Mutesa I (ca. 1838-1884) was a kabaka, or monarch, of Buganda and one of the outstanding African rulers of the 19th century. Under his dynamic leadership Buganda became one of the most powerful and influential kingdoms of East Africa.
Mutesa Walugembe Mukabya was the son of the reigning kabaka, Suna II; his mother's identity is in dispute. Since Buganda had no fixed system of succession, Mutesa was one of many eligible for the position of kabaka. Backed by powerful members of Ganda society, he rose from obscurity to that office in 1856. The first years of his reign were troubled, but by a ruthless exercise of authority he eliminated all opposition, in the process greatly strengthening the powers of his office. By the end of his reign, Buganda was regarded as possessing one of the most centralized ruling structures in all of Africa.
Mutesa ruled Buganda during the period when foreign, non-African forces entered the kingdom to begin a fundamental alteration of the internal composition of Ganda society. Arab and African Moslems from Zanzibar had been visiting Buganda since the 1840s to trade firearms, gunpowder, and cloth for ivory and slaves. By the mid-1860s Mutesa had outwardly adopted the tenets of Islam, favoring its acceptance by his subjects for a 10-year period.
But before Islam had the opportunity to win wide acceptance among the Ganda, representatives of Christian Europe reached Buganda, beginning in 1862 with the arrival of the explorers John Speke and James Grant. They were greatly impressed with the flourishing state of Buganda, and their reports attracted visitors. In 1875 Henry Stanley reached Mutesa's court. The wily African ruler, then threatened by an Egyptian thrust southward from the Sudan, expressed his willingness to receive Christian missionaries, effectively concealing the political motives for his decision from Stanley.
The British Church Missionary Society, a Protestant group, answered Stanley's call; their first expedition reached Buganda in 1877. Roman Catholic White Fathers followed in 1879. The Ganda system kept the newcomers at Mutesa's court; here they found a receptive audience among the youths sent from all parts of the kingdom to serve as pages for the newcomers' teaching, and during Mutesa's lifetime a profound transformation began to take place within the state as new concepts of belief replaced traditional values among an elite which would later dominate the kingdom's evolution.
Mutesa, however, never fully accepted any of the new beliefs. He attempted to manipulate them in the interests of his state, largely succeeding in using the Moslem and Christian outsiders to increase the already substantial dominance of the Ganda over their African neighbors. He died in 1884, leaving a deserved reputation as the greatest of all rulers of Buganda.
A sensible biography by a Ganda scholar is M. S. M. Kiwanuka, Muteesa of Uganda (1967). The best account of the life and times of Mutesa is in Roland Oliver and Gervase Mathew, eds., History of East Africa, vol. 1 (1963).