that I have bought the road to Buganda with my life.”
- Bishop Hannington, on hearing of his impending execution
As we sat there in the downpour, I began to reflect on the road beside which we were now precariously parked, the Mackinnon-Slater Road. Why had it been built in the first place? The quick answer is, to connect the Swahili Coast to Uganda, where told there was a great a kingdom at the source of the River Nile.
I began to research the subject and discovered that in a few short years after this route was opened up, it had become the main road into the heart of Africa. Described in detail by its pioneers, and I have collected and woven together relevant quotes from a number of accounts of the journey, from between 1894 and 1912, in order to give you, the reader, a sense of what it was like for those early travelers who opened up the Road to Buganda.
|King M'tesa of Buganda|
The Northern Route
One thing European travelers to Uganda all had in common for the first two decades of journeying to Buganda was the road they took into the country. The old slave-trading route from the Swahili Coast to the interior started in Zanzibar, passed through Tabora, and then followed the southern shores of Lake Victoria to approach the Kingdom from the south. It had long been used by explores and missionaries, but in 1885 James Hannington, the bishop of East Equatorial Africa, on his first trip to Uganda, opted to try an as-yet-untravelled ‘northern route,’ which roughly followed the same course as the present-day Mackinnon-Slater road, connecting Mombasa with Kampala.
“The long line of white-clad and black-skinned porters, bearing on their heads loads of every colour, size, and shape, slowly winds in a single file along the narrow path like a brilliant and gigantic serpent, now almost dazzling to look upon under the rays of the morning sun, now gliding in dark and mysterious silence through the cool shade of a wooded valley.”
“One European marched in front, one in the rear, and one in the middle of the long line. The Wa-Kikuyu, as we knew, seldom or never show themselves, or run the risk of a fight in the open, but lie like snakes in long grass, or in some dense bush within a few yards of the line of march, watching for a gap in the ranks, or for some incautious porter to stray away or loiter a few yards behind; even then not a sound is heard; a scarcely perceptible 'twang' of a small bow, the almost inaudible 'whizz' of a little arrow for a dozen yards through the air, a slight puncture in the arm, throat, or chest, followed, almost inevitably, by the death of a man.”
J. B. Purvis describes the scene as the boats arrived to collect him: “Around a jutting promontory comes into view a picture that might have dropped from fairy-land… A flotilla of canoes such as we have never seen before, long and graceful, coloured red with earth, and prows adorned with the horns of antelope. Each vessel is propelled by twenty paddlers or more, who, the moment they catch sight of us, put additional zest into both song and work, and send their frail-looking craft skimming towards us.”
Upon his arrival, Sir Gerald also found inspiration from the source of the Nile. “At last, at 11 o'clock on the 12th of March, a muffled roar of water told us that we were approaching the frontier of Uganda, and in a few minutes a steep and rapid descent brought us to ...the very spot where the Somerset Nile leaves the lake, and, severing all connection with its parent by throwing itself madly over the Ripon Falls, sets forth alone on its 3000-mile journey to the Mediterranean Sea.”
It was all downhill from there. All that remained of our 1,200-km journey from the coast, was our arrival in the Buganda Kingdom, the promised land.
At long last, we’d reached our journey’s end: Kampala. Stanley was one of the first Europeans to enter what was then called Mengo, or Rubaga, which he described in Through the Dark Continent (1899) as “crowning the summit of a smooth rounded hill - a large cluster of tall conical grass huts, in the centre of which rose a spacious, lofty, barn-like structure. The large building, we were told, was the palace! the hill, Rubaga; the cluster of huts, the imperial capital!”