“He is very lively, he laughs a lot, often shaking with mirth. He is very talkative and appears to submit to ceremonial with a certain measure of constraint.”
That’s how African explorer Emin Pasha described Ugandan king Omukama John Chwa II Kabalega. Despite being warm and jovial, Kabalega, who ruled the Bunyoro kingdom from 1870 to 1899, was a pain in the neck of colonialists. He was the most hated king in Uganda by colonialists because of his lack of trust for them.
The Berlin Conference of 1884 that regulated European trade in Africa led to the thirst for absolute control over Africa. By 1914, Liberia and Ethiopia were the only African counties that were not ruled by any European state. Among all the European countries, the British had the most African states under their rule. They fought several African kingdoms, killing their rulers and weakening their armies in order to take control.
But some African states gave them a hard time. These African states were ruled by strong and courageous kings who protected their kingdoms for as long as they could. Kabalega was one of them. With his wealth and power, he was able to fight off the British for five years until he was captured and exiled for 24 years. Even though the British painted him black, today, many in Bunyoro regard him as one of their greatest kings who united and expanded their kingdom, bringing their once powerful empire back to its former glory after it almost declined.
Bunyoro, a kingdom in Western Uganda, was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Central and East Africa from the 13th century to the 19th century. Long before the arrival of the European missionary doctors, the kingdom performed a highly developed surgical procedure; a cesarean section that saved mother and child in pre-hospital days. And that was during the reign of Kabalega, who led several reforms that transformed Bunyoro.
Born to Omukama Kyebambe 1V Kamurasi Mirundi on June 18, 1853, Kabalega grew up in Mwenge in present-day Tooro, where his father had been exiled following a rebellion and where his maternal uncle had been appointed chief. One of 38 children, Kabalega was “proud and assertive” and loved hunting but was also a trained soldier who had no mercy for rebellious royals and their supporters.
Described as one who was about 5ft 10” tall, muscular with a small head and a light complexion, he ascended the throne in 1870 when he was 16 after the death of his father in 1869. But before becoming king, he had to fight off his adversaries. Most of the local chiefs did not want him to be made king as they preferred his elder brother Kabigumire but with the support of the royal guards of his late father as well as that of the common people (mainly agriculturalists), he defeated his enemies after a war that lasted six months and ascended the throne after burying his father.
At the time he became king, the kingdom was declining as many princes had seceded during his father’s rule. And so to regain lost territories and consolidate his rule, he first killed and exiled members of the royal family and chiefs who had opposed him and had supported his rival brother Kabigumire. He also created a “150,000-strong professional army, equipped with guns”, to expand his kingdom and defend it against invasion from Buganda and foreigners.
Besides raiding breakaway areas, Kabalega maintained trade and diplomatic relations with his neighbors, including Buganda, Karagwe, Busoga, Ankole, Lango and West Nile. He exported salt to Buganda, and his kingdom’s ivory, which was reported to be the whitest, heaviest and largest in East Africa, attracted many traders including Swahili Arabs from the coast. Essentially, Kabalega developed the trading sector which brought in more wealth to better his kingdom. Bunyoro was also ahead of time in various scientific practices and discoveries including its caesarian section. Kabalega was not ready to give up his empire to colonialists after rebuilding it and so for many years, he resisted colonization, westernization and the attempts of the British to take over his kingdom.
His kingdom would have expanded further if the British had not invaded it later and worked with Bunyoro’s enemies in the late 1890s. The British declared war on Bunyoro in 1894 which made Kabalega go into hiding in order to plan several attacks on the British. Known as the Nyangire Rebellion, Kabalega successfully defeated the British for five years, securing help and protection from Somalia and Nubia.
In 1899, Kabalega was found and shot by the British and was captured and exiled to Seychelles where he stayed for 24 years until in 1923 that he was granted freedom to return to his kingdom. Unfortunately, he died just before reaching the borders of his kingdom on his return from Seychelles.
His grandson Solomon Gafabusa Iguru, who became king of Bunyoro, would sue the UK in 2004 for “alleged atrocities committed by its soldiers during the colonial period,” demanding £3trillion (then $5,500bn) from the British monarchy. He was on a mission to bankrupt Britain over war crimes but he lost the case.