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Most scholarship on the military history of precolonial Africa focuses on state-level conflict, drawing on examples such as the Asante, Buganda, Zulu, and Kongo kingdoms. The current article instead examines connections between warfare and political history in the politically fragmented setting of nineteenth-century Busoga, Uganda, where a small geographical region hosted more than fifty micro-kingdoms competing as peer polities. Using sources that include a rich corpus of oral traditions and early archival documents, this article offers a reconstruction of military practices and ideologies alongside political histories of important Busoga kingdoms during the long nineteenth century. The article argues that routine political destabilization caused by competition between royal leaders, combined with shifting interests of commoner soldiers, continuously reconstituted a multi-polar power structure throughout the region. This approach moves beyond assessing the role of warfare in state formation to ask how military conflict could be a creative force in small-scale politics as well.



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1 The phrase ‘politically small’ here describes a gamut of political systems that share a durable and structural tendency to avoid ‘evolutionary’ steps resulting in full-fledged state-formation.

2 Historical reconstructions are based mostly on a comparative analysis of oral traditions collected and transcribed by American historian David William Cohen during the 1960s and 1970s, and on traditions collected, collated, and published by Soga historian Lubogo, Y. K. in his book, A History of Busoga (Jinja, 1960). Hereafter, ‘Lubogo, XX’ will identify a page number in A History of Busoga; ‘CTBTH, XXX’ will identify a document from Cohen's unpublished Collected Texts, Busoga Traditional History, which Cohen generously allowed me to access at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and ‘STBTH, XXX’ will identify a document from Cohen's Selected Texts, Busoga Traditional History, which are deposited in microfilm at the Center for Research Libraries, Chicago. The most common method for dating events is the ‘tie-in’ method, linking known quantities, such as kings’ names, to events by direct or indirect association. For Cohen's reflections on these traditions, see Cohen, D. W., Towards a Reconstructed Past: Historical Texts from Busoga, Uganda (Oxford, 1986), 120. A third smaller source of oral traditions is the field notes of the American anthropologist Lloyd Fallers (and some of his key collaborators) deposited at the University of Chicago's main library, referenced hereafter using ‘LFA’ followed by a box and folder number.

3 Earlier processes of militarized centralization shifted and in many places also intensified during East Africa's long nineteenth century, in part as a response to new external factors. For an overview, see Curtain, P., Feierman, S., Thompson, L., and Vansina, J. (eds.), African History: From Earliest Times to Independence (New York, 1995), 366–76.

4 Renfew, C. and Cherry, J. (eds.), Peer Polity Interaction and Socio-political Change (Cambridge, UK, 1986), esp. 118, 93–108; Vansina, J., Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (Madison, WI, 1990), 100.

5 Goody, J., Technology, Tradition, and the State in Africa (London, 1971), 3957; Law, R., ‘Horses, firearms, and political power in pre-colonial West Africa’, Past & Present, 72 (1976), 124–32; Kodesh, N., Beyond the Royal Gaze: Clanship and Public Healing in Buganda (Charlottesville, VA, 2010), 149–52.

6 For state-centric military history, see Thornton, J., Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500–1800 (New York, 1999); Smith, R., Warfare and Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial West Africa (Madison, WI, 1976); Reid, R., War in Pre-Colonial Eastern Africa: The Patterns & Meanings of State-Level Conflict in the Nineteenth Century (Athens, OH, 2007), 5. For a collection of essays on decentralized histories, see McIntosh, S. K. (ed.), Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa (Cambridge, UK, 1999).

7 Hawthorne, W., Planting Rice and Harvesting Slaves: Transformations along the Guinea-Bissau Coast, 1400–1900 (Portsmouth, NH, 2003), 91116; Ohadike, D., ‘Igbo-Benin wars’, in Falola, T. and Law, R. (eds.), Warfare and Diplomacy in Precolonial Nigeria (Madison, WI, 1992), 166–75. This work contributes to a body of global scholarship interrogating military means for defending political smallness, including Scott, J. C., The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, 2009).

