Alexander Mackay: Fighting the Slave Trade (1878)

by Basil Mathews

In the court of King M'tesa, Mackay always saw many boys who used to drive away the flies from the King's face with fans, carry stools for the chiefs and visitors to squat upon, run messages and make themselves generally useful. Most of these boys were the sons of chiefs. When they were not occupied with some errand, they would lounge about playing games with one another in the open space just by the King's hut.

Often when Mackay came to speak with the King, he had to wait in this place before he could have audience of M'tesa. He would bring with him large sheets of paper on which he had printed in his workshop the alphabet and some sentences. The printing was actually done with the little hand-press that Mackay had used in his attic when he was a boy in his old home in Rhynie. He had taken it with him all the way to Uganda, and now was setting up letters and sentences in a language which had never been printed before.

The Baganda boys who had gathered round the White-Man-of-Work with wondering eyes, as he with his "magic" printed the sheets of paper, now crowded about him as he unrolled one of these white sheets with the curious black smudges on them. Mackay made the noise that we call A and then B, and pointed to these curious-shaped objects which we call the letters of the alphabet. Then he got them to make the noise and point to the letter that represented that sound. At last the keenest of the boys really could repeat the alphabet right through and begin to read whole words from another sheet—Baganda words—so that at length they could read whole sentences.

Two of these pioneer boys became very good scholars. One named Mukasa became a Christian and was baptised with the name Samweli (Samuel); another called Kakumba was baptised Yusufu (Joseph). A third boy had been captured from a tribe in the north, and his skin was of a much lighter brown than that of the Baganda boys. This light-skinned captured slave was named Lugalama.

Each of these boys felt that it was a very proud day when at last he could actually read a whole sheet of printing from beginning to end in his own language—from "Our Father" down to "the Kingdom, the power and the glory, Amen."

One morning these page-boys leapt to their feet as they heard the familiar rattle of the drums that heralded the coming of King M'tesa. They bowed as he entered the hall and sat heavily on his stool, while his chiefs ranged themselves about him.

On a stool near the King sat Mackay, the White-Man-of-Work. His bronzed face was set in grim determination, for he knew that on that morning he had a difficult battle to fight.

Another loud battering of drum-heads filled the air. The entrance to the hut was darkened by a tall, swarthy Arab in long, flowing robes, followed by negro-bearers, who cast on the ground bales of cloth and guns. The Arab wore on his head a red fez, round which a coloured turban scarf was wound. He was a slave-trader from the coast, who had come from the East to M'tesa in Uganda to buy men and women and children to carry them away into slavery.

King M'tesa was himself not only a slave-trader but a slave-raider. He sent his fierce gangs of warriors out to raid a tribe away in the hills to the north. They would dash into a village, slay the men, and drag the boys and girls and women back to M'tesa as slaves. The bronze-skinned boy, Lugalama, was a young slave who had been captured on one of these bloodthirsty raids. And M'tesa, who often sent out his executioners to slay his own people by the hundreds to please the dreaded and horrible god of small-pox, would also sell his people by the hundreds to get guns for his soldiers.

The Arab slave-trader bowed to the earth before King M'tesa, who signalled to him to speak.

"I have come," said the Arab, pointing to the guns on the floor, "to bring you these things in exchange for some men and women and children. See, I offer you guns and percussion caps and cloth." And he spread out lengths of the red cloth, and held out one of the guns with its gleaming barrel.

King M'tesa's eyes lighted up with desire as he saw the muskets and the ammunition. These, he thought, are the things that will make me powerful against my enemies.
"I will give you," the Arab slave-trader went on, "one of these lengths of red cloth in exchange for one man to be sold to me as a slave; one of these guns for two men; and one hundred of these percussion caps for a woman as a slave."

Mackay looked into the cruel face of M'tesa, and he could see how the ambitious King longed for the guns. Should he risk the favour of the King by fighting the battle of a few slaves? Yet Mackay remembered as he sat there, how Livingstone's great fight against the slave-traders had made him, as a student, vow that he too would go out and fight slavery in Africa. The memory nerved him for the fight he was now to make.

