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Defeat Is the Only Bad News

Rwanda under Musinga, 1896–1931

Alison Des Forges

Publication Year: 2011

A Rwandan proverb says “Defeat is the only bad news.” For Rwandans living under colonial rule, winning called not only for armed confrontation, but also for a battle of wits—and not only with foreigners, but also with each other. In Defeat Is the Only Bad News Alison Des Forges recounts the ambitions, strategies, and intrigues of an African royal court under Yuhi Musinga, the Rwandan ruler from 1896 to 1931. These were turbulent years for Rwanda, when first Germany and then Belgium pursued an aggressive plan of colonization there. At the time of the Europeans’ arrival, Rwanda was also engaged in a succession dispute after the death of one of its most famous kings. Against this backdrop, the Rwandan court became the stage for a drama of Shakespearean proportions, filled with deceit, shrewd calculation, ruthless betrayal, and sometimes murder.

            Historians who study European expansion typically focus on interactions between colonizers and colonized; they rarely attend to relations among the different factions inhabiting occupied lands. Des Forges, drawing on oral histories and extensive archival research, reveals how divisions among different groups in Rwanda shaped their responses to colonial governments, missionaries, and traders. Rwandans, she shows, used European resources to extend their power, even as they sought to preserve the autonomy of the royal court. Europeans, for their part, seized on internal divisions to advance their own goals. Des Forges’s vividly narrated history, meticulously edited and introduced by David Newbury, provides a deep context for understanding the Rwandan civil war a century later.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xiii

Alison became interested in the history of the central African polity of Rwanda in the summer of 1963 when she volunteered to teach Rwandan refugees living in what was then still called Tanganyika. Perhaps influenced by her paternal grandparents’ origins in the German-speaking...

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Editor's Preface

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pp. xv-xvi

On 12 February 2009, a plane crash took the lives of fifty people, including that of Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges. She had been best known for her eloquent and informed witness on the 1994 genocide and its aftermath in Rwanda. However, in addition to her exemplary work on human rights issues in Central Africa, Alison was also a schola...

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Author's Preface

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pp. xvii-xviii

Historians of African societies have often been caught up in depicting the most clearly dramatic confrontations in recent times, those between the Africans and the Europeans who came to rule them. They have given less attention to penetrating the complexities of relations among...

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Author's Acknowledgments

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pp. xix

Since this work is a study of Rwandan history, my first and largest debt is clearly to the one hundred and two Rwandans who so enthusiastically shared their knowledge of their past with me. Their names are given in the appendix. I could not have understood what they had to say to...

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Editor's Note

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pp. xxi-xxii

This text is in large part the dissertation of Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges as originally presented to the Yale University Department of History in 1972. Because the author was not able to revise the dissertation for publication, I have addressed some very minor issues of...

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Editor's Introduction

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pp. xxiii-xxxvi

A soft rain was falling at Rucunshu late in the afternoon on a day near the end of November 1896. But the desultory weather belied the political intensity of the moment as several armies gathered at this hill near central Rwanda; this engagement was the culmination of an intense...

Glossary of Rwandan Terms

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pp. xxxvii-xxxviii

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1. A Tumultuous Transition: The Accession of Musinga

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pp. 3-23

The original dissertation began with an overview of the social structures of precolonial Rwanda and a summary of royal history. As explained in the introduction, however, research carried out since the time of Des Forges’s fieldwork has greatly enriched our understanding of these features. This section replaces the author’s original...

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2. The Catholic Church, the German Administration and the Nyiginya Court

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pp. 24-44

Although the attention of the Court was focused mostly on its internal struggles, Kanjogera and her brothers carefully watched the installation of European soldiers in the southwestern corner of Rwanda. Since the border between the Congo Free State and German East...

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3. The Missionaries, the Court and the Local Community, 1904-1910

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pp. 45-69

In the struggle for power at the Court, Kabare could argue that although Ruhinankiko had mustered European support at critical junctures, he had not managed to restrain the growth of European power. While the Court was occupied with internal dissensions, by the end of...

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4. Musinga's Coming of Age 1905-1913

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pp. 71-97

When Kabare won supreme influence at Court in late 1904, Musinga was a young man of twenty or twenty-one. He had already taken several wives and fathered two or three children.1 According to Rwandan practice, Musinga should have attained full manhood when he had...

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5. Extending Court Power, 1905-1913: The Conquest of the Northern Regions

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pp. 99-129

As a child Musinga had accompanied his father on some of his famous campaigns to assert royal authority over new areas. Later, as an adolescent and mwami himself, Musinga saw many of these same regions, conquered by his father, slip from the control of the Court. Torn by internal struggles and distracted by the problems of dealing with the...

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6. The Europeans, New Court Tactics, 1913-1919

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pp. 130-155

With the outbreak of World War I, Musinga was freed from the fear that the Germans might try to replace him with another ruler. They faced a likely attack by far stronger British and Belgian forces massed in Uganda and the Congo; the Germans had to rely on Musinga to keep order within Rwanda and to guarantee their provisions. They sought to...

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7. Alliances That Bind -- and Divide, 1919-1922: Belgian Rule and the Court

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pp. 157-183

In the atmosphere of superficial cordiality that followed the Belgian decision to restore power to the Court and notables, Musinga and his representatives agreed to participate in a referendum meant to ascertain their preference of colonial administration. The Belgian Colonial Ministry organized the referendum in November 1918. As Woodrow Wilson’s...

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8. Divide and Rule, 1922-1925: Emerging Factions at the Court

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pp. 184-210

Through 1922 Musinga and Kanjogera continued to rule effectively and to hold the loyalty of most of the Court notables. But the concessions they had made to the Europeans and the defection of the Inshongore had unmistakably altered life at Court...

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9. The Rationalization of Power, 1925-1931: The Deposition of Musinga

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pp. 211-240

Greatly shaken by his loss of power in 1924 and 1925, Musinga sought immediately to regain the initiative against the Inshongore. He let it be known that Bandora would reopen the case against Kayondo, and he confidently predicted that this time he would win. Most of the notables still respected Musinga’s political skills, and they remembered too how...

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Editor's Epilogue

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pp. 241-246

Musinga left Nyanza on 14 November 1931. Passing through Nyantango and Bunyambiriri across the high crest of the Congo–Nile watershed, the caravan of some 700 people (including over 450 porters) took a week to arrive at Kamembe, a commercial center in the far southwestern corner of the kingdom. Located at the southern tip of Lake Kivu and...

Appendix: Rwandan Interviewees

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pp. 247-253


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pp. 255-287


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pp. 289-295


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pp. 297-306

E-ISBN-13: 9780299281434
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299281441

Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Rwanda -- History -- To 1962.
  • Rwanda -- Politics and government -- To 1962.
  • Yuhi V Musinga, Mwami of Rwanda, 1883-1944.
  • Rwanda -- Relations -- Europe.
  • Europe -- Relations -- Rwanda.
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