Before Religion Came to Uganda – 1800s:
Until the middle of the 19th century, Uganda remained relatively isolated from the outside world. The central African lake region was a world in miniature, with an internal trade system, a great power rivalry between Buganda Kingdom and Bunyoro Kingdom, and its own inland seas. When intrusion from the outside world finally came, it was in the form of long-distance trade for ivory.
Ivory had been a staple trade item from the coast of East Africa since before the Christian era. But growing world demand in the 19th century, together with the provision of increasingly efficient firearms to hunters, created a moving “ivory frontier” as elephant herds near the coast were nearly exterminated. Large caravans financed by Indian money lenders, Arab traders based in Zanzibar reached Lake Victoria by 1844. One trader, Ahmad bin Ibrahim, introduced Buganda’s Kabaka (King) to the advantages of foreign trade: the acquisition of imported cloth and, more important, guns and gunpowder. Ibrahim also introduced the religion of Islam, but the Kabaka was more interested in guns.
By the 1860s, Buganda Kingdom was the destination of ever more trade caravans, and the Kabaka and his chiefs began to dress in cloth called “mericani” (derived from “American”). This cloth was woven in Massachusetts and was carried to Zanzibar by American traders. It was believed to be finer in quality, more than European or Indian cloth, and increasing numbers of ivory tusks were collected to pay for it using barter trade. Bunyoro Kingdom, Buganda Kingdom`s neighbor to the West wanted to keep up with Buganda`s economic growth and therefore also sought to attract foreign trade, in an effort to keep up with Buganda in the burgeoning arms race.
Uganda in this era was not yet the country we know today. By the 1800s, it was still structured in political units called Kingdoms and Chiefdoms and Buganda Kingdom was the most powerful inland political unit (Kingdom) in Eastern Africa at the time. Traders from the East and West passed through Buganda Kingdom as its people were found to be helpful, very receptive to foreigners and understood the value of partnerships in building the Kingdom economically and politically. In addition, it had set laws that governed its people and well defined systems of governance.
The Kingdom was also keen on its geographical growth and conquering new lands was very vital for it. Every new territory the Kingdom conquered was added to it as a new clan and the newly conquered people were expected to follow the norms of Buganda Kingdom if they desired to live. It was common for newly conquered clans to show their allegiance to the reigning King, by offering one of their daughters to the King as a wife and local chiefs of conquered areas ruled as personal appointees of the Kabaka (King) of Buganda Kingdom, who also had a sizable army at his disposal.