Project Canterbury

Tucker of Uganda, Artist and Apostle 1849-1914

By Arthur P. Shepherd

London: Student Christian Movement, 1929.

Chapter IV. The Story of Uganda

ALTHOUGH the story of the beginning of Christianity in Uganda has often been told, it is necessary to give a brief account of the events which had led up to the situation which was awaiting Tucker.

On April 27th, 1876, the first band of eight missionaries sailed for Uganda in response to Stanley's appeal that had appeared in the Daily Telegraph six months before. Although the road to Uganda in later years and the railway to-day run direct from Mombasa through the highlands of Kikuyu, at that time this route was regarded as impossible because it passed through the territory of the warlike Masai, of whom the coast porters were in the deadliest fear. The only practicable road therefore was by the old slave route from the port of Saadani, opposite the island of Zanzibar, a tramp of eight hundred miles to the south end of the Great Lake, and thence by canoes up the lake--a perilous undertaking. This road lay through low, unhealthy country, barren in the dry weather, sodden and fever-haunted in the rains. Until the northern route was opened a terrible toll in life was paid for the road to Uganda.

In March 1877 four of the band of eight arrived on the shores of Lake Victoria. One had died on the way, and three, including Alexander Mackay, who was afterwards to be the most famous of them all, had been invalided back to the coast. A month later one of the successful four succumbed to fever. Leaving O'Neill, the architect, at the south end of the lake, Lieutenant Shergold Smith, the leader, and the Rev. C. T. Wilson arrived in Mengo on June 30th, 1877.

They were given a royal welcome; it was the Baganda way, with no hint of what might lie behind. Their message was listened to and all seemed hopeful. Then a sudden blow fell. Shergold Smith had returned to the south of the lake to join O'Neill, and both were killed in a petty native quarrel on the island of Ukerewe. Wilson was left alone for twelve months, till in November 1878 Mackay reached Uganda.

For the next twelve years Mackay laboured for Uganda, without a furlough. His story has been told again and again. By his preaching and teaching, his counsel, his translation, his manual skill, he served Uganda. But he served her most by what he was, by his courage, his faithfulness, his goodness, his love of the Baganda. "Mackay, old Musaja dala!" the astute old King Mtesa exclaimed one day: "Mackay, you are a man!"

In 1879 a band of reinforcements to the mission arrived by way of the Sudan, and also a number of French Roman Catholic missionaries. The coming of the latter was bitterly resented by Mackay, and it undoubtedly was provocative of many tragedies and misunderstandings. Already there was a Mohammedan faction at court, headed by the Arabs, and now there were three religious parties, each trying to denounce the other two. It was no wonder that the cynical old king, who had at first taken very kindly to Mackay's teaching, decided under the influence of the queen-mother that he would have none of the foreign religions and would return to the heathen Lubare worship. But although Christianity was forbidden, there were many secret "readers."

In 1884 Mtesa died and was succeeded by his son Mwanga, a clever but unstable youth, whose sudden cruelties and ruthless persecutions gave him the character of a Nero in the eyes of the Christians of Uganda. "That pagan lout" Stanley calls him in a letter to Tucker, a description probably more accurate than most. At any rate in judging Mwanga it is important to remember that he was at least as much the victim of his circumstances as of his character. Mutefu, "the Gentle," he was called as a boy, and at any rate in comparison with his brother Kalema the title was not wholly undeserved. There was in him a simple, almost a childish, friendliness that made his ferocious outbursts all the more terrible.

He came to the throne as a young lad, to find four parties in the state: the old heathen party, the most numerous and sullenly resentful of change (the chiefs refused to substitute guns for their spears), the Mohammedan Arabs, the Roman Catholics, and the Protestants, each of them led by men older and abler than himself and each of them seeking to obtain his support.

In this game the Arabs for the moment held the trumps. In that very year, 1884, the European scramble for Africa began in earnest. The Arabs understood the ways of the white people, they hated them because they were the suppressors of the slave-trade, and they understood how to play upon the feelings of Mwanga. The white men, they said, were plotting "to eat Uganda." Nor was there wanting evidence. The tale of Gordon's doings in the Sudan had reached Uganda in Mtesa's time and an expedition from him had visited Uganda; rumours were coming in of the ruthless operations of the Germans near the coast and of the Belgian advance up the Congo; while both French and English had stations at the south of the lake. From all sides Uganda was hemmed in and threatened. One cannot wonder that the Arabs were easily able to use all these facts to their advantage, or that the young king of a powerful and warlike African nation should have allowed his suspicions to be fanned into a flame. His hostility naturally turned against the white missionaries and their converts, culminating in a personal attack on Mackay and Ashe and in the burning of three of their converts on January 31st, 1885.

But the persecution had not the desired effect; it produced no hatred or resentment among the Christians, and in spite of stern orders to the contrary, large numbers came to Mackay, Ashe and O'Flaherty to be taught.

