The history of Uganda Martyrs

The history of Uganda Martyrs
The Uganda Martyrs Shrine (left) built at the spot where St. Charles Lwanga was burnt alive
The Uganda Martyrs Shrine (left) built at the spot where St. Charles Lwanga was burnt alive

The Uganda Martyrs are a group of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts to Christianity in the then historical kingdom of Buganda, now part of Uganda, who were executed between November 1885 and January 1887.

They were killed on orders of Mwanga II, the Kabaka (King) of Buganda Kingdom, in Uganda. The deaths took place at a time when there was a three-way religious struggle for political influence at the Buganda royal court.

A few years later, the English Church Missionary Society used the deaths to enlist wider public support for the British acquisition of Uganda for the Empire. The Catholic Church beatified the martyrs of its faith in 1920 and canonized them in 1964.

Publication in Britain of an 1875 letter purporting to be an invitation from the king of Buganda, Muteesa I, to send missionaries, resulted in the arrival of missionaries of the Anglican Church Missionary Society to Buganda in 1877. A group of French Catholic White Fathers appeared two years later.

This was followed by a Zanzibar-based Arab attempt to introduce Islam in Uganda. This led to a three-way religious struggle for political influence at the Buganda royal court. By the mid-1880s, many members of the court had converted and become agents in the religious and political conflict being played out in the court.

Kabaka Mwanga II, upon his ascent to the throne at the age of 16, was concerned at the increasing role of priests and missionaries, which he felt threatened his power, attempted to destroy their influence.

Mwanga’s father had played off the three religions, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim, against each other and thus balanced the influence of the external powers that were backing each group in order to extend their reach into Africa.

Mwanga II took a much more aggressive approach, expelling missionaries and insisting that Christian converts abandon their faith or face death. A year after becoming king he executed Yusufu Rugarama, Makko Kakumba, and Nuwa Serwanga, who had converted to Christianity.

On 29 October 1885, he had the incoming Anglican archbishop James Hannington assassinated on the eastern border of his kingdom.

For Mwanga, the ultimate humiliation was the insolence he received from the (male) pages of his court in resisting his sexual advances. According to old tradition the king was the centre of power and authority and could dispense with any life as he felt.

It was unheard of for mere pages to reject the wishes of a king. Given those conflicting values Mwanga was determined to rid his kingdom of the new teaching and its followers.

Mwanga therefore precipitated a showdown in May 1886 by ordering converts in his court to choose between their new faith, and complete obedience to his orders and sexual desires.

A summary of the event published on Gay Star News explains: “It is documented that King Mwanga II had many young men in his palace and was sodomizing them at his will.

On their conversion to Christianity, they started denying Mwanga the usual ‘pleasure’ he used to get from them. He instructed the killing of all the young men who disobeyed him. The murdered young men were considered martyrs because they resolved to die for their new religion rather than surrendering their bodies to the king.”

In total at least forty-five Catholic and Protestant neophytes went to their deaths; although the actual number is likely to be higher.

Twenty-two of the men, who had converted to Catholicism, were burned alive at Namugongo in 1886 and later became known as the Uganda Martyrs. Among those executed were two Christians who held the court position of Master of the Pages, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe and Charles Lwanga.

They had repeatedly defied the king by rescuing royal pages in their care from sexual exploitation by Mwanga which they believed contrary to Christian teaching

Loading spinner

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

97 − = 96

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.