Rise of Buganda

As the powerful East African kingdom of Bunyoro declined, Buganda, Bunyaro’s former tributary, created a unique centralized monarchy that enabled its domination of Uganda.

Summary of Event

The origins of east central Africa’s traditional monarchies date to the 1300’, according to oral histories. Tied to the rise of these states are the widely varying origins of modern Uganda’s ethnic groups. A favorable high-altitude climate and reliable rainfall made Uganda attractive to Bantu-speaking farmers who came from West Africa around 500 b.c.e. Displacing the area’s original hunter-gatherer inhabitants, they cleared dense forests northwest of Lake Victoria for banana cultivation. Depicted in legends as supernatural but probably a Bantu subgroup, the Cwezi founded clan-based chiefdoms, which coordinated work, settled disputes, and performed rituals but could govern limited areas only. [kw]Rise of Buganda (late 17th cent.)
[kw]Buganda, Rise of (late 17th cent.)
Government and politics;Late 17th cent.: Rise of Buganda[2560]
Expansion and land acquisition;Late 17th cent.: Rise of Buganda[2560]
Africa;Late 17th cent.: Rise of Buganda[2560]
Uganda;Late 17th cent.: Rise of Buganda[2560]

Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, Nilotic-speaking Luo cattle herders migrated south from Sudan, displaced the Cwezi, and established several kingdoms, notably the BaBito kingdom of Bunyoro, south of Lake Albert, and the BaHima kingdom of Ankole, west of Lake Victoria. By 1400, Bunyoro dominated what is now Uganda and parts of Rwanda and Tanzania. Bunyoro established buffer states to protect its southern boundaries from the BaHima by the mid-1500’. The region suffered droughts, famines, political upheavals, and mass migrations from 1588 to 1621, known in some traditions as the era of Nyarubanga, that which is sent by God. Migration;into Bunyoro[Bunyoro]

During the 1600’, Buganda and other former BaBito tributaries created strong centralized kingdoms as Bunyoro’s Bunyoro power declined amid succession disputes. First paying tribute to the BaBito, these kingdoms broke away and faced constant war with Bunyoro, which tried vainly to bring them to submission.

Located in an area of alternating hills and swamps between Bunyoro and Lake Victoria, Buganda (the Ganda kingdom) was closely associated with Bunyoro. However, when and how the two separated is uncertain. Speaking Luganda (the Ganda language), the Baganda (the Ganda people; sing., Muganda) are Bantu, with some Nilotic ties. Their early history has been passed down in several different versions. Common to all is the triumph of a conquering hero (king) named Kato Kintu Kato Kintu over a ruthless renegade prince, Bemba, and his unification of the five original Baganda clans. Becoming the first kabaka, the victorious Kato slept in his enemy’s house at Naggalabi, where all subsequent kabakas have been crowned. Following Bemba’s ouster, a conclave of clan elders was held on Nnono hill. This important meeting laid down Buganda’s system of governance and the relationship between the clans and kabaka. Later, Kato established his court at Nnono. In the twenty-first century, the Baganda refer to issues of deep significance as being “from Nnono.”

Kato cleverly allied himself by marriage with the original hereditary clan leaders. Buganda’s political system empowered all clans. The kabaka could identify with any clan, unlike Bunyoro’s omukama (king), who was chosen exclusively from the BaBito clan. Probably originating as first among equals, the kabaka became both ssaabasajja, chief of men, and ssaabataka, chief of chiefs. The former role made him his people’s father and source of all authority, while the latter role gave him the final word in disputes. Although succession was patrilineal, each kabaka identified also with his mother’s clan. By virtue of giving birth to a kabaka, the namasole (king’s mother) was highly respected. She was given a palace and servants because she was not allowed to remarry, but she held no formal government role.

The unusual attachment of kabakas to their mothers’ clans also might relate to the kabaka’s need for support in succession disputes. For similar reasons, the kabaka’s male relatives were often kept in prison. Kabakas married wives from all clans. Their successors were chosen from among the princes, each of whom was identified by his mother’s clan. However, eldest sons were ineligible for succession. Thus, the throne was seldom seen as the property of a single clan.

