By Monitor Reporter
Around 1843, a caravan of Arab traders led by Ahmed Bin Ibrahim, widely believed to have been the first Arab or non-African visitor to Buganda Kingdom, arrived at the court of Kabaka Mutesa I.
Financed by moneylenders based in Zanzibar, a thriving trade in ivory had existed for many years with tribes living near the coast but dwindling elephant numbers and the advent of guns, which offered protection against warrior tribes, encouraged traders like Bin Ibrahim to venture farther and farther into the interior in search of ivory.
It is unlikely that Bin Ibrahim, Kabaka Mutesa I or any of the chiefs at the court would have known the significance of the arrival of that trade caravan and, in particular, the guns they were carrying to Buganda and the other kingdoms around the Great Lakes region.
Bin Ibrahim’s caravan had brought along cloth, mirrors, beads, jewellery and spices to trade but it was the guns – oh the guns! – that caught Kabaka Mutesa’s fancy most, and for good reason.
Although Buganda was a major power, it was locked in a contest for supremacy with Bunyoro Kingdom to the west. The two Bantu kingdoms were the dominant centres of power in the region above Lake Victoria but their sphere of influence extended beyond through military raids and the installation of vassals to collect tribute.
Buganda had not always been the dominant power in the area. Although written history before the early 1800s is scanty, archaeological evidence suggests that humans were living in the area that is now Uganda from between 50,000 and 100,000 years.
Three types of political organisations emerged: A caste-based Hima system in what would become south-western Uganda and Rwanda-Burundi, a Bito system in Bunyoro in which power was accessible to all, and the rotary albeit centralised system that evolved in Buganda.
Many of the Nilotic groups in the east and the north were mainly pastoralist and their nomadic lifestyle only supported loose political organisations based on kinship and communal decision-making. This did not encourage the formation and maintenance of standing armies as in the areas dependent on settled agriculture and the rearing of livestock.
In the case of Buganda, fertile soils and good climate allowed for a settled agriculture-based lifestyle, which allowed for the keeping of regular armies. To Mutesa, therefore, the guns offered a new piece of military technology, which could shift the dynamic and give Buganda the upper hand in the contest with Bunyoro.
Kabaka Mutesa I therefore warmly welcomed Bin Ibrahim and became actively interested in supplying the trade caravans with ivory, and later slaves, in exchange for cloth, trinkets and, in particular, guns and gunpowder.
Bin Ibrahim and his fellow Arabs brought something else with them that would radically shape the politics and culture of the region - religion. The Baganda, like other African tribes, practiced their own traditional religious beliefs with several deities but the Islam that the Arabs practiced, and which they spoke about during their time in Buganda, intrigued Kabaka Mutesa I, who is believed to have converted by 1869, alongside some of his chiefs and officials.
The imposition of foreign religion would go on to alter not just the value and belief system but would have far-reaching consequences for the politics and survival of Buganda and other power centres that existed at the time.
But such fears were still a few years away. With the military superiority provided by the guns, Buganda continued its expansionist tendencies that had started at the turn of the century.
Such adventures were looked upon with legitimate concern by the Omukama of Bunyoro who, seeking to acquire his own guns through international trade, looked north whence adventurers and traders had started emerging, many sponsored by Khedive Ismail Pasha of Egypt.
The Egyptians’ southern adventures were informed by the need to establish and control the source of the River Nile, whose waters gave life to the desert empire. But they were not alone.
In 1862, a few years before the Egyptian-sponsored adventurers arrived in Bunyoro, John Hanning Speke, an English officer in the British Indian Army had turned up at Mutesa’s court on an expedition to search for the source of the Nile. The source of the Nile was one of the biggest mysteries at the time and Speke, an intrepid traveller, was tenacious in his attempt to resolve the riddle. Both he and Richard Burton, another traveller, had been severely injured in Somalia during their first foray into Africa in 1854.
Their second visit, during which Speke got to Lake Victoria, then called Nnalubaale, was no less dramatic; first Speke went partially deaf when a beetle crawled into his ear and he attempted to remove it with a knife, causing damage. Then he later went temporarily blind, a fate that befell several other early travellers.
Eventually Speke, now travelling with James Augustus Grant, would visit the source of the Nile separately (and, typically, clamour over who found it first) and Speke would be dead two years later following a suspicious gunshot wound back in England but his visit to Lake Victoria would spark events whose impact would outlive him for over 100 years.
In the interim, things were evolving fairly rapidly in the region. After hundreds of years in which fertile soils and fresh water supplies offered no reason to seek contact with the outside world, the region around Lake Victoria and Lake Albert had, in less than 30 years, been opened up to foreign trade, guns, Arab traders, European explorers and Egyptian-sponsored adventurers.
A new set of foreigners was soon to enter the picture and add to the fragile state of affairs.