BY JINGO - Colonial History & Wargames Page

The Battle Of Mengo and British Supremacy In Uganda

By Chris Ferree

The lands that make up what is now Uganda and Kenya were one of the last places on the African continent to be explored by white men. Apart from a few lusty adventurers ( such as Speke, Grant, and Stanley) and the occasional missionary , the map of what was to be British East Africa was blank until nearly the turn of the century. In fact, the knowledge of the area was so lacking that Stanley's Emin Pasha Relief Expedition of 1887 went to Lake Albert by way of the Congo. Even into the 1890's and expedition could expect to make some sort of geological, zoological or ethnological discovery.

In the late 1870's missionaries coming from the south or up the Nile arrived on the west coast of Lake Victoria to preach the gospel. There were also Arab traders from Mombasa and Zanzibar as well as Mahdist from the Sudan shouting the praises of Islam. Of the Christian missions, French Roman Catholics and British Protestants of the Church Mission Society were responsible for the conversions to Christianity in Uganda. While the Muslims had no formal missions ( at least none mentioned in the European history books) converts to the word of the Prophet kept pace with both of the Christian sects combined. The rivalry between the Wa-Fransa (Catholics) and the Wa-Ingleza (Protestants) was only surpassed by their mutual hatred of the Islamic faction. This was a recipe for war and violence that would last for years.

At the beginning of this period, Wagandan beliefs held that their Kabaka (King) was a deity. Both Christianity and the Muslim religions disputed the god-like stature of the Ruler resulting in their persecution. Unfortunately for the Kabakas (first Mtesa then Mwanga), he could not stem the tide of conversions and the ranks of Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant continued to swell. For Mtesa, continued persecution was the answer. When Mwanga ascended to the throne the situation was becoming serious. In the year 1888, he planned to rid himself of all of the converts, Christian and Muslim. Mwanga was going to lure them onto one of Victoria's islands and leave them to perish. However, news of the plot was leaked and Mwanga was just able to escape .

Kiwewa, Mwanga's brother, was names Kabaka by the Christians who assumed the majority of offices in court. The Muslims, outraged by the division of power, made a surprise attack at a council meeting, killing many Christian chiefs and capturing Kiwewa. The Mohammedan chief tried to force the Kabaka to conform to Islam, but Kiwewa stood firm. In fact he was able to dispatch two Muslim chiefs before he made good his escape. At this point the near leaderless Christian population fled Uganda to Akoli on the south end of the lake. The White missionaries were left in the Muslims hands. They were soon set adrift onto the lake and their goods were looted.

By the middle of 1889 the "Arabs" as Lugard called them, were in control of the country. Karema, another of Mwanga's brothers, was made the Islamic king of Uganda. The non-converted part of the population was still mistreated, and the Christians were looking for a leader. Mwanga, after his flight, was held by the Muslims of Magu district. He was able to escape and eventually ended up at the French mission station of Bukumbi. The Christians offered to reinstate Mwanga, provided some changes were made in his policies. With the help of Stokes, a former mission agent turned trader/gun runner, Mwanga led the Christians back to Uganda.

Unfortunately, The Arabs were ready and the christian army was pushed back to Ankoli. They did, however, have control of the lake. The king occupied the Sesee Islands near the capital, Mengo,but the main army was in the south. It was at this time (June 1889) that word came of an Imperial British East Africa Company safari camped at Kavirondo on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria. Mwanga sent letters to Jackson, the leader of the expedition, asking for help. Jackson replied that he could only enter Uganda if Mwanga would sign a treaty giving Britain exclusive rights to trade.

By September of 1889, Mwanga's Christian coalition was falling apart. He called for the missionaries to join him on the islands to help solidify the his forces. With the help of the missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, Mwanga regained control of his forces and drove the Muslims from the capital. With this success, Mwanga rejected Jackson's offer. His success was short lived and it was not long before Mwanga was back on the islands and the Arabs were back in Mengo. More letters were sent to Jackson, stating that he, Mwanga "was ready to do business". Father Pere Lourdel, the chief Catholic missionary, also sent a request to Jackson for aid. Jackson was, however, away exploring and did not get the letters until November.

Dr. Karl Peters, leader of the German Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, read Jackson's letters and immediately pushed on for Uganda. When he reached the Nile, in Usoga Province, Peters was told that the Pasha had been rescued by Stanley. The good doctor then decided to push on to Mengo to render aid to the embattled Mwanga. Once Jackson returned to Kavirondo and found his opened mail, he too set off for Mengo.

