Ssekabaka Muteesa I Mukaabya Walugembe Kayiira is an important fixture in Uganda’s history.
Yet no one knows for sure, what the man looked like. It is Muteesa I that welcomed the European missionaries and explorers that would later open the way to colonization by England.
In 1862, when John Hanning Speke headed to Uganda in search of River Nile’s source, the camera had been invented 26 years earlier.
But even though Speke is documented as the first European to meet Muteesa, there is no photographic documentation to support the fact.
It was not until 1875 and Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh-born American journalist and explorer trying to map the region in detail, that much of the imagery of the era was taken.
Because of the relationship Stanley had built with Muteesa I, he managed to take the one known photograph of the king, now said to sit in a museum in Belgium.
The blurry black and white picture does not give much away, but Muteesa is recognizable, surrounded by his subjects wearing white tunics, some of them with long overcoats.
A number of documents, some of them brought to the public attention by Andrea Stultiens’ research, suggest that those standing around him were chiefs.
Stultiens is a researcher and professional photographer, who uses photo exhibitions as a way of availing history not easily accessible by the public.
In Stultiens’ write up, where she partly quotes Stanley’s 1878 book, Through The Dark Continent, Muteesa is identified as an Emperor of Uganda (Buganda), then two people behind him are identified as Senkembo, a chief of Kyaggwe and Kyambalango, only referred to as a chief. Others are referred to by their titles such as Pokino and Prime Minister.
Since Stanley stayed in Uganda for more than 15 years, the picture was only developed after he left the country but still could not be printed in the book that documented his travels.
“When Stanley’s report on his travels, including the meeting with Muteesa, was published, it was not possible to directly print photographs. The photo was adapted to an engraving and included in his book,” says Stultiens.
Same man, different versions
In Stanley’s book, the engraved picture has more defined features than the original.
“In the process of the sharpening, the engraver significantly altered the appearances of the people he was depicting,” says Stultiens.
Today, most books about Buganda use different illustrations of Muteesa I; for instance, Sophia Lyon’s book, Uganda’s White Man of Work, Alexander Mackay, has the picture mirrored to face a different direction and goes ahead to add limbs as well as make him lighter and older than in the known photograph. Some observers say he looks more Caucasian.
Daniel Kimomera, a custodian of the kingdom’s royal drums, said: “One of the drawings gives him a longer neck, which is very rare among the Ganda people.”
Abdu Naru Kimbowa, a former drummer in Muteesa II’s palace, says he has seen so many different illustrations of the ssekabaka that he does not know which of them is his true likeness.
“Almost everyone flaunts a different illustration as Muteesa I; I wouldn’t be shocked if no one knew what the man looked like!” he says.
Maybe this Stanley photograph will put those fears to rest.
Theories about altering Muteesa’s appearance abound, with some arguing it was a technological challenge, yet others say it was deliberate.
In her book Visualizing Africa in Nineteenth-century British Travel Accounts, Leila Koivunen says: “As a rule, images of African people became more discernibly negroid during the illustration process – besides the systematic darkening of complexions, facial features were modified to reveal elements regarded as negroid; thick protruding lips, big mouths, flat noses…”
Stultiens notes that if darkening Africans was deliberate as Koivunen asserts, then presenting a light-skinned Muteesa was not a technological fail – he was going against their known definitions of a ‘true’ African, so he must have been light-skinned indeed.
It is said that Stanley had developed a special liking for Muteesa and thus while describing him to the English, he referred to him as a handsome man whose mannerisms could easily fit in their own.
In a letter to Queen Victoria published in the Daily Telegraph on November 15, 1875, Stanley describes Muteesa’s curiosity about Christianity and ability to read Arabic while emphasizing his and the people’s intelligence.
It is thought that based on this flattering description, whoever made the illustration thought of Muteesa more as a white man than a black one, due to age-old prejudices.
Muteesa's journey to Belgium
In Buganda, very little is known about the photograph that inspired the many illustrations of Muteesa I; this is what inspired Stultiens to embark on her research, after learning about the photograph in 2013.
“I was surprised I had not come across it before, since I had been interested in historical photographs in and from Uganda for about five or six years at the time.”
Her next move was to share it on the History in Progress (HIP) Facebook page to see what people knew about it, and to her shock, there was almost no response.
“I wondered why. Especially since I had noticed that photographs showing the late kings, Mwanga, Daudi Chwa and (especially) Muteesa II were always very popular.”
The research led her to the Royal Museum for Central Africa at Tervuren in Belgium, where three copies of the original Stanley photos are.
Stultiens says Belgium’s interest in Stanley’s work is because he worked for King Leopold; “He explored and basically mapped the Congo colony for him and thus their interest in his works.”
In 1982, Stanley’s great grandson Richard M Stanley sold all the inherited material including pictures, maps and testimonies to Belgium after sensing lack of interest from the British government.
In a Skype conversation with The Observer, Stultiens said she had tried to access the original print of the work to have it included in an exhibition, in vain.
Of course as Stultiens puts it, this is symptomatic for the problems surrounding materials very relevant for African audiences yet ‘hidden’ in European archives and museums.
And sadly, the picture does not hold the same value to Belgians as it would for Ugandans; there, it is the photographer and not the photograph that holds value.