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

Chapter 25: At M'tesa's Court. Astonishing the King.

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Henry M. Stanley

Continuing our acquaintance with M'tesa, King of Uganda, it will be interesting to hear the story of the conversion of that monarch to the religion of Christianity.

On page 202 of the first volume of "The African Continent," Stanley says as follows:

"Since the 5th of April I had enjoyed ten interviews with M'tesa, and during all I had taken occasion to introduce topics which would lead up to the subject of Christianity. Nothing occurred in my presence but I contrived to turn it toward effecting that which had become an object to me—viz., his conversion. There was no attempt made to confuse him with the details of any particular doctrine. I simply drew for him the picture of the Son of God humbling himself for the good of all humankind; and told him how, when he was in man's disguise, he was seized and crucified by wicked people who scorned his divinity, and yet, out of his great love for them, while yet suffering on the cross, he asked his great Father to forgive them. I also sketched in brief the history of religious belief, from Adam to Mohammed. I had also begun to translate to him the Ten Commandments; and Idi, the Emperor's writer, transcribed in Kigandi the words of the Law, as given to him in choice Swahili by Robert Feruzi, one of my boat's crew, and a pupil of the Universities Mission at Zanzibar."

While Stanley was engaged in sharing the Christian religion with this African king, there came one day the announcement that a foreigner was approaching from the north. The stranger came, and proved to be Colonel Linant de Bellefonds, of the Egyptian army, and at that time attached to the Sudan division, under command of Gordon Pacha. Colonel Linant met Mr. Stanley at M'tesa's palace, and the religious conversations were continued in his presence from time to time. His arrival was a material assistance to Stanley in converting the king; "for, when questioned," says Stanley, "about the facts which I had uttered, and which had been faithfully transcribed, M. Linant, to M'tesa's astonishment, employed nearly the same words, and delivered the same responses. The remarkable fact that two men who had never met before, one having arrived from the southeast, the other having emerged from the north, should, nevertheless, both know the same things and respond in the same words, charmed the popular mind without the 'burzah' (court), and was treasured in M'tesa's memory as being miraculous."
On the Road to the Lake

In another place, Stanley makes honorable mention of the poor Muslim laborer, Muley bin Salim, who converted M'tesa from the paganism in which Speke left him, and taught him the faith of Islam. Believing that one conversion could be followed by another, Stanley determined to build on the foundation laid by Muley bin Salim, by destroying the king's faith in Islam and teaching him the doctrines of Jesus of Nazareth. Colonel Linant, in his journal, makes an extended allusion to the good accomplished by Stanley, and the hours which they both devoted to the religious instruction of the king.

Doctor Bronson and his young friends made several excursions in the neighborhood of Rubaga, and from the tops of the hills they enjoyed many charming views of the country. The region is one of the prettiest in Central Africa. There are few open plains or stretches of level land, as in the Bunyoro country, and the marshes that make other parts of Africa so unhealthy are practically unknown. There is a succession of low hills, backed in the distance by ranges of mountains, and from most of the hilltops the broad surface of Lake Victoria is visible. Between all the ranges of hills there are brooks flowing down to the lakes, and as the rains are frequent in this part of the continent there is rarely any lack of water.

The boys were eager to look upon Lake Victoria, and not only to look upon it, but to ride over its surface. The second day after their exhibition of the powers of the telephone to the king an excursion was made to Usavara, the station of the fleet of King M'tesa, at the head of a small bay which opened out from the lake.

It was about ten miles from Rubaga to Usavara. The king had caused a fine road to be made from his palace to the lake. This road is ten or twelve feet wide, and suitable for carriages, though no wheeled vehicle had ever traversed it up to that time. Our friends made the journey on horseback, and were delighted with their ride. They realized the correctness of Stanley's description, who said it carried him through jungle and garden, forest and field. There were groves of bananas, plantains, and other products of Uganda agriculture. There were forests of tamarind, mimosa, gum, and other trees; and there were plantations of the ficus, from whose bark the cloth for the national dress of the people is made. The villages of dome-like huts formed an almost continuous line, or would have done so if the dense foliage had not concealed the most of them from sight.

Up the slopes and then down again the road took its meandering way, and from each of the hilltops a nearer view of the lake was obtained. The sky was clear, and the heat at times severe, but it was relieved in some measure by the foliage of the trees and by the breeze that blew from the lake.
Uganda Boat

They were accompanied by a high officer of M'tesa's court, who was instructed to show everything they wished to see. As they desired to inspect some of the royal canoes, the officer sent an order to the place where they were kept, and in a little while half a dozen boats came dashing through the water.

