The early history of Buganda begins with the dynasties starting in roughly 1300. Among them, the Chwezi were the most prominent. The balance of power was changed by the arrival of Luo-speaking people from the Upper Nile who were looking for good land, which they found in Uganda. Arriving in the 1500s, they represented a continuation of the migration of peoples from the Sahara region as desert encroached on the grazing area of their cattle. These pastoralists came as conquerors in many cases, imposing their ways on the more advanced people who became their unwilling subjects.
In 1497 the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama stopped in East Africa to take on Arab sailors familiar with the Arabian Sea. In 1498 he would visit India. Yet the riches of East Africa were not lost on the Portuguese, and they would return to attempt to carve out their own commercial empire in East Africa, with again the slave trade as one of their most lucrative markets. In 1505 the Portuguese, with their firearms, would take both Kilwa and Mombasa as part of a virtual conquest of the entire Indian Ocean, presenting the Bugandan kings with a new and rich source of trade.
The tumultuous changes going on outside Buganda’s borders inevitably had an impact on the country and its people. Portuguese and Arabs clamored to have influence with the king, the kabaka, and contributed to instability within the royal house itself. The kabakas were still strong and took astute advantage of the turmoil between the Portuguese and the Arabs to expand their kingdom.
The 19th century saw even more powerful foreign powers enter the African scene. In 1806 Britain would conquer the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch, beginning the modern history of South Africa. In 1830–31 the French would begin the conquest of Algeria, opening their history of empire in North Africa. It was inevitable, as the European colonial powers expanded their control in Africa (Britain conquered Egypt in 1882), that the kingdom of Buganda could not stay immune from their influence. Buganda was visited by explorers, such as Henry Morton Stanley and John Hanning Speke, who were impressed by what they saw of the native kingdom. By this time, the internal pressures were causing Buganda to begin to fail as a viable state.
Finally, in 1885 the kabaka Mwanga II took an irrevocable step that would inevitably cost Buganda its independence. Between 1885 and 1887 Mwanga II had some 45 Christian converts, some 22 Catholic and 23 Anglican, murdered. Although he did this to thwart the growth of Christianity in his kingdom, the brave example of the martyrs only caused others to join their faith. At the same time, Muslims conspired to have a Muslim placed on the throne instead.
In 1867 a Bugandan king converted to Islam, if only in name. Mwanga II lost his throne, but managed to regain it. British intervention was guaranteed when, in the beginning of his persecution, Mwanga II had Anglican bishop James Hannington killed; Hannington had just been appointed to oversee the growing Anglican flock in East Africa.
At this time, Germany also entered the competition for Buganda. Carl Peters had established the colony of German East Africa, eventually known as Tanganyika. In November 1886 Great Britain and Germany signed an agreement dividing East Africa into the German zone and British East Africa, which bordered Buganda. Peters was determined to add all of Uganda to what the British called “German East.”
By May 1890 Peters got Mwanga II to agree to a German protectorate over Uganda. This sent shock waves through London, where the headquarters of the British East Africa Company could see their plans for an East African empire wither. On May 13, the British prime minister Lord Salisbury succeeded in convincing Kaiser Wilhelm I to give up any claims to Uganda and nearby territories in return for the island of Heligoland, which he saw as vital to the defense of the Kiel Canal. However, the British were taking no chances the kaiser might change his mind. The British government of Prime Minister Lord Roseberry dispatched Frederick Lugard in 1894 to end the chaos that was now causing Buganda to implode. Establishing a firm British protectorate over Buganda, as he later would do in Nigeria, in 1897, Lugard finally deposed Mwanga II.
- Davidson, Basil. Africa in History. New York: Collier, 1968;
- Packenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa. New York: Random House, 1991.