In defence of biographies, Tom Mboya’s biographer David Goldsworthy said, “I retain enough belief in the capacity of leaders to affect outcomes, and certainly to affect the sum of human happiness… the nature of the task is to try to combine interpretation of a leader’s doings with interpretation of historical events, working from the premise that each will influence the other.”
Is Kabaka Mwanga II simply the merciless butcher of martyrs at the Namugongo pyre and executioner of Bishop Hannington? Not so, argues a new biography of the controversial late 19th Century Buganda king by Prof Samuiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo.
he pages (martyrs) were double agents who spied on Mwanga and passed on critical state secrets to the Europeans, the book says.
The page Samuel is singled out for mention.
When Alexander Mackay and a colleague went to petition Mwanga over the fate of Bishop James Hannington, Mwanga did not grant them an audience and instead sent a senior official named Kuluugi to meet them. Kuluugi pleaded ignorance about the bishop’s whereabouts on behalf of Mwanga. Later, Samuel the page told Mackay not to be fooled by Kaluugi!
An insider, L.M. Joire, states that pages would “whisper” to their European teachers that “Kabaka talked ill of you. He said that you want to kill him, to remove him from the throne. He seems to have decided either to drive you out of the country or kill you.”
This compromised their loyalty to the king. Considering the near-deity status the Baganda accorded their king, this was considered sacrilegious.
As for Bishop Hannington, he was or ought to have been aware of a standing edict in Buganda that foreigners should approach the kingdom through Lake Nalubale. Approaching from the east (via Busoga) presented a threat since there weren’t enough natural barriers to thwart an aggressive intrusion.
Emissaries were dispatched to collect Hannington from today’s Kisumu, route him to Msalala in Tanzania and from there make an “orderly” approach towards Buganda. Buganda was a sovereign state, after all; and Hannington should have respected that sovereignty by following its entry laws.
Back to the pages, had they even imbibed enough information to make them Christians? Alexander Mackay comments that “many a life has been lost in Buganda for learning no more than the alphabet.”
Besides, Christians were so enmeshed in the political squabbles of the day as to qualify as active combatants. Protestants leaders shed all pretence when they said bluntly, “We have bought half the country with blood, and it is as much ours as we had bought it with money.”
Since the book sets out to redeem Mwanga, copious details from secondary sources that have been “lying hidden” in journals are relied upon to put the record straight.
The Christian leaders of the day did not accompany their charges to Namugongo. There was ample time to escape. Warnings had been sounded well in advance.
“Martyrdom at Namugongo,” Lunyiigo says, “thus presented the lowest point in Christian leadership of the time.”
On Hannington, none other than Alexander Mackay emphasises that, “Our bishop was executed as a courageous person but not because of his faith in our lord Jesus Christ.” To courage, he should have added reckless bravado.
Mwanga and his predecessors were keen to welcome new goods, knowledge, arms and diplomacy from the outside world.
Mwanga had the support of traditionalists and in some instances the Catholics. He had the loyal support of courageous generals like Gabudyeri Kintu and Semei Kakungulu.
True, Mwanga had his failures. Once a chief called Kapalaga was given two tasks to accomplish on the same day. Work on a lake-canal project and dig 400 latrines. At least he dug the latrines, but for not attending to the canal project, he was fined heavily.
At this he poignantly remarked that “Kabaka Mwanga will not last long on his throne. He is a bully and a bad leader.”
The Abapere ran amok under Mwanga. Princess Nalumansi was also executed on his orders. Yet, on the average, he was a reformist Kabaka.
He killed people, certainly, but a few. On some occasions he merely punished offenders whom he could have easily put to death. It would be interesting to see the direction he would have taken if he had had a “full term.”
George Marenya is an editor with Community Eye. Email: [email protected]