The boats were of a construction different from anything the youths had ever seen. They were built with high, projecting prows, rising up like the neck of a swan, and ornamented with a tuft of feathers and the horns of an antelope. Some of the boats were hollowed from the trunks of trees, while others were made of strips of planks fastened to frames. In either case the sides were braced by means of crosspieces, and the largest of the boats had planks and canes laid upon the braces, so as to form a deck. Frank compared the Uganda boat to the Japanese sampan; but Fred pointed out the difference in the height of the prows, and also the fact that the sampan had a sort of cabin at the stern, which was not so in the Uganda craft.

The men paddled instead of rowing, and Abdul said the use of oars as we employ them in America was almost unknown in Central Africa. The paddles were neatly cut from thin planks, and each paddle had a straight handle, terminating in a spoon-shaped point, hollowed a little, to give it a better hold on the water.

Evidently the king's rowers knew their business, as they propelled their craft through the water at an astonishing speed. Time was kept by a steersman, who sung a monotonous chant, and the paddles rose and fell in perfect unison. The boats were brought to the side of a little wharf which extended to where the water was six or eight feet deep, and a landing stage, consisting of a raft of reeds, furnished convenient access to the craft.

Doctor Bronson and the youths were invited to enter one of the boats for a ride down the bay. In a few minutes they were under way, at a speed of at least six miles an hour, propelled by the strong arms of the sailors of M'tesa's fleet. Where they entered the boat the bay was quite narrow. Doctor Bronson said it was the body of water to which Speke gave the name of Murchison Creek, while the water farther down was named Murchison Bay, in order to identify it with the creek.
View on Murchison Creek

Several boats were out on the water, and the scene was an animated one. All of them were careful to keep out of the way of the king's craft, and therefore the course was kept as straight as a sunbeam, except where it became necessary to make slight deviations in consequence of the winding of the shores. An hour's rowing brought them to a village which, the officer explained, was one of the king's stations when he wanted to enjoy himself on a fishing excursion, or when preparing for a battle with his enemies on the other side of the lake. M'tesa has a powerful enemy on the eastern shore, and not unfrequently they try the strength of their boats against each other. One of these wars was in progress at the time of Stanley's visit, and the great explorer was able to render material assistance to M'tesa, and thereby win his friendship.

They did not go far enough down the bay to get a full view of the lake, as the distance was not less than twelve miles, and time did not permit. Frank and Fred were somewhat disappointed, but Doctor Bronson told them they would doubtless have the opportunity of traversing the lake in a few days, and therefore have all the fresh-water navigation they wanted.

A little before sunset they went back to the point from which they started, and spent the night in some huts the king had ordered set apart for their use. The next morning they returned to Rubaga by another and longer route, which gave them a good view of the country around the capital of Uganda. Everywhere were the villages, with their conical huts, half-concealed among the trees; and the numerous plantations of bananas and other edible things showed that the natives had no idea of starving. The boys observed that most of the work in the fields was performed by women. Abdul said the men were required by the king to serve as soldiers or boatmen.
Hills Back from the Lake

Fred called attention to some trees with very large trunks in proportion to their limbs. He remarked the curiously formed stump, and said he should call the tree by the name of "elephant foot," for the want of one which would be more descriptive.

"That is the name it is known by," said Abdul in reply. "Some of the native tribes call it the 'elephant's foot,' and it is also known as the 'gouty-limbed.' It belongs to the calabash family, and grows, as you observe, on the poorer kind of soil. It takes up its location where most of the other tropical trees decline to grow."

Everywhere they went the villagers came out to look at the strangers, and, as at Rubaga, the horses attracted more attention than their riders. One of them showed signs of illness, and just as they reached the capital his strength gave way, and he was unable to stand. He lay down in front of the hut that formed his stable, and in spite of every exertion his keepers could not persuade him to get up and go inside.

In the morning he was somewhat better. It was impossible to decide whether he was the victim of the dreaded tsetse fly, or was simply suffering from some equine ailment which could be cured by rest and attention. All agreed that he must be kept as quiet as possible, and whatever excursions were undertaken for the present must be made without him. As a matter of precaution, it was decided that all three of the horses should be kept in their stables for the remainder of the stay at Rubaga.

In the afternoon the king sent for the Doctor and the youths to come to an audience. They went accordingly, and the Doctor carried, as a present to his majesty, a field glass of great power—one of the best that could be found in London or Paris.
Elephant's Foot or Gouty-Limbed Tree

M'tesa was greatly pleased with the gift, and suspended the interview in order to try its powers. After devoting half an hour to levelling the glass upon the huts and people within range and observing the effect, he remarked that the glass and the "magic talker" ought to enable him to see and hear everything in Rubaga without going away from home. He asked if the foreigner could make glasses with which they could see in the dark. The Doctor was about to answer in the negative, but a hint from Frank caused him to give an evasive reply and promise to show something new in a day or two.

