Religious-Political Unrest Intensifies in Buganda/ Uganda – 1877-1884s:
Kabaka Mutesa’s decision to send three envoys to deliver a letter to Queen Victoria in England was the outcome of the king’s frantic and cunning efforts to play each faction against the other.
Before the arrival of the Catholics, Alexander Murdoch Mackay had given the Protestants an edge over the Muslims with his skilled hands and quick grasp of Swahili and Luganda. However, his open hostility to the new arrivals opened him up to manipulation by Kabaka (King) Mutesa I who, as the second half of 1879 started, continued to flip-flop between the factions, link religion to politics and draw closer to Fr. Simeon Lourdel (a French missionary).
In July 1879, during a pro-Catholic phase, and worried about the threat of an attack by the Egyptians and the English from the North, Kabaka (King) Mutesa I invited Fr. Lourdel and Pere Livinhac and asked to send his envoys to France with one of the missionaries.
Mutesa’s envoys were supposed to explore the possibility of placing Buganda under the protection of the French. If accepted, the proposal would, in all probability, have led to French imperialism in the area. Buganda and Uganda could have therefore have been French or Belgian colonies and the country’s history could have been totally different. The French missionaries, however, refused. They were keen to keep a firewall between religion and politics but offered to send an inquiry to the French consul in Zanzibar.
King Mutesa did not understand the missionaries’ wishes to stay out of politics and instead construed it as a refusal of French protection. He then chose to throw his lot in with the English, sending the three envoys with Rev. Wilson and Felkin who were about to return home down the Nile.
But Mutesa continued to flip-flop between Faiths. Between July and August, he had been attending religious teachings by Lourdel. In September, he turned to Mackay and asked to be baptised as a Protestant, together with his chiefs. In October he was back with the Catholics, asking Lourdel to baptise him but in November he was hobnobbing with the Muslims.
In reality, Kabaka (King) Mutesa I was still keen on the Kingdom`s traditional religious beliefs and, in hobnobbing with the three foreign faiths, was playing politics, not religion. He understood Islam to be closely tied to politics and also saw the connections between the Protestants and the English throne. Now he saw the French refusal to offer him protection as suspicious. It is quite possible that whichever religious faction took hold in the country could have naturally led to the mother country (England or France in the case of the Christians) becoming more influential in Buganda. However, the squabbling between the factions and the uncertainty caused by Mutesa’s oscillation between one and the other, blurred the line between religious belief and political influence.
It became bloody when Kabaka (King) Mutesa I, who for two years had been carrying an illness that just did not seem to go away, turned to his traditional healers for treatment against the strong advice and best efforts of the missionaries, especially Mackay. When even the traditional healers failed to cure Mutesa, he lashed out in frustration, ordering random executions and human sacrifices to sate the gods or to distract him from his pain. Some of those targeted and killed were some of the early converts to the foreign religions, making them the first Christian religious martyrs in the country, although several non-converts were also killed.
The killings were so savage and widespread that they forced the Catholic missionaries to withdraw from Buganda in 1882. By the time Kabaka (King) Mutesa I succumbed to his illness – suspected to be Hepatitis – on October 10, 1884, the foreign religious teachers had simply had enough of the monarch.