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Africa During the Scramble: The Great Lakes Kingdoms

Updated: May 17, 2022

By Gary Oswald

John Cary's 1805 Map of Africa

At the beginning of the 19th century, the coast of Africa was well known, but the interior was still a mystery. Maps written by Europeans, Americans or Asians could not show where rivers and lakes were or which Kingdoms held sway. To an extent, this was not unique to Africa, most of the exploration of the 15th to 18th centuries had been done by boat. The Interiors of North America, Australia and the Amazon were still often not mapped at this time. But Africa was where the maps were worst.

And Kingdoms in the interior were often cut off entirely from external trade. They’d never communicated with white traders and bought guns or sold slaves. Moreover they often hadn’t traded very far within Africa itself. One of the tragedies of pre-colonial Africa was the lack of consistent durable trade routes. Goods did travel from Zimbabwe to Ethiopia and Mali to Angola but not consistently, trade tended to be reliant on large polities enforcing peace and most routes were disrupted more than they were open.

In the area around the Great Lakes, centred on modern day Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda the native Kingdoms there formed their own isolated civilisation. They traded and fought mostly only with each other. It wasn’t until the 1840s that those polities began to make regular extended contact with the outside world, mostly in the form of Muslim traders and missionaries coming from either the Swahili coast under the Flag of Zanzibar or Sudan under the flag of Egypt. In the 1860s white Christian traders and missionaries began to come as part as these Muslim caravans. Those initial meetings between, on the one hand, previously isolated African polities and, on the other hand, these emissaries of the outside world would be hugely important in crafting the colonial and post-colonial character of the area.

Ethnic tensions are common in post-colonial Africa, and the modern history of the Great Lakes region has been defined by the ethnic tension between the Hutu and Tutsi groups, something that culminated in the Rwandan genocide, wherein nearly 70% of the Tutsi population of Rwanda were massacred by extremist Hutu gangs, and heavily influenced the brutal Congo wars wherein the Tutsi government of Rwanda killed many Hutu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is a tendency sometimes to blame these tensions entirely on Europeans whose use of model minorities, divide and conquer and arbitrary borders created tensions where none previously existed. This is a gross simplification. Ethnic tensions existed in pre-colonial Africa, both between different polities and between different identities within the same policy such as the Yoruba-Fon conflict in late Dahomey. Moreover that Ethiopia, a country united by native African imperialists and only briefly ruled by Europeans, has been dogged by ethnic strife as much as any other country shows that the Europeans were not needed to create these problems.

But foreign imperialist rule undoubtedly made those problems worse by incentivising divisions, by impoverishing previous elites and by forcing previously separate polities into the same country. The Swahili city dwellers of the Tanzanian and Kenyan coast had always considered themselves different to the country folk of the interior but it wasn’t until they fell under the domination of the Omani Empire that they began to create their own myths about being Persian settlers and so not really Africans, something that would be used to justify both preferential treatment in European Empires and worst treatment in the post-colonial countries.

Likewise the Hutu-Tutsi tension predates European contact but was amplified by the views and decisions of white colonialists. In pre-colonial Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi were social categories of a people who shared a common language, common religion and were integrated into the same political framework. The Tutsi were pastoralists and tended to form the nobility and upper classes, while the Hutu tended to make up the peasantry. There were in different places various levels of inter marriage and shifting identities, Tutsi becoming Hutu and vice versa. Hutu as a term was not an ethnic one, it was routinely aimed at non black foreigners, if the labels were anything they were ideological. Being Tutsi meant being a member of the nobility and so a supporter of the monarch. And as the 19th Century continued and the Kingdom of Rwanda under Kigeli IV, one of the region's most impressive figures, conquered more land, increasingly the existing Nobility of the conquered areas were referred to as Hutu in order to enforce a social structure which denied them full equality. By the 1890s in Rwanda there was movement towards social stratification with Hutu only taxes being introduced.

