuk and Az-Temmariam, Hildebrandt collecting a great many scientific specimens including many new plants.

After his return to Massawa he visited the volcanic peninsula Buri and set off by barge to Aden. On the way he landed at Hamfale and visited the Ragad Salt plain to the west, 60 m. below sea-level and also climbed the volcano Oerteale, the first African volcano found to be definitely active. Lack of provisions forced him back to the barge but he stopped in Assab Bay, then made his way to the Bab el Mandeb Straits and landed at Rac-Arâr, finally reaching Aden by camel.

He next made two excursions to the Somali coast, one to Berbera and Bulhar and a longer one to Lasgori in the Wer – Singelli – Somâl from whence he visited the Ahl range, rising to 2000m. and with a most interesting flora, now very much degraded. Hildebrandt found many new species there and the area has continued to yield more right to the present day. After this strenuous Somaliland expedition Hildebrandt took a ‘holiday trip’ to Karachi (Kurratsahi) and up the R. Indus, then to Zanzibar in 1873. From there, partly in the company of the zoologist Hagenbeck, he visited the Rivers Wami and Kingani in Tanzania then made an excursion to Brava on the southern Somali coast. Hildebrandt returned to Europe in August 1874, partly because he was in poor health, and partly to prepare for his long envisaged journey to Mt. Kenya.

Second expedition

He was back in Aden in February 1875 and for a while occupied himself with anthropological studies. From there he visited Mait (Meith) in the region of the Habr – Gehardyis – Somâl and then the Surud [Serrut] Mts. "into the land where incense and myrrh grow (if not gold)" where he discovered many previously unknown plants including the genus in the Convolvulaceae named after him – Hildebrandtia. He found the Habr – Gehardyis in great confusion since just previously the Egyptians had occupied the towns of Zeila, Tedjurra and Berberah and even taken inland Harrar – the first time the Somali people had had their freedom threatened. For a time they thought Hildebrandt must be an Egyptian spy, "hiding the most bloodthirsty heart under the sheeps-clothing of a plant collector" and it took him some time to convince them of his peaceful intentions and obtain permission to ride into the interior. He gives a good account of the country. "The easterly projecting Horn of Africa, on which the strong current of the Indian Ocean breaks and sends many a ship to its doom at Cape Gardafui and Ras Hafun, the Scylla and Charybdis of East Africa, is a limestone formation. Several ranges of mountains running parallel to the coast rise up to about 2000 m. Their fantastically fissured slopes contrasting brilliantly against the deep blue tropical sky are covered by a vegetation which is radically different from that of the granite of Abyssinia. Plants yielding rubber and resin are particularly richly represented. The ancients used to call Cape Gardafui or even perhaps the whole peninsula-like region ‘Promontorium aromatum’".

Hildebrandt was particularly interested in resin-yielding plants and settled the identity of several types of myrrh, frankincense, bitter aloe resins, chewing mastics and tanning plants. He also made numerous observations on Somali customs but also had trouble. "I almost had to forfeit my laboriously assembled collection, for, one day several hundred warriors confronted me, demanding the blood and possessions of the hated foreigner. The rattling of our guns cooled them down sufficiently, however, so that after hours of negotiation, I was able to satisfy them with an advance compensatory payment in chewing tobacco for the harm which my visit and witchcraft would evidently bring in their wake".

After returning to Aden from whence he sent his Somali collections to Germany, and staying from June until September on Johanna Island in the Comoros gathering yet more interesting plants including 47 new species of mosses, he finally reached Zanzibar again. Here he engaged porters and equipped himself for his journey to Kenya but had a great deal of misfortune. He had hoped to proceed inland from Pangani and indeed was invited to join a 2000 strong caravan of ivory traders who were planning to cross Masailand to Lake Victoria ("Bahari ya pili" – literally second sea) but he turned it down since it was not where he wanted to go – fortunately it turned out, since a year later he heard that few of this caravan had escaped the spears of the wild hordes of Masai. He finally went north to Lamu hoping to proceed inland along the R. Tana through the southern Gala (Galla); this too failed because the Gala had been invaded by the Somalis and were afraid to form a caravan. What is more, the Egyptians had now taken Barava (Brava) and other southern Somali coastal towns and everywhere was in uproar.

