Buganda’s most renowned of warrior-kings, Ssuuna (Suna/ Suuna), whom Henry Morton Stanley compared to Shaka of the Zulu (sky) Clan would succumb to small-pox in 1856. Just before his death, he called together the Kingdom-state’s three hereditary senior chiefs and the prime minister and instructed that his eldest son Kajumba be installed as his successor when the moment came. The “Emperor” Ssuuna strongly favored Kajumba whom he likened to himself, and surmised that he would be the appropriate strongman to maintain the prestige and supremacy of Buganda. Kajumba was apparently head and shoulders high above his brethren, he was youthful and violent. However, it is such headstrong tendencies that made Kajumba largely unpopular with the Buganda leaders, the royals, and the local population.
“Kajumba… Suna’s favourite… the war-loving father on his death-bed pointed… with pride to his chiefs the heroic qualities of the prince, reminded… how when a..boy he had slain a buffalo with a club and an elephant with a… spear, and assured them with his latest breath that Kajumba would become more renowned than either lion-like [Kabaka] Kimera or renowned [Kabaka] Nakivingi” (Stanley 1878: 295).
After his father’s death, Kajumba grabbed his heavy spear and massive shield, declared himself Kabaka Ssuuna’s choice and successor, and announced that he would determinedly uphold his father’s dignity to the death. The chiefs gave the order and Kajumba was attacked and tightly bound. “Mild-spoken, large-eyed” Prince Mtesa (Muteesa/ Mutesa), an alternative monarchical prospect regarded as much less violent and much easier to deal with than Kajumba, was instead installed as the new king.
However, soon after the burial rituals to honor the late Ssuuna, soft-spoken Mutesa would reveal himself as the ruthless power-obsessed butcher and disciplinarian, though his harshness would subside over the years of his reign. He struck terror in the population and earned the nickname, “Mukaabya,” (Mukabya) which translates to, “the one who causes to weep,” and by which he was prevalently called.
“He would have no subject… remind him… he owed his sovereignty to him. According to his father’s custom, he butchered all who gave… offence, and… lion in war, Namujulirwa, as also… Katikiro (or prime minister), he… beheaded… in a passion, he would take his spear… rush to his harem… spear his women, until his thirst for blood was slaked… Mtesa was of this temper when Speke saw him… continued… until… converted by… Arab Muley bin Salim into a fervid Muslim. After this… became… humane, abstained from… strong native beer which used to fire his blood… renounced… blood-shedding custom of his fathers” (Stanley 1878: 296).
Though he was a slave trader, Muley was regarded as a devout Muslim and teacher of the faith. Mutesa would toy with both Islam and Christianity, he saw the ironies and conflicts in the foreign religions and he never really took them seriously. But he did learn Arabic and he would at length ponder over and debate many philosophical issues.
The Buganda system of governance was a unique and sophisticated system of checks and balances that involved both civil and hereditary leaders that strived to ensure that no group went to extremes or became too powerful. The king married from all the clans in Buganda as a gesture of maintaining familial ties with all the Baganda. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the king did not have absolute powers, but was closely monitored and advised by the senior chiefs and the prime-minister. The king did not have the final say in who would be his successor. A prince who was quite young was usually chosen to be the successor, one who would likely be more easily molded and compliant as he grew and developed into the system of traditionalism. But though the king could be treated as more of a ceremonial figure, he was still capable of enlisting forces to get rid of the ruling elders, and vice-versa. The tradition of killing off princes, during the installation of a new monarch seems to have been in Buganda for centuries, and was designed to minimize royal rebellions and strife for power.
Despite Mutesa’s initial ruthlessness that reflected historical royal practices designed to exact utmost compliance to and reverence for him, Mutesa would become renowned for his enlightenment, his diplomacy, and for embracing monotheistic religions and innovative development in his kingdom. Foreign forces were fast penetrating the kingdom-state, and Mutesa was challenged to deal with traditionalism, the forces of colonialism, the new arms and ammunition, the shifting boundaries of his kingdom, the slavery and the slave trade, amongst a myriad of other issues during his three decades in power. The old order was rapidly changing, the forces of the industrial revolution and the Scramble for Africa had come to the most powerful kingdom state in Africa’s Great Lakes region.
Kabaka Mutesa Mukaabya died on October 9, 1884 (10th, according to some sources) and the Buganda Council picked his son Prince Mwanga Mukasa Basammula to be the new king. Coincidentally, Uganda officially gained political independence from England on October 9, 1962.
Stanley, Henry M. Through the Dark Continent. Vol.1. Harper and Sons: New York, 1878.