History in progress Uganda, Part 1: the Ham Mukasa archive (EAP656)

Aims and objectives

This project will digitise, catalogue, and make publically available, the photographic collection and accompanying written documents of the late Ham Mukasa (1868-1956). As a leading political and intellectual figure within, and ethnographer of, turn-of the century Buganda, Mukasa’s collection makes an invaluable contribution to understanding this crucial period in Uganda’s history. The collection includes over 2000 photographs and several thousand pages of related personal notes, letters and diaries.

Ham Mukasa (b ca. 1870) lived as a page in the court of King Muteesa I of Buganda, where in 1875 photography was introduced by the explorer Henry Morten Stanley when making a portrait of the King and his Chiefs. Mukasa certainly was in touch with people making photographs by the 1890s. Initial surveys of his collection suggest that he was particularly active as a documentalist, asking or commissioning people to document activities he was involved in, in the period 1900-1920, although this practice seems to have continued right up to his death, in 1956. Given that Mukasa was most active during the period of British penetration into this region – as a page in the court of King Muteesa I (1837-1884), a key figure in the court of King Daudi Chwa II (1856-1884), and as secretary to Buganda’s Prime Minister Apolo Kagwa – his images offer valuable clues on the early history of colonialism in Uganda and make an invaluable contribution to the fields of African history, anthropology and African visual studies/art history.

All of the materials are already in a very fragile state, as a result of the combined effects of Uganda’s unfavourable climate (hot and humid), and the poor storage conditions in which the collections are already held. In addition, large parts of the collection (especially some of the written materials) show further signs of termite- and water-damage.

The collection is currently spread over three family and foundation sites, all in and around the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Once the scanning, and related tagging of the files, has been completed, copies will be deposited with the Ham Mukasa Foundation, with Makerere University (which is the oldest, and most prestigious, university in East Africa), with Mukono University (an institution with which the Mukasa family has ongoing ties), and with the British Library.

This project will also form a template for the future digitisation of other early photographic archives for Uganda. The importance of trying to save these private archives stems from the fact that Uganda’s national official visual archives were largely destroyed, or else fell into a state of terminal decay, during the period of state collapse in the country which followed Idi Amin’s rise to power, in 1971. Photographs held in private collections today represent the majority of the remaining visual record of the country, especially for the early colonial period. However, the negative effects of Uganda’s hot tropic climate, combined with a lack of knowledge about issues of preservation amongst private owners means that today, many of these private archives are themselves also in a fragile state, and in some instances are on the brink of becoming unviewable. Yet if this body of visual evidence is lost, it will erase a significant body of evidence relating to Uganda’s pre-industrial past, and to this period in the European colonisation of Africa.