Political Power in Pre-Colonial Buganda: Economy, Society, and Warfare in the Nineteenth Century

By McKnight, Glenn H. | African Studies Review, December 2003 | Go to article overview
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Political Power in Pre-Colonial Buganda: Economy, Society, and Warfare in the Nineteenth Century


McKnight, Glenn H., African Studies Review


Richard Reid. Political Power in Pre-Colonial Buganda: Economy, Society, and Warfare in the Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Press/Oxford: James Currey/Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2003. Eastern African Studies Series, xiv + 274 pp. Bibliography. Index. Maps. Notes. $49.95. Cloth. $24.95. Paper.

Richard Reid's well-researched study places nineteenth-century Buganda in its economic and material contexts. Previous studies, he maintains, have ignored the influence of these contexts on historical change and the kingdom's precolonial power because they focused on strong monarchies and fractious court politics. Consequently, Reid takes his study outside the kabaka's enclosure to make two significant observations: one, that the nineteenth-century kingdom derived its power from a strong material base that was not centrally dominated; and two, that the late nineteenth-century crisis was broader than previously thought.

Reid documents a Buganda-dominated dynamic regional economy to argue that broader material forces mattered more than court politics for historical change. The kingdom grounded its regional commercial influence in a diversified productive base that the state enhanced via military might. Thus Kabaka junju annexed Buddu for its barkcloth production (for which there was large regional demand) and because it contained iron deposits Buganda needed for weapons and farming. Trade expanded after 1844 when coastal merchants arrived, but it followed similar imperatives. Many Ganda continued trading items produced locally and regionally, while the value of this commerce drove the state to control these new trade routes via naval power. Thus Buganda built its dominance during the century on a strong productive and commercial base buttressed by state power. Economic and security needs drove change, not court politics.

Throughout his discussion of Bugada's material foundations, Reid modifies the picture of a highly centralized kingdom. For example, although kabakas did set taxes and draft forced labor to build and maintain roads, clan heads and ssaza chiefs (both rivals to central power) helped collect taxes and implemented the forced labor conscriptions: "In all of this, the kabakawas almost a marginal figure" (102). Reid also emphasizes that kabakas did not exert much control over commerce since Ganda outside the capital traded relatively freely.

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