The Rise of Buganda Kingdom: 1500 CE – 1900 CE
Buganda Kingdom played a very central role in shaping present day Uganda. It was the third type of state to emerge in Uganda, on the northern shores of Lake Victoria. This area of swamp and hillside was not attractive to the rulers of pastoral states farther north and west. In addition, Buganda became a refuge area, however, for those who wished to escape rule by Bunyoro or for factions within Bunyoro who were defeated in contests for power.
One such group from Bunyoro, headed by Prince Kimera, arrived in Buganda Kingdom early in the 15th century. Assimilation of refugee elements had already strained the ruling abilities of Buganda’s various clan chiefs and a super political organization was already emerging. Kimera seized the initiative in this trend and became the first effective Kabaka (King) of the fledgling Buganda state. Ganda oral traditions later sought to disguise this intrusion from Bunyoro by claiming earlier, shadowy, quasisupernatural kabakas.
Unlike the Tutsi caste system or the Bunyoro royal clan political monopoly, Buganda’s kingship was made a kind of state lottery in which all clans could participate. Each new king was identified with the clan of his mother, rather than that of his father. All clans readily provided wives to the ruling Kabaka, who had eligible sons by most of them. When the ruler died, his successor was chosen by clan elders from among the eligible princes, each of whom belonged to the clan of his mother. In this way, the throne was never the property of a single clan for more than one reign. Bunyoro’s power began to ebb in the 18th century, with the separation of the Toro kingdom and more importantly the rise of Buganda.
Consolidating their efforts behind a centralised kingship, the Baganda (people of Buganda) shifted away from defensive strategies and toward expansion. By the mid-19th century, Buganda had doubled and redoubled its territory, conquering much of Bunyoro and becoming the dominant state in the region. Newly conquered lands were placed under chiefs nominated by the king. Buganda’s armies and the royal tax collectors traveled swiftly to all parts of the kingdom along specially constructed roads which crossed streams and swamps by bridges and viaducts. On Lake Victoria (which the Baganda called Nnalubale), a royal navy of outrigger canoes, commanded by an admiral who was chief of the Lungfish clan, could transport Baganda commandos to raid any shore of the lake. The journalist Henry Morton Stanley visited Buganda in 1875 and provided an estimate of Buganda troop strength. Stanley counted 125,000 troops marching off on a single campaign to the east, where a fleet of 230 war canoes waited to act as auxiliary naval support.
In Buganda’s capital, Stanley found a well-ordered town of about 40,000 surrounding the king’s palace, which was situated atop a commanding hill. A wall more than four kilometers in circumference surrounded the palace compound, which was filled with grass-roofed houses, meeting halls, and storage buildings. At the entrance to the court burned the royal fire, which would only be extinguished when the Kabaka died. Thronging the grounds were foreign ambassadors seeking audiences, chiefs going to the royal advisory council, messengers running errands, and a corps of young pages, who served the Kabaka while training to become future chiefs. For communication across the kingdom, the messengers were supplemented by drum signals.
To the north, the Nilotic-speaking Acholi people adopted some of the ideas and regalia of kingship from Bunyoro in the 18th century. Rwots (chiefs) acquired royal drums, collected tribute from followers, and redistributed it to those who were most loyal. The mobilisation of larger numbers of subjects permitted successful hunts for meat. Extensive areas of bushland were surrounded by beaters, who forced the game to a central killing point in a hunting technique that was still practised in areas of central Africa in 1989. But these Acholi chieftaincies remained relatively small in size, and within them the power of the clans remained strong enough to challenge that of the Rwot.