On the 3 June we remember the Martyrs of Uganda (1885-7 and 1977) and it is one of the ‘Lesser Festivals’ in the Church of England calendar.
Uganda has a special place in my heart, given that I made several visits with the charity Just Care, alongside serving as a trustee, I also helped to build schools and orphanages etc., for the community of Kamutuuza in West Buganda, 70 miles west of Kampala. I also led two teams from churches I have served in and led a couple of Schools of Theology for clergy and diocesan staff.
The story of the Ugandan Martyrs (or the African Martyrs) is not particularly well known, but in Africa the martyrs are an important part of the Anglican (and Catholic) tradition.
The arrival of the Christian missionaries, Anglican and Catholic, set the stage for new developments, and marked a turning point in the religious life of the people of Buganda; as well as the political structure of the kingdom and the region at large.
The history of Buganda from this point on took a different turn. A social revolution that was to transform all aspects of people’s lives had set in, and the events that followed, unpredictable as they were, added to the discomfort the new changes had brought about. The untimely death of Mutesa I in 1884 just a few years after the arrival of the missionaries, left the kingdom in the hands of Mwanga II, a youth whose ruling style fell far short of the charisma and political astuteness his late father had demonstrated in dealing with the foreigners.
Mutesa had the astuteness and maturity of dealing with conflicting forces that struggled to influence his court. The Arabs (the Muslims), the Catholics (the French or Bafaransa as they were locally called) or the Protestants (the English or Bangereza) operated, of course not without constraint, with some minimal success during his reign. He let his subjects of all ranks to join any creed of their choice. The Muslims, having seen the Christian missionaries’ efforts to convert the local people also started to teach Islam. There was a competitive struggle among the preachers of the new creeds each attempting to assert more influence and recognition among the most influential officials in the inner circle of the king’s court. The king himself never committed to any single creed. The Muslims denounced him for his refusal to be circumcised, and he could not be baptized in the Christian denominations because he did not want to give up polygamy. He died still a traditionalist.
The Christian religion was received with much excitement by the converts but it came with its own requirements. It denounced all the native religious behaviour and practices as heathen and ungodly. Therefore joining it meant a commitment to break away from the old life style, make and adopt new alliances, and adjust to new moral and religious standards, adherence and allegiance. The new flock of believers (abasomi, as they were called) were regarded as ‘rebels’ who had transferred their loyalty to new religious systems thus abandoning the old tribal traditions.
Although Mwanga had shown some love for the missionaries as a young prince, his attitude changed when he became king. The once lively and enthusiastic prince in support of the missionaries turned into an intolerant and vicious persecutor of Christians and all foreigners. He felt, with good cause, that the powers and authority his predecessors had enjoyed were dwindling, and had disintegrated under the influence of the missionaries and their converts. The converts had diverted their loyalty to some other authority and their allegiance at all costs could no longer be counted on. For Mwanga, the ultimate humiliation was the insolence he received from the pages when they (the least subservient of servants) resisted his advances.
According to old tradition the king was the centre of power and authority, and he could dispense with any life as he felt, hence the old saying Namunswa alya kunswaze (the queen ant feeds on her subjects). Although homosexuality was abhorred among the Baganda, 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.
It was hardly a year after Mwanga’s assumption of the throne that he ordered the execution of Yusufu (Joseph) Rugarama, Makko (Mark) Kakumba, and Nuwa (Noah) Serwanga the first three Christian martyrs, who were killed at Busega Natete on January 31, 1885. In October of 1885 the Anglican Bishop James Hannington recently dispatched to head the Eastern Equatorial Africa, headquartered in Buganda, was murdered in Busoga on his way to Buganda. Mwanga had ordered his death. Hannington’s crime was to attempt to come to Buganda through Busoga, a shorter route than that employed by earlier visitors who took the route from south of lake Victoria. Buganda’s kings regarded Busoga as a backdoor to Buganda and thought that any one coming through the backdoor must have evil intentions towards the kingdom.
Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, a senior advisor to the king and a Catholic convert, condemned Mwanga for ordering Hannington’s death without giving him (Hannington) a chance to defend himself as was customary. Mwanga was annoyed that Mukasa would question his actions, and he had him arrested and killed. On Nov. 15 1885; Mukasa became the first Catholic martyr, when he was beheaded at Nakivubo. Between December of 1885 and May of 1886 many more converts were murdered. Mwanga precipitated a showdown in May by ordering the converts to choose between their new faith, and complete obedience to his orders. Those unwilling to renounce their new faith would be subject to death. Courageously, they chose their Christian faith.
The execution of twenty six Christians at Namugongo on June 3, 1886; was the climax of the campaign against the converts. The last person killed in this crusade, was Jean-Marie Muzeeyi, who was beheaded at Mengo on Jan 27, 1887. The list of forty five known Catholic and Protestant martyrs includes only those who could be formally accounted for, many more murders went unreported and without a record.
Efforts to curb the Christian influence and try to regain the traditional and customary powers and authorities over his subjects, Mwanga was adding more chaos to an already chaotic situation. In the north Kabarega (the king of Bunyoro Kitara a traditional arch enemy of Buganda) was raging, fighting off the pending invasion from the Khedive of Egypt and for sure he never lost his intentions towards Buganda. Further south it was reported that the Germans were annexing territories in the regions of the present Tanzania, and Mwanga was caught in a threatening position. His suspicion of the missionaries was therefore real. Buganda also was experiencing internal strife, the Arabs were plotting to overthrow him and replace him with a Moslem prince. The political upheavals combined with religious instability constrained the country’s moral stamina. The kingdom was thrown into turmoil; Muslims fighting Christians, traditionalists plotting against all creeds, untimely alliances concocted to survive against a common foe and later unceremoniously discarded. The kingdom broke into civil strife during which Mwanga was briefly deposed, although he was able to regain his throne later.
Rather than deter the growth of Christianity, the martyrdom of these early believers seems to have sparked its growth instead. As has been observed in many other instances, the blood of the martyrs proved to be the seed of faith. Christianity (in its various flavours) is now the dominant faith in Buganda and Uganda as a whole. The 22 known Catholic martyrs were declared “Blessed” by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. This is one of the key steps in the catholic tradition that eventually leads to canonization. The 22 Catholic martyrs were indeed canonized by Pope Paul VI on October 18, 1964; during the Vatican II conference. Thus these martyrs were now recognised by the universal church as being worthy of being honoured as Saints. This was a first for modern Africa and a source of pride throughout the continent.
To honour these modern saints, Paul VI became the first reigning pope to visit sub-Saharan Africa when he visited Uganda in July 1969; a visit which included a pilgrimage to the site of the martyrdom at Namugongo. He also dedicated a site for the building of a shrine church in honour of the martyrs, at the spot where Charles Lwanga was killed. The shrine church itself (shown above), was dedicated in 1975 and it was subsequently named a basilica church, a high honour in Catholicism. Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, also came on pilgrimage in January 1984. Pope John Paul II in turn honoured the martyrs with his own pilgrimage in February 1993. Every year, June 3rd, when most of the martyrs were killed, is marked as a national holiday in Uganda. It is also marked worldwide on the church calendar as a day to honour the Uganda Martyrs.
On this day, we remember also those martyred during General Idi Amin’s reign of terror — not least Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was murdered in 1977. Luwum was once an assistant curate in Bushbury, near Wolverhampton, and was identified then as a future leader of his Church at home. An eyewitness at the Archbishop’s trial at the Nile Mansions Hotel, Kampala, likened it to the trial of Jesus: the thousands of soldiers were chanting not “Crucify him! Crucify him!” but “Firing squad! Firing squad!”
Leslie Brown, the first Archbishop of the Province of Uganda, told the story how, on the Sunday after Archbishop Luwum’s murder, a grave had been dug for him, appropriately next to that of the martyred Bishop Hannington. The authorities, however, refused to hand over his body. A great crowd filled the cathedral, and, at the end of their eucharist, filed out to gather around the empty grave and sing Easter hymns.
Now, Luwum’s statue stands as one of ten modern martyrs on the west front of Westminster Abbey.
Thanking God for their witness, we pray for all those persecuted for their faith and those who continue to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ in the most difficult circumstances.
by whose providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church:
Grant that we who remember before you the blessed martyrs of Uganda,
may, like them, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ,
to whom they gave obedience, even unto death, and by their sacrifice brought forth a plentiful harvest;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.