John Hanning Speke, as photographed in 1863 by the Southwell Brothers

Various Europeans, most famously the English explorer John Hanning Speke, noticed ethnic differences between the majority of the nobility and the majority of the peasantry and racialised the social division, thus amplifying it even further. This was the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’, that a group of middles eastern invaders, the Hamites, were the ancestors of the ‘civilised’ North Africans; that is the Egyptians, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Somali and Tutsi, but not the Hutu. The Hutu, in this analysis, were the original African dwellers, conquered and civilised by the Middle Eastern Tutsi. This is generally viewed as pseudo-scientific nonsense these days but this analysis was used by the Hutu to paint the Tutsi as invaders, as non-African and so justify their genocide. In the eyes of many Hutu, the Rwandan genocide in that respect was no different to the Zanzibar revolution, where in ex slaves attacked their oppressive landlords. This weapon given to those who wanted to extend and poison the social divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi, is in many way’s Speke’s greatest legacy.

Now at this point I need to be very careful. Speke was not responsible for the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide. The Hutu army units and militias who killed hundreds of thousands of civilians were responsible for those killings. The political and media people who encouraged that were responsible for those killings. And they made those choices themselves, they were not controlled by a long dead white European. AH naturally looks at the consequences of decisions, at the way people’s theories were interpreted and used after their death but it should not ever be used to remove the personal responsibility of those committing crimes. After all, even if Speke was right about the Hamitic Hypothesis, that does not justify genocide.

We also must not great man Speke too much, his racial theories built upon racial theories that Europeans had been making for centuries and were designed to justify the imperialism of the age. Another man in his place might have thought the same thing, indeed several other visitors the region did ultimately agree with his theories. But the decision to place the Tutsi with the Egyptians and the Berbers rather than with the Zulu and the Sotho, came out of his own experiences. In particular Speke was impressed by the Kingdom of Buganda and bore an unrequited love with a noble women he’d met there. Speke attempted to explain the complex political system of the Kingdom of Buganda as being due to them being a Hamitic race like the Oromo of Ethiopia, something that would form the cornerstone of his, charmingly titled, 1863 book ‘Theory of Conquest of Inferior by Superior Races’ which posited the Empire of Kitara, an ancient polity that folklore had said ruled the entire great lakes region, was set up by Hamitic invaders and the Great Lakes nobility were descendants of those invaders.

If Speke hadn’t been treated with such kindness by Muteese of Buganda and had not been gifted his woman guide, who he fell in love with, by the Queen Mother, would he have still insisted that this was the case? Or would the Great Lakes Kingdoms be presented as savage pure Africans? Muteese’s decision to welcome in this stranger might well have had profound consequences that led unwittingly to the Rwandan Genocide.

Take, as contrast, Bunyaro, another Great Lakes Kingdom. Bunyaro was larger in area than Buganda but less populated, less centralised and ultimately less powerful. This difference was largely due to climate and so crops grown, Buganda were able to rely much more on Bananas than their neighbours. The first British man to write about the Bunyaro in detail wasn’t Speke but Samuel Baker, who was working for the Khedive of Egypt and established an Egyptian province in what is currently South Sudan and Uganda. The Egyptians were, at least nominally, out to suppress the slave trade and Baker’s mission led him to fight the King of Bunyaro and in his book he is far less kind to the Great Lakes nobility with the Bunyaro depicted as savage slavers. This attitude meant that when the British took over the area they viewed the nobles of Buganda as more reliable proxies and gave them border provinces disputed between Bunyaro and Buganda. There were numerous reasons as to why the Buganda/British Alliance formed, as we will discuss later, but the initial reports from Speke and Baker were well known by the British when they made those decisions. Should things go differently there is no innate reason for Buganda to be favoured.

The northern Kingdoms, Buganda, Bunyaro, Ankole and several others, would fall under the British Empire during the Mahdist War, and become what is now Uganda. The Southern ones, most notably Rwanda and Burundi, would become part of German East Africa instead and became Belgian after WWI. Rwanda and Burundi are both places where Tutsi-Hutu tensions are high and it would be the Belgians whose decisions would mostly define that relationship. There were, in fact, two attempted genocides in Burundi, one of the Hutu by the Tutsis in 1973 and one by the Tutsi of the Hutu in 1993, something that was overshadowed by the events in neighbouring Rwanda. This essay will focus on Rwanda but Burundi had a lot of the same history, being part of the same colony.

Kigeli IV the last independent King of Rwanda.

