The Ssese Island were formed about 12000 years ago when a tectonic shift caused an elevated basin situated between two main arms of the great rift valley to flood during the last ice age, forming the present day Lake Victoria.
Little is known about the earliest inhabitants of Ssese, but some oral traditions associated with the creation of Buganda claim that its founder Kintu hailed from the islands of the Gods or atleast arrived in Buganda via them. The Baganda traditionally revere Ssese as the islands of Gods. In pre-colonial times it was customary for the kings of Buganda to visit the Islands and pay tribute to the several balubaale (Gods) whose main shrines are situated there. These include shrines to Musisi (Spirit of Earth Quake) and Wanema (Physical Handicaps) on Bukasa Island as well as the shrine to Mukasa, (spirit of the lake) on Bubembe Island. Some Buganda historical sources romanticize this relationship, claiming that in pre-colonial times Ssese due to its exalted status was never attacked by Buganda, nor was it formally incorporated into the mainland kingdom. In reality, while Ssese probably did enjoy a degree of autonomy, it was clearly a vassal of Buganda for at least a century prior to the colonial era. Furthermore, while the Baganda revered the Islands’ spirits, Stanley recorded that they looked down on their human inhabitants for their “coal-black colour, timidity, superstition, and generally uncleanly life”.
The most popular legend associated with a goddess from Ssese islands dates from mid 16th century war, when Buganda, led by King (Kabaka) Nakibinge, was being overwhelmed in a war against Bunyoro. Nakibinge visited the Islands in search of support, and was offered the assistance of the local king’s youngest son, Kibuuka, who leaped to the mainland in one mighty bound to join the war against Bunyoro. Tall and powerful though, Kibuuka-which means the flier-was also possessed of a somewhat more singular fighting skill. A goddess in human form, he was able to fly high above the clouds and shower down spear on the enemy, who had no idea from where the deadly missiles emanated. Led by Kibuuka’s aerial attacks, rout followed rout, and the tide of war reversed swiftly in Nakibinge’s favour as the Baganda army proceeded deeper into Banyoro territory.
Although Buganda went on to win the war, Kibuuka did not survive to enjoy the spoils of the victory. After yet another successful battle, the Baganda soldiers captured several Banyoro maidens and gave one to kibuuka as his mistress. Kibuuka told the Munyoro girl his secret, only to find that she had vanished overnight. The next day, Kibuuka sailed up into the sky as normal, and was greeted by a barrage of Bunyoro spears and arrows projected up towards the clouds. Kibuuka fell wounded into a tall tree, where he was spotted the next morning by an elder who attempted to rescue the wounded fighter, but instead accidentally let him drop to the ground where he died on impact. The scrotum, testes, penis, and certain other body parts of the great Kibuuka – Ssese greatest warrior now regarded as the greatest Lubaale (Spirit) of war, were preserved in a shrine where his spirit could be called upon before important battles. The shrine which lies close to the Mpanga forest can still be visited today as can any other nearby shrine to Nakibinge, also revered as a goddess on account of his successful campaign against Bunyoro. The shrine to Kibuuka was desecrated by the British during the colonial era and the contents including his jawbone are on display in a museum in Cambridge.
The people of Ssese Islands played a more verifiable – albeit less overtly aggressive role in the Buganda Kingdom expansion during the second half of the 19th Century when Kabakas- Suuna and Muteesa regularly dispatched fleet of 300 plus fighting canoes across Lake Victoria to present day NW Tanzania. These military fleets comprise almost entire canoes built on Ssese Islands, which in comparison with the simple dugouts used on the mainland where highly confiscated designs constructed with several pieces of interlocking timber and boasted an extent pro that could be used to batter other boats.
British explorer John Speke described such fleet as follow;
Some 50 large (boats) all pained with red clay and averaged from 10-30 paddles with long prows standing out the make of a siphon or swan decorated on the head with horns of the Nsunnu (kob) antelope between was stuck upright a tuft of feathers exactly like a grenadier’s plume’. The Islanders were also more skilled as oarsmen and navigators than their landlubber Baganda neighbours, and although they played no role in the fighting, it was they who generally powered and directed the war fleets.
Early in the 20th century, Ssese islands was hit by sleeping sickness epidemic, which claimed thousands of lives annually forcing the original Bassese inhabitants flee. Over 25,000 islanders were relocated to the mainland. People slowly began to drift back in the 1980s, and it is largely due to the sleeping sickness epidemic that the island’s total population is estimated at 54,293 in 2014, according to UBOS and so much of the land remains uncultivated.
The Bassese, the islands' ancient inhabitants, the tribe still lives through subsistence fishing - and cutting forest firewood. During Idi Amin's bloody rule the Ssese had become a sanctuary for his terrified opponents, protected by the islands' remoteness and Amin's apparent antipathy to water.