Mackay turned to M'tesa and said words like these [Note: There is no record of the precise words, but Mackay gives the argument in a letter home.]:

"O King M'tesa, you are set as father over all your multitude of people. They are your children. It is they who make you a great King.

"Remember, O King, that the Sultan of Zanzibar himself has signed a decree that no slaves shall be taken in all these lands and sold to other lands down beyond the coast, whither this Arab would lead your children. Therefore if you sell slaves you break his law.

"Will you, then, sell your own people that they may be taken out of their homeland into a strange country? They will be chained to one another, beaten with whips, scourged and kicked, and many will be left at the wayside to die; till the peoples of the coast shall laugh at Uganda and say, 'That is how King M'tesa lets strangers treat his children! "

We can imagine how the Arab turned and scowled fiercely at Mackay. His heart raged, and he would have given anything to plunge the dagger hidden in his robe into Mackay's heart. Who was this white man who dared to try to stop his trade? But Mackay went on.

"See," he said, pointing to the boys and the chiefs, "your children are wonderfully made. Their bones, which are linked together, are clothed with flesh; and from the heart in their breasts the blood that gives men life flows to and fro through their bodies, while the breath goes in and out of their lungs and makes them live. God the Father and Maker of all men alone can create such wonders. No men who ever lived could, if they worked all through their lives, make one thing so marvellous as one of these boys. Will you, then, sell one of these miracles, one of your children, for a bit of red rag which any man can make in a day?"

All eyes turned to King M'tesa to learn what he would say.

The King with a wave of his hand dismissed the scowling Arab, while he took counsel with his chiefs, and came to this decision:

"My people shall no more be made slaves."

A decree was written out and King M'tesa put his hand to it. The crestfallen Arab and his men gathered up their guns and cloths, marched down the hill to buy ivory instead of slaves for their bales of red cloth, and went out of the dominions of King M'tesa, across the Great Lake homeward.

Mackay had won the first battle against slavery. His heart was very glad. Yet he knew that, although he had scored a triumph in this fight with the slave-dealer, he had not won in his great campaign. The King was generally kind to Mackay, for he was proud to have so clever a white man in his country. But he could not make up his mind to become a Christian. M'tesa's heart had not really changed. His slave-raiding of other tribes might still go on. The horrible butcherings of his people to turn away the dreaded anger of the gods would continue. Mackay felt he must press on with his work. He was slowly opening a road through the jungle of cruelty and the marshes of dread of the gods that made the life of the Baganda people dark and dreadful.

All Uganda waited breathless one day as though the end of the world had come.

"King M'tesa is dead! the cry went out through all the land.

The people waited in dread and on tiptoe of eagerness till the new king was selected by the chiefs from the sons of the dead ruler.

At last a great cheer went up from the Palace. "M'wanga has eaten Uganda!" they shouted.

By this the people meant that M'wanga, a young son of M'tesa—only eighteen years old—had been made King. He was, however, a boy with no power—the mere feeble tool of the Katikiro (the Prime Minister) and of Mujasi, the Captain of the King's own bodyguard of soldiers. Both of these great men of the kingdom fiercely hated Mackay, for they were jealous of his power over the old King. So they whispered into the young M'wanga's ears stories like this: "You know that men say that Uganda will be eaten up by an enemy from the lands of the rising sun. Mackay and the other white men are making ready to bring thousands of white soldiers into your land to 'eat it up' and to kill you."

So M'wanga began to refuse to speak to Mackay. Then, because the King was afraid to attack him, he began to lay plots against the boys.

One morning Mackay started out from his house with five or six boys and the crew of his boat to march down to the lake. Among the boys were young Lugalama—the fair-haired slave-boy, now a freed-slave and a servant to Mackay—and Kakumba, who had (you remember) been baptised Joseph. The King and the Katikiro had given Mackay permission to go down to the lake and sail across it to take letters to a place called Msalala from which the carriers would bear them down to the coast.

Down the hill the party walked, the crew carrying the baggage and the oars on their heads. Mackay and his colleague Ashe, who had come out from England to work with him, walked behind.

To their surprise there came running down the path behind them and past them a company of soldiers.

"Where are you going?" asked Mackay of one of the soldiers.

