The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 23: The March Through Uganda. King M'tesa's Palace Arrival.

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Kamrasi's First Bible Lesson

The rest of the march through Bunyoro was without incident of consequence, as the people were neither hostile nor familiar. The caravan avoided the villages, as the natives were sure to make exorbitant demands for the privilege of passing through their land. They take the example from their chiefs, and consequently their practice is not to be wondered at. Speke was plundered in this way of nearly all the property in his possession while passing through Bunyoro, and he had barely enough left to take him to a station where he could find relief. Everything that the chiefs saw they wanted; and if the stranger was not prompt to display all his wares they lost no time in asking for them.

From Bunyoro the party entered the country of King M'tesa, who is considered by Stanley and Long the most progressive ruler in Central Africa. Formerly a pagan, and indulging in the most horrid practices in the way of sacrifices, he became a Muslim, and was subsequently converted to Christianity by Mr. Stanley. We have already mentioned this conversion and the doubts as to its earnestness. Of late years two English missionaries have been residing near the court of M'tesa, and they report that he received their teachings kindly.

At the time of Speke's visit the king was quite unfamiliar with Christianity, and followed the traditional practices of his ancestors. He caused his attendants to be put to death on the slightest pretext, and sometimes on no pretext whatever. The fancy seized the king to order someone to be executed, and the order was obeyed. Speke said hardly a day passed that he did not see one of the queens led to execution by order of the king, and no one dared say a word in remonstrance. A cord was tied around her wrist, and she was dragged away by one of the court attendants, who did his duty zealously, not knowing when his own turn would come. Sometimes there were several of these executions in a single day, and it seems a wonder that there should have been any population left in the country.

Speke tried to persuade the king to consider the doctrines of Christianity, but without success. He had better fortune with Kamrasi, then King of Bunyoro, though not much. The king wanted to look at the Bible, and accordingly Speke and Grant went to an audience with him, and carried a copy of the Bible.

Speke endeavored to show the origin of the people in that part of Africa, and their identity with the Ethiopians of Scripture. He began with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Then he described the Flood, and how the descendants of Ham were black, and undoubtedly the parents of the Africans. When he had finished his account the king took the book and began to count the leaves. He had an idea that each leaf represented a year since the Creation, and he thought that if he counted the leaves he might ascertain the age of the world.
Mountains in the Distance

When he was about a quarter through he was told if that was what he desired he must count the words, and then he abandoned the task and closed the book. This was the extent of Speke's lesson in the Bible to a non-Christian king. Kamrasi had already robbed him of a good part of his property; and as the robberies and extortions continued without any abatement, it is evident that the teaching of the doctrines of Christianity had no material effect.

Before leaving Foueira, Doctor Bronson sent a messenger to M'tesa to announce his coming and to ask permission to visit the capital. It was agreed that the messenger should return with the king's answer, and wait at the frontier for the arrival of the Doctor's party. When they reached the frontier the messenger had not returned, and the Doctor was in some doubt as to the best course to pursue. He did not like to wait there, and thus lose valuable time; and, on the other hand, he feared it would be discourteous to advance without authority into the dominions of a man who might consider himself insulted, and had it in his power to stop the march altogether.

He finally determined to move on, but to send another messenger, who would intercept the first and make him hasten back to meet the travelers. In case they should have no word by the time they were within two days' march of the king's residence, they would then stop until the royal mandate had been secured.

Happily they were not delayed, as they met the messenger before reaching the point where it had been determined to halt. The permission to go to the king's residence had been granted, and the messenger brought a document in Arabic to that effect. With an indifference to time, his majesty had taken several days to act upon a matter that could have been disposed of in a few minutes.

The country was much like that over which they travelled from Foueira to the frontier of Bunyoro—grassy plains, alternating with stretches of forests, and occasional swamps that rendered locomotion difficult. There was an abundance of game, and if our friends had been inclined to the chase they might have bagged a goodly number of elephants, with no end of deer and smaller animals. Doctor Bronson thought it would not be judicious to delay their advance in order to hunt the elephant, which they were not in pursuit of for ivory; and, furthermore, it might not be satisfactory to the king to have his game killed without permission. But he had no hesitation concerning the antelopes and other edible beasts, and for the greater part of the time the larder was well supplied with venison, so that the preserved meats and vegetables were rarely touched.

