Early History: 300 CE - 1500 CE - Early History: 300 CE – 1500 CE

Early History: 300 CE – 1500 CE

As the Bantu-speaking agriculturists of the Uganda area spread and multiplied over the centuries, they evolved a form of government by clan chiefs. This kinship-organized system was useful for coordinating work projects, settling internal disputes, and carrying out religious observances to clan deities, but it could effectively govern only a limited number of people. Larger polities began to form states towards the end of the first millennium CE, some of which would ultimately govern over a million subjects each. More extensive and improved cultivation of bananas (high-yield crops that allowed for permanent cultivation and settlements) by Bantu groups between 300 and 1200 CE helped this process.

Nilotic speaking pastoralists who lived in the more arid and less fertile North were mobile and ready to resort to arms in defence of their cattle or in raids to appropriate the cattle of others. But their political organization was less, based on kinship and decisions by kin-group elders. In the meeting of cultures, they may have acquired the ideas and symbols of political chiefship from the Bantu speakers, to whom they could offer military protection, and with whose elites they sometimes joined and intermarried. It is theorized a system of patron-client relationships developed, whereby a pastoral elite emerged, entrusting the care of cattle to subjects who used the manure to improve the fertility of their increasingly overworked gardens and fields.

The earliest states may have been established between the 13th and 15th centuries by a group of pastoral rulers called the Chwezi. Legends depicted the Chwezi as supernatural beings, but their material remains at the archaeological sites of Bigo and Mubende have shown that they were human and perhaps among the ancestors of the modern Tutsi pastoralists of Rwanda and Burundi. During the 15th century, the Chwezi were displaced by a new Nilotic-speaking pastoral group called the Bito. The Chwezi appear to have moved south of present-day Uganda to establish kingdoms in northwest Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.

The Bito type of state, was established in Bunyoro, which for several centuries was the dominant political power in the region. Bito immigrants displaced the influential Tutsi and secured power for themselves as a royal clan, ruling over Tutsi pastoralists and Hutu agriculturalists alike. No rigid caste lines divided Bito society. The weakness of the Bito ideology was that, in theory, it granted every Bito clan member royal status and with it the eligibility to rule. Thus, in Bunyoro, periods of political stability and expansion were interrupted by civil wars and secessions.

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