As the fortunes of war turned again in the Christians favor, in February 1890, Mwanga was back in his capital. Dr. Peters arrived later in the month and signed a treaty with Mwanga leaving all Uganda open to any European. Dr. Peters did no enjoy his triumph for long, however. Because of his behavior he fell in to ill-favor and soon moved south to German territory.

Jackson arrived at Mengo in April 1890. His arrival was somewhat of a disappointment to Mwanga, as he had too few rifles and no flashy uniforms like Peters' men. He also came to lager-heads with the Catholic Fathers because his treaty would put the I.B.E.A. in control. With the Catholics advising the king, negotiations went nowhere.

Because of the political stalemate, Jackson decided to leave Uganda. He would leave behind his colleague Mr. Gedge with 35 men and 180 rifles. Gedge also had instructions to buy up any guns that entered the country ( Mr. Stokes was away at this time obtaining them for the Waganda ). When Jackson told the court of his intention of leaving, the Wa-Ingleza decided to go with him. This move would leave the Catholics greatly outnumbered, so they decided to leave also. AS this plan would not work, Jackson took a representative from each party to argue the case in front of a higher authority.

Two events occurred at this time that would change the fortunes of the British Company. First, a treaty was signed between Britain and Germany that recognized the border between their spheres of Influence west of the lake as 1 degree south latitude. This placed Uganda well within British territory. Of course, Jackson did not find this out until he returned to the coast. The second was the death of Father Lourdel. Lourdel was the man who had the King's ear and with him gone the British had a chance.

As Jackson was leaving Mengo Frederic Lugard was moving off the coast. Lugard was the company man that would settle the question of European control in Uganda. He marched towards Uganda armed with the Anglo-German treaty, 270 armed porters ( about 1/3 he classed as reliable), 50 Sudanese and Somali askari, a few other Europeans and a worn out Maxim gun. What he lacked was ammunition, he only had about 11 rounds apiece for the men when he arrived at Mengo.

Gedge was, unfortunately, not he man to leave behind. He was not one to stand up to the Kabaka and was soon beat down. His situation in Mengo soon became intolerable and he left for German territory. Before he left though, Gedge handed out the 180 Snider rifles and ammunition in his charge. This was incase the Muslims attacked.

Lugard arrived in Uganda by December 1890. He entered the country without asking permission of the Kabaka, set up his camp in the capital, and then told Mwanga when he would be ready for an audience. Upon their meeting, Lugard said he only came by to make his introductions and that other matters would wait. This was done and Lugard took his leave, again without asking for approval. Lugard's bold approach earned him the respect of the king.

The company's fort was begun on Kampala Hill, opposite Mwanga's palace atop Mengo Hill. Lugard anxiously awaited the arrival of Mr. Williams, his second in command, with much needed supplies (including ammunition). He also began negotiations for a treaty with Mwanga. Lugard showed no partiality for either party and attempted to make friends with all the chiefs. In this, he met with some success, though it did nothing to bolster the Protestants resolve or curb the Catholics haughtiness. The result was an ever widening rift between the parties.

Mwanga's court was divided down the middle. Half of his councillors were Catholic, the other half were Protestant. In addition, each office was controlled by its party. If a particular officer wished to change his party, he would forfeit his office and the controlling party would select a new officer. This arrangement was made after the last recapture of the capital by the combined Christian armies. Lugard's indifference in the politics of court put the advantage to the Catholic side. Again the Wa-Ingleza were on the verge of exodus when a last deputation was sent to Lugard. They were given the impression that he was only biding his time until reinforcements arrived. This was good enough and the Protestants decided to stick it out.

As the year of 1891 dawned, Lugard continued work on his fort and got a signed treaty from Mwanga. The Protestant Bishop Tucker arrived at the capital, and finally at the end of January Williams showed up with more Sudanese and Swahilis and an additional Maxim.. Bishop Hirth, a Roman Catholic, arrived in February and the stage was set for a new round of religious turmoil.

Lugard was now ready, or thought he was ready to tackle the problems of this divided people. The arguments Lugard heard involved shamba, council positions. Those members who wished to change religions did not want to lose their shamba, while the leaders of the parties wished to rid themselves of those members leaning toward the opposite faction. Bishop Hirth brought up the question of religious freedom as proclaimed by the company charter. Lugard found a loophole around this point. It seems that party control of shamba was guaranteed in a treaty signed by the Catholics back in 1889. Lugards treaty with Mwanga respected previous treaties made by the factions. Lugard argued that a new treaty with the company would be required if he was to take up this subject.