There was hardly a day without rain; it began usually about an hour before sunset, and frequently fell with great fury until ten or eleven at night. Then the clouds cleared away, the sun rose bright in the morning, and by waiting a couple of hours our friends found the roads endurable. But in spite of the heat of the sun the water collected in the hollows, and there was altogether more wading and floundering through the mud than was to the taste of any member of the party.
Villages in the Hilly Country

As they approached the capital of Uganda the boys observed that there was a great deal of red clay in the soil, and whenever it was wet with the rain it showed an adhesiveness equal to the best qualities of glue. The king had ordered the roads swept for their advance, but the sweeping was more figurative than real; the path was cleared of fallen trees or other obstructions, but the absence of brooms was more conspicuous than their presence. In some places the path ascended hills two or three hundred feet high, but for the most part it was along the lowlands.

The agricultural tendencies of the inhabitants were shown by the abundance of banana groves, some of them covering hundreds of acres, and producing enormous quantities of the well-known fruit. The banana is almost the sole resource of the people. They eat it raw or steamed—generally in the latter form, unless it is thoroughly ripe; they dry and pound it into a sort of coarse flour, for making bread, puddings, and soup; they press out the juice for making pombé, or banana cider, as already described; and they boil the young shoots and eat them, as we eat spinach or cabbage. The land which yields a ton of potatoes will yield forty-four tons of bananas, and the surface necessary for supporting one man when planted with wheat will support twenty-five men when planted with bananas.

Nearly every night the camp was made in or near a banana grove, and in exchange for beads or other commodities the party was allowed to gather all it wanted for its use. Sometimes the owner of a grove would see a chance to make something out of the transaction, and demand an exorbitant price; but he was generally brought to terms by a reference to the king, coupled with a judicious hint that the strangers were on their way to visit M'tesa. One hospitable native offered the products of his garden for nothing, and was quite unwilling to accept payment for what was taken.

The last camp was made about ten miles from the royal residence, and just after the tents had been spread a messenger came from the "kahotah," or minister of state, to announce that his majesty had ordered a zeriba, or enclosure of huts, to be prepared for the visitors, and it would take at least a day to perform the work. The kahotah came shortly after the messenger, and went into camp about two hundred yards away. He declined to see Doctor Bronson or either of the youths, as they must first be presented to the king, but he sent an interpreter to find out all he could concerning them.
Flag of Uganda

The real object of the delay was to ascertain exactly who and what the strangers were, so that the proper ceremonies could be observed for their reception. The kahotah told the interpreter that he would gladly meet the strangers, but the etiquette of the country prevented, and there is nothing for which the Africans are greater sticklers than this matter of etiquette. Royal courts are pretty nearly alike all over the world.

The kahotah brought some presents from the king to Doctor Bronson: part of them he delivered through his interpreter; but, after the custom of his country, he kept the greater portion himself. Abdul said the kahotah was a very important personage with the king, as he not only filled the office of minister of state, but also that of cook. All the dishes eaten by his majesty were prepared by the kahotah's own hands, so as to reduce the chance of poisoning; and as the kahotah was required to eat of every dish in the presence of his majesty before the latter touched it, he was pretty sure that no strychnine or other injurious substance had a place in it.

The delay of a day was utilized by a general brushing up of clothing and brightening of brass adornments, in order to make the entry into the capital of Uganda as imposing as possible. Abdul went to see the kahotah and arrange the details of the procession to do honor to all concerned.

It was decided that the camp would be moved to a point within a mile of the capital, and there located for the night. At nine in the morning a column would be formed, consisting of the bodyguard of the king, or, rather, a delegation from it; then a detachment of the royal troops, armed with muskets and lances; then the flags of Uganda, Egypt, and the United States would be carried side by side, and followed by Doctor Bronson and the two youths; then would come the escort of the strangers, and the porters, with the presents for the king. The remainder of the Doctor's porters would remain in camp until the ceremony was concluded, when they would follow the Doctor to the zeriba which had been prepared for him.

