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The Story of the Life of MacKay of Uganda
Chapter XV - MacKay as Undertaker

“And last, as sunk the setting sun,
And Evening, with her shadows dun,
The gorgeous pageant passed,
‘Twas then of life a mimic show,
Of human grandeur here below,
Which thus beneath the fatal blow
Of Death must fall at last.”


COLONEL GRANT, in alluding to the surprising confidence in which the Baganda held Mackay. refers to the funeral arrangements of Namasole, the Queen Dowager of the country, with which he was entrusted, and the extraordinary fame he won thereby. [See Blackwood’s Magazine, May 1890.]  In writing his father, 27th March, 1882, Mackay says: “The King’s mother has just passed away, and not only she, but an old man, an elder brother of the king, has died to-day also. The drums are now being beaten at the palace, to frighten away the King of Terrors, and escort the departed spirits into the unseen world. The ghosts of kings and great men alone are here thought to live after death. They are said to enter certain sorcerers and sorceresses, who henceforth become privileged persons. This belief is something like the Hindu dogma of transmigration of souls. The old queen died of typhoid fever, as Pete Lourdel, who saw her, informs us. He was asked by Mtesa to give her medicine, but she would not take the Muzungu’s (white man’s) medicine, nor even allow anyone near her wearing calico or anything foreign. So her diviners brought their charms, and the native druggers drenched her with their physic. She collapsed next day and died.”

Continuing his letter on the 7th May, he says: ‘Since I penned the above all hope of sending off letters was knocked on the head. The Royal mourning lasted a month, during which time no work was allowed to be done in the land. No boat could start, nor anyone carry a load, until the queen was buried. But while all had respite from work I was toiling hard night and day, for thirty days, for all were waiting for me. The morning after Namasole died, Mr. O'Flaherty and I went to court to pay our respects to the king. All the chiefs were clad in rags, and crying, or rather roaring, with their hands clasped above their heads. Mtesa determined to make a funeral to surpass in splendour any burial that had ever taken place in the country. Such is the desire of every king to outstrip his predecessors. Fifty thousand bark cloths were ordered to be levied in the .land, besides some thousands of yards of English calico. Mtesa asked me ‘how we buried royalty in Europe?’ I replied that we made three coffins, the inner of wood, the next of lead, and the outer of wood covered with cloth. I knew the custom of the Baganda in burying their kings, viz., to wrap the body - after mummifying it - in several thousand bark cloths, and bury the great pile in a huge grave, building a house over all and appointing certain witches to guard the grave for generations.

“‘Would you be able to make the three coffins?’ Mtesa asked me. I replied, ‘Yes, if you find the material.’ He said he had no lead, but he had a lot of copper trays and drums which he would supply, if I could manufacture a coffin out of them.”

“Frequently we had been twitted by the king and court for failing to work for him; accordingly 1 agreed to be undertaker, thinking it a small affair. But then the dimensions! Everything was to be made as large as possible!!!  Immediately all the copper in the king’s stores was turned out, and sent down to our Mission. Fine large bronze trays of Egyptian workmanship (presents probably from General Gordon), copper drums, copper cans, and copper pots and plates - all were produced, and out of the materials I was to make a coffin for the queen. All the artificers were ordered to my assistance.” The rest of the description is chiefly taken from his journal:-

“Next morning I went off to Rusaka, some three miles distant, to measure the body. Much objection was made by the royal ladies there at my going in to measure the corpse. But my friend Kyambalango was there, as master of ceremonies, and he explained that I was commissioned by the king. But I was somewhat taken aback on being told by some of the other chiefs that I should have measured not the corpse, but the dimensions of the grave, and make the coffins to fit the latter! I told them that there was not copper enough in the land to make a box larger than necessary; that if there was, I would willingly make a coffin as large as a mountain, but as it was, I could make the inner coffins to suit the body, and the outer one as large as a house if they liked.”

"Meantime Gabunga, the ‘Grand Admiral’ and lord of the lake, had gone to the forest for wood. I got all the native smiths together, and converting the building, which we were fitting up for a school, into a smithy, all hands were set to work beating out the copper into flat plates. Tools, of course, we had to supply for punching, shearing, and riveting, but before a couple of days were over, the native smiths thought good to steal a drill. How many copper nails they stole no-one knows, only these disappeared far faster than the work required.”

“Gabunga first brought broad planks, adzed by canoe builders, but so irregular and crooked that they were fit for little or nothing. A huge tree had been chopped down to make two boards! I asked him to fetch some solid logs. These he declared impossible to transport; however, he tried, and next evening he returned with some two hundred men dragging a large slice of a tree, by the natural creepers they had tied round it. I laughed at the shapeless thing, and declared I could carry it alone! At once I took the body of the cart off its wheels, and lashed the log under the axle with leather ropes. Then with one hand I pulled along the road a log which had taken a regiment to drag, to the consternation and joy of all. They yelled and clapped their hands and jumped about with delight at such a wonder, each one rushing up to me and taking me by the hand, in ecstasy at such a prodigy. ‘Mackay is truly the lubare’ (= the devil, but their god).”

