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Johannes Rebmann
1820 to 1876

Johannes Rebmann was a pioneer Protestant missionary to the East African coast from 1846 to 1875. During these years he never travelled further afield than Cairo. Although the 17th century Portuguese church was still standing in Mombasa when he arrived, it was used as a cowshed by Indian traders and no remnant of a Christian congregation remained. Fort Jesus and its chapel were in the hands of Muslim rulers.

Rebmann was born in the peaceful kingdom of Wurttemberg, where concern for religious scruples extended to exemption from military service. His family were Lutherans. One of his uncles was a missionary in India. His people cultivated vineyards. Johannes inclined to the Pietist section of the church. From the age of 19 to 24 he studied in Switzerland at the Basler Mission Seminary. As well as theology, evangelism and biblical languages, the students learned English. The Mission had a representative in London working closely with the evangelical Anglican Missionary Society, which had more locations for work than they could immediately staff. So in 1844 Rebmann made his way up to the Rhine and across the Channel – the first sight of the sea – to undertake training at the CMS Institute in Islington, North London. Within two years he was examined and admitted to Anglican orders as deacon and priest. He was posted to Mombasa, where his fellow countryman, Ludwig Krapf, had started work two years before, after previous experience in Ethiopia, and lost his wife and infant daughter to malaria.

Rebmann was escorted to the train which would carry him to Southampton, where a passage had been booked for him on a sailing ship to Cape Town. The voyage took eleven weeks. Finding the helper who was supposed to meet him away, he had to arrange his own passage into the Indian Ocean as far as Zanzibar. Here the Sultan received him warmly and allowed him to travel on one of his own vessels to Mombasa Island. Krapf had long been awaiting him, and installed him in the apartment beside the harbour where the Governor had allotted some rooms to the mission. Their purpose was to establish a station on the mainland. Through trading relations between the Miji-kenda, nine related communities inland, and the Muslim Swahili, Krapf secured a plot close to the heartland of the Rabai people. The two men, despite attacks of fever, managed to reach the site, build rudimentary houses, extend their language skills and become familiar with the norms of Rabai life. They knew almost nothing of the peoples and terrain of the hinterland. Krapf had a grand vision of a chain of mission stations stretching right across Africa, but the geographers in Europe scoffed at his account of a snowy peak close to the Equator. His accounts of diplomacy and hierarchy among the powerful chiefs of the area were less noticed. He travelled with porters bearing the mandatory gifts but without a tent or a weapon. He carried an umbrella. He brought back and translated the earliest recorded prayer of African Traditional Religion in the region: “Keep this stranger on his way that he may see nothing harmful, be not kept back by thorn nor long grass, encounter no elephants, rhinoceros nor enemies … May this man come again so that we may meet and rejoice.”

In 1848 another German speaker, Jakob Erhardt, joined them at Rabai, a survivor of many recruits who offered but were laid low on the way. Krapf’s first convert was Mringe, a thoughtful crippled young man, and Rebmann had the privilege of baptising him when near to death in Krapf’s absence.

Krapf made a trip to Europe to publicise the mission work, and the two younger men began to question the appropriateness of their location. It was close to the kaya, the traditional source of religious authority where the elders had to be deferred to. In contrast the trade route they followed whenever they walked down to the Mombasa ferry was used by people of different communities making their way to the island for trade or government business. They therefore decided to construct a pair of permanent cottages (still in use today) at a place they called Kisulutini Crossroads. This is the township known as Rabai today, though Krapf reserved the name for the old mission site where he continued to reside. Like many missionaries since, the young men failed to see how much their initiative would disturb the senior man.

They continued to gather information about the hinterland, questioning travellers and collecting records of their own travels, and this led to the “Slug Map” of East Africa. It was not quite accurate, since they supposed the great Rift Valley lakes to be portions of a single inland sea, but it was a great advance on what was known previously. The map and the safari reports were printed in the CMS Intelligencer and internal reports, and incorporated in Krapf’s book, Travels, Researches and Missionary Labours published in English in London in 1960. (The German version differs slightly.) A facsimile edition was issued by Frank Cass & Co. (London, 1968). Rebmann does not seem to have been concerned about getting into print in his own name. The daily routine of prayers, counselling and translation was his main focus. Braving the humidity and insects, early word-lists and translations were sent to Bombay for printing. Only one of them appears under his name, jointly with Krapf’s, in the 1958 second edition of A Linguistic Bibliography of East Africa edited by W. H. Whitely and E. A. Gutkind for the East African Institute of Social Research at Makerere. It is The Beginning of a Spelling Book of the Kinuka Language accompanied by a translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. Rebmann managed to keep up correspondence with linguists in various parts of Africa and to meet such scholars and interested agents as visited the coast, but never himself sought to travel.

Krapf arranged for Rebmann to enter into correspondence with the English widow, Emma Tyler who was teaching in a Christian girls’ school in Cairo. She was ten years older than Rebmann but might be a suitable wife for him under the restrictive conditions of mission life. Late in 1851 he undertook the strenuous journey to Aden and Suez on a series of Arab boats and then overland from Suez to Cairo. The agreement was made and they were married by the British consul on 3 January 1852. The hazardous return journey and the cramped quarters of Kisulutini must have been trying to Mrs. Rebmann and the death of their only boy after just six days was a crushing blow. But she continued to look after Rebmann and welcome guests until her death in 1866. They made a brief visit to Egypt in 1856, when the political turbulence threatened the continuance of the mission, but managed to keep it going. Dr. Krapf had withdrawn from CMS in 1853, pleading ill-health, but occasionally returned to the coast in other connections. The Rebmanns spent some time in Zanzibar, where there was a diplomatic community and one grocer’s shop. Faithful converts kept the services going at Kisulutini.