It was lucky for Lugard at this time that the Muslims reentered the fray. Arab forces began raiding in the Unyoro Province (on the banks of Lake Albert). Again the Christians put aside their differences and marched against the common foe. Lugard was gone for the rest of the year. In that time he defeated the muslims and established a line of frontier outposts manned by Sudanese left by Emin Pasha.

Williams, who remained at Mengo, didn't have it so easy. He was bombarded with accusations and stories of atrocities from both sides. It was only by the cool heads of the higher level chiefs that civil war was averted. But, the cool heads would only prevail while the muslim threat continued.

Lugard returned to Kampala Fort on December 31, 1891. He had 100 Sudanese troops with him (more leftovers from Emin) and found plenty of ammunition and other supplies at the fort. The rigors of campaigning had Lugard and while he waited for the trial of a gun theft complaint to begin he became ill. As he left he noticed the Wa-Fransa chief giggling amongst themselves and thought something was up. Lugard's Swahili interpreter, Duala, stayed for the trial.

Duala reported the trial as follows: A Catholic sub-chief had a gun stolen by one of Apolo Kagwa's men (Kagwa, a Protestant was the Katikiro the next office under Kabaka). Kagwa agreed to deliver a gun to the injured party, but was not forthcoming, as he was waiting for the return of one of his guns that was stolen previously. Therefore, the Wa-Fransa setup a ruse beer stand in the market and when a Wa-Ingleza stopped to get a drink, the snatched his rifle. This man, one Tabula by name, rounded up some guys to retrieve this gun. When they entered the enclosure containing the thief, they were met with a volley and Tabula fell.

The Kabaka Mwanga ruled that the Protestants took the law into their own hands and, therefore, got what they deserved. Lugard felt the trial was rigged. In response, he handed out 40 muzzleloading rifles and a barrel of powder to the Wa-Ingleza. Mwanga protested the handing out of rifles. Lugard in turn, protested the acquittal of the Catholic stating that, "... if no justice is done there will be war." That night, the 23rd of January, the war drums were beating and Mwanga was moving powder and shot into the palace.

On the morning of the 24th, Mwanga set a message to Lugard asking him to call of the war. Lugard replied that he would be glad to if Tabula's murderer was turned in and he recieved an apology for the insults of the past two days. While waiting for the Kabaka's response, Lugard handed out about 150 Sniders and 300 to 350 muzzleloaders to the Wa-Ingleza. This was for their own protection as the Wa-Fransa we massing at the palace.

Around 11:00 am shots rang out. A wounded man was brought to the fort, shot by Catholic potato thieves. Lugard sent another letter to Mwanga demanding the perpetrator of this last act of violence. Mwanga sent in a peasant in place of the real perpetrator, but Lugard saw this as a sign of good faith and was ready to talk.

It was, however, too late. Some Catholics went to steal clothes and bananas from Kagwa's plantation (as a sign of contempt for the Katikiro). They were chased off by Kagwa's men, but returned in greater numbers and an argument ensued. Shots were exchanged and a Wa-Ingleza went down. A large group of Protestants in the market heard the shots and advanced up the road.

The Protestants were cut off by two Catholic enclosures which opened fire. Some Wa-Ingleza continued to battle their way up the main road to the palace, while another group circled around to the right. They met some resistance, but finally mounted Rubaga Hill, on which set the Catholic mission. The mission was put to the torch.

The burning church was visible by all in Mengo, including Lugard and Mwanga. The Wa-Fransa, in response to the burning of their church, assualted the enclosure of Apolo Kagwa enmasse. The Katikiro's enclosure was just below the palace in a mainly Catholic part of town. Kagwa's men were soon routed and ran to the fort. The Catholics were hotly pursued the Protestants until Lugard opened fire with one of his Maxim guns. Though it didn't cause many casualties, it did check the Wa-Fransa advance.

This gave Apolo Kagwa time to regroup and counterattack. The Protestant advance was supported by Williams and 200 Sudanese. The Catholics broke on all fronts and escaped to the islands of lake Victoria.

Though there was still much work and fighting to be done, by the end of the day the I.B.E.A. Company was the ruler of Uganda.


"The Rise Of Our East African Empire" by Frederick D. Lugard - Frahk Cass and Co. Ltd., London, 1968

"Lugard At Kampala" by John A. Rowe - Longmans of Uganda Ltd., Kampala, 1969

"Early Days In East Africa" by Sir Frederick Jackson - Dawsons Of Pall Mall, London, 1969

Close Window To Return To The Table Of Contents

Free Web Hosting