Written and Researched by Robert Asketill
When explorers and missionaries first arrived in Buganda they noted the natural ability and receptiveness of the people to European ideas, and contrasted these attributes with the listlessness, conservatism and suspicion which they had encountered among tribes on the Nile and Tanganyika routes. They recorded often: “Buganda is Africa’s Might” After the opening of the Masai route, through today’s Kenya, these observations were confirmed by Company officers and government officials. By the end of the 19th century, the readiness of the Baganda to adopt European ways in religion, education, crafts and material culture prompted Sir Harry Johnston and others to compare the imitativeness of the Baganda to that shown by the Japanese.
The initiative was exhibited in one field of human endeavour which has passed almost unnoticed: their attempt to participate in the caravan trade with the coast. This enterprising venture has probably been forgotten because it was maintained only whilst roads and the rail track were being constructed. It took place mainly during the inter regnum of Commissioner Berkeley’s departure from Buganda in February 1899 and Johnston’s arrival at the capital in December of the same year. During this period the government was in the hands of Colonel Ternan, who was fully occupied in his professional military capacity with the concluding stages of the operations against the Sudanese mutineers, the story of which we shall give in later snatches of Buganda history, He was particularly keen to avoid embroilments with tribes on the lines of communication, such as were likely to arise in Maasailand and Nandi if poorly equipped caravans tried to loot food from people near the Uganda Road, in the manner practised by Baganda caravans in the western parts of the country.
Nevertheless the Baganda leaders apparently initiated the scheme on their own accord, but it is not certain what encouragement they were given by George Wilson, the Sub-Commissioner at Kampala, or by Dr Mackinnon, the then Director of Uganda Transport. The latter had reported in September 1898 that the government’s transport service had failed owing to cattle disease, the reluctance of porters to engage for the through trip to Buganda and the bad state of Sclater’s Road. Supplies were running short in Kampala and none could be brought up on the German route, which had been closed for three months because of drought and famine. An Entebbe official minuted: “We must do our best at once, whatever that may amount to; Uganda Transport cannot help; must come from the Kabaka.”.
MacKinnon was at his wit’s end, and possibly suggested that the Baganda should be encouraged to enter the caravan business as soon as the restoration of settled conditions enabled traders to move about without fear of molestation. I t is more likely, however, that the Baganda leaders themselves decided to compete in what they believed to be a lucrative business, The eagerness of the promoters to participate in the Mombasa caravan trade was not altogether surprising, as the Baganda had been engaged in long distance trading operations since the late eighteenth century. These activities had taken trading parties to the southern shores of Lake Victoria and Baganda canoe men to the Kavirondo Gulf. The Mombasa caravans were a natural extension of customary trading practices, when the tapping of new markets was made possible after the Pax Britannica had ensured the safety of the Masai route. It was equally natural that the royal monopoly, which the Kabaka had traditionally exercised over the caravan trade, should be operated by the Regents and leading chiefs during the minority of Daudi Chua.