US president’s tour of Uganda to hunt wild game

Former US president Theodore Roosevelt (on horse) during his 11-month African Safari. The expedition claimed up to 44,900 different species of African wildlife from Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt. COURTESY PHOTO

What you need to know:

This week we take you back to 1909 when the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, visited Uganda. Bwana Tumbo (Mr stomach), as his African servants called him in reference to his big belly, paid the visit as part of his African safari.

Roosevelt’s visit to Uganda was part of his tour to Africa, not in his capacity as the American president, but to do charity work.

The trip, dubbed the African Safari, was to hunt big-game and collect specimens for the Smithsonian Institution.

The 11-month African Safari claimed up to 44,900 different species of African wildlife from Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt. According to his book African Game Trails published in 1910, he killed 4,000 birds, 2,000 reptiles and 500 fish, nine elephants, eight black rhinos, five white rhinos, seven giraffes, six buffalos, 12 topi, and 10 Ugandan Kobs.

He goes on to say in the book: “This is the most noteworthy collection of animals that has ever come out of Africa [in reference to his animal collection].”

However, the website refers to Roosevelt’s safari as a massacre. “Theodore Roosevelt, America’s first conservative president, carried out a massacre on East African wildlife,” the website says.

Roosevelt arrived at the Mombasa port in the company of his son Kermit, from where he was joined by other seasoned European African trackers and a trail of Africans porters. By the time he reached Nairobi his safari had an entourage of 250 people.

The New York Times newspaper of March 18, 1909, reported that while in Uganda “the commissioner (the representative of the British empire) hopes that Mr Roosevelt will visit the big camp in Uganda where natives suffering from sleeping sickness are cared for.”

In Uganda, Roosevelt was hosted by commissioner (later governor) Hesketh Bell who offered his trained transport elephant from India to Roosevelt.

Travel tips from Churchill
The New York Times quoted British secretary of colonies Churchill, who had been to Uganda two years earlier, giving travel tips to Roosevelt ahead of his visit saying, “…by far the most interesting portion of the Roosevelt trip will be through the Uganda protectorate, where travel is by foot, bicycle or caravan unless he elects to ride upon a seat borne on the shoulders of natives from Port Florence on Lake Victoria when the Uganda railway ends.

Not until the party enters Uganda proper will the supremest possibilities of the exploration be realised.”

Churchill went on: “The natives are friendly, gentle of manner and considerably intellect. The air is soft and cool, but it will never be a White man’s country.”

From Mombasa, Roosevelt and team rode in wood-fuelled rail locomotives to Nairobi. Beyond Nairobi, they used a cowcatcher. By the time he reached Uganda, his African support staff had nicknamed him Bwana Tumbo (Mr Stomach) because of his belly size.
He entered “Uganda proper” as Churchill called it at Port Florence (Now Port Bell) and connected to Port Alice (Entebbe) to be hosted by the governor. From there, he rode with the governor on the Indian trained transport elephant to Kampala.
In Kampala, Roosevelt opened a hospital ward at Church Missionary Hospital, now Mengo Hospital, visited the Lubiri during his three day stay in Kampala before heading northwards to continue with his safari. From Kampala he took a ferry along the Nile through Murchison Falls National Park big camp (Rhino camp).

Writing in his book Uganda Memories 1897-1940, Albert Cook says “Our distinguished visitor arrived on December 21, with Mr Knowels, the provincial commissioner at 3pm. There were large numbers of government officials and other friends to meet them, including His Highness the Kabaka of Buganda and Sir Apollo Kaggwa.”

After a short prayer by Bishop Tucker, Roosevelt gave a speech before opening a ward that was named after him -- Roosevelt ward.

Upon his return to America, Roosevelt wrote a book African Game Trail in which he gives his experience of the African Safari, saying “Africa has not gone beyond the caveman stage,” that’s why he travelled incognito during the Safari.

He goes on to describe some of the hunting incidences while on the safari. One such was in the big camp (Rhino camp).

“Slatter and I immediately rode in the direction given, following our wild-looking guide; the other gun-bearer trotting after us. In five minutes we had reached where the watcher stood, and he at once pointed out the rhino. The huge beast was standing in entirely open country, although there were a few scattered trees of no great size at some little distance from him.

We left our horses in a dip of the ground and began the approach; I cannot say that we stalked him, for the approach was too easy. The wind blew from him to us, and a rhino’s eyesight is dull,” wrote Roosevelt.

“Thirty yards from where he stood was a bush four or five feet high, and through the leaves, it shielded us from the vision of his small, piglike eyes as we advanced toward it, stooping and in single file, I leading.

The big beast stood like an uncouth statue, his hide black in the sunlight; he seemed what he was, a monster surviving over from the world’s past, from the days when the beasts of the prime ran riot in their strength, before man grew so cunning of brain and hand as to master them. So little did he dream of our presence that when we were a hundred yards off he actually lay down.”

Big game
“Walking lightly, and with every sense keyed up, we at last reached the bush, and I pushed forward the safety of the double-barrelled Holland rifle which I was now to use for the first time on big game.

