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

Chapter 24: Ceremonies at M'tesa's Court. The Telephone in Africa.

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A Reception at the Court of King M'tesa

The ceremonies at court on the following day proved to be of a most interesting character, and were thus described by Frank in his journal:

"We were ready at the appointed time, each of us wearing a suit of spotless white. We were accompanied by Abdul and three servants, the latter carrying our chairs. The officer who came to escort us said the king was engaged in hearing the reports of his ministers, and would be pleased to receive us. Of course, we took that as a hint to move, and were off at once.

"The audience chamber may be described as an exaggerated hut of the Uganda pattern, with a broad opening at one side. It has a double roof over the entrance, the outer one projecting like the eaves of a house, and supported by posts, that somewhat impede the view, though not to any great extent. Both roofs are covered with thatch.

"Places had been reserved for us on both sides of the oblong block which served as a royal seat. Doctor Bronson and myself were motioned to sit on the right of his majesty, while Fred and Abdul were placed to the left. They were a little farther back than we, so that the side of the doorway hid a good deal of the outside spectacle from their sight. The Doctor, Fred, and I were seated on our camp chairs, while Abdul remained standing by Fred's side, and close to where the courtiers and cupbearers came when they had anything to offer to the king.

"M'tesa sat on a block of wood that resembled a large doorstep, and was covered with skins of several wild animals, that of a leopard being uppermost and in the center. His feet just touched the matting which lay upon the ground in front of him, and he sat for the most of the time as motionless as though being photographed, and with his hands folded on his lap. A little distance from him were several attendants squatted on the mat and waiting for his orders.

"On the ground outside, and seated in the same way as the slaves, was a semicircular group of courtiers, perhaps a hundred in all. At the left of the king, and just outside the door of the audience room, were three or four men, wearing red caps, like the Turkish fez. They were ferocious-looking fellows, and each had a small cord twisted round his cap, which told plainly what their duties were.
A Tree of Uganda

"I looked at them carefully out of the corner of one eye as they kept their gaze rigidly on the face of M'tesa. What do you suppose they were?

"These ferocious men were the court executioners, and down to the time of Stanley's visit, in 1876, their duty was to strangle such persons as were designated by their royal master. These victims were taken from the group of courtiers or bystanders, and every man who went to the ceremonies at M'tesa's court was liable to be offered up as a sacrifice at the end of the performance. Sometimes ten victims, sometimes five, and sometimes as many as thirty, were strangled in a single morning by the king's order, as an offering to the gods who presided over the destinies of the kingdom of Uganda.

"All is changed now since M'tesa has embraced Christianity, thanks to the labors of Stanley. The executioners have little to do in their former profession, and their service now is in the less ferocious work of serving as messengers or pages. Occasionally a criminal is put to death by royal command, but the custom of sacrifices has been abandoned, and probably forever.

"Speke found M'tesa with all the sacrifical rites in full sway. Stanley found him a Muslim, wearing the Arab dress, and requiring his court officers to do likewise, but still retaining some of his native customs. We find him a Christian, and with Christian missionaries at work in his dominions. He acquired certain manners of the European, far more than we had reason to expect. His courtiers are no longer in the habit of rubbing their necks when they wake in the morning, to ascertain if their heads are still on their shoulders.

"Formerly it was the custom for everybody who approached the king to lie prostrate on the ground and wriggle up to his place, taking care not to expose the soles of the feet either in advancing or retiring. To do this was to offer great indignity to his majesty, and many a man has lost his head in punishment for not being handy with his foot.

"The prostration is no longer required. The courtiers advance, with the head bowed slightly, very much as they might approach a sovereign in Europe, and they deliver what they have to say without any sign of cringing. The courtiers squat or sit on the ground as they used to, and they continue to be particular about the soles of their feet.

"When the king had finished the ordinary business of the court he turned to his minister of state and asked about the strangers. The minister explained, what the king probably had learned already, that the strangers had come from a far country to look upon the ruler of the kingdom of Uganda. They had brought presents of great value for this mighty king, and it gave them great pleasure to be present at his court.

"Then the king turned toward us, but continued to address the minister, saying he was glad to welcome the strangers, and hoped they would enjoy their stay in his dominions.

