More than a decade ago, a half-forgotten colonial expedition to subjugate what British colonialists considered a quarrelsome African kingdom more than a century ago could have left Britain bankrupt if a Ugandan king succeeded in bringing a £3.7 trillion suit against the Crown.
According to a report by Telegraph, in 2004, Rukirabasaija Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I, the omukama of Bunyoro―a kingdom in western Uganda―at the time had never forgiven the British for the disposition of his grandfather, Chwa II Kabalega, and for stealing his cattle during a five-year war in the 1890s.
The report states: “Dressed in his blue velvet coronation robes, richly embroidered in white and gold, the king peered down from one of his thrones yesterday and condemned the “colonial terrorism” of Queen Victoria’s government.
“The British burned down houses, destroyed crops and introduced syphilis to my people,” the king said. “They were responsible for the deaths of 2.4 million people. Moreover, they stole my grandfather’s cattle and ivory. It is not what we expected from civilized people. What they did then is no different to what al-Qa’eda is doing today,” he added.
The king and his courtiers were said to have retained lawyers in both Uganda and Britain and were planning to begin proceedings, possibly in London, at the time. However, it is not immediately verifiable―to the writer―whether they went ahead or not, as at the time of writing.
It should be noted that the British had committed a host of atrocities against Bunyoro in their bid to oust Kabalega; an expedition which began when Sir Samuel Baker, in 1872, tried―and failed―to annex Bunyoro and the entire Lake Victoria region to the equatorial province of Egypt. For five years, from around 1894, Bunyoro had waged war against the British who continuously sought to colonise the kingdom.
On how the £3.7 trillion figure was arrived at, Telegraph states that it was by the king’s private secretary, Yolamu Nsamba, who read economics at the University of Hull. Mr. Nsamba noted that the figure reflected only the costs of an initial suit based on possessions looted from Kabalega itself.
Were the Bunyoro to have won the amount claimed, it would have been the equivalent of every Briton, at the time, paying out more than £60,000 and the British Government would have been forced to nationalise private companies. This would have meant that the economy of the western world would have probably been plunged into depression. Bunyoro’s then 800,000 subjects, however, would have received £4.63 million each.
The speaker of the Bunyoro parliament, Ernest Kizza, expressed shock that a multi-trillion-pound pay-out would have a damaging effect on Britain’s economy.
“I am sure they can afford it,” he said. “I think they spent that much in Iraq. But it is their problem. If the British had not destroyed our kingdom, today we would be a superpower. We would be telling America to shut up.”
The evidence for the case―as detailed by the Telegraph―rests largely on contemporary military field notes, diaries, and dispatches by colonial officers in Uganda at the time.
“Some letters” they write, “clearly suggest that the British were responsible for plundering the kingdom, which once had a vast population of elephants.”
In a letter said to be used as an exhibit, Captain A. B. Thurston―who was involved in the campaign to depose Kabalega―described his work, as “mere assassination”.
“I was a captain of Bashi Bazouks, a raider and an ivory thief. I was sick of the raids and the bloodshed,” he wrote.
But neither Bunyoro’s history books nor the case documents show Kabalega, a hero in Uganda, for standing up to the British Empire, in a flattering light either, with various accounts depicting Kabalega as a violence-loving tyrant who brought ruin upon his people.
To this, Monitor notes that the imperial war was, of course, won by the colonialists and it is their account of the war that has, for over 100 years, shaped the narrative, including cementing the reputation that Kabalega was a tyrannical leader who destroyed his kingdom in his attempt to resist the “progress” of colonialism.
Hence, while critics argue that his war of resistance laid waste to Bunyoro and eventually led to the destruction of his kingdom at his capture, in 1899, and in the years that followed under colonialism, Monitor affirms that “Kabalega was consistent in his attempt to defend his kingdom from imperial avarice, even if it meant dying while at it. Throughout the advent of colonialism, many kings had chosen to live as rats rather than die as lions. Not so for Kabalega, who gave the British a good account with far fewer men and resources until he was betrayed and captured”.
The king won several victories against the British, until his capture and exile to the Island of Seychelles for 24 years. From the look of things today, Bunyoro is a pale shadow of its former self and as Telegraph states, “the modern palace, constructed in the 1960s, is a dilapidated white building with garish purple tiles and the heirlooms of the kingdom lie rusting on the floors of damp rooms.”
This apparently led them to conclude that “there is no money for the 10th-anniversary celebrations of King Solomon’s coronation―something that may have prompted the suit”.
Whether or not that was the case, it could justly be said that such a payment―as demanded by the king―if ever made would not be enough a retribution for the atrocities Britain committed against the Kingdom.
The book “Breaking the Chains of Poverty” by Hon. Yolamu Ndoleriire Nsamba provides a thorough explanation of all the dreadful things that were done by the colonialists and other foreign invaders. It also includes many other historical events and actions that made the Bunyoro “a kingdom bonded in chains of poverty”.
(By Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo)