Kabaka Mutesa and Venereal Disease: An Essay on Medical History and Sources in Precolonial Buganda

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In an article in History in Africa about the Ganda monarch Mutesa, Richard Reid argued that Mutesa likely suffered from syphilis.1 In a chapter on Mutesa in a just published volume, John Rowe concluded that the disease from which Mutesa suffered was gonorrhea.2 While on the surface similar-both sexually transmitted, neither particularly desirable-the diseases are actually quite different. Popular biographies often offer gossip about individuals' medical histories, but there can be legitimate reasons to investigate the medical history of past leaders, two of which are pertinent here. First, the medical conditions from which they suffered may well have affected their lives and their decisions as leaders. Reid addresses this point, speculating that Mutesa's syphilis may have progressed to an extent that it affected him mentally. Reid suggests that this might help explain Mutesa's erratic behavior toward the latter years of his reign, as he shifted his favor from one court group and foreign delegation to another.3 Rowe raises a similar point about Mutesa's health and competing groups, although in a different way. Rowe shows how Mutesa's illness became a point of competition between foreign missionaries and indigenous religious specialists as each sought to win his favor by curing his illness.4 Reid and Rowe also both mention the effect Mutesa's illness had on the perception of him as Kabaka. The Baganda equated the health and well-being of the Kabaka with the health of the kingdom, and Mutesa's extended illness and bedridden state would not have been a positive attribute.

Reid and Rowe are not the only scholars to find Mutesa's health significant. Kenny uses the Kabaka's ill health as a way to examine the very nature of the kingship in Buganda, although for his purpose the actual disease or illness is not considered relevant.1 Wright's book, which focused on the era after Mutesa, also mentioned the Kabaka's illness and the effect it had on his governing and on perceptions of his abilities.'' I would argue that the nature of Mutesa's illness holds importance even for studies like those of Kenny and Wright, where the exact manifestation of breakdown in the king's body may be taken for a breakdown in the kingdom. A study of Mutesa's illness may shed some light on this important time in the history of Buganda, whether one is looking for political or metaphorical issues. For that reason this paper is less about whether Reid or Rowe is correct, than about what an examination of the issue can reveal to us.

Another reason to investigate Mutesa's illness is for what it can tell us about medical history and health conditions more generally in Buganda in the second half of the nineteenth century. As with all history, the question of sources looms large. The attention paid to monarchs and other elites in historical sources provides us a glimpse into societies at times for which we may have few other sources. While we cannot automatically equate the health of a ruler and that of his people-given likely differences in diet and manual labor regimes between the different tiers of society-these differences were probably smaller in nineteenth-century Buganda than in England at the same time. Therefore the elites of Buganda were more likely to have the same ailments as the lower ranks of society. The information about Mutesa by foreign visitors in particular adds an important dimension to our knowledge of this time and place.

I will explain why, based in part on Ganda sources, it was unlikely that venereal syphilis existed in the region at this time. This is an important point that has been debated by doctors and medical historians for nearly one hundred years. As a result I argue that Mutesa suffered from gonorrhea or a similar complaint, and suggest ways that this would have affected him. The complications of gonorrhea are not as dramatic as the mental involvement of late syphilis, but would still have had an impact on his rule, finally, I will suggest what Mutcsa's gonorrhea can tell us about health conditions at this time, and the impact on the wider population. …