"Abdul translated the king's words, and thanked his majesty on behalf of Doctor Bronson and his two companions—rather, I should say, he thanked the kahotah who delivered the speech to the king. The latter then gave the signal, the drums sounded, and the ceremonies were over. The courtiers rose from their sitting postures and backed away from the enclosure in front of the hall, and only the guards and a few of the high officials remained.
A Daughter of King M'tesa

"As soon as the place was cleared the king rose and stepped down from his throne. We immediately rose from our seats and waited his pleasure.

"He gave a slight nod to his prime minister; the latter advanced, and introduced us, very much as we might be introduced to a private gentleman in his residence. We bowed as he did so. The king took Doctor Bronson's hand for an instant, and just glanced at Fred and myself, as we were probably too young for him to give us any serious attention.

"I can't do better, nor even as well, in the way of a personal description, than Stanley has done in his book, 'The African Continent.' Therefore I will quote from page 195 of the first volume:

"'April 7, 1876.—In person M'tesa is tall, probably six feet one inch, and slender. He has very intelligent and agreeable features, reminding me of some of the faces of the great stone images at Thebes, and of the statues in the museum at Cairo. He has a general expression of amiability, blended with dignity, that pervades his face, and the large, lustrous, lambent eyes that lend it beauty. When not engaged in council, he throws off unreservedly the bearing that characterizes him when on the throne and gives rein to his humor, indulging in hearty peals of laughter. He seems to be interested in the discussion of the manners and customs of European courts, and to be enamored of hearing of the wonders of civilization. He is ambitious to imitate as much as lies in his power the ways of the European. When any piece of information is given him he takes upon himself the task of translating it to his wives and chiefs.'

"The above description will answer perfectly for today. Stanley saw much more of the king than we have seen, not only in an official but in a social way, and he makes a pleasing picture of the court of Uganda at the time of his visit.

"Stanley says the king could not sound the letter 'n' distinctly, and consequently made the explorer's name into 'Stamlee.' Though pronouncing the name of his guest repeatedly, he could never hit the proper sound. But if the king has trouble with foreign words, he may console himself with the thought that the foreigners have equal difficulty with the language of Uganda. It is full of consonant sounds, and its vowels are few. The name of the king requires two consonants to be sounded together, and it is no slight task for the European tongue to get through "M'Tesa" without danger of choking. As far as we can observe, there are many words in the language which present the same difficulties, and Fred says anybody who comes to Uganda to stay ought to bring some iron clasps to hold his jaws in place while talking.

"When the king stepped from his throne he dropped his own language and spoke in Arabic, and we saw at once there was no farther need of an interpreter. In a few polite phrases he said he was glad we had come to Uganda, and hoped many of our countrymen would follow our example.

"'It is a long and difficult journey,' he added, 'and we have not much besides our lakes and hills to show you. We appreciate it when you come so far, and if there is anything you especially wish to see, it shall be shown.'

"Doctor Bronson mastered all the Arabic he could speak, and thanked the king for his offer.

"'We wish to see Lake Victoria,' said the Doctor, 'and to learn what we can about your majesty's country.'

"The king answered that we should have all we wished, nodded his head just the least in the world, and looked away. Then he suddenly turned around toward the Doctor again, and said he would send him any provisions he might need for his men.

"He walked away, followed by his court officers. He has a dignified manner of walking, and reminded me of Captain Speke's description of his striding off with two spears in his right hand, while with his left he led his favorite dog, which seemed to imitate the walk of his master. This peculiar step is supposed to represent the walk of the lion, which is the beast to which the king loves to be compared.

"We walked slowly back to our zeriba, followed by a large crowd that pressed curiously around us. Their attentions were sometimes inconvenient, but nobody intentionally offered any affront.

"We had not reached our quarters more than ten or fifteen minutes before the presents which the king had promised us began to arrive.

"There were bags and jars, bundles and baskets, almost without number. They contained samples, and large ones, too, of nearly all the edible things produced in the country. There were potatoes, yams, bananas (green and ripe), eggs, chickens, milk, melons, tomatoes, coconuts, cassava flour, banana flour, pombé, and several varieties of fruits unknown to us. We have the products of the tropics and some of those of the temperate zone, and if the king's bounty continues there is no danger that we will starve in Uganda.