8 Galaty, J., ‘Maasai expansionism & the new East African pastoralism’, in Spear, T. and Waller, R. (eds.), Being Maasai: Ethnicity & Identity in East Africa (Athens, OH, 1993), 7983; Lamphear, J., The Traditional History of the Jie of Uganda (Oxford, 1976), 202–48; Lamphear, J., ‘Brothers in arms: military aspects of East African age-class systems in historical perspective’, in Simonse, S. and Kurimoto, E. (eds.), Conflict, Age & Power in Northeast Africa (Athens, OH, 1998), 7997; Webster, J. B., ‘The civil war in Usuku’, in Ogot, B. (ed.), War and Society in Africa (London, 1974), 3564; Spencer, P., ‘Age systems & modes of predatory expansion’, in Simonse, and Kurimoto, (eds.), Conflict, 168–85.

9 Mobility does not necessarily favor decentralized politics, especially when the means of mobility – horses, for instance – are easily controlled by elites. In Eastern Nilotic history, however, the expertise and resources necessary for mobility was broadly accessible.

10 Cohen, D. W., ‘The cultural topography of a “Bantu borderland”: Busoga, 1500–1850’, The Journal of African History, 29:1 (1988), 5779.

11 Stephens, R., A History of African Motherhood: The Case of Uganda, 700–1900 (Cambridge, UK, 2013), 33–4.

12 Cohen, D. W., ‘The face of contact: a model of cultural and linguistic frontier in early Eastern Uganda’, Nilotic Studies: Proceedings of the International Symposium on Languages and History of the Nilotic Peoples, Cologne, January 4–6, 1982 (Berlin, 1983), 142–7.

13 Ibid. 153.

14 P. Nayenga, ‘An economic history of the Lacustrine states of Busoga, Uganda: 1750–1939’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 1976), 59–60; Cohen, D. W., The Historical Tradition of Busoga: Mukama and Kintu (Oxford, 1972), 1617.

15 For further background on the peopling of Busoga, see Fallers, L., Bantu Bureaucracy: A Century of Political Evolution among the Basoga of Uganda (Chicago, 1970); Cohen, Historical Tradition; Stephens, African Motherhood; Cohen, D. W., ‘Emergence and crisis: the states of Busoga in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ (conference presentation, Makerere University, 1972); Cohen, ‘Cultural topography’.

16 Nayenga, ‘Economic history’, 127–32; Nyakatura, J. W., Anatomy of an African Kingdom: A History of Bunyoro-Kitara (New York, 1973), 130; Okalany, D. H., ‘Mukongoro during the Asonya’, in Webster, J. B. (ed.), Iteso During the Asonya (Nairobi, 1973), 148; Vincent, J., Teso in Transformation: The Political Economy of Peasant and Class in Eastern Africa (Berkeley, 1982), 21–2.

17 I borrow the useful term ‘fitness to rule’ from Fallers, Bantu Bureaucracy, 141.

18 Cohen, D. W., Womunafu's Bunafu: A Study of Authority in a Nineteenth-Century African Community (Princeton, 1977).

19 Lubogo, 141–2.

20 Cohen, Historical Tradition, 68–9.

21 Lubogo, 9.

22 CTBTH, 731; Lubogo, 10.

23 Wrigley, C., Kingship and State: The Buganda Dynasty (Cambridge, UK, 1996), 225–6.

24 Ibid. 209–26.

25 CTBTH, 919.

26 CTBTH, 41; Lubogo, 147, 151–2.

27 ‘No people were found except the people who came with us.’ CTBTH, 792.

28 CTBTH, 792; Cohen, Reconstructed Past, 48.

29 Cohen, Historical Tradition, 147.

30 CTBTH, 15; CTBTH, 670; CTBTH, 41.

31 CTBTH, 670; CTBTH, 672.

32 A good example is kabaka Jjunju. See Wrigley, Kingship, 218; and Reid, R., Political Power in Pre-Colonial Buganda: Economy, Society & Warfare in the Nineteenth Century (Athens, OH, 2002), 181.

33 Kodesh, Royal Gaze, 141, building on Ray, B. C., Myth, Ritual, and Kingship in Buganda (Oxford, 1991), 78.

34 Lubogo, 43–4.

35 Ibid. 19.

36 CTBTH, 347. The Lusoga saying ‘Agenda embi agenda ewabwe’ is glossed by Cohen's informant with this expanded meaning.

37 CTBTH, 918. ‘The first Kisiki was not clever. He loved his children and gave each of them a place. He gave Mulyampiti a place and he rebelled. He gave Kalange a place and he rebelled. He even gave one place to the brother in law and he rebelled. All the other chiefs learned.’