The key in understanding a lot of what led to this comes through religion. In Rwanda, the missionaries arrived after the countries had agreed to German over-lordship while in Buganda they arrived while they were still independent and so the relationship had a very different power balance. In both areas there was a clash between Protestant and Catholic missionaries. The first Catholic missionaries in Rwanda aimed largely at the underclass, the Hutu peasantry who were more inclined to listen. But this led to fears that this would leave the door open for the Tutsi to become Protestant, due to the success the Protestants had had in converting the King of Buganda. The French Priest, Léon-Paul Classe argued there was a real danger of Catholicism in Rwanda becoming merely a slave religion like Vodou. In order to counter this and win over the Tutsi, Classe repeatedly set up discriminatory practices, he successfully argued for an all Tutsi ruling class by replacing Hutu chiefs with Tutsi nobles and setting up a two tiered education system wherein the Tutsi received the better teachers.

Classe however was not, as is commonly assumed, a believer in Speke’s ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’. He viewed the Rwandan as a pure African race and correctly identified that the Hutu and Tutsi were social categories more than ethnic ones. His aim was to secure the role of the Catholic Church in the country by favouring the Tutsi, but he argued against this being permanent. Once the Tutsi were loyal, then the Church could be allowed to speak for the Hutu once more. His was a cynical use of the divisions to extend the influence of the Church and he hoped that it would only be a temporary one.

But the results of his actions made that impossible. In the 1940s and early 1950s the debates within Burundi and Rwanda were primarily concerned with de colonisation, with westernisation and with wealth inequality, the Hutu-Tutsi tension wasn’t a major factor. Until the 1956 elections in which a majority of elected candidates were Hutu but the Cabinet was entirely Tutsi. This almost single handily bought that divide back into focus and it can be largely traced back to the two tier education system Classe had established. And this was when the Hamitic Hypothesis began to be regularly discussed, and believed, again. Andre Perraudin, a Swiss Catholic Clergyman living in Rwanda, was guilty of describing the issue as being a racial divide in a letter to his parishioners urging for brotherhood between the races.

In 1959, on the eve of independence, a civil war in Rwanda began between the Hutu and the Tutsi. And the leading Belgian Army Officer on the scene, Guy Lugiest, sympathised with the oppressed Hutu and threw his support behind them, resulting in a complete overthrow of the ruling classes and a Hutu dominated independent country arising. The UN argued that all that had happened was one unjust situation was replaced by another and that there needed to be a consensuses between the Hutu and Tutsi but were ignored. The new leaders ruled by violence and intimidation and quickly the Tutsi responded in kind.

The obvious conclusion to come to here is that Speke, Classe and Lugiest as outsiders had power over a system which they had not grown up under and did not entirely understand and as a result worsened a pre-existing social divide and helped pave the way to a genocide. This is one of the problems of colonialism even at its most well intentioned, the way it gives power to outsiders. Any alternate history of Rwanda and Burundi must deal with the Hutu-Tutsi tensions but without Speke, Classe and Lugiest it did not need to reach as bad a point as it has.

In Buganda the religious history was very different. While still independent Buganda saw the arrivals of Muslim, Protestant and Catholic missionaries all of whom gained converts from the pagans, resulting in a country divided between four religions. As sub chiefs increasingly converted to new religions and formed alliances with their co-religionists, this became a threat to the Pagan monarchy. The Monarch’s initially attempted to please all sides without favouring any, celebrating Ramadan and Easter alike ,but quickly resorted to more brutal means. In 1870 Mutesa I massacred a great many Muslims upon hearing that their Egyptian teachers told them not to listen to the non-circumcised, i.e. Mutesa. And in 1886, a number of Protesant and Catholic converts were killed by Mwanga II, after a young Christian servant refused his sexual advances. Mwanga feared that the Christians were disobedient as a result and were loyal to god rather than to him.

Mwanga II of Buganda

In 1888 the non-Pagan chiefs, led primarily by the Muslim leaders, feared they were next and so began a Coup to remove Mwanga. There is little evidence that Mwanga was planning an attack on his powerful nobles but the earlier massacres had spooked them and they were quick to believe the worst. Upon overthrowing Mwanga the Muslims and Christians initially divided power between them but there were, it quickly transpired, a lot of ‘secret Christians’ who could now be open about it. The Muslims were, it turned out, outnumbered. They reacted to this by moving to exile the Christians chiefs. The Pagans took advantage of this division to rebel against the new Muslim leaders. Despite being outnumbered, the Muslims managed to initially win both fronts and took sole control of the Kingdom, announcing Mwanga’s brother, Kalema, as their Sultan.

