- New series. It is 120 years since Omukama Kabalega’s 30-year reign in Bunyoro Kingdom was brought to an end after a protracted war with the British Imperialists. In a four-part series, we bring you how the friction between Kabalega and the British started, the fiercest battles the Omukama fought, and how he was eventually defeated after 27 years, writes Faustin Mugabe.
History documents King Chwa II Kabalega as a great leader. In the history of anti-European imperialism, the king of Bunyoro is an icon and perhaps unequalled by many of his contemporaries in the 19th Century.
In Uganda, he was the first leader to command his people to oppose and fight European colonialism. In Africa, he made a mark as a commander who engaged the British imperialists in one of the longest military campaigns. The war lasted 27 years and was fought in three phases.
Beginning of war
On May 14, 1872, Samuel Baker, a British imperialist agent masquerading as an explorer, declared Bunyoro Kingdom part of the Equatorial Province under Khedive Ismail of Egypt.
Baker had first come to Bunyoro in 1864 and renamed Mwitanzige, Lake Albert. On his second return, he had been appointed governor general of the Equatorial Province by Khedive of Egypt. This he did by raising the Egyptian flag on Bunyoro territory. This left King Kabalega incensed.
It is said that Kabalega attempted to have Baker and troops poisoned, but the plot failed. Baker got wind of it and in retaliation burnt Kabalega’s palace in Masindi.
Kabalega led an ambush to capture or kill Baker. But Baker and his forces escaped in the night before Kabalega’s forces could arrive at the spot. That was the beginning of the Kabalega wars against the British and their agents.
What became one of the longest anti-colonialism wars in Africa started on June 8, 1872, in Masindi when Kabalega’s army attacked Baker’s troops, forcing them to flee north.
When he started the resistance, Kabalega was said to be in his 20s. He is said to have used a force of about 1,500 fighters to engage Baker’s army that had crossed into Kabalega’s territory from Sudan.
Kabalega’s troops killed many of Baker’s fighters, forcing them to retreat to Acholi and camp at Fort Patiko. Kabalega’s forces had triumphed. Commander Kabalega who had no conventional military training proved, to be militarily superior to Lieutenant Baker, a British-trained soldier.
That notwithstanding, in war there are several facts to success. In early 1874, Baker was succeeded by another Briton, Col Charles Gordon, who also failed to defeat Kabalega. In 1877, Gordon realised that only peace talks would end the war against Bunyoro.
The following year, Emin Pasha succeeded Gordon as the governor general of Equatorial Province. These negotiations too failed. Meanwhile, Kabalega had earlier during his expansionist wars fought and defeated King Kasagama of Tooro, forcing him to flee to Buganda Kingdom.
Kabalega was also thought to be a threat to Buganda Kingdom. In December 1890, Frederick Lugard, a veteran of the 1880s Anglo-Afghan war, arrived in Uganda.
Lugard fights Kabalega
In April 1891, Capt Lugard launched a war against Kabalega. Around Ssingo, Lugard’s forces encountered Bunyoro forces commanded by Kabalega’s eldest son, Jasi Nyakimoso. The battle was fought along the Kanangalo in Bugangaizi.
Capt Lugard was on a mission to fight and defeat Kabalega and thereafter reinstate the deposed King Kasagama. But the Bunyoro forces proved a hard nut to crack. After some months, Lugard and his forces decided to go straight to Tooro.
After overpowering Kabalega’s forces on August 16, 1891, Lugard with King Mwanga and others reinstated Kasagama as the king of Tooro.
In his research paper The British and Bunyoro-Kitara, 1891-1899, published in 1960, British researcher AR Dubar writes that Kabalega attempted twice to talk peace with Lugard but Lugard refused, insisting on defeating Kabalega militarily.
In Buganda, there was a feeling that should they defeat Bunyoro, then Buganda would grab its territory and add it to Buganda.
Indeed, that was what happened later and led to the infamous issue of the “Lost Counties” of Bunyoro after Bunyoro lost the war.
“…as it was, the Baganda chiefs, greedy for territory and spoil, probably threw difficulties in the way of Kabalega coming to terms with the British authorities. On three occasions, Mwanga would intercede on his behalf with the British,” Dunbar writes.
“Kabalega, however, maintained that Mwanga should plead for himself, and that he, Kabalega had no need to plead. Kabalega believed that Mwanga was endeavouring to betray him to the British, but his belief did not prevent him subsequently befriending Mwanga when he was in difficulties.”
Third war against Kabalega
In 1892, Lugard was recalled from Uganda to Britain. Soon Gerald Portal arrived in Uganda as a British commissioner but his stay was short-lived. He was replaced by Macdonald. It was during this time that the third British war against Kabalega started.
“Macdonald, acting as British commissioner in charge of Uganda upon the departure of [Gerald] Portal eventually agreed with Owen [British soldier] that a full scale campaign should be launched against Kabalega,” Dunbar says.
“Eight Europeans, 400 Sudanese and 15,000 Baganda mainly spearmen were concentrated on the frontiers while Maj Owen invaded Bugangaizi to make a diversion which was successful.”
As a strategy, the British commander opened several fronts against Bunyoro forces. One of the fronts was commanded by Lt Col Colville Evatts.
Dunbar writes: “On December 18, 1893, Colville’s forces advanced into Bunyoro-Kitara and on the 29th crossed River Kafu probably a mile or so south of the present Hoima-Kampala main road bridge; meeting some opposition from skirmishers. The reason for the lack of serious resistance was that Kabalega had divided his forces into four divisions, the first to guard Tooro, the second to garrison Bunyala, the third to cover the frontiers and the fourth to form a general reserve.”
Also worthy of note is that Fort Portal was established by Gerald Portal as a fortification to defend the reinstated King Kasagama – although when it was first established it was called Fort Gerry. Today Fort Portal is a town in western Uganda.
“This division of his forces was the only mistake made by Kabalega in strategy; thereafter he conducted his campaign on irregular lines, refused a general engagement, abandoned his capital, Mparo and so prevented Colville from destroying the classic primary objective in warfare, the main body of the enemy,” Dunbar says.
In other words, Kabalega engage the British in guerrilla warfare, which strategy he maximally exploited to the disadvantage of his enemy.
Kabalega, together with his senior commanders Mujasi, Rwabudongo and Byabachwezi, decided to retreated north of Bunyoro, crossing into Acholi territory through the Budongo forest but twice slipped back and dealt a severe blow on the Baganda fighters who had been stationed at Kisabagwa near Kitoba before crossing the Nile river into Acholi.
In 1897, Mwanga escaped from Buganda to join Kabalega in the war against the British colonialists. For two years Kabalega went on to engage the British-led forces in a guerrilla war until an unfortunate incident that changed the course of the struggle.
When he started the resistance, Kabalega was said to be in his 20s. He is said to have used a force of about 1,500 fighters to engage Baker’s army that had crossed into Kabalega’s territory from Sudan. Kabalega’s troops killed many of Baker’s fighters, forcing them to retreat to Acholi and camp at Fort Patiko.
Next Sunday read about the
capture of Kabalega and Mwanga