The kingdom of Buganda lay on the shores of Lake Victoria and emerged sometime in the 14th century. Buganda like many other chiefdom level societies around the world sustained themselves on a mixture of agriculture, hunting, and animal husbandry. In the case of Buganda, many clans lived off of cereal and tree crops as well as bananas, yams, and cassava. Those who lived near Lak Victoria fished. Women generally speaking tended to the crops and men to the cattle. Once again like other tribal or clan-based structures necessity forced Buganda to evolve into a more sophisticated state-level society in order to compete with the neighboring and expanding Bunyoro kingdom. As Buganda became more stratified they too began to expand to the North and West developing a powerful army and fleet. Bugandan Bataka or clan structure was based on about twenty matrilineal clans. Each clan had distinct identities based around religious cults and shrines known as Lubare (Robinson 154). Clan relations in Buganda were often fractious which made it a place where clan struggles were not uncommon and rapid change in the religious and political landscape was possible depending on the extent of external and internal pressures. Later outside influences such as Islam and Christianity helped to dramatically reshape the political face of the country.
Buganda palace politics was a place of intense clan competition, intrigue and scheming mothers attempting to get their children next in line to the throne. As mentioned previously Buganda clan structure was matrilineal, but Kabakas came from the father’s line. When a new Kabaka gained the throne he was encouraged to take more wives in order to cement his authority. It was this system that fueled clan rivalry within the ruling class itself. (Robinson 154). This competition was perpetuated by page schools which saw young boys brought to the palace to apprentice at court. These pages in addition to performing their assigned tasks also took in the sights, sounds and intrigues of palace life and learned to emulate the drive for prestige and power. The Kabaka too was a slave to many of these clan rivalries and tensions. Though he was the head of state and had the ultimate authority he often found it difficult to operate smoothly within a system fraught with tension. Even religion and gods were linked to various clans as were their priests. Clans constantly offered wives to the Kabaka praying that “their” wife would father the next leader of Buganda. Creating an environment capable of immense and rapid change and violence brought on by intense inter-clan competition. Due to the lack of an official state religion, Islam was able to take root in Buganda virtually unopposed by any native priestly class. The coming of Islam and Christianity and their theological components would greatly weaken the Bugandan state and open the door to instability, revolution and colonization.
Islam first came to Africa in the form of Arab traders from Oman and other countries on the Arabian Peninsula. Initially, these traders interacted with locals up and down the Swahili coast who for one reason or another quickly began to convert to Islam. Some cite this rapid conversion as a desire to gain wealth and status. Regardless of reason the Swahili coast soon became heavily Muslim but the religion did not spread far inland. Islam was rarely practiced in interior Africa until the second half of the 19th century. The Omani Sultan Seyyid Said moved his capital from the city of Muscat to the island of Zanzibar in the 1840s drawn there by the ivory and slaves, which would enlarge the Arab slave trade significantly. He then extended his control over polities in Kenya and Tanzania and began organizing caravans to send into the interior of the continent. Ivory would be sold to burgeoning Asian and European markets and slaves would be brought back for use on coastal plantations. It was these Swahili and Arab traders that would bring Islam to interior kingdoms such as Buganda.
The first Muslim caravans arrived in Buganda in the 1840s in search of ivory during the reign of Kabaka Suna. Frequent visitors to the palace, they developed a close relationship with the ruling elite as well as lower classes and began reading the Quran and teaching classes in the palace. Perhaps spurred by the growing presence of Christian missionaries who were gradually spreading across Africa, Muslims felt an obligation to increase the spread and scope of their own faith. Similar to coastal Swahili areas Islam here too, was seen as a vehicle to greater power and influence in the wider world.
Islam gained a greater foothold under King Mutesa in the 1850s. Mutesa desired to spread Bugandan influence both militarily and commercially and saw Islam as the perfect vehicle to achieve those ends. He began encouraging his people to read the Quran and he observed major Muslim holidays (Robinson 158). Islam spread in Buganda from the top down starting with Mutesa who by the latter half of the 1860s likely thought himself a Muslim. With his encouragement, a growing section of the population began to practice this new religion. Mutesa at this juncture had something of a falling out with Islam. Rumors began circulating that members of the court had accused him of not being a true Muslim due to that the fact that he refused to be circumcised and ate meat that had not been properly slaughtered by an Imam. Mutesa’s reaction was to have around seventy-six leading Muslims burned at the stake. These persecutions would only intensify the 1870s when Mwanga took over control of the Kabaka from his father whose health was rapidly failing.
As both Christianity and Islam gained a larger foothold they began to congregate into the four chieftaincies led by Muslims and Christians respectively. The Muslims lived in Kapalaga and Katege and the Christians were concentrated in Nyonyintono and Kagwa (Twaddle 58). This clustering allowed Mwanga to effectively play these groups off one another.