“So they must have the cart to fetch trees with, in spite of my protestations that they did not know how to manage it, and would be sure to break it or come by an accident to themselves. Before they were out of the plantation they landed it several times in the ditch! Still they were determined, so I sent a couple of Wangwana with them, and was agreeably surprised to find them come back next day with a fair-sized log under the axle, and the cart actually safe and sound. But they did not want to take the cart again.”

“In ten days’ time we had finished the two inner coffins, the first being of wood, cushioned all inside with cotton wool, and covered all over, inside and out, with snow-white calico secured with a thousand copper tacks. Ornamental work I made by cutting patterns out of black and white pocket-handkerchiefs, and tacking them on. The copper box measured seven feet long by three feet wide and three feet high, shaped like a coffin. But the king’s copper was enough for little more than the lid and ends, so we had to supply for the sides four sheets of copper plate, which the king paid for at once in ivory, as we did not think well to give these away out of the Mission stores gratis. We gave our workmanship and skill and time gratis, besides the tools, and all the iron nails (no small quantity). We received copper wire as an equivalent for the copper tacks. Even the copper coffin we neatly lined all over inside with white calico tacked on to laths which were first riveted to the copper plate.”

“It is needless to describe the worry and trouble we had, working late and early, and sometimes all night. At every hour of the day pages were sent down to inspect the progress and ask when we would be done. The native workmen, especially the head men among them, would do almost nothing, and generally spoiled what they did. They preferred sitting down all day smoking, and watching how I did. I was able to get some assistance, however, from several of the younger fellows.”

“When we had the two boxes carried up to the Court and shown to the king, he expressed unbounded satisfaction, and asked us what we wanted for our work. We replied that we wanted nothing at all. But he gave us ten head of cattle on the spot, in addition to several cows and a hundred bunches of plantains, besides many gallons of beer, which he sent while the work was in progress.”

“But even in the execution of a small work like this, which all allowed to be far beyond their own powers to accomplish, there must needs be an exhibition of jealousy and ill-feeling on the part of some - chiefs and Arabs.”

“They told the king that we made the coffins small, much too small for Namasole, because we wanted the timber to finish our own house with; that we had already secreted in our house a lot of boards; that perhaps we might show good workmanship, but we could not work fast.”

“The Arabs also asserted that it would take us some three months to make the large outer box. Then Namkade (one of the envoys who went to England) was called in, and was asked how the English built? How long did it take them to build a house? were they like us, who had been a whole year over one house, which was not finished yet?”

“Namkade (no friend of ours) replied that the Bazungu were very slow in building; in fact, that they built a piece of a house, and then lived in that while they worked at building the remainder!” [Probably the envoy had seen repairs going on at some large mansion while the people were living in it, or perhaps his ideas could not be separated from a Baganda hut, which can be commenced and finished in one day, being entirely of reeds and grass, and which, when needing repair, is simply pulled down or burnt in five minutes and a new one knocked up in its place.]

“Mtesa alone stood our friend. He refused to believe that we had appropriated any boards, while he said to our accusers that what was done well could not be done in a day. ‘Can a woman cook plantains well if you hurry her?’ asked the friendly king.”

“We had commenced to cut wood for the large outer box, which was to measure twelve feet long by seven feet wide and eight feet high. I was sharpening the pit-saws and setting them, when an order came that all the native artisans were to go and make a box after their own fashion at or near Rusaka (where the queen died). We knew that this order did not come from the king, but from the katikiro and chiefs. Of course the smiths and carpenters left at once. Mr. O'Flaherty went to court, and was told by Mtesa that we were to make the box. Still the native artisans did not return, while a few Mutongoles came with gangs of men, and carried off all the planks they could from here, leaving only the huge logs which Mr. O'Flaherty had cut himself in the forest. So we put on our own Wangwana to the saws, I having previously marked off each log into boards. But who could use the saws? Such work at first! Zigzags of every style; each board varying in thickness at every inch. But we held on, and by-and-bye they got more into the way of it.”

“We gave them large supplies of beef and beer every day, and in a week’s time we had about a hundred boards cut and squared to fit, and nailed together with strong ribs like the sides of a schooner When together, it looked like a small house rather than a coffin!”

