IN 1875, WHEN Stanley passed through Uganda on his east-to-west crossing of the continent, he saw Mutesa, then about thirty-eight, at war against the Wavuma people on the northern shore of Lake Victoria. Mutesa’s army was vast. Stanley, doing a rough and ready calculation (and perhaps exaggerating), makes it 150,000, adding in 100,000 followers and women (Mutesa went everywhere with his harem), to make a grand total of 250,000 in Mutesa’s camp.
There were musketeers now in Mutesa’s army, but this did not give them anything like an overwhelming advantage. The Wavuma, who used only spears, knew about muskets and were not frightened of them. They were also skilled fighters on water. Mutesa’s people were better on land; on water they were nervous of tipping over; and for much of the time the advantage seemed to be with the Wavuma. People came out on to the hills above Lake Victoria to see the battle. The engravings in Stanley’s book, many of them based on photographs by Stanley, show what the watchers would have seen. They show the beautiful boats lined up, and the formations of the two disciplined armies, though the details of boats and fighting men in the distance are crowded and not always clear. The battle would have been frustrating for the watchers; since the fighters took their time, seeming to retire after every little episode. When Stanley sought Mutesa out to give advice about the battle, Mutesa appeared to have lost interest in it, and wanted to talk only about religion.
War was noise, to frighten the enemy. Mutesa had fifty drummers, as many flute-players, and any number of men ready to shake gourds with pebbles. There were also more than a hundred witchdoctors, men and women, specially selected, fantastically dressed (the Wavuma were no doubt meant to notice), who had brought along their most potent charms, to keep the evil eye off Mutesa and to sink the Wavuma. Before any action they presented their charms to Mutesa who, already half Muslim and half Christian, acknowledged these precious things of Africa—dead lizards, human fingernails and so on—with great style, pointing an index finger at what was presented, not touching it, and then, like a sovereign at a levee, waiting to see what came next.
Protected in this way, Mutesa began to threaten his commanders. He was going to strip the cowards of all their dignity and all the blessings he had given them. They had started life as peasants; they were going to be returned to that state. Some he was going to burn over a slow fire. (Burning: Mutesa’s mind often went back to this punishment, which he had narrowly escaped as a young man.) The chief minister, recognising the passion of his ruler, threw himself on the ground before the Kabaka and said, “Kabaka, if tomorrow you see my boat retreating from the enemy, you can cut me into small pieces or burn me alive.”
When Stanley next saw Mutesa, Mutesa was in high spirits. His men had managed to seize an old chief of the Wavuma and Mutesa intended to burn the old man alive, to teach the Wavuma a lesson. Stanley talked him out of that, and Stanley also, to everyone’s relief, mediated a peace between the parties.
This happened in 1875. In 1884 Mutesa was dead and was being buried in the tomb at Kasubi, which he had modelled on the tomb of his father Sunna at Wamala. He was, indeed, like his father. The country had given him no other model.