"Mujasi, the Captain of the Bodyguard," he replied, "has sent us to capture some of the King's wives who have run away."

Another and yet another body of soldiers rushed past them. Mackay became more and more suspicious that some foul plot was being brewed. He and his company had walked ten miles, and the lake was but two miles away, divided from them by a wood. Suddenly there leapt out from behind the trees of the wood hundreds of men headed by Mujasi himself.

They levelled their guns and spears at Mackay and his friends and yelled, "Go back! Go back!"

"We are the King's friends," replied Mackay, "and we have his leave to travel. How dare you insult us?" And they pushed forward. But the soldiers rushed at them; snatched their walking-sticks from them and began to jostle them. Mackay and Ashe sat down by the side of the path. Mujasi came up to them.

"Where are you walking?" he asked.

"We are travelling to the port with the permission of King M'wanga and the Katikiro."

"You are a liar!" replied Mujasi.

Mujasi stood back and the soldiers rushed at the missionaries, dragged them to their feet and held the muzzles of their guns within a few inches of their chests. Mackay turned with his boys and marched back to the capital.

He and Ashe were allowed to go back to their own home on the side of the hill, but the five boys were marched to the King's headquarters and imprisoned. The Katikiro, when Mackay went to him, refused to listen at first. Then he declared that Mackay was always taking boys out of the country, and returning with armies of white men and hiding them with the intention of conquering Uganda.

The Katikiro waved them aside and the angry waiting mob rushed on the missionaries yelling, "Mine shall be his coat!" "Mine his trousers!" "No, mine!" shouted another, as the men scuffled with one another.

Mackay and Ashe at last got back to their home and knelt in prayer. Later on the same evening, they decided to attempt to win back the King and the Prime Minister and Mujasi by gifts, so that their imprisoned boys would be freed from danger.

Mackay spoke to his other boys, telling them to go and fly for their lives or they would be killed.

In the morning Mackay heard that three of the boys who had been captured on the previous day were not only bound as prisoners, but that Mujasi was threatening to burn them to death. The boys were named Seruwanga, Kakumba, and Lugalama. The eldest was fifteen, the youngest twelve.

The boys were led out with a mob of howling men and boys around them. Mujasi shouted to them: "Oh, you know Isa Masiya (Jesus Christ). You believe you will rise from the dead. I shall burn you, and you will see if this is so."

A hideous roar of laughter rose from the mob. The boys were led down the hill towards the edge of a marsh. Behind them was a plantation of banana trees. Some men who had carried bundles of firewood on their heads threw the wood into a heap; others laid hold of each of the boys and cut off their arms with hideous curved knives so that they should not struggle in the fire.

Seruwanga, the bravest, refused to utter a cry as he was cut to pieces, but Kakumba shouted to Mujasi, who was a Mohammedan, "You believe in Allah the Merciful. Be merciful!" But Mujasi had no mercy.

We are told that the men who were watching held their breath with awed amazement as they heard a boy's voice out of the flame and smoke singing.

"Daily, daily sing to Jesus,
Sing, my soul, His praises due."

As the executioners came towards the youngest and feeblest, Lugalama, he cried, "Oh, do not cut off my arms. I will not struggle, I will not fight—only throw me into the fire."

But they did their ghastly work, and threw the mutilated boy on a wooden framework above the slow fire where his cries went up, till at last there was silence.

One other Christian stood by named Musali. Mujasi, with eyes bloodshot and inflamed with cruelty, came towards him and cried:

"Ah, you are here. I will burn you too and your household. You are a follower of Isa (Jesus)."

"Yes, I am," replied Musali, "and I am not ashamed of it."

It was a marvel of courage to say in the face of the executioner's fire and knife what Peter dared not say when the servant-maid in Jerusalem laughed at him. Perhaps the heroism of Musali awed even the cruel-hearted Mujasi. In any case he left Musali alone.

For a little time M'wanga ceased to persecute the Christians. But the wily Arabs whispered in his ear that the white men were still trying to "eat up" his country. M'wanga was filled with mingled anger and fear. Then his fury burst all bounds when Mujasi said to him: "There is a great white man coming from the rising sun. Behind him will come thousands of white soldiers."