38 Cohen, Womunafu's Bunafu, 137.

39 Cohen, Historical Tradition, 15; see also Nayenga, ‘Economic history’, 63.

40 Lubogo, 10; Cohen, Reconstructed Past, 75–82; LFA 40/7, E. T. Wako, ‘History of Bulamogi county from old times’, Nov. 1950.

41 Nayenga, ‘Economic history’, 69; Fallers, Bantu Bureaucracy, 134–5. Bulamogi in particular interacted closely with Teso, acting as middlemen for the ‘red iron’ trade and intermarrying. See Lubogo, 24; STBTH, 45 for intermarriage; and Nayenga, ‘Economic history’, 130 for iron trade.

42 Fallers, Bantu Bureaucracy, 136.

43 Cohen, Womunafu's Bunafu, 30.

44 Although the implications will not be unpacked in this article, Womunafu undoubtedly tapped into a powerful dimension of social power detailed in scholarly literature on ‘public healing’. See Schoenbrun, D. L., ‘Conjuring the modern in Africa: durability and rupture in histories of public healing between the great lakes of East Africa’, American Historical Review, 111:5 (2006), 1403–39.

45 Cohen, Womunafu's Bunafu, 79–81. See also Nayenga, ‘Economic history’, 23.

46 A Lusoga word commonly used is abazira. For ‘captains’ gloss, see Lubogo, 239–40.

47 ‘In every part of the country there used to be exceptionally brave warriors who were made captains of other fighters. Each fighter had to obey them. It was also their duty to organise the fighters during the battle. These brave warriors were much honoured; they were offered arms signifying their bravery, such as very well made shields, spears, a feather crown and leopard skin. They would also be rewarded with cattle, clothing, women and a very big feast was also prepared in their houses on their return from war… When [a mobilized soldier] arrived at the battle ground he would be under supervision of a senior brave warrior’: Lubogo, 239–40; see also Reid, Political Power, 209; Tantala, R., ‘The consolidation of abaiseNgobi rule in southern Kigulu’, Makerere Historical Journal, 1:2 (1975), 121.

48 For praise names for skilled warriors, see F. Lwanga, ‘Soga warriors’ (graduating essay, Makerere University, 1980), 18. Regarding complexity, battle lines in nineteenth-century Busoga were often marked by skilled stone-slingers who maneuvered in complex formations, with punctuated smaller attacks by audacious spearmen. Spiritual forces were mustered as well, and military medicinal specialists were likely seen as valuable sources of tactical insights by the commanders who consulted them. See Lanning, E. C., ‘Stone and clay missiles in Buganda’, Man, 55 (1955), 72–4; Stanley, H. M., Through the Dark Continent: Volume I (New York, 1878), 244; Roscoe, J., Northern Bantu: An Account of some Central African Tribes of the Uganda Protectorate (Cambridge, 1915), 243, 253–4; CTBTH, 919; Lwanga, ‘Warriors’, 36–7.

49 Cohen, ‘Emergence and crisis’, 19.

50 CTBTH, 919.

51 Ibid. Note the use of a stone missile.

52 Fallers, Bantu Bureaucracy, 140.

53 Cohen, , ‘Misango's song: adventure and structure in the precolonial African past’ (seminar paper, University of Nairobi, 1978/79), 6.

54 Zimbe, B., Buganda ne Kabaka: Ebyafayo Eby'obwa Kabaka bwe Buganda, trans. and ed. Musoke, Simone (Mengo, 1939), 30–1; Kaggwa, A., The Kings of Buganda, trans. and ed. Kiwanuka, M. S. M. (Nairobi, 1971), 173.

55 Okalany, ‘Mukongoro’, 147.

56 Lubogo, 189; STBTH, 45; for Buganda comparison, see Hanson, H., Landed Obligation: The Practice of Power in Buganda (Portsmouth, NH, 2003), 2553.

57 This stands in contrast to Buganda, where military professionals were kept within the state edifice, which also extended to war shrines: Kodesh, Royal Gaze, 149–52.

58 LFA 40/11, interview with Nekemia Kisubi, 3 Apr. 1951.

59 Lubogo, 190.

60 Ibid. 239–40.

61 Ibid. 242.

62 CTBTH, 792; Lubogo, 239.

63 ‘Each brave fighter had a wife and she was the one to carry a shield and a spear. When he was going to fight … he got the shield and the spear from her.’ CTBTH, 745. The logistical-support role of women during warfare is only minimally theorized in the literature. See Reid, R., Warfare in African History (Cambridge, UK, 2012), 9; Iliffe, J., Honour in African History (Cambridge, 2005), 116; Lamphear, Traditional History, 205.