When the experiments with the field glass were ended M'tesa entered into familiar conversation with the Doctor, and, among other questions, asked if he was acquainted with Stanley.

Doctor Bronson answered that he knew Stanley, having met him many times in New York and other places. The king had very little idea where New York was situated, and his chief concern was to know that the two were acquainted.

"Then if you know Stanley," said he, "I suppose you will want to do just as he did?"

"Certainly," said the Doctor, though with some misgivings, as he feared he might be obliged to follow Stanley's example and assist the king to subdue some of his enemies.

He was set at ease immediately by the king, who said he was at peace with all his neighbors, and therefore there would not be the same difficulty in going to the "Running Nyanza" as there was in Stanley's time. The Doctor took the hint at once, and said they wished to visit the "Running Nyanza," or the place where the river leaves the great lake.

"Well," answered M'tesa, "you shall go to the Running Nyanza in a few days, and I will give you boats to go with. You can come back by land, and the porters will meet you at the falls."
Trees and Climbing Plants in Central Africa

Thus the plan of an excursion to the outlet of Lake Victoria and the visit to Ripon Falls was completed in a few minutes. Speke had great difficulty in getting there at all; Long was obliged to ask many times before he received permission to go there, and then he had to fight his way down the river; and Stanley only succeeded in reaching the falls by accompanying the king on a warlike expedition against one of his rebellious tribes.

The "Running" or "Flowing Nyanza" is the name given to a river; while "n'yanza," without any prefix, simply means water, and may apply to any body of that liquid, from the contents of a drinking-cup up to one of the great lakes, or even the ocean. This general use of the word was sometimes confusing, but by degrees our friends came to understand it; and as for the Running Nyanza, there could be no mistake about that.

Before they left the royal presence the king hinted that if the men had anything for seeing in the dark he would like to have it produced. At Frank's suggestion, an appointment was asked for the evening of the second day from that date, as it would be necessary to unpack some of the cases and make arrangements which could not be hurried.

The king gave the desired appointment, and the strangers went to their zeriba. Fred was puzzled to know what Frank intended to do, and as soon as they were out of hearing of the king he asked his cousin what he meant by hinting that they could enable his majesty to see in the dark.

"Perhaps we cannot literally make him see in the dark," Frank responded, "but we can go quite the distance in that direction. We'll show him something he has never seen yet."

"What is that?"


"Where'll you get it?" Fred inquired.

"Make it ourselves," was the reply. "We haven't the New York Gasworks at hand, but we'll get up a substitute."

Fred made no reply, as he was well aware Frank had made his plans, or he would not be so confident. Frank continued that he would explain his process as soon as they reached the zeriba. He added that he should want Fred to help him, and the latter immediately promised to do everything he could to make the experiment successful.

"You know," said Frank, as soon as they were seated in their zeriba, "how gas is made for illuminating purposes?"

"Certainly I do," was the reply, "for I learned that when I studied chemistry."

"Just run over the process," Frank suggested.

"Let me see," responded his cousin. "The coal is baked in retorts, which are generally made of clay. They are closed up tight as soon as the coal is put in, and the hot fire beneath them causes the coal to give out its gas, which is carried away by iron pipes."
Charging a Retort in a Gas Factory

"All right so far," said Frank.

"The retorts are set in a framework of brick, and look like small ovens. The coal is put in with a long shovel, and after the retort is closed it is baked four or five hours, when it is drawn out and replaced by a fresh charge.

"The gas goes from the retorts to the purifier, which consists of a series of pipes surrounded by water. It travels through these pipes until it is thoroughly cooled and gives up the tar and other impurities contained in it; then it passes through water and water spray, to wash away ammonia, another impurity; next it is forced through powdered lime, to remove the sulphur contained in it; and then it goes to the gasometer, whence it is carried in pipes to the places where it is to be consumed."

"That's the whole story," responded Frank; "and I am going to make gas on a small scale to amuse the king. We cannot make our gas as pure as it is made in a large establishment, but we'll get it up so as to answer our purpose."

With this understanding the boys went to work, and before night they had accumulated most of the materials needed for their performance. From one of the boxes Frank took a coil of rubber pipe and a slender "drop-light," which he had brought along, with the consent of the Doctor. A reflector, to be placed on this burner, was made by cutting an empty provision can so as to form a cone, and carefully cleaning the surface of the tin on the inside. A small hand mirror was mounted on a pivot, so that it could be used for turning the light on any desired point, and another mirror was arranged to be hung in front of the light and rotated at will.

