Von der Decken, Karl Klaus

At a Glance:




Bird Names: 1


East Africa

Karl Klaus von der Decken, 1874. [link]

Content note: this profile contains discussion of racism and Islamophobia.

The Bird:

Von der Decken’s Hornbill (Tockus deckeni)

Von der Decken’s Hornbill. Photo: JFM.

The Name:

It’s hard to imagine having to travel with many of the expeditions encountered while researching past naturalists. Most are composed of a handful of Europeans and a much greater number of locals, whose employment with the group may have not been entirely consensual and were more often than not poorly treated by the Europeans in the party. The journal entries of these explorers are often dripping with contempt for the people who are, in many cases, literally keeping them from starving or getting killed by the local communities they impose themselves upon. A particularly insufferable example of an explorer of this mold is the Baron Karl Klaus von der Decken (1833-1865). A member of an old German noble family, his mistreatment of and callous attitude towards the people he worked with in East Africa eventually led to his death.

Von der Decken first arrived in Africa in 1860, planning to meet up with another German explorer. He was heading to what is now Tanzania when he learned said explorer had died, and decided on a change of plans. He happened to meet up with an English geologist, Richard Thornton, and they set about climbing and measuring seemingly every hill and mountain they could find. However, they were so single-minded in this that they managed to anger almost every local group they encountered. In the Taita Hills, they climbed a notable peak, only to find themselves the focus of the anger of local residents. They had not secured proper permission to do so, and as the mountains of the region were focal points of local spiritual beliefs, they were regarded as trespassers on sacred ground, possibly with ill intent.The party were asked to pay a fine, but in a pattern that would repeat throughout his time in Africa, von der Decken refused to pay. Tensions were near boiling point, and the party had to flee.

Not to be deterred, they set out to climb the peak that had only before been sighted briefly by Europeans: Kilimanjaro. Once again, they wore out their welcome with local residents, this time in not one but two different villages. Although it is unlikely they could have successfully climbed the peak anyways– the nearly 20,000 ft summit was likely outside of their technical abilities– their decision to stop at around 8,000 ft was possibly only in part due to the poor conditions they encountered: they had to flee “by stealth in the dead of night”, having once again attempted to climb without permission of the local residents.

In the years between this and his disastrous 1865 expedition, von der Decken continued to build a reputation for himself as particularly rude and contemptuous. After the Baron’s death, the famed explorer (and problematic in his own right) David Livingstone recorded:

“The Baron was very haughty in dealing with the natives, and never lost an opportunity to show contempt for them. He was, moreover, somewhat stingy in small matters…The Baron’s letters were filled with praise of the Juba country, and abuse of the natives; he had quarrelled with every one here [i.e. Zanzibar]. When asked to go to church, he replied that he would not go because the bishop prayed for Sultan Majid, and he as a knight was bound to extirpate all Turks and infidels…He seems to have carried things with a high hand. After some altercation with the Chief Hajee Ali, the Chief held out his hand in a token of reconciliation and friendship, the Baron thrust it away contemptuously, and by this act probably sealed his fate.”

Simmons 1941 [link]

Von der Decken continued to just generally be an imperious, demanding presence in Zanzibar, and he didn’t let up when he set out to explore the Juba River in Somalia. The expedition came to a halt near the town of Berdera, when they received conflicting information about whether there was a cataract upriver they would have to somehow navigate. Part of the problem was that, based on his journal entries, von der Decken didn’t trust his interpreters or, for that matter, any of the local residents. He set himself up as an unwelcome guest almost immediately; the community followed an interpretation of Islam that prohibited smoking, but the Baron still smoked in the sheikh’s house, noting with apparent amusement that the local authority he probably should have tried to be on decent terms on “would not come once into his own house while I sat there smoking”.

As the group tried to determine whether they could continue upriver, they also tried to get supplies. Again, though, von der Decken seemed oblivious to the fact that his contempt wasn’t winning him any friends. He describes his main interpreter Adbio as “a very useless creature, yielding to every native rumour, and is cowardly beyond measure”. Unsurprisingly, Abdio and the other Somali and Zanzibari members of the expedition didn’t seem too interested in putting up with the Baron.

On October 2nd, Abdio and the local residents decided they’d had enough of the presumptuous baron. The party had by now split, with part taking the boat and leaving von der Decken behind. Von der Decken then set out overland to try and find them, promptly getting lost. He ended up circling back to Berdera, and apparently decided to get more provisions while there. At this point, the trap was sprung: the townspeople, aided by the weapons Abdio and other disgruntled expedition members had given them, captured him, killed him, and threw him in the river.

There are multiple accounts of the events of the ill-starred expedition from the time, all either questioning how such a thing could happen or chalking it up to some mysterious fury of the local residents, who were barely regarded as human to begin with. But looking from a different vantage point, the situation is incredibly simple: von der Decken, like many other European explorers of the period, didn’t show even the most basic respect for his unwilling hosts, and treated the people he relied on terribly. The residents of Berdera weren’t acting out of some unknowable animalistic impulse, as von der Decken’s contemporaries concluded, but a very human frustration and anger. There is a very clear lesson in von der Decken’s death: don’t be an ass. In the colonial narrative, though, he is recast as a martyr, and countless other Europeans would follow his lead, refusing to learn from his actions as they plundered their way across Africa.

J.F. McLaughlin


Playfair. 1865. An account of the death of Baron C. von der Decken and Dr. Link. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 10(3). pp. 109-113. [link]

Simmons, J. 1941. A suppressed passages in “Livingstone’s last journals” relating to the death of Baron von der Decken. Journal of the Royal African Society. 40(161). pp. 335-346. [link]

Thornton, Richard. 1861. Expedition to Kilimanjaro (in company with the Baron von der Decken). Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 6(2). pp. 47-49. [link]

Thornton, Richard. 1865. Notes on a journey to Kilimanjaro, made in company of the Baron von der Decken. The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London. 35. pp. 15-21. [link]

von Schickh. 1865. Report of the disasters that have happened to the expedition of the Baron Charles von der Decken. Proceedings of the Royal Geographic Society of London. 10(3). pp. 91-103. [link]