"Now was the time to send our presents to the king, the etiquette of the court requiring that they shall be made as soon as possible after an interview. Accordingly we dispatched Abdul with the cloth, beads, jewelry, hatchets, knives, and other things of that nature which we had intended for M'tesa, and with the announcement that we had some other things to deliver in person and explain their uses, whenever it pleased his majesty to receive them.

"Abdul returned with a message from the prime minister that the king would receive us and our presents the next morning, at a less formal assemblage than the one we had attended that day. Soon after his return there came an additional present, in the shape of five cows, twenty sheep, and as many goats, which were intended to supply our camp with fresh provisions.

"The cattle resemble the Durham breed of England, and are the finest animals of the kind we have seen in Africa. They are kept mainly for their milk, as the Wagunda rarely eat beef; their diet is principally vegetable, with the occasional addition of the flesh of sheep, goats, and chickens. The king has large herds of cattle, and he sometimes sells them to the Arab traders, who take them to regions where such animals bring higher prices than in Uganda.

"The next morning we went to deliver the presents, having received notice that his majesty was ready to receive us. We found him in the open space in front of his audience hall, accompanied by his wives and court officials—about fifty of the latter, and at least a hundred of the former. Fred and I thought that a hundred wives was a good many, but Abdul said there were at least as many more whom we did not see.

"M'tesa is a very pleasant man when in the midst of his family, and he laughed and talked with them as freely as if he had not been king at all, but only an ordinary citizen. Of course, we could not understand what he said, as we don't know ten words of the language; but, to judge by the laughter that followed his remarks, there must have been a good deal of fun in them.

"Our porters deposited the presents in a spot indicated by the prime minister and then retired. We opened the parcels, and Doctor Bronson gave the things to M'tesa one after the other as the wrappings were removed.
Visitors in the Zeriba

"He was particularly desirous to obtain firearms, and we gave him a double-barrelled sporting gun of the Remington system, loading at the breech, and capable of being fired very rapidly. Then we gave him a rifle, with a case of explosive balls, which he immediately proceeded to test by firing one of them into a tree, where it exploded with great force and threw splinters of wood in every direction.

"A music box was wound and set in operation. The king was familiar with music boxes, as they had been brought by previous travelers. His wives showed the greatest delight at the sound which the instrument produced, and two or three of his little daughters could hardly remain quiet while the tunes were being played.

"We couldn't show the magic lantern, as it was in the daytime, but we brought out the telephone, and stretched about a hundred yards of wire from one side of the open space to the other. When the connections had been made and everything was ready, we asked his majesty to make an experiment with the strange machine.

"Doctor Bronson and Abdul went with the king to one end of the line, while Fred and I stood by the prime minister at the other, with Ali to serve as our interpreter.

"Under the directions of the Doctor, M'tesa spoke through the instrument, and immediately received a response from our end of the wire. The voice of the minister seemed to be close to his ear, and he looked around, with an angry expression on his face, as if he believed there was some trick about it.

"The kahotah was so far off that he could only be heard by shouting, and then the king spoke again through the telephone.

"The kahotah responded immediately. To say the king was impressed is to express very mildly his mental condition.

"In some doubt as to what was going on, he called one of his daughters, a little girl about eight or nine years old, who spoke Arabic fluently, and sent her to our end of the line. Evidently he thought it possible that the minister might be in collusion with us, and therefore he called the girl, as he knew she had not seen us until that morning, and had not spoken a word to any of our party.

"She talked with her father both in their native language and in Arabic. As soon as they began speaking Doctor Bronson walked away a few yards from the king's side, so as not to overhear the conversation; and Fred and I walked away from the little girl in the same manner.

"They talked there for nearly half an hour, and then the king asked if we could do the same thing at a greater distance.
Captain Speke Attending a Revew of the Uganda Troops

"We told him we could talk that way farther than he could possibly travel in a whole day.

"'Can you talk from my palace to your zeriba?'

