British led troops massacre hundreds of refugees
30 January 1892
On 30 January 1892, a force of Sudanese and Zanzibari mercenaries of the British Imperial East African Company, under the command of Captain W. H. Williams, attacked the remnants of King Mwanga’s followers, who along with their chief had been driven from the Bugandan capital of Mengo, and had taken refuge on the small island of Bulingugwe in Lake Victoria. A French Bishop, Monsignor Jean-Joseph Hirth, was one of the lucky few to escape the death and devastation caused by a sudden burst of gunfire from a Maxim machine gun blasting the island at close range, with its shoreline crowded with thousands of refugees. He later recalled that
‘On the road I saw fifteen boats rapidly approach the island. All of a sudden the bullets began to rain upon the royal hut, making a terrible noise in the copse that surrounded us; it was the Maxim mitrailleuse, which joined its fire to that of the boats loaded with soldiers. The king seized me by the hand and dragged me away… A crowd of women and children fled with us. How many fell ! We soon gained the other shore of the island; the bullets could no longer reach us. But what a sight ! Just a few canoes, and a crowd of 3,000 or 4,000 throwing themselves into the water to cling to them; it was heart-breaking. What shreiks ! What a fussilade ! What deaths by drowning !’1
Later estimates of the death toll were as high as 700, with even Captain Williams admitting that he ‘could have killed several hundred' Father Guillermain, a catholic priest, testified that the island was ‘covered with dead and wounded,’ that ‘more than a thousand women and children have been made slaves,’ that soldiers had placed ‘the muzzles of their rifles on the children’s breasts and then killed them’ and that when finally he and five other missionaries captured were dragged before Captain Williams, ‘we were plundered and disgracefully treated, whilst he stood behind his gun, like a warrior proud of his victory.’3
The British press however was largely supportive of both Captain Williams who led the attack and Captain Frederick Lugard who had ordered it. Typically, the Morning Post admitted the massacre was a ‘lamentable loss of life’ but reminded its readers that both Lugard and ‘his gallant colleague, Captain Williams, had a very difficult task to fulfill, and they acted after full consideration as they held to be the best in the interests of order.’4
- Monsignor Jean-Joseph Hirth cited in Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa, 1876-1912, Abacus, London, p. 426
- Captain H.W. Williams cited in ‘British East Africa,’ The Morning Post, 23 November 1893, p. 4. A Reuters report of 13 June 1892 cited Monsignor Jean-Joseph Hirth’s estimate that 500 or 600 had drowned in addition to those shot dead. See ‘The Troubles in Uganda,’ The London Standard, 13 December 1892, p. 3. An estimated total death toll of 700 is given in ‘Protestants put Catholics to the Cross’, The Daily Monitor, 23 March 2012, accessed online at url https://www.monitor.co.ug/SpecialReports/ugandaat50/1370466-1371800-14daf8l/index.html
- Father Guillermain cited in ‘The Troubles in Uganda – Extraordinary Charges of a French Missionary,’ The London Daily News, 3 June 1892 p5 and ‘The Massacres in Uganda – Women and Children Shot,’ The Portsmouth Evening News, 3 June 1892, p. 3.
- ‘British East Africa,’ The Morning Post, 23 November 1893, p. 4.
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