Fortunately for everybody, there was no rain on the evening preceding the entry; and though the sun rose bright and clear, it was not quite as warm as usual. The road this time had really been swept, and, as it was fully twenty feet wide, it was better entitled to the appellation of road than anything our friends had yet seen in Central Africa. The king's troops were preceded by a band of music. It sounded a steady rhythm of horns and drums, and the instrumental part of the performance was aided by imitations of the crowing of cocks and the cries of various birds and animals.
Long's First Visit to M'tesa

The flag of Uganda proved to be of white and red, there being three times as much of the latter as of the former; and it was ornamented at the end with tassels of monkey skin, cut from those parts where the hair was longest. This was probably the first occasion of the American flag being carried with that of Uganda, and the boys were naturally proud of the event.

The horses attracted more attention than did their riders, for the simple reason that they were far more interesting as curiosities. Europeans were not uncommon in Uganda, especially since the residence there of two English missionaries, but horses were rarely seen. Colonel Long was the first to ride a horse into Uganda; and probably, up to the date of Doctor Bronson's visit, not more than half a dozen in all had escaped the dreaded tsetse and reached the region of Lake Victoria. Many of the people had never seen a horse, and some of them believed that horse and man were one, and expressed great astonishment when the riders dismounted.

When Colonel Long visited Uganda and approached the palace, the king sent a messenger to ask that he would ride to the gate, in order that his majesty might see the animal on which he was mounted. The colonel gathered his reins and dashed down the slope of a hill to where the king was standing with his harem, who fled at the unfamiliar apparition. The horse slipped and stumbled in a depression of the road, but quickly recovered; the colonel rode by at full speed and returned to the hill, amid the shouts of the assembled crowd. When he dismounted there was a rush of frightened men, as they had supposed until then that he was a Centaur.

Since that event the king and his people have become more accustomed to seeing horses to some extent, but horses are still regarded with veneration, and are more strange in the eyes of the people than the elephant is in ours.
Uganda Boy

On the arrival of our friends the king was in front of his palace, which stands on the top of a gently sloping hill, commanding a fine view of the country for a considerable distance. At the foot of the slope, a messenger requested the party to halt until the royal group had taken its position. The delay enabled the crowd to have a good look at the strangers, and it is fair to suppose that Frank and Fred returned the inspection with interest. The boys were favorably impressed with the intelligent appearance of the faces around them; they said they could readily understand why Uganda was one of the most advanced of the Central African countries.

A messenger came from the king to request the party to advance, and, amid the renewed din of horns and drums, it moved on once more. About fifty yards from where the king stood it halted, and then the Doctor and the boys dismounted, and left their horses in charge of the grooms. Under the guidance of the court interpreter they walked forward; their names were shouted in loud tones; they advanced to the king and bowed; the king inclined his head very slightly, in recognition of their obeisance, and the ceremony was over.

The formal presentation was to take place the next day, in the king's palace, and in the mean time the strangers were to be allowed to rest. The presents intended for the king were deposited in the zeriba prepared for the Doctor, to which the entire party was immediately conducted by the kahotah, who now showed himself for the first time.
View of M'tesa's Palace from Doctor Bronson's Zebra

Several attendants were sent by the king to wait upon the Doctor and his young friends. Abdul said the best use to be made of them was to lodge them in one of the huts, and require as little service as possible from them. Their real office was to see and report upon everything that the strangers had and did, and particularly to tell what they possessed which could be of use to the king. Consequently, whatever the Doctor had which he did not wish to be called on to present to his majesty was kept carefully out of sight; and though the attendants repeatedly intimated that they would like to examine the contents of certain boxes and bales, they were not accommodated.

The zeriba prepared for the Doctor was on the side of a hill fronting the one on which the palace stood. It was the same which was occupied by Stanley, Long, and others, and is supposed to be in readiness at any time for the reception of distinguished visitors. There were a dozen or more huts inside a palisade: one, larger than the rest, was the special residence of the Doctor, and two others close by had been hastily thrown together for the boys. The other huts were for the dragoman, servants, and escort; and the attendants, who had been sent to keep watch, were instructed to order more huts erected if necessary. The construction of a house in Central Africa is an affair of only an hour or two, and the number could be multiplied indefinitely until all the space was occupied.

