"The Rupee Disease": Taxation, Authority, and Social Conditions in Early Colonial Uganda

Article excerpt


Ugandans faced great hardships as the deadline for the 1901 tax season drew near: chiefs forced people to sell livestock; robberies increased as people sought cash; men abandoned their families and houses rather than pay the taxes owed on dwellings; and famine struck areas where food production had dropped after farmers migrated in search of paid employment. Some Ugandans attributed their suffering to a new affliction: "the rupee disease."1 The imposition of taxes to be paid in cash initiated waves of change that swept through society-whether it was directly causal or merely coincident, people associated hardships and famine in 1901 with the introduction of taxes.

This article argues that the social and administrative changes that took place in the first decade of the twentieth century under the Uganda Agreement of 1900 had dramatically transformative effects in the Protectorate. These changes can be seen by focusing on the lives of the peasant cultivators, the bakopi, and by examining them through the lens of a core provision of the Uganda Agreement: taxation, and the resultant monetization of society. While the focus is on the lives of the common people and their reactions to change, to understand those changes it is necessary to examine the new tax and administrative regimes set in place by the Agreement. It is surprising that a document seen by many scholars and Baganda as a cornerstone of much of twentieth-century Ugandan history has received so little attention.2 Discussion of the impact on the bakopi has been even more limited. A 1969 article by J.A. Atanda described some of the conditions of the "peasant class," but in a very narrow way.3 His analysis leads to some questionable conclusions as well. For example, below I describe revolts by common people against tax and authority, something that Atanda claimed did not occur. Atanda in fact went further, and argued that rebellion could not occur in early colonial Uganda, without the cooperation of the elites. His comments are understandable in light of his reliance on a static portrayal of normative Ganda characteristics. However, it also is rather strange considering the details he cites of individual resistance, although he did not label it as such, instead referring to tax "evasion."4 His explanation for tax resistance seems to rely on a knee-jerk reaction by bakopi against change in Ouganda, when in fact there was occurring an underlying change in views toward authority. However, since he did not consider the changing relationship of authority in the Protectorate he missed the context for Ganda actions. In part he was also hampered because he was not able to draw on some new sources recently come to light that inform this article. The records of the Ganda Lukiiko, the chiefs' body that performed legislative, administrative, and judicial functions in early colonial Uganda, have been recently found and reveal important information about this time of great change in Uganda.5 These records provide a broader and deeper view of what occurred, and document the context of the changing nature and application of authority, which is crucial for understanding relationships and actions. While the Lukiiko was a body of elites, the records also show the actions and thoughts of the bakopi.

Colonial taxes and the introduction of new currencies with which to pay them were but two aspects of monetization that affected life for Ugandans. From a precolonial period where cash was of limited use, "money matters" in the colonial period rippled through all aspects of life.6 Changes went beyond a shift from subsistence agriculture to wage labor and cash cropping, as important as those were. Social relations, such as bridal dowries, were affected as well. Previously dowries had been gifts to the bride's family worked out in negotiation between the families, but as a sequela of the rupee disease they became codified to include a certain number of shells, and later rupees. …