"'Certainly,' the Doctor answered. 'We will do so tomorrow, if it is your majesty's pleasure.'

"It was agreed that the next morning, at the same hour, we should have a conversation between the king's palace and the zeriba, and with this understanding the interview came to an end. The king was going to review one of his regiments, and asked us to see it, and of course we accepted.

"We found the troops just outside the palace yard, where the hill slopes away to the south. There were eight or nine hundred men, armed with spears and shields; they stood in a sort of irregular line, and at a signal from their officers a dozen soldiers came forward and went through the exercise of handling their spears in an imaginary battle. It was the same performance as described by Captain Speke at the time of his visit. The king would like to have an army of soldiers drilled and armed after the European fashion, but thus far he has not been able to obtain the weapons. He has about five hundred muskets, bought from Arab traders and others, and has formed a bodyguard, commanded by a former soldier of the Egyptian army. These men are armed with the muskets just referred to, and as they have been fairly drilled they make a creditable appearance.

"The two missionaries who have been living in Uganda, but happen to be absent at this time, say that their efforts to teach the king the principles of Christianity have been somewhat impeded by his eagerness to obtain a plentiful supply of arms and ammunition. He thinks that to be a good Christian he ought to be able to shoot all his enemies, and some of his arguments have puzzled the missionaries not a little to answer.

"'You want me to be Christian,' he says to them, 'and you don't give me what belongs to a Christian king. The countries that you come from and tell about have great armies, with the best kind of guns, and plenty of them; and why shouldn't I have the same? You say your queen is a good woman and a true Christian, and you told me the other day that she has a great army and navy, to do just what she wishes; and you told me that other countries had just the same, and they are all Christian. I want to be Christian too, and be able to conquer the whole of Africa with my army.'

"It is easy to see that this line of argument must have been a troublesome one to the missionaries. We shall try our best to explain the matter if the king speaks to us about it, but are not altogether sure that we can remove his perplexity.

"When the review was over we returned to our zeriba. The afternoon was devoted to arranging for the telephone performance, and for this purpose we asked the prime minister to have some poles erected where the wire could be stretched. He made some difficulty about it; but when we told him that the performance could not come off without it, he sent for the poles, and had them put up as we desired. We stretched the wire about twelve feet above the ground, and asked to have orders that no one should touch the poles or the wire. Abdul said there was not the slightest fear of a disturbance of our apparatus, as the natives believed it was something supernatural, and not one would go near it, through fear that his life would pay the forfeit.

"In the morning the king was ready at the appointed time, and sent word that he would commence the 'magic talk.' We made the same division of our numbers as at the first experiment, Doctor Bronson and Abdul attending to one end of the line, while Fred and I, with Ali, managed the other. It was necessary to do this in order to prevent any derangement of the apparatus through the eagerness of the natives.

"About half the number of the officials of the court were sent to the zeriba, together with a dozen or more of the king's wives and daughters. The king, at his end of the line, talked a few moments with one and then with another, until he was completely satisfied that there was no trickery about the mysterious wire and the boxes at the ends. The teachings of his childhood returned to him in contemplating the telephone: he at once attributed it to the spirits, and evidently regarded us as magicians of the highest rank.

"When the performance was over, the king ordered a fresh supply of presents to be sent to our zeriba. We were fearful that he would want to retain the telephone; but he felt relieved when the wire was removed, and the whole apparatus had been packed away in the cases where it belonged."

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

Chapter 24: Ceremonies at M'tesa's Court. The Telephone in Africa.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

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


Courtier: A person in attendance at a royal court.
Cupbearer: One who ceremonially fills and hands out the cups in which a drink is served.
Executioner: An official person who carries out the capital punishment of a criminal.
Page: A serving boy – a youth attending a person of high degree, especially at courts, as a position of honor and education.
Prime Minister: The chief member of the cabinet and head of the government.


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: See the picture of the Omuhama of Toro in Uganda, King Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV, who plays an important role in Ugandan politics.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

Find the continents of North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa on the map of the world.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

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


  1. 'Omukama of Toro.' Wikipedia. n.p.
  2. 'Picture of King Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV (CC BY SA 3.0).' Wikimedia Commons. n.p.