He visited the site of old ruins at the mouth of the R. Ozi. Prostrated with fever and with ulcers on his legs due to scurvy he went to Mombasa in December 1875 to recover and set about learning languages of the interior and also "made a few natural history excursions carried in a hammock but these of course did not yield very much". Still ill, he twice returned to Zanzibar where finally he was nursed fully back to health in the hospital on the English Service ship ‘London’. The physician responsible was not forgotten and is commemorated in the name Indigofera sedgwickiana Vatke & Hildebrandt. More porters were engaged in Zanzibar and in November 1876 they left for Mombasa to make a preliminary training trip to Maweni in Durunia. Here he collected some galena from the so-called antimony mines and makes some terse comments still very much applicable – "Travellers are often reproached with not having paid enough attention to products which might have a technical application. I myself have supplied various important raw materials to business concerns on the spot as well as sending them to Europe to the appropriate museums, and, I have always received the same answer: ‘We will look into the matter’ – and that is the last you hear of it"!

On the 10th. January 1877 he set out with about 50 bearers and escort on his long awaited journey into the interior. "We crossed the tremendously fertile coastal hill country of the Wanika (Wanyika) and the Waduruma. Plantation follows plantation – but the cattle had for the most part been stolen a short time previously by the Masai. However, as soon as the terrain sinks down behind these hills, that are made fertile by the moist sea winds, and merges into the boundless plain of the interior the landscape assumes the typical aspect of the real Africa. The garish red or yellow sunbaked soil is covered with the densest thickets of fleshy Euphorbias dripping with poisonous latex, Africa’s cacti, and these are intermixed with thorny and spiny plants of a wide range of other plant families, each in its own way putting up resistance with hooks and barbs to the passage of both man and beast. Here and there also a tree forming an umbrella but offering as much shade as would the uncovered framework of a parasol. In these desolate wastes water is only to be found at great intervals. It is collected from previous rain in natural depressions in the rock. It is at these pools of water that the Ariangulo, wild bush-rangers related to the Gala lie in wait for the trade caravans". One now crosses this area at high speed on a tarmac road but anyone who has broken down in a car and needed water, as I have, knows even now exactly how these old travellers felt, although there are no longer wild people waiting to ambush you!

He pressed on to Taita and pitched camp for a time at the foot of Mt. Ndara. Some of the witch-doctors looked on him as a powerful colleague owing to a former prophecy of a white man coming from the sea. He agreed to go with them up the mountain to "make medicine" to improve the crops. He managed to get the natives to collect numerous plants and animals for his collections. He told them how they could improve crop-yield by spreading cow-dung on the fields and although they did not believe him they amazingly followed his advice. They journeyed NNW to the Voi River. Hildebrandt climbed Ndi "Taita’s other mountain" and this is the type locality of the enigmatic Zingis radiolata (which has never been re-collected). Some doubt has been expressed that this is the Ndi on present-day maps. Hildebrandt says "It rises to about 1400 m. above sea-level and 600 m. above the broad plain" which fits but certainly it does not look promising for Zingis. I have searched for it without any result. "We followed a path cut diagonally across the wilderness by the Wataita for the purposes of warfare and along which they had attacked a Wakamba caravan a short time previously. The far-sounding noise of my guns protected us, however, from a similar fate". The march to Ukamba was usually 11 days and on the second day they reached the R. Tsavo, 30 years later to become famous for its lions* which severely hindered the building of the railway at this point. I myself had an adventure near here in 1978 when collecting plants on a rocky hill and accidentally trod on a male (fortunately) lion. It certainly flashed through my head that it might well have had infamous forebears!

Hildebrandt set up a fortified camp on the R. Adi (Athi) – "and wandered through the surrounding area collecting as I went and I also sent people out to bargain for provisions in Kikumbulyu, for we had nothing left except for the few fish from the river. Later we waded across the Adi and travelled in a north-north-westerly direction over the Ndungu Range to Ukamba where we rested for several days in the village of Malemboa in order to feed ourselves up again". Still travelling NNW they went via Kipopotue to the R. Tiva thence to Ihanga on the R. Ndeo reaching Kitui on the 12th. March. Here he had some trouble because in 1851 Krapf (the first European to sight the snows of Mt. Kenya) had been in company with a chief who was murdered by robbers and had been blamed for it, being accused of making ‘bad magic’. Hildebrandt was thought to be out to ruin the whole country and paid out a good deal from his fast diminishing stock of beads, calico, etc.. The rainy season had just started and he was in an excellent position to collect the many plants which suddenly sprang up. All the birds and animals were also active and he mentions many birds familiar to African travellers.