64 Tantala, ‘The consolidation of abaiseNgobi rule’, 115; for ‘queen mother’ status in Busoga, see Stephens, African Motherhood, 166–8.

65 Iliffe, Honour, 1.

66 Lubogo, 240. ‘A person who was afraid to fight was much hated and was never promoted to a higher rank or position.’

67 Consider the words of a retired colonial-era schoolteacher interviewed by Cohen: ‘In the past they went to war … we also fought because to go out teaching is like going to war. I was a teacher for twelve years, until I retired … That is the very battle that I fought.’ CTBTH, 380.

68 Bruton, C. L., ‘Some notes on the Basoga’, Uganda Journal, 2:4 (1935), 293.

69 Lubogo, 10–20; for famine and conflict with Teso, see Stephens, African Motherhood, 146–9, Anderson, D., ‘The beginning of time? Evidence for catastrophic drought in Baringo in the early nineteenth century’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 10:1 (2016), 4566.

70 Nayenga, ‘Economic history’, 69.

71 Okalany, ‘Mukongoro’, 143–5 for military organization; Lubogo, 24; STBTH, 45 for intermarriage; Skeens, S. R., ‘Reminiscences of Busoga and its chiefs’, Uganda Journal, 4:3 (1937), 193 for material culture.

72 CTBTH, 731.

73 STBTH, 79; CTBTH, 463; Lubogo, 10–13.

74 CTBTH, 78. Also, Crabtree states that at some distance from Busiki proper, Lake Kyoga was known locally as ‘Kisiki's Lake’, perhaps indicating the reach of Busiki's navy: Crabtree, W. A., ‘Bukedi’, Mengo Notes, 1:12 (1900), 51.

75 Lubogo, 24; CTBTH, 917, 918; Cohen, Reconstructed Past, 56; Nayenga, ‘Economic history’, 67–9. Busiki's civil war is described in more detail below.

76 For wars with Bulamogi, see CTBTH, 906, CTBTH, 794; Lubogo, 43.

77 Uganda National Archives (UNA), Entebbe, Grant to Jackson, 17 June 1895 (recorded in LFA, 42/7); Twaddle, M., ‘The ending of slavery in Buganda’, in Miers, S. and Roberts, R. (eds.), The End of Slavery in Africa (Madison, WI, 1988), 132; For Biito history, see Cohen, Historical Tradition, 191.

78 Lubogo, 44. This peace agreement may have soured the relationship between Bugabula and Bunyoro, which apparently raided Bugabula in the 1890s. W. A. Crabtree, ‘Bukedi’, 51.

79 For Luuka, see Stephens, African Motherhood, 166–7; Cohen, Womunafu's Bunafu, 177–8; CTBTH, 560, 914. For Bunyoro, see Reid, Political Power, 198.

80 For Ganda naval activity in this area, see Reid, R., ‘The Ganda on Lake Victoria: a nineteenth-century East African imperialism’, The Journal of African History, 39:3 (1998), 353–4.

81 Low, D. A., Fabrication of Empire: The British and the Uganda Kingdoms, 1890–1902 (Cambridge, UK, 2009), 169–74.

82 Mukoova's rebellion occurred during a period of conflict within Buganda's royal family. The kabaka who assisted Mukoova was most likely either Ssemakookiro or Kamaanya. See Wrigley, Kingship, 215–29; Cohen, Womunafu's Bunafu, 73–9; Kiwanuka, M. S. M. Semakula, A History of Buganda: From the Foundation of the Kingdom to 1900 (London, 1971), 139–43.

83 Cohen, Reconstructed Past, 55; Lubogo, 6; CTBTH, 368; CTBTH, 791.

84 Cohen, D. W., ‘Survey of interlacustrine chronology’, The Journal of African History, 11:2 (1970), 200.

85 CTBTH, 49; STBTH, 41; Nayenga, ‘Economic history’, 124; Gray, J. M., ‘Early history of Buganda’, Uganda Journal, 2:4 (1935), 270.

86 CTBTH, 792. A tradition from the abaiseBandha clan remembers one wakooli being crowned ‘Musoga Kabaka’ at a ceremony in Buganda: CTBTH, 15. See also Skeens, ‘Reminiscences’, 188; S. R. Skeens, ‘Jottings’, Mengo Notes, CMS, May 1900. CTBTH, 49.