“In another couple of days we should have been done of the job, but suddenly our braves decamped, all except two, leaving us in the lurch. We sent word to the court, and had the native artisans fetched at once. These had to be initiated into using the long saws, but they soon learned, and in a few days’ time we had enough of boards for the lid. Then we covered the whole outside with native bark cloth, and lined the inside with pure snow-white calico. Each side was a piece by itself, made so for transport. A thousand men arrived to carry the segments, and most fortunately it did not rain. We put them together before the king, who challenged all to say if such workmanship could be done in the country by Baganda, or if anything of the kind had ever been seen in the land?”

“Next day we had the king’s orders to go to the burial. He wanted us to go the same day, but we were too tired, having for a full month been constantly at saw and hammer from dawn to midnight, and often later.”

“The grave was a huge pit, some twenty feet by fifteen feet at the mouth, by about thirty feet deep. It was dug in the centre of the late queen’s sleeping-house - a monstrous hut, some one hundred and fifty feet in diameter, as usual all roof and no walls, and a perfect forest of poles inside, the centre ones being good enough for frigate masts.”

“Rusaka stands on a hill of dry sandstone, clay, and gravel. It is well the stratum is so firm, otherwise serious accidents might have happened from the sides of the grave slipping.”

“Nearly all the excavated gravel had been carried away, while the monster pit was neatly lined all round with bark cloth. Into this several thousand new bark cloths were thrown and carefully spread on the bottom, filling up the hole a long way. Then the segments of the huge box were lowered in with much trouble. I descended and nailed the corners together.”

“After that I was summoned to the ceremony of putting the corpse into the first coffin. Thousands of women were there, yelling with all their might, and a few with tears in their eyes. Only the ladies of royal family and the highest chiefs were near the corpse, which by this time had been reduced to a mummy by constantly squeezing out the fluids with rags of bark doth. It was wrapped in a new mbugu, and laid on the ground. The chiefs half filled the nicely padded coffin with bufta (bleached calico), then several bundles of petty charms belonging to the queen were laid in. After that, the corpse, and then the coffin was filled up with more bufta. Kimbugwe, Kauta, and the other chiefs in charge, carried the coffin to the court, where the grave-house was, when much more yelling took place. I screwed the lid down, but such was the attachment of some of the royal ladies to the deceased that I had to get them peremptorily ordered away, with their crying and tears and hugging of the coffin, before I could get near to perform my duties as undertaker.”

“Then came the copper coffin, into which the other was lowered by means of a huge sheet. The lid of that had to be riveted down, and that process was new to the chiefs standing by. ‘He cuts iron like thread,’ they said, as the pincers snapped the nails. ‘Mackay is a proper smith!’ they all shouted.”

“With no mechanical contrivances, it was astonishing how they got the copper coffin, with its ponderous contents, lowered into the deep grave without letting it fall end foremost into the great box below. The task was effected, however, by means of the great multitude of men.”

“Thousands of yards of unbleached calico (shirting) were then filled in round and over the copper coffin, until the big box was half full. The remainder was filled up with bark cloths, as also all the space round the outside of the box. The lid was lowered, and I descended once more to nail it down. Several thousand more mbugus were then laid on till within three feet of the surface, when earth was thrown in to the level of the floor.”

“We returned at dusk, but the burying was not completed till nearly midnight. Next morning every man, woman, and child in the land had their heads shaved, and put off their mourning dress of tattered mbugus and belts of plantain leaves. The country had been waiting till we were done with our carpentry.”

“Mr. O'Flaherty and I made an estimate of the value of cloth buried that day in the grave of Queen Namasole, and we reckon the amount to be about fifteen thousand pounds sterling! The Arabs made an independent calculation, counting the calico and mbugus in equivalent of ivory, and their reckoning agrees pretty nearly with our own. Such-like is the barbaric splendour of the court of Uganda. Who would have thought, in the civilised world, of burying fifteen thousand pounds' worth of cloth in the grave of even a queen?”

“Being so inaccessible, one would not have believed that there was so much cloth in the country, ten or twelve yards of the dressed calico being sufficient to buy a slave here, or twenty yards of the coarse stuff at threepence or fourpence per yard in England.”

“What an attempt at achieving a short-lived immortality! The woman died a pagan, but her burial was one fit for a Christian. The text is a good one from which to preach many a sermon here. Such prodigality in trying to procure a short-lived immortality, with no care at all for the immortal soul.”

Among the native artisans whom the king sent to help Mackay in this formidable undertaking, was Walukaga, or Nua, the head blacksmith. A great friendship sprang up between them, and Walukaga visited Mackay afterwards and listened eagerly to all he was told of the Gospel, and cried out, "How is it when we were making Namasole’s coffin, you told me none of these good things?”

Mr. Ashe describes this man as “a splendid Christian, and one of the most intelligent Africans he ever knew.” In the time of the deep trouble of the mission in connection with the fate of Bishop Hannington, the Church Council frequently met in Walukaga’s enclosure; and on one of these occasions Mr. Ashe baptised the young Admiral Gabunga.

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