Although Mt. Kenya was only three days march away he unfortunately never reached it. The Wakwafi had suddenly charged into nearby villages, killed the herdsmen, driven the cattle away and set up their nomad camp right on the route to Kikuyuland which was the way Hildebrandt had planned to go. It now transpired that shortly before his arrival in Kitui an Arab caravan of 1500 armed men had been slaughtered to a man and obviously he could not force his way through their country. One of his porters was an Mkwafi so he sent him and two others with gifts to try and reach a friendly agreement but they soon returned having fled at first sight of the Wakwafi, throwing down all the gifts and their food. Moreover, the Wakamba witchdoctors and members of the family of Kiwoi, the chief supposedly killed by the power of Krapf’s pocket bible, made a great nuisance of themselves and actually prepared to attack Hildebrandt but when he advanced towards the 4–500 armed men with his camera they fled. Apart from this and his followers’ fears of the Wakwafi and Wakamba, the supplies were rapidly diminishing. Very disconsolately he gave up the attempt to reach Mt. Kenya and returned to Taita; his plan to visit Kilimanjaro from there was also thwarted, this time by the Masai, who had no less than seven coastal caravans tied up at Taveta, some of whom had been there four months. He reached Mombasa in August and sailed to Zanzibar to pack his "fairly rich collections". His health was now very bad – not only did he have dysentery but enlargement of the spleen, atrophied liver and incipient dropsy. He was earnestly advised to return to a cooler climate.

Despite his own disappointment in not reaching either of the great mountains, his expedition was in reality very successful from a scientific point of view. His material all arrived in Europe safely and contained very many undescribed species and greatly increased our knowledge of East African natural history.

I am very grateful to my colleague Mr. Brian Stannard and to the MAFF Translation Section for translations of German papers without which little of this could have been compiled. The original translations are preserved in the Biographical Pamphlets in the Library of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Most of his molluscan discoveries were listed or described by E. von Martens in a paper read before the Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin on 11th. April 1878 and published the same year with two excellent plates, the figures being drawn and lithographed by W. A. Meyn. Apart from this, a slug he collected in Somaliland was described by Simroth. These are detailed beneath with modern names added.

*Patterson, J.H. ‘The man—eaters of Tsavo’, London, 1907.


List of molluscs described from material collected by J. M. Hildebrandt

Atoxon hildebrandti Simroth, 1889. Somali Republic (N), Mait. = same. Type formerly in Berlin but not found.
Buliminus (Rhachis) Braunsii von Martens 1869 var.Hildebrandti von Martens, 1878. Kenya, Duruma = Rhachistia hildebrandti (von Martens, 1878).Types in Berlin.
Buliminus (Rhachis) conulinus von Martens, 1878. Kenya, Ukamba, Kitui, and Taita, Ndi = Edouardia sordidula (von Martens, 1897).Types in Berlin.
(von Martens made rather a mess of naming this species; his name conulinus 1878 a later homonym of Buliminus conulinus von Martens 1869 which is also an Edouardia so in 1895 he replaced it with Buliminus (Conulinus) hildebrandti, but since he had used that at varietal rank in 1878 for another Buliminus (see above), he again renamed it as Buliminus sordidulus in 1897.
Cyclostoma anceps von Martens, 1878. Kenya, Taita = Tropidophora (Ligatella) anceps (von Martens, 1878). Type in Berlin.
Cyclophorus ? Hildebrandti von Martens, 1878. Kenya, Ukamba = Maizania hildebrandti (von Martens, 1878). Type in Berlin.
Ennea denticulata Morelet, 1872 var. hildebrandti Jickeli 1874. ?NE Ethiopia = Ptychotrema denticulatum (Morelet, 1872)var. hildebranti (Jickeli, 1874). Type in Berlin.
Lanistes ciliatus von Martens, 1878. Kenya, Fiboni = same. Type in Berlin.
Paludomus africana von Martens, 1878. Kenya, Fiboni = Cleopatra africana (von Martens, 1878). Types in Berlin.
Paludomus exarata von Martens, 1878. Kenya, Fiboni = Cleopatra exarata (von Martens, 1878). Types in Berlin.
Ptychotrema (Ennea) massauense Thiele 1933. Eritrea, Massawa = same. Type in Berlin.
Stenogyra (Opeas) sinulabris von Martens, 1878. Kenya, Ukamba, Kipopotue = Curvella sinulabris (von Martens, 1878). Types in Berlin.
Streptotaxis enneoides von Martens, 1878. Kenya, Ukamba = Gonaxis enneoides (von Martens, 1878). Type in Berlin.
Zingis radiolata von Martens, 1878. Kenya, Taita Ndi = same but a problem species, only once re-collected and described as Peltatus polystephes Tomlin; the generic position of a whole series of African snails depends on the dissection of topotypes (see Verdcourt, 1960, 1961). Types in Berlin.


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B. Verdcourt