It all began around the time when Mr Stanley (of “Dr Livingstone, I presume” fame) appealed for missionaries to Uganda in 1875. Many took up his call and the first missionaries of the Church Missionary Society arrived a short two years later in 1877. For the Catholics, reaching Lake Victoria near Entebbe in 1879 entailed a rather tortuous journey: they travelled from Marseilles to the Spice Island of Zanzibar and then simply walked the rest of the way, hacking their way through eight-hundred miles of fever-infested bush as they moved slowly into the interior of East Africa – bringing their own brands of bodily ailments with them. When two of them (Father Lourdel and Brother Amans) reached Uganda, their first task was to seek audience with King Mutesa (the Kabaka) at Mengo, the capital of Buganda. Presents were given and, in return, the Kabaka gave permission for a small group to set up shop evangelizing the locals their way.
However, a strange twist in this story concerns the fact that Alexander Mackay of the Church Missionary Society had reached the Kabaka before them – he too had trekked from Zanzibar through the unaccommodating bush to reach the breathtakingly beautiful shores of Lake Victoria to bring the Good News to its inhabitants. The story goes that Mackay was asked to be the spokesman for the newly-arrived Catholic priests and apparently told the king more than he was asked to. Since the CMS had already been in Uganda for two years, they thought the newcomers were intruding on their turf and were more than miffed – after all, the new lot had the rest of Africa to set up shop in:” Why here? Mackay, although part of the Anglican mission, was a member of The Free Church of Scotland – you can imagine his reaction to the papists!
Histories tell all sorts of interesting stories about this rivalry, but from the Kabaka’s point of view, it was even more complicated than the old rivalries between Teagues and Prods. He was worried about the designs of Egypt on his northern borders and so his dallying with the English Protestants and the French Catholics had political overtones in terms of countering the Arab influence from the north. And the Kabaka was also worried that the Bazungu wanted to take over his kingdom. Happily for him, he passed away in 1884 before any damage was done. His son, the young Mwanga, took the throne of Buganda but he inherited all his father’s fears and more. In 1885, this volatile young man grew even more worried when news reached him that the Germans had threatened Zanzibar and were working their way through current day Tanzania. Scary news indeed for a young king perched on a perilous throne! Mwanga, although a newcomer to royal politics was very much part of the various intrigues going on at his own court which included Arab (slave) traders who were anxious about their own lucrative businesses in the clove gardens of Zanzibar, a trade built on the labour of stolen human beings.
When things hotted up in 1885, news of a visit by CMS Bishop Hannington and his caravan through neighbouring territory frightened the Kabaka so much that he (under the influence of the Arab traders) had the group captured, imprisoned, and then brutally murdered. He was afraid that the Bishop was opening the path to other Bazungu who would depose him and seize his lands. After Hannington’s murder, the local clergy of both persuasions grew increasingly worried about their own safety and, of course, tried to win the favour of the Kabaka. According to accounts of the day, Mwanga blew hot and cold in turns with the English and the French – effectively keeping them all on their toes. Not a bad tactic for a newcomer in politics!
In May 1886, with the Brits and King Leopold mounting missions to save their lads in Buganda, Mwanga grew increasingly angry with the young newly-converted Christians at his court. It is said that they began to refuse to indulge in acts of “unmentionable abomination”, and this began a bloody slaughter of the innocents. The culmination of this brutal spree of maiming, castration, and killing culminated on 3rd June when a group of twenty-four young Christians were burned to death at Namugongo – currently site of the shrine to these Uganda martyrs who died for their newly-found faith. Thus it was that Uganda’s earliest Christians quickly became martyrs, just as in the early days of Christianity itself. This persecution of the Christians certainly could be described as living in ‘interesting times’, and thereafter Kabaka Mwanga became increasingly embroiled in battles with all religious parties: Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims. Not an enviable position.
After his deposition, though strange and twisting plots of the Arab traders at court, Kabaka Mwanga appealed to the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1889 for help in getting his throne back. The Brits were apparently non committal but did agree that the Kabaka be placed under the Company’s Protection – protection that never materialized because he got his throne back without them.
But things went from bad to worse, and when a certain Captain Lugard of the said Imperial British Company (who, not surprisingly, believed that imperialism was the answer to the slave trade) arrived at Mengo in 1890 to secure the Kabaka’s agreement to placing his kingdom under a British Protectorate, a series of small sparks eventually ignited. When Lugard succeeded in getting the great Kabaka to sign away his land, his revenues, and his armies, Mwanga eventually turned to the French White Fathers for support against a common enemy. Eventually, with a bad-hearted Irish arms dealer thrown into the mix, the question of who actually started the war isn’t really important, but one did start, and a bloody one at that.
Lugard issued weapons to the English who are said to have opened fire on the French who could be described as baiting them across the hill at Rubaga in January 1892. Three months of civil war ensued. The English emerged victorious with Mwanga and the French forced to turn tail and flee Mengo, leaving the Brits to start implementing unspeakably harsh tax systems and subduing the natives in their usual clod-footed fashion. Apparently Winston Churchill (he of “the pearl” one-liner) saw through to the core of the problem: the age old rivalry between the French and the British had taken on religious undertones – a bit like other “Troubles” in more recent times. But the European scramble for the goodies of Africa was the real heart of the problem, not religion or national allegiances. And while things eventually sorted themselves out in a way, and relative peace was restored to all the waring factions, even today, you can feel the lingering ghosts of Lugard, Lourdel, Mackay and the CMS, and the rest of the Catholic White Fathers when you take a walk up to their erstwhile strongholds on the hills of present-day Kampala.
Back to the cathedrals. The Roman Catholic one was consecrated in 1925 and is said to be built on the former royal enclosure of King Mutesa. An interesting turn of events that. The Protestant Cathedral was built at Namirembe hill. The original grass-thatched church on the hilltop was consecrated in 1892 but was blown down in a storm in 1901. A replacement was eaten by white ants and pulled down in 1904. A third cathedral was struck by lightening after only eight years in existence. Fourth time lucky? Yes, the current church was consecrated in 1919 and still stands today. Both cathedrals are wonderful examples of early colonial architecture and both are loved by the people who worship there. Manys a quiet afternoon can be spent wandering around their insides and indeed their outsides where they afford the most enticing views over this city of expanding hills. But spare a thought for the bicycles: getting to Church of a Sunday morning for those without motorized vehicles can be a serious expenditure of effort. The cool relief on the inside is a fitting reward for those who sweat their way up the hill to thank God for more peaceful, less interesting times.