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1886: Twenty-two Uganda Martyrs

June 3rd, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1886, thirteen Catholic men and boys, as well as nine Anglican Christians, were burned alive in Buganda, a kingdom in modern-day Uganda. Most of them pages at the royal court, they had been martyred for their faith.

The kingdom of Buganda came in contact with Europeans in the 1860s; Arab traders had been doing business there a few decades before that. Christian missionaries arrived in Buganda in 1879. In the next few years many court officials converted.

King Muteesa I tolerated Muslims, Catholics and Protestants and played them off against other for political gain, but his sixteen-year-old son, Mwanga II, who ascended the throne in 1884, was a different story altogether. He saw Christianity as a serious threat to his authority and cracked down on its influence.

Mwanga expelled many missionaries ordered converts to renounce their faith on pain of death. He had James Hannington, the Anglican Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, executed in October 1885.

Between 1885 and 1887, Mwanga ordered the deaths of 45 Christian men (22 Catholics and 23 Anglicans). Collectively they are known as the Martyrs of Uganda. Most of them were young. (One of the boys who would die on this day was all of fourteen years old.)

Joseph Mukasa was the first of the Martyrs to die. A page and personal attendant to King Muteesa, he became majordomo after Mwanga took the throne, and had permission to criticize the king. He had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1882. Mukasa had strongly urged Mwanga to spare Bishop Hannington’s life.

For his pains, Mukasa was himself executed and his body burned only two weeks after Hannington. The chief page, Charles Lwanga, became majordomo in his place.

That very same day, Lwanga went and got himself baptized. He was a Catholic catechist, and he anticipated the cup he was about to quaff. The Dictionary of African Christian Biography records:

The following day, the king assembled all the pages and demanded under pain of death that they confess their Christian allegiance. All of them, Catholic and Anglican, except for three, did so. Mwanga was baffled by the solidarity and constancy of the young Christians, but hesitated to carry out his threat to kill them all. Several times in early December the king attempted to intimidate his pages, in spite of visits from the Catholic and Anglican missionaries. On one occasion, Lwanga exclaimed that, so far from helping the white men to take over the kingdom, he was ready to lay down his life for the king.

After the fire in the royal palace on February 22, 1886, Mwanga moved the court temporarily to his hunting lodge at Munyonyo on the shore of Lake Victoria. Here Lwanga continued to protect the pages … and to prepare them for possible martyrdom. By this time, Mwanga had obtained the consent of his chiefs for a massacre of the Christians. Meanwhile, Lwanga himself baptized five of the most promising catechumens. On May 26 … the pages entered the royal courtyard to receive judgement. Once again, they were called upon to confess their faith. This they did, declaring that they were ready to die rather than to deny it. Mwanga ordered them all, sixteen Catholics and ten Anglicans, to be burnt alive at Namugongo.

Several of the condemned were killed before the main event. The oldest, Matthias Kalema, aged about fifty, was dismembered alive and pieces of him were roasted before his eyes. He died slowly and horribly over the course of three days, finally expiring on May 30. Three others collapsed during the march to the execution site in Namugongo and were killed on the spot.

One of them, however, was inexplicably spared at the last possible moment. Denis Kamyuka was pulled away from the fire by some of the soldiers. It’s worth noting that Kamyuka appears to have been among the youngest of the group, around thirteen or fourteen; perhaps his executioners took pity on him for this reason. It is from his testimony that we know the details of what happened to his friends.

Everyone prayed and recited the catechism on the way to their deaths. Each of the pages were bound and wrapped up in reeds before being placed alive in the bonfire. The exception was Mbaaga Tuzinde, the son of the chief executioner; his father, who had pleaded for him to renounce his religion and offered to hide him, ordered that he be clubbed to death before being put into the flames.

Charles Lwanga, their leader, was burned separately from the others and was allowed to arrange his own pyre. As the executioners taunted him he said, “It is as if you are pouring water on me.”

In 1888, Christian and Muslim converts deposed King Mwanga in a British-backed uprising and put his brother on the throne in his place. Mwanga got his crown back in 1889 after he agreed to turn partial control of Buganda to the British East Africa Company. In 1897, however, he declared war on the British and attacked them. Trounced within weeks, Mwanga fled the country and was deposed in absentia. He returned with an army, but was defeated again, this time for good, and exiled to the Seychelles. In the final years of his short life he converted to Anglicanism. He died in 1903, aged 35.

The 22 Catholic converts who were martyred in Uganda during Mwanga II’s reign were beatified in 1920. Denis Kamyuka was present at the ceremony.

The site where the Uganda Martyrs were burned is now a holy shrine, a 33-acre site marked by a distinctive conical building. Every year on this date, pilgrims come there to commemorate Uganda Martyrs Day.


Re-creation of the burning on-site at the shrine. (cc) image from Christian von Schack.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Politicians,Religious Figures,Uganda

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2 Responses to “1886: Twenty-two Uganda Martyrs”

  1. 1
    JCF Says:

    The tragic 21st century legacy of this 19th century horror: because the murderous King Mwanga used male-on-male rape as part of his arsenal of torture, the story of the Martyrs of Uganda has been drafted into *violent* anti-gay prejudice in the present. Hence the continually revived “Kill the Gays” bill in the Ugandan legislature. Hence the murder of LGBT leader David Kato. Tragedy upon tragedy! Uganda needs peace and justice for ALL its citizens.

  2. 2
    Meaghan Says:

    I was aware of King Mwanga’s sexual exploitation of his pages, but decided not to include it in the entry. It wasn’t strictly relevant to the story, and I didn’t want readers to think I was trying to imply the horrific actions on this day had anything to do with his gayness. I saw some accounts describe Mwanga as a “pedophile” but he was the same age as most of the boys he was abusing.

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