And then the Christian counterattack came with Mwanga II, the man who’d ordered anti-Christian massacres, newly baptised as a Christian and acting as their figurehead. The Christians had two major factors in their favour. First the majority of the people of Buganda were not Muslim and viewed the Muslim minority taking control with horror, especially given their eagerness to change the traditional customs. Thus the Christians were able to gather allies among the Pagans, though they would, of course, oppress the Pagans once they had gained power themselves. Secondly, the Christians had help from outside sources, the Europeans were able to arm their Christian armies, in a way the Egyptians were unable to. Mwanga and his new backers massacred the Muslims, with the survivors fleeing to Bunyaro, and regained their Kingdom. Only Mwanga's backers were themselves equally divided into the more numerous Catholics and the more powerful Protestants. Mwanga, diplomatically, selected a leader from both as his ministers and they vowed to share power and tax income equally but the two sides deeply distrusted each other.

Mwanga also had the problem of increasing European interest in his throne. In 1890 he signed a treaty of Friendship with Carl Peters and his German East African Company but Bismarck disowned that treaty in a deal with the British. Frederick Lugard, the British representative, turned up with a maxim gun later that year and forced Mwanga at gun point to sign it. This treaty essentially gave complete control of the Kingdom’s foreign and domestic policy to the British representative.

The Catholics, spurred on by the French missionaries who had converted them, viewed this development with hostility and only the presence of Lugard and his men prevented another round of civil war breaking out between the Catholics and Protestants. But Lugard, horrified that what he called ‘a second Ulster’ had been allowed to grow in Central Africa also refused to favour the Protestants who, outnumbered and feeling betrayed by Lugard, considered fleeing Buganda entirely to create their own Kingdom under British protection in Kenya.

Instead Lugard managed to unite both factions to assault their Muslim enemies in Bunyaro, with his two maxims helping them win a major victory. This gave the Protestants enough courage to stay around and when the civil war did break out in 1897, Lugard threw his support behind the Protestants while Mwanga supported the Catholics. The result was a massacre of the catholic forces and Mwanga fled into German East Africa in exile, with his son placed on the throne, as a British puppet instead. Mwanga would make more attempt at regaining his throne from exile but would be defeated and deported to the Seychelles where he died.

This defeat of the Catholics within the Kingdom would fuel Classe’s fears. This same pattern of Protestants replacing Muslims and Catholics would happen in the other Kingdoms of Uganda too. And the protestant Buganda nobles, having bled alongside Lugard would become seen as reliable servants.

This obviously is a fascinating prospect for AH. If the Muslim Revolution had succeeded and the Christian Revolution had not, you would see Buganda as an independent Muslim Power, though an unstable one, and so much less likely to become reliable servants of the British, this might well discredit the Hamitic Hypothesis. And if neither had succeeded, Mwanga is likely at this point to purge the Muslim and Christian leaders entirely. He'd be fighting a losing battle but again it'd be easier for him to be portrayed as a savage as a result.

Moreover, British Rule in Uganda itself would look very different. In OTL, it was typified by the British search for reliable servants to do their will, beginning with the Christian chiefs of Buganda who were given power over Bunyaro and Ankole. The ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ fit nicely into this reality, with one governor calling the Buganda 'more Japanese than African'. But by the 1920s this had changed. As the British grew more secure in their power, they were less reliant on the Chiefs and so less tolerant. When the Chiefs attempted to increase the taxes they were raising, the British prevented them from doing so and the result was a series of conflicts between the Buganda landowners on one side and the British on the other that saw them increasingly lose their power. And the main benefactors would not be Africans.

The British had been bringing in foreign forces for decades. In 1890 Frederick Lugard, fresh from his agreement with Mwanga, established treaties with many minor chiefs In Uganda and Kenya but did not have the men to defend them from their enemies. He needed armed men and he discovered that part of the Egpytian-Sudanese Army of Samuel Baker still existed in the Congo Free State and was cut off from their home by the Mahdist War. These were 600 men with good rifles but they had been cut off from pay for ten years and had gone native, marrying into the Lendu tribe and owning their own slaves. They wanted to bring their wives, concubines, children, servants and slaves with them and that was nine thousand people, who must be fed and sheltered.