Frank busied himself in the afternoon in making a sketch of the scene from the front of their encampment. The picture included the slope of the hill, covered with conical huts, and divided into little gardens. A broad road led up the hill and around to the summit, and in order to reach the entrance of the palace it was necessary to follow this bend of the road.
A Warrior of Uganda

A few trees were scattered along the sides of the hill, but the vegetation was not abundant. Abdul explained that the most of the wood had been cut away for fuel, and the king was not inclined to have many trees around his residence, as they would give shelter to an enemy in case of hostilities. Wood was a scarce article in the capital of Uganda, and Doctor Bronson soon found it necessary to ask the king for a detail of men to supply them with fuel. In spite of the position of the place (less than thirty miles from the equator), the nights were cool, in consequence of the great elevation above the level of the sea.

The instruments were set up, and the latitude and longitude of Rubaga, the name of M'tesa's capital, was obtained by the Doctor as follows: Lat., 0° 21' 19" north; long., 32° 44' 30" east; elevation by barometer, not far from forty-five hundred feet. Atmosphere humid, and climate unhealthy for Europeans.

Frank found his sketch was a work of difficulty, as the natives crowded around and watched each stroke of the pencil with interest. Two of the attendants, armed with spears, were in front of the hut where he was occupied with his drawing; they kept up a discussion in a language he could not understand, but their frequent glances in his direction showed that he was the subject of conversation. When he had finished one of them examined the sketch with great care, and immediately started for the palace, with the intention, no doubt, of informing his royal master what the young man had been doing.

The natives displayed a great deal of curiosity: they not only examined all inanimate things belonging to the party, but pulled at their clothing, took their caps from their heads, and were never weary of pulling at their hair, as if wishing to ascertain what gave it its texture. Frank suggested that they shut the gates of their zeriba and admit nobody unless he had business inside; but the Doctor said it would be best not to do so. There would be a better chance of studying the people if they could come and go as they liked, and, besides, it would make a more favorable impression on the king, who would certainly be informed of all that occurred.
View of Rubaga from the Great Road

While Frank made his sketch of the hill of Rubaga, Fred induced one of the warriors to stand for his portrait, which the youth put upon paper, the man remaining motionless as a statue for at least half an hour.

Under the drawing he wrote the following notes:

"He is a handsome, well-formed man, not an inch less than six feet in height. His left arm is quite bare, and supports the triangular shield which is a part of his military equipment. It is a light frame, covered with dried hide and decorated with pieces of monkey skin, to which the hair still clings. Knotted and fastened over his right shoulder he has two garments like cloaks; one is made of bark cloth of a yellowish color, and the other of the skins of very young antelopes, sewn together as skillfully as the best operator of New York or London could perform the work. His ankles are encircled with rings of brass wire, his hair is closely cut, with a parting on one side, and his feet are without shoes. He has two spears over his right shoulder, as his official position requires him to be armed in this way. The customary weapon of the Wagunda, as the people of the country are called, is a single spear; and a person of any rank whatever would injure his reputation if he went abroad without it."

The king sent presents of bananas, rice, fruit, and jars of pombé, together with a large jar of milk, as he knew from experience that the foreigners were fond of that article. He sent a high official to ask if anything else was wanted. Doctor Bronson thanked the officer, both in words and with a present, and told him their needs were all supplied. The officer hid the Doctor's present under his cloak and went away, but soon returned with the announcement that the king would hold court the following morning and receive the strangers.

    The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 23: The March Through Uganda. King M'tesa's Palace Arrival.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Leaf: A sheet of a book, magazine, etc. (consisting of two pages, one on each face of the leaf).
Arabic: A major language originating from the Arabian Peninsula, and now spoken natively throughout large sections of the Middle East and North Africa.
Etiquette: The forms required by a good upbringing, or prescribed by authority, to be observed in social or official life.
Centaur: A mythical beast having a horse's body with a man's head and torso in place of the head and neck of the horse.
Palisade: A wall of wooden stakes, used as a defensive barrier.
Latitude: The angular distance north or south from a planet's equator, measured along the meridian of that particular point.
Longitude: The angular distance measured west or east of the prime meridian.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

  • Examine the chapter setting in modern times: The present day Bunyoro coat of arms.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

Examine the map of Uganda.

  • Review the location of the modern kingdom of Bunyoro
  • Which large lake is adjacent to Bunyoro?

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the applicable mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.