Half a dozen jars, with narrow mouths and covers to fit, were obtained by the efforts of Abdul, and also a quantity of soft clay, for closing them hermetically when desired. A couple of old gun barrels were bought from a native, to serve as tubes to carry the gas from the retorts to the tub of water which was to serve as a purifier. A jar placed in this water with its mouth downward was the gasometer, or receiver, and then the apparatus was pronounced complete.

"But how'll you manage to take your gas from the receiver to the king's palace?" said Fred.
Diagram of Gas Works

"Oh, that's easy enough," was the reply. "You know we have a lot of rubber bags for carrying things in and preserving them from the moisture of the climate. We will make a small hole in the gas receiver, and fill the bags one after the other by placing them over this hole, which we can plug with a cork when we want to close it.

"We can tie the mouths of the bags tight enough to prevent much loss, and in this way carry the gas to the palace. The rubber tube will make the connection from the bag to the burner. We can get sufficient pressure by having a man sit on the bag while we are using the light; and when we exhaust a bag, and want to replace it with a fresh one, we can easily make some excuse for suspending operations a few moments."

"But you haven't any bituminous coal of the kind used for making gas," said Fred. "I suppose you've thought of that, and will use charcoal?"

"That is what I shall do," was the reply. "These people make charcoal, as you know, and use it for smelting and working iron. I have told Abdul to get us a good lot of charcoal for tomorrow morning, when we will start our gasworks; and if we have no accident we shall be ready for the performance when the evening comes around."

The next day both the youths were occupied with their work, and they had made such careful preparations that their impromptu apparatus succeeded admirably. The charcoal proved a very fair substitute for hard coal, and Fred remembered his boyish experiment at gas making by filling the bowl of a common tobacco pipe with charcoal, closing it with clay or putty, and then placing it in the fire. In a few moments a stream of gas issued from the stem of the pipe, and instantly ignited when a burning match was held in front of it.

In the evening the party repaired to the palace, on receiving word from the king that he was ready to see them. They were accompanied by the requisite number of porters for carrying their gas apparatus and music box, and also the magic lantern, which they had determined to exhibit before making the experiments with the gas, and to prevent a complete disappointment in case the latter should fail. A small space was given to the boys at one end of the audience hall, and in a very short time they arranged their magic lantern and the screen which was to display the pictures. The king was there, with his wives and officers, so that the place was well filled. Frank whispered to Fred that it would be well to put out a placard announcing "Standing room only!" and Fred intimated that the doorkeeper should refuse admission to all who had not secured seats in advance.

"What a lot of money we could make," said Frank, "if we had reserved the whole house and put the tickets in the hands of the speculators!"
Frank's Gas Retort

"Yes," responded Fred; "but remember, this isn't a republican country; and perhaps the king would call his executioners, and discourage future speculators by decapitating ours."

"Let's invite him to New York, to break up the ticket ring," was the reply. "Then it might be possible once in a while to get a seat in a theater without paying a premium for it."

"We'll talk that over some other time," said Fred. "If the show is ready, let's go ahead with it."

They exhibited a varied collection of pictures with the lantern, which greatly amused the king, and set his officers and the rest of the party in an uproar of wild delight. The music box had been wound up; it was started at the same moment as the first picture was shown, and there was a general belief in the audience that music and lantern were one.

When this part of the affair was ended the gas apparatus was put in operation. It roused the curiosity of the king, who was thoroughly convinced that the travelers knew the secret of making air burn, as he examined the bags and pipe, and was satisfied they contained nothing but air. The reflectors answered their purpose very well, and threw light in any direction the king suggested. On the whole, the boys had reason to congratulate themselves on the success of the affair, and they greatly regretted that, owing to force of circumstances, the brilliant engagement was to terminate with only one performance.

The close of the entertainment literally "brought down the house." Everybody was invited outside to witness the grand finale, which consisted in sending up a paper balloon, carrying a Chinese lantern.

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

Chapter 25: At M'tesa's Court. Astonishing the King.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

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


Divinity: The state, position, or fact of being a god or God.
Paganism: Any of a class of religions often associated with nature rituals and often polytheistic (many gods) beliefs.
Islam: A monotheistic Abrahamic religion followed by Muslims that is based on the teachings of Muhammad and the Qur'an.
Jesus of Nazareth: A religious figure whom Christians consider to be the son of God and call 'Jesus Christ' in the belief that he is the Messiah, and whom Muslims believe to be a prophet.
Field Glass: A pair of binoculars or a small monocular refracting telescope.
Magic Lantern: An early form of slide projector that could achieve simple animation by moving and merging images.


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: Fishermen on Lake Victoria, Uganda.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

  • Find Lake Victoria on the map of Uganda.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

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