87 For this conflict, see Lubogo, 79; for earlier power of Busiki, see STBTH, 78; CTBTH, 515; CTBTH, 724; CTBTH, 463.

88 Lubogo, 80.

89 LFA, 41/1, interview with Stanley Nabongo, Dec. 1950; Lubogo, 72, 79.

90 CTBTH, 791.

91 CTBTH, 597.

92 Cohen, Historical Tradition, 134. Renee Tantala discusses the practice of local spiritual appropriation in nineteenth-century Kigulu, Busoga. See Tantala, ‘The consolidation of abaiseNgobi rule’, 7.

93 Kaggwa, Kings, 103–14; Reid, Political Power, 193; Gray, Early History, 269.

94 CTBTH, 400.

95 Cohen, Reconstructed Past, 50.

96 MacDonald described the historically appropriate level of tribute in ivory from Bukooli to Buganda as being at least three times the rate of most other Soga kingdoms. UNA, Entebbe, A3/1, MacDonald to Arthur, 30 Sept. 1893 (recorded in LFA, 42/7).

97 CTBTH, 792.

98 A. Mackay, ‘Mr. Mackay's journal’, Church Missionary Intelligencer, Volume VI (1881), 616; Reid, Political Power, 171.

99 CTBTH, 672; CTBTH, 15; Reid, Political Power, 85–6.

100 Cohen, Reconstructed Past, 51; Henri Mèdard, ‘Croissance et crises de la royauté du Buganda au XIXe siècle: Tome I’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Paris, 2001), 268.

101 CTBTH, 791 (Part 2), CTBTH, 738; CTBTH, 745. Luuka also assisted in this campaign.

102 R. Ashe, Chronicles of Uganda (New York, 1895), 362.

103 Ashe, Chronicles, 353; Skeens, ‘Reminiscences’, 188.

104 CTBTH, 49.

105 STBTH, 41; Ashe, Chronicles, 55.

106 Ashe, Chronicles, 95. The wakooli's house was architecturally similar to the kabaka's: Tucker, A., ‘En route to Uganda’, Church Missionary Intelligencer, Volume XVIII (1893), 275.

107 Cohen, Womunafu's Bunafu, 95–8.

108 CTBTH, 370.

109 CTBTH, 368.

110 CTBTH, 753; CTBTH, 754.

111 CTBTH, 695.

112 CTBTH, 188.

113 CTBTH, 148.

114 CTBTH, 444.

115 CTBTH, 759.

116 Ashe, Chronicles, 73; Tucker, ‘En route’, 276.

117 Mackay, A., ‘Journal of A. M. Mackay’, Church Missionary Intelligencer, Volume XI (1886), 491; Lugard, F., The Diaries of Lord Lugard, ed. Perham, M. (Evanston, 1959), 413. Sporadic conflict between Bukooli and Bunha in the mid-1880s may also be a reflection of this tension: CTBTH, 463.

118 Lubogo, 80; Cohen, Reconstructed Past, 56; STBTH, 79. In 1862, envoys from ‘dependent Wasoga’ (likely Bukooli) reported to kabaka Mutesa that ‘they had been defeated two marches east of [the Nile region]’ and ‘independent Wasoga had been fighting with his (Mutesa's) dependent Wasoga subjects for some time, and the battle would not be over for two months or more, unless sent an army to their assistance’. Speke, J. H., Discovery of the Source of the Nile (London, 1906), 273.

119 Ravenstein, E. G., ‘Messrs. Jackson and Gedge's journey to Uganda viá Masai-Land’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, 13:4 (1891), 193208; UNA, Entebbe, A2/1, Williams, ‘Memo on Usoga’, 10 Mar. 1893 (cited in Medard, ‘Croissance’, 263).

120 Twaddle, M., Kakungulu and the Creation of Uganda (Athens, OH, 1993), 125.

121 Ashe, Chronicles, 354; Low, Fabrication, 171.

My thanks go to M. L. de Almeida, L. Ehrisman, J. Glassman, S. Hanretta, N. Kodesh, C. Muhoozi, S. Pearson, D. Schoenbrun, and H. Tilley for commenting on earlier drafts of this article, and to D. W. Cohen for his numerous comments as well as for providing access to his personal archive. Author's email:





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