The Uganda Martyrs are a group of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts to Christianity in the historical kingdom of Buganda, now part of Uganda, who were executed between 31 January 1885 and 27 January 1887.
They were killed on orders of Mwanga II, the Kabaka (King) of Buganda. The deaths took place at a time when there was a three-way religious struggle for political influence at the Buganda royal court. The episode also occurred against the backdrop of the “Scramble for Africa” – the invasion, occupation, division, colonization and annexation of African territory by European powers. A few years after, 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 beautified the 22 Catholic 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 Alexander Mackay of the Anglican Church Missionary Society to Buganda in 1877. A group of French Catholic White Fathers, led by Fr. Père Simon Lourdel (Fr. Mapera) appeared two years later.
Arab traders from Zanzibar had introduced Islam into the kingdom. This effectively led to a three-way religious struggle for political influence at the Buganda royal court. By the mid-1880s, many had been converted by each of the three groups, and some of the converts held important posts at the king’s court. Muteesa himself sympathized with Islam, but many prominent chiefs had become Christians.
Kabaka Mwanga II succeeded to the throne in 1884. He was concerned at the growing influence of Christianity and the rise of a new class of officials, distinct from the traditional territorial chiefs, who were educated, had a religious orientation, and wished to reform Ganda society. The German annexation of what is now Tanzania sparked further alarm. A year after becoming king he ordered the execution of Yusufu Rugarama, Makko Kakumba, and Nuwa/Noah Serwanga, who had converted to Christianity. Encouraged by his prime minister, on 29 October 1885 he had the incoming Anglican bishop James Hannington assassinated on the eastern border of his kingdom. This may have been deliberately intended to ward-off a potential British invasion. Mwanga did, however, subsequently appoint several Christians to important military positions.
In 1886 Mwanga ordered the executions of a number of his pages. Heike Behrend says they were both Christian and Muslim converts; other sources speak only of Anglican and Catholic victims, and mention the killing of Muslims as having occurred ten years earlier at the hands of Mwanga’s father Muteesa.
Joseph Mukasa, a convert to Christianity who had deplored the assassination of Hannington, and had tried to protect the court pages, was the first to be executed on 15 November 1885. This was at the instigation of the Katikkiro (prime minister) Mukasa, whose successor Joseph Mukasa was tipped to become king. Then, between 25 May and 3 June 1886, a wider series of executions were carried out. Mwanga instructed the killing of all the young men who disobeyed him – partly to satisfy the demands of the older chiefs. Twenty-two of the men, who had converted to Catholicism, were burned alive at Namugongo in 1886.
“The reasons behind the persecution are still heavily debated,| Behrend stated. Political factors certainly played a part. Those killed included minor chiefs, some of whom, such as Joseph Mukasa, were “the victims of particular grudges by their seniors … jealous that these up and coming young men would soon be ousting them from power”.
Ward has argued that the motivation was the perception that “these Christians were rebels against the Kabaka, unwitting tools of foreign imperialism”. When you read and re-read the history hovering over ‘Uganda Martyrs’ in regard to their ‘bigheadedness against a reigning king then, does it ring a bell to you that the same Bible teaches about the fact that leaders are God chosen and sent to on earth to administer on his behalf? So by rebelling against Kabaka Mwanga and their subsequent killings, did Kabaka Mwanga kill Saints/Martyrs or hooligans? Your answer is as good as mine…
The writer is Founding Speaker/Chairman –The Pan-African Pyramid
He can be reached on 0757-342317 or firstname.lastname@example.org