Historians estimate that Buganda was established in the early to mid-fourteenth century. However, lack of written records makes it difficult to accurately establish the duration of each king’s reign. Confusing Kato, the first kabaka, with Kintu, the first man on Earth in Baganda legend, many early scholars concluded that Kato was mythological. Apparently, when Kato established his legitimacy as kabaka, he took the name Kintu, knowing that the Baganda associated it with the father of all people. He also named his principal wife Nambi, after the creator god Ggulu’s daughter, the original Kato’s wife. Reigns before that of Mwanga I (twenty-third kabaka) have been estimated with much difficulty. For example, Baganda tradition speaks of a great battle between the sun and moon during the reign of the sixteenth kabaka, Jjuuko. Historians have correlated this with a solar eclipse in 1680. However, another eclipse occurred in 1520, but neither year seems to fit other events.

In the mid-1600’, the eighteenth kabaka, Tebandeke, Tebandeke and his katikkiro (prime minister), Mujambula Mujambula , further centralized power by challenging spiritual mediums. Buganda’s religious life was rich with spirits. Associated with their clans, spirits of all the deceased required careful attention. Dead kabakas’ jawbones and umbilical cords were preserved in shrines that became pilgrimage centers. Accompanying spirits of the dead were natural, often feminine, spirits known as balubaale. Kabakas frequently consulted balubaale mediums despite evidence that they sometimes colluded with clan chiefs to oppose royal power. Angry at the rewards demanded for a service, Tebandeke destroyed all balubaale shrines. Later, he cured himself of madness by becoming a medium. His successor, Ndawula Ndawula , son of Jjuuko, refused such a religious role. Hence, a division between religious and political authority was drawn, giving Buganda’s monarchy a peculiarly secular character.


By the end of the 1600’, though ruling over territory less than one-tenth that of modern Buganda, the kabakas had consolidated their rule. In the early 1700’, Kabaka Mwanda Mwanda accelerated Buganda’s territorial expansion, largely at the expense of Bunyoro. He appointed commoners as officials to counter the influence of clan chiefs. Free of outside penetration until the nineteenth century, Buganda controlled a large territory between the Nile and Kagera Rivers and was divided into counties, subcounties, parishes, and, finally, villages.

In the mid-1800’, Arab traders and European explorers reached Buganda. In response, Kabaka Mutesa I experimented with both Islam and Christianity, while ensuring all power remained in his hands. His son Mwanga tried in vain to destroy both foreign faiths. Visiting Buganda in 1875, Henry Morton Stanley estimated its troop strength to be 125,000. He found Buganda’s capital to be a well-ordered town of about 40,000 surrounding the king’s hilltop palace. Eventually, the kabakas collaborated with the British to defeat Bunyoro, which was armed by Arab traders after 1869. They were rewarded with much BaBito territory. Under colonial rule, Baganda chiefs were employed in Bunyoro and other non-Baganda areas. Luganda became the dominant language. Resistance to British imperialism became equally anti-Baganda.

In 1962, Uganda became independent under a federal constitution giving the kabaka special powers. The next year, it became a republic, with Kabaka Mutesa II as its first president. Opposed by Prime Minister Milton Obote and unable to reconcile his conflicting traditional and modern roles, he fled the country. Uganda’s traditional kingdoms were abolished in 1967 but restored as constitutional monarchies in 1993. The dynasty founded by Kato and strengthened by Tebandeke and Mwanda continues into the twenty-first century.

The graves of four kabakas at Nabulagala, popularly known as the Kasubi Tombs, is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) heritage site.

Further Reading

  • Chrétien, Jean-Pierre. The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History. Translated by Scott Straus. New York: Zone Books, 2003. An excellent history drawing on colonial archives, oral traditions, and archaeological, anthropological, and linguistic evidence.
  • Kiwanuka, S. History of Buganda: From the Foundation of the Kingdom to 1900. London: Longman, 1971. Kiwanuka provides a good, comprehensive history of Buganda.
  • Low, D. A. Buganda in Modern History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. This thorough survey of Buganda’s history is accompanied by Low’s The Mind of Buganda: Documents of the Modern History of an African Kingdom (1971).
  • Nyakatura, John. Anatomy of an African Kingdom: A History of Bunyoro-Kitara. Norwell, Mass.: Anchor Press, 1973. Nyakatura traces Bunyoro’s history from its earliest times to the twentieth century.
  • Ray, Benjamin. Myth, Ritual, and Kingship in Buganda. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Ray provides an interpretation of Buganda’s kings, myths, rituals, shrines, and regalia in precolonial to postindependence times.
  • Reid, Richard J. Political Power in Pre-Colonial Buganda. Athens: Ohio State University Press, 2002. Reid explores the economic and military basis of Buganda’s power.
  • Wrigley, Christopher. Kingship and State: The Buganda Dynasty. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Wrigley’s history surveys Buganda’s royalty.

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