"Send at once and kill him," cried the demented M'wanga.

A boy named Balikudembe, a Christian, heard the order and he could not contain himself, but broke out, "Oh, King M'wanga, why are you going to kill a white man? Your father did not do so."

But the soldiers went out, travelled east along the paths till they met the great Bishop Hannington being carried in a litter, stricken with fever. They took him prisoner, and, after some days, slew him as he stood defenceless before them. Hannington had been sent out to help Mackay and his fellow-Christians.

Then the King fell ill. He believed that the boy Balikudembe, who had warned him not to kill the Bishop, had bewitched him. So M'wanga's soldiers went and caught the lad and led him down to a place where they lit a fire, and placing the boy over it, burned him slowly to death.

All through this time Mackay alone had not been really seriously threatened, for his work and what he was made the King and the Katikiro and even Mujasi afraid to do him to death.

Then there came a tremendous thunderstorm. A flash of lightning smote the King's house and it flamed up and burned to ashes. Then King M'wanga seemed to go mad. He threatened to slay Mackay himself.

"Take, seize, burn the Christians," he cried. And his executioners and their minions rushed out, captured forty-six men and boys, slashed their arms from their bodies with their cruel curved knives so that they could not struggle, and then placed them over the ghastly flames which slowly wrung the lives from their tortured bodies. Yet the numbers of the Christians seemed to grow with persecution.

The King himself beat one boy, Apolo Kagwa, with a stick and smote him on the head, then knocked him down, kicked and stamped upon him. Then the King burned all his books, crying, "Never read again."

The other men and boys who had become Christians were now scattered over the land in fear of their lives. Mackay, however, come what may, determined to hold on. He set his little printing press to work and printed off a letter which he sent to the scattered Christians. In Mackay's letter was written these words, "In days of old Christians were hated, were hunted, were driven out and were persecuted for Jesus' sake, and thus it is to-day. Our beloved brothers, do not deny our Lord Jesus!"

At last M'wanga's mad cruelties grew so frightful that all his people rose in rebellion and drove him from the throne, so that he had to wander an outcast by the lake-side. Mackay at that time was working by the lake, and he offered to shelter the deposed King who had only a short time before threatened his life. ...

Two years passed; and Mackay, on the lake-side, was building a new boat in which he hoped to sail to other villages to teach the people. Then a fever struck him. He lay lingering for some days. Then he died—aged only forty-one.

If Mackay, instead of becoming a missionary, had entered the engineering profession he might have become a great engineer. When he was a missionary in Africa, the British East Africa Company offered him a good position. He refused it. General Gordon offered him a high position in his army in Egypt. He refused it.

He held on when his friends and the Church Missionary Society called him home. This is what he said to them, "What is this you write—Come home'? Surely now, in our terrible dearth of workers, it is not the time for anyone to desert his post. Send us only our first twenty men, and I may be tempted to come to help you to find the second twenty."

He died when quite young; homeless, after a life in constant danger from fever and from a half-mad tyrant king—his Christian disciples having been burned.

Was it worth while?

To-day the Prime Minister of Uganda is Apolo Kagwa, who as a boy was kicked and beaten and stamped upon by King M'wanga for being a Christian; and the King of Uganda, Daudi, M'wanga's son; is a Christian. At the capital there stands a fine cathedral in which brown Baganda clergy lead the prayers of the Christian people. On the place where the boys were burned to death there stands a Cross, put there by 70,000 Baganda Christians in memory of the young martyrs.

Was their martyrdom worth while?

To-day all the slave raiding has ceased for ever; innocent people are not slaughtered to appease the gods; the burning of boys alive has ceased.

Mackay began the work. He made the first rough road and as he made it he wrote: "This will certainly yet be a highway for the King Himself; and all that pass this way will come to know His name."

"And a highway shall be there and a way; and it shall be a way of holiness."

But the Way is not finished. And the last words that Mackay wrote were: "Here is a sphere for your energies. Bring with you your highest education and your greatest talents, and you will find scope for the exercise of them all."

From The Book of Missionary Heroes by Basil Mathews. New York: George H. Doran, ©1922.

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