Meanwhile Bishop Hannington was on his way to Uganda as its first bishop and was coming by the healthier and shorter northern route, through Kikuyu and the Masai country. Wise and courageous as was the attempt to open this new route, under the circumstances it was unfortunate. It was by the north-east that the Arabs had prophesied that the white invader would come. Mackay was fully aware of this danger and sent warning letters to Hannington, but he had already left the coast and the letters were not forwarded. Another unfortunate incident added to the danger. Relying on a letter from Hannington giving his plans, Mackay assured Mwanga that the bishop would arrive at Lower Kavirondo and cross the lake by boat, and would not come through Busoga, the neighbour state of Uganda, which was guarded by the chief Luba.

Unfortunately Hannington, ignorant of danger, changed his plans and pushed on with a handful of men into Busoga, where he was arrested by Luba. Mwanga's worst fears and suspicions were aroused; the Arabs were right and Mackay had deceived him. Yielding to the persuasion of his heathen chiefs he had the bishop put to death. Mackay and his fellow-missionaries only saved their lives by a present to the king.

It was a terrible blow to the mission, but considering all the circumstances--Mwanga's upbringing in a court that often literally swam in human blood, and the effect of the Arabs' suggestions--his action can hardly be wondered at. But the deed once committed, the memory of it haunted Mwanga with a continual fear of reprisals from the white people. At first he held his hand and for eight months the numbers of the Christians steadily increased, until in June 1886 they came into sharp collision with Mwanga and the Mohammedans by the refusal of some of the court pages to take part in the evil ways of the court.

Once again the Arabs played on the king's fears, warning him of the growing power of the white party in Uganda and the probability of retaliation. Again the king's alarm blazed out in sudden savagery. An order was issued that all Christians should be put to death, and Roman Catholics and Protestants alike were murdered in hundreds, thirty of them being publicly burnt at Mengo.

But just as in Mtesa's reign the rising tide of Christianity had been checked by the queen-mother, so now it was the refusal of Mwanga's queen-mother to surrender her Christian servants that stayed the persecution. It is a significant revelation of the power of women in African life.

Meanwhile Ashe had left the country, and in the next year, 1887, Mwanga yielded to the Arabs and banished Mackay. He consented, however, to receive in his place a young missionary, Gordon, influenced no doubt by his being a namesake of the great general. Mackay took refuge at the south of the Great Lake and never again returned to Uganda, but by his translations and by means of messengers he was the strength and counsel of the Protestant party until his death. In 1888 Gordon was joined by Walker, who brought the sad news of the death by fever at the south of the lake of Bishop Parker, Hannington's successor.

Mwanga was now in a state of desperate anxiety and uneasiness. Not only was there the fear of reprisal for Hannington's murder, but his attempt to destroy Christianity had involved him in enmity with many of his own people. Besides, he had failed; the Christians were daily increasing and many of their number held important chieftainships. Like many another weak man, he determined to banish his fear by renewed ruthlessness. He made one of those royal progresses of death and destruction through his kingdom which had been a habit of his forefathers in the old heathen days, robbing and raiding the people and plundering the chiefs. At last he even turned his hand against the Mohammedans, who, relying on their influence, were becoming insolent and aggressive.

Then Mwanga found himself without a friend. He made one last frantic effort to save his power and rally some of his subjects. He concocted a plot with the heathen party to maroon all "readers," Mohammedan and Christian, on an island in the lake and to leave them to starve while he re-established the heathen Lubare worship. The plot, however, was discovered, and a hasty resolve to rebel was made. Mwanga was defeated and fled, and Kiwewa, the king's elder brother, was chosen in his place. The old heathen chiefs were murdered, and the chieftainships were distributed among the Mohammedans and Christians.

This marks the beginning of a new epoch in Uganda. The king was no longer a power whom the various parties sought to win over to their side. The power lay in the chieftainships, and the history of the next few years is the history of the struggle between the various parties for that power. This it was that lay behind the subsequent strife between the Roman Catholics and Protestants, which was quite wrongly supposed to be merely a matter of religious bigotry; and this also produced the unique position and influence of the Christian Church in Uganda.

The alliance between the Mohammedans and Christians brought about by mutual danger was of short duration. The Mohammedans by a clever plot defeated and expelled the Christians, Gordon and Walker and the Roman Catholic missionaries barely escaping with their lives. After many adventures, in which they were constantly in danger, they made their way to the south of the lake. Gordon and Walker joined Mackay at Usambiro and the priests went to the Roman Catholic Mission at Bukumbi, where they were shortly joined by the now penitent fugitive, Mwanga. The Baganda Christians, Roman Catholic and Protestant, took refuge in Ankole, a district to the west of the lake.

Kiwewa quickly fell out with the Mohammedans and was deposed in favour of his brother Kalema, whose hideous atrocities so alienated the common people that they fled in large numbers to join the Christians. The latter were soon emboldened to attempt a counter-move, and in April 1889 sent to Usukuma to offer to restore Mwanga, who now professed to be a Christian. At the same lime: they sought the advice of the missionaries.

Mackay was open in his advice to have nothing to do with Mwanga. This was perhaps natural, but Père Levinhac more astutely saw that consent was inevitable. How far Mackay's advice might have deterred the Protestants is uncertain had not a sudden attack by Kalema upon the exiled Christians forced their hand. Undoubtedly, however, it tended to throw Mwanga upon the French side in the later disputes.

For six months a vacillating war was waged between the Mohammedans under Kalema and the invading Christians. Mwanga actually occupied Mengo in October, but was again driven out.

Meanwhile, another important factor entered into the situation. An expedition of the British East Africa Company under Mr Jackson arrived on the east shore of the lake. Mwanga appealed for their help, and his appeal was warmly backed up by the Roman Catholic, Père Lourdel, Mwanga's adviser. We must remember that at this time the issue with Kalema was still in the balance.

Mr Jackson sent a vague reply, but with it one of the Company's flags as a guarantee of assistance. This Mwanga accepted, and Mr Jackson then went off for three months on an ivory-hunting expedition. During his absence his camp was visited by a German, Dr Carl Peters. Through the simplicity of the natives he got access to Jackson's correspondence and determined to steal a march on England by securing Uganda for Germany; accordingly he wrote to Mwanga and was invited to the country.

In February 1890 Kalema was finally defeated, and Mwanga entered Mengo in triumph. A fortnight before, Mackay had died of fever at Usambiro just as the time was ripe for him to return to Uganda to complete the work whose foundations he had so firmly laid in the dark days that were past. Now by the fortunes of war the Christians were the dominant element in the country. The Mohammedan chiefs, like the heathen, were dead or in flight, and all the chieftainships were redistributed among the Christians.

There was, however, an unhappy side to the situation. There had always been a certain rivalry and suspicion between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, but their alliance against a common enemy had kept it in bounds. Now that they were to divide power their differences were intensified. The missionaries saw this, and before the entry into Mengo bound their followers under the most solemn oaths not to fight.

Circumstances, however, were stronger than oaths, and the next two years saw a struggle for power that at one time blazed out into violence. But to term it a war of religious bigotry or one fostered by the missionaries on religious grounds is beside the mark. It was a struggle between two parties for political power. Need we be surprised? Was not the bitterest civil strife of our own country one in which religion and politics were inextricably mixed, and did it not last for over a century? These Baganda Christians were but a few years removed from savagery, but even so their religious differences might have been settled without bloodshed had not that other factor at the moment entered into the situation--the European scramble for Africa. Henceforth the two parties were known as the Bafransa and the Ba-inglesa--the French party and the English party.

Mwanga had no sooner entered Mengo than Dr Carl Peters arrived, proposing a treaty with Germany that should bring Uganda under German influence. Mwanga consulted the French missionaries, who advised him to accept. It is not difficult to discern their motive, nor easy to find fault with it. They could see the dispute for power that lay ahead of the two parties. Not unnaturally they suspected that an English government would be partial to the English Protestant missionaries. Already they had been on excellent terms with the Germans at the south of the lake, and under their rule they would be sure of impartiality. True, they had joined in the appeal to the British East Africa Company a few months before, but they had met with but a feeble response. Then, both the Christian parties had been in a tight corner and ready for help from anywhere; now--well, circumstances alter cases!

The Protestants refused to sign the treaty on the ground that Mwanga had already accepted the Company's flag, but at last, to save an outburst of violence, the English missionaries persuaded them to do so. Hardly had Peters left when Jackson arrived with his companion, Gedge. He too had a treaty to propose, by which the Baganda should hand over all their taxes, and the king and chiefs be paid a sufficient allowance by the Company. Mwanga, on the advice of the French missionaries, refused this--and quite rightly. It is a striking comment on the whole behaviour of Europe in the African scramble that a powerful and independent kingdom should have had such terms offered to it. The Protestants, however, were so anxious for English protection that they were ready to accept.

At length, on the threat of both parties that they would leave the country, the treaty was withdrawn and Jackson departed to the coast with two native envoys to discover what was really to be the official future of Uganda, leaving Gedge in Mengo with the ammunition.

This was the situation to which Tucker was coming out. After a terrible struggle Christianity was in the ascendant only to have to face a danger worse than persecution: that of being divided into two bitterly hostile camps, whose rivalries over the political settlement of the land might easily ruin the spiritual structure of their faith. But, thank God, political jealousies did not preclude within the Church the growth of its spiritual life. On March llth, 1890, the building of the first Christian church in Uganda was commenced.

At last [wrote Walker] some of the very poles of Buganda praise the Lord. The branches of palm-trees once were strewed for the honour of Jerusalem's King; now palm-trees again lift up their slender stems to support a house to the glory of the same King.

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