Lugard, short of options, agreed and the vast caravan set off to the Forts on the Ugandan/Kenyan border where they were stationed. The British initially attempted to maintain discipline, freeing slaves and prohibiting the capture of more but after the Sudanese won a war with Bunyaro, the British felt they had proved their worth and left the Sudanese more to their own devices, with them sitting up an essentially autonomous Kingdom. Soon after there were reports of them attacking native Christians and collecting their own taxes. Having established a Christian noble class in Buganda, the British had then dropped in an equally powerful Muslim force, which they then reinforced with more men from Zanzibar. This force, quite predictably, went rogue. In 1897, while fighting another war with Bunyaro and after not having been paid for several months, a sizeable section of the Sudanese switched sides.

The British still won the war, partly because the Buganda Chiefs remained loyal, but it was the end of a reliance primarily on the Sudanese, with the majority then sent back to Sudan. In a Muslim Buganda situation one could imagine a Muslim alliance in which Buganda, Bunyaro and the Sudanese would give the UK much more of a fight, thought ultimately they're likely still to be conquered.

The Sudanese were to be replaced instead by Indians. The British Government encouraged the emigration of Indian workers, soldiers and traders to Kenya and Uganda. The idea was for this to create a loyal middle class who could be relied on as administrators. These weren’t mainly the indentured workers you saw elsewhere but often relatively prosperous shop owners and free traders. Up until the 1910s the British were relatively happy with this, the Indians much like the Bugandan chiefs were reliable underlings who could be relied on to not rebel. Post WW1, however more white British settlers began to arrive in Uganda and they were resentful of the position of the Indians. In the 1920s, the Indians were also targeted by the British administration with new immigration restricted but this didn't change the economic position. By the 1940s, 90% of Ugandan commerce went through Indian hands, partly due to the way the British Colonial Government preferred loyal Indian traders to African ones and partly due to the ways the Indians helped each other out and thus established cabals.

Richard Townshend's official portrait of Priti Patel, the daughter of Ugandan Indians. Shared under the CC BY 3.0 licence.

When Uganda became independent, in 1962, the existence of a minority this much richer and more prosperous than the black Ugandans resulted in predictable resentment and in 1972, President Amin had their entire ethnic group expelled from the country. Around 75,000 Asians left the country in that year, with their businesses and possessions seized. The majority of these refugees ended up in the UK and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, where they had a huge influence. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary when this was written, came from such a family as did many others and such an experience doubtlessly affected their world view. As well as the 80,000 Asians living in Uganda in 1972, there were around 10,000 White Europeans and, fearing they would be next, they also largely emigrated to South Africa and the UK. This as much as the Hutu-Tutsi tension was an example of ethnic tension exasperated by the unfair favouritism of a colonial government which saw the majority impoverished. And is another example of the dangerous way colonialism transfers decision making power to outsiders.

So the European Legacy in the modern history of the Great Lakes region is obviously a profound one, as most colonial legacies are. The fact that Uganda is a Christian country is something that can be attributed at least partially to British interference, there is a universe in which it is instead Muslim. The exact nature of the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic tension can likewise be said to have been codified by European actions. And the creation of a privileged Indian middle class in East Africa, which was later exiled, would not have occurred without deliberate policy encouraging it.

But a lot of that is down to the opinions and actions of specific men and if you delay or move forward European colonialism, none of that might have happened. If the British arrive in 1900 rather than 1890, than the Muslims are already in control and the Sudanese have well and truly settled down, creating an entirely different country. And as a result Léon-Paul Classe would have less motive stir up the Hutu-Tutsi divide further to help the cause of Catholicism. For that matter if the Germans arrive in Rwanda ten years earlier than that divide is less important and more independent Hutu Chiefs remain. And even if they arrive at the same time, Kigeli IV had decent relationships with them but was inclined to maintain his independence, it was his son who signed away Rwandan independence for German recognition of his legitimacy due to a disputed succession. If Kigeli ruled for longer, rather than dying in an invasion of the Congo Free State, it is possible for the Rwandans to be conquered by the Germans rather than join voluntarily and in that case the Tutsi Chiefs are far more likely to be deposed entirely.

And the timeline of when the first contact happens isn’t inevitable. To an extent European actions were dictated less by their own desires and more by the way the area became a battleground in one of the longest and most devastating wars of the entire Scramble, the Mahdist Revolt. And that is the next topic we’ll cover.



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