It seemed a brilliant idea of the CM HQ in London to engage the “Bombay Africans” in evangelism. These were freed slaves who had been educated at Nasik in India and could be expected to be closer to African communities than their white fellow-workers. But the idea had not been worked out in detail. The newcomers originated from different parts of Africa and were not conversant with the Swahili language or Miji-kenda customs. Some could work as trained artisans, but of course they had no land rights and no immunity to malaria. They were used to the same standard of living as the other missionaries, but the Home Committee had not provided any allowance for them. It was not easy for Rebmann to reconcile conflicts. He was technically “head of station” but for many years had been on his own. His generation had never expected fixed allowances or contracts of leave and service. Both the “Bombays” and foreign visitors – now that steamships provided quicker travel and British India had superseded “the Company” – talked about literacy and job opportunities rather than the prime evangelical concern with individual salvation. Newcomers had a better, though still uncertain, chance of survival. They were less dependent on local goodwill for transport and supplies. They could afford a boat and the canvas safari equipment Rebmann had marvelled at when he was called in to advise German explorers. There were still risky times, when Muslim factions clashed, but not the delicate balance of a single pioneer subject to the Sultan’s agents. The Methodist Mission at Ribe and the UMCA in Zanzibar offered fellowship more accessible than the Anglican diocese in far away Mauritius.

Rebmann was desperately lonely after his wife’s death and his sight was impaired. Because of his long service and the many fevers that had undermined his health, he was seen as an old man, due to retire and make way for new initiatives. People did not appreciate the long years of domestic applications that had nurtured a strong, if small, local congregation. But he was only 53 when Sir Bartle Frere, a former governor of Bombay, burst upon the coast to advocate what seemed a “civilising” rather than evangelising mission. It was right that more missionaries should be brought in and new techniques applied. But some failed to recognise the hold of tradition or the resonance of organisational change with the consolidation of Muslim power on the mainland. The abolition of the slave trade, under British pressure, had left many landless people looking for work. All this had an affect on ordinary life.

As his sight deteriorated further, and as political factions interfered more with the security of mission stations, seen now rather as foreign enclaves than an expressions of changing communal beliefs, Rebmann had to give in and allow himself to be retired. From Mombasa he was allowed to travel in a British naval vessel to Zanzibar, where Christian and official communities saw him aboard a steamer to Aden, where he was to tranship for London. He was assisted by Isaac Nyondo, son of his dearest friend Abe Gunga, and accompanied by Mr. Williams of CMS going on sick leave. In London he had discussions with CMS officials and underwent treatment which for a short time improved his sight. Still accompanied by Isaac he travelled to his childhood home, no longer the kingdom of Wurttemberg but part of the German empire. It all seemed very strange. Surviving relations welcomed him, but he had been away more than 30 years and the way of life had changed. Krapf was still a power in the church and the region, still dominant. Rebmann’s sight was fading again and Isaac would soon have to return to London on a training course before going back to Mombasa. With some intervention from Krapf, a marriage was arranged between Rebmann and a missionary widow, Luise Dauble Finckh who had served in India for many years. Both partners must have bitterly missed the physical and social warmth of their missionary years, but were able to combine their other resources for a few months. Rebmann died in October 1876 and was buried under the inscription “Safe in the arms of Jesus”.

He had brought with him on shipboard a trunk full of his linguistic manuscripts and nothing else. He left precise directions for its safekeeping, but was not able to see it through the press. This task felt to Krapf. Dr. Steven Paas, author of the authoritative work on Rebmann, Johannes Rebmann: A Servant of God in Africa before the Rise of Western Colonialism, has gone into painstaking detail to trace dates which may have been lost or wrongly attributed. His bibliography is invaluable. Rebmann was gifted at working alongside linguistic informants, notably Muslim scholars in Mombasa and Zanzibar but, like everything else he did, this was subordinate to the practical purpose of evangelism. The Johannes Rebmann Foundation is based in Gerlingen, his birth-place. My own novel on the life of Rebmann is not yet published.

Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye


i. Rebmann's own writing incorporated in Krapf's Travels, Researches and Missionary Labours, English edition (London 1860) and in sundry reports and journals of the Church Missionary Society.

ii. Rebmann's original correspondence in English in the missionary archive of the University of Birmingham.

iii. Steve Paas, Johannes Rebmann. A Servant of God in Africa before the Rise of Western Colonialism (Nurnberg: VTR Publications 2011). This book contains exhaustive reference to Rebmannn's German language correspondence as well as a detailed bibliography.

iv. A. Temu, Protestant Missions on the East African Coast (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, c. 1970).

v. R. Coupland, East Africa and its Invaders (Oxford University Press, 1938).

This biography, received in 2012, was written by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, born 1928, a Kenyan novelist and poet who has been associated with the Anglican Church in Kenya since 1954.