As I stepped to one side of the bush so as to get a clear aim, the rhino saw me and jumped to his feet with the agility of a polo pony. As he rose I put in the right barrel, the bullet going through both lungs. At the same moment he wheeled, the blood spouting from his nostrils, and galloped full on.

Before he could get quite all the way round in his headlong rush to reach us, I struck him with my left-hand barrel, the bullet entering between the neck and shoulder and piercing his heart.

At the same instant Captain Slatter fired, his bullet entering the neck vertebrae. Ploughing up the ground with horn and feet, the great bull rhino, still head toward us, dropped just thirteen paces from where we stood. From the moment when he charged until his death I doubt whether 10 seconds had elapsed, perhaps less; but what a 10 seconds. This was a wicked charge, for the rhino meant mischief and came on with the utmost determination.”

According to Max Beloff’s book Theodore Roosevelt and the British Empire he talks of the impact the journey had on Roosevelt saying, “In Kenya he found that the British settlers reminded him of those pioneers of the American west whose history he had written, Uganda was unsuitable for White settlement.”

Roosevelt’s speech while opening ward at Mengo Hospital

“Bishop Tucker, Dr Cook, ladies and gentlemen. It is a very real pleasure to me to be here today, and Bishop, the happiness of the afternoon is purely on my side. I owe you much for giving me the chance to see this work that was being done in Uganda, and I feel particularly anxious to see it.

I have been greatly interested in my stay in British East Africa (Kenya) where the problems are totally different. British East Africa is a country which will be, I feel sure more than sure a country for settlers and where in highlands particular attention must be paid to the settler elements in the population.

Here you have a peculiarly intelligent native race which has already developed a very interesting culture of its own, a culture both political and social.

And the great work must of necessity be to try to help that race onward, and try to do it in practical fashion and to do it so that the doing of this shall be primarily a benefit to the race and secondary a benefit to your own people from whom you come.

Dr Cook, I am able to corroborate that you gave your services free to help the natives without giving preference to the creed of the men and women, to whom you came out.

I have just come from the Roman Catholic mission and one of the things they spoke to me, especially about was the way in which you and your fellow doctors here had come right over and rendered any service to them, whenever they were in need.

And as I said there the target of evil is broad enough for all good men to shoot at, instead of at one another. I always welcome heartily when I see those who care striving for the advancement of righteousness, even in different ways, helping one another so far as they can.

I do not want to flatter you, but at the same time I do want to speak truthfully and it may seem as though I was flattering but am not. I do so immensely admire the work that is being done here. I have the keenest sympathy with the spread of the English Empire and I have that sympathy because and so long as the spread of that rule means benefit to the over whom it goes.

And you people here are rendering the greatest possible service that can be rendered to your country and your mission, when you make a dominion of that country and the flying of that flag is synonymous with the extension of that entire is highest in what we call civilisation to a people who have been left behind hitherto in the race for life.

It is not in my province to preach, Bishop, but I trust that if you will turn to the last verse of the first chapter of the epistle of St James and the opening verse of the second chapter, you will find there a little good, applied theology, and I think that, that is the system that you are practically applying here. I have a very strongest feeling as to the good that is being done by the medical missionary.

There must be some visible fruits in the life and work of the men who preaches, if his preaching is going to have a very great effect upon those to whom he preaches.

That visible fruit can be shown in many different ways, and one of the most effective ways of showing it is just by such work as being done in connection with this building which, it will naturally be a source of peculiar pride to myself to have my name associated with, and which I now take please in declaring to be open.”


With the assassination of president McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, not quite 43, became the 26th and youngest president in US history (1901-1909).

Roosevelt’s youth differed sharply from that of the log cabin presidents. He was born in New York City in 1858 into a wealthy family, but he too struggled--against ill health--and in his triumph became an advocate of the strenuous life.

In 1884 his first wife, Alice Lee Roosevelt, and his mother died on the same day. Roosevelt spent much of the next two years on his ranch in the Badlands of Dakota Territory.

There he mastered his sorrow as he lived in the saddle, driving cattle, hunting big game--he even captured an outlaw. On a visit to London, he married Edith Carow in December 1886.

During the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt was lieutenant colonel of the Rough Rider Regiment, which he led on a charge at the battle of San Juan. He was one of the most conspicuous heroes of the war.

Boss Tom Platt, needing a hero to draw attention away from scandals in New York State, accepted Roosevelt as the Republican candidate for governor in 1898. Roosevelt won and served with distinction.

As president, Roosevelt held the ideal that the government should be the great arbiter of the conflicting economic forces in the nation, especially between capital and labour, guaranteeing justice to each and dispensing favours to none.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese War, reached a Gentleman’s Agreement on immigration with Japan, and sent the Great White Fleet on a goodwill tour of the world.

Leaving the presidency in 1909, Roosevelt went on an African safari, then jumped back into politics. In 1912 he ran for president on a Progressive ticket. To reporters he once remarked that he felt as fit as a bull moose, the name of his new party.

While campaigning in Milwaukee, he was shot in the chest by a fanatic. Roosevelt soon recovered, but his words at that time would have been applicable at the time of his death in 1919: “No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way.”



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