Every year, on June 3, Christians from different parts of the world make their way to two shrines in Namugongo, some 15 kilometres east of Kampala city.
The shrines are commemorative grounds for the Uganda Martyrs — Catholic and Anglican Christian converts who were killed at the orders of Kabaka Danieri Basammula-Ekkere Mwanga Mukasa II between November 1885 and January 1887.
A martyr is someone who voluntarily suffers death as penalty for professing to and refusing to deny religion.
Reconstructing the history of the events and circumstances under which the martyrs lost their lives leads this journalist to Mapeera Nabulagala Catholic Parish at St John the Baptist church in Kasubi.
In his book Our Martyrs- A Golden Treasure, Rev Father Paul Gyaviira Muwanga writes that at this memorial church is also the final resting place of four out of the five catholic missionaries who first came to Uganda.
“It (the church) was built in 1939 during the time of Bishop Edward Michaud to mark 60 years since Catholicism arrived in Uganda,” he writes.
However, in a strange turn of events, J.F Faupel in his book, African Holocaust- the Story of the Uganda Martyrs writes that Mwanga took power, changing the relationship between Buganda and the missionaries. He notes that the young king lacked the character his father Kabaka Mutesa, who invited the missionaries, had. He undid what his father had initiated. He chased the missionaries.
Father John Mukasa Muwonge, a priest at Namugongo shrine and a respected historian on matters to do with the Uganda Martyrs says the first Christians to be executed were Noah Sserwanga, Joseph Lugalama and Mark Kakumba. These were killed on January 31, 1885 at Mpiimeerebera execution site in Busega. There is a church at the spot where they were killed.
Varying reasons for the killings
The parish priest of St John the Baptist, Kasubi, Father John Ssajjalyabene claims these executions emanated from Mwanga being a paedophile who used these pages as sexual partners.
“He wanted to use and spoil these children. The children had learnt Christian values and told him this was wrong and as such rejected his advances. He decided to banish them and burn them,” the priest explains.
“Mwanga lacked the balance and judgement possessed by his father. He was merely a boy, still in his teens, brought up without discipline and surrounded by evil counsellors who, taking full advantage of the Kabaka’s youth and gullibility, launched an intensive campaign of vilification against the missionaries,” Faupel describes Mwanga highlighting part of the reason that could have shaped his ideas on banishing and killing the Uganda Martyrs.
Gertrude Ssekabira in her book, Blood Ashes Martyrs: The Seed of the Gospel adds, “The storm of persecution reached its climax in the reign of King Mwanga. The new king, Mwanga, had all the barbaric vices of his father King Mutesa but missed out his good qualities.
A vain and vicious young man of eighteen, who despised the Christian followers of Mackay and longed to display his power. When his palace burned down one day, he put the blame on the Christians and began to persecute them.”
Ben Tenywa and Emmanuel Obong in their visual documentary titled The Heroes of June-Detailed story about the Uganda Martyrs, explain that the fire was not started by the Christian but by lighting from the skies. Mwanga only needed a reason to persecute the young believers. Already, these pages were beginning to make it known to Kabaka Mwanga that there was a greater king above him. The Christian converts told the king that he was just their brother and that he had no power to take life.
“The king was not to be questioned. The king consulted with his advisors and chiefs after realising the pages were no longer loyal to him. The chiefs recommended for their killings. The king could get more pages,” Tenywa narrates.
“They neglected their duties and spent most of the time attending religious instruction which did not go well with the king whose authority was not to be questioned,” George Mulumba Ssalongo, caretaker of Kasubi Royal Tombs explains.
The age aside Kabaka Mwanga, as Matthew Kabaale writes in Pilgrim’s Guide to the Uganda Martyrs’ Shrine, felt that his original religion of the traditional religion Lubale, was being altered by the advent of Christianity.
However, Brother Tarcis Nsobya Munnakaroli, a researcher concerning Uganda Martyrs, in his book The African Heroes notes that when the Catholic Missionaries left this country on November 8, 1882 they abandoned their flock of 20 baptised and 300 catechumens.
“The Martyrs and the first Christians had a lot of problems in practising their religion. Those living in Munyonyo palace had to go to Nalukolongo a number of times at night under cover of darkness for religious instruction, reception of sacraments and mass,” Bro. Nsobya writes.
In October of 1885 Bishop James Hannington was murdered in Busoga on his way to Buganda on orders of Kabaka Mwanga. Balikuddembe, who was the head of the Catholic group was not happy with the murder and condemned Mwanga for it. This did not go down well with the king and had Bbalikuddembe arrested and killed on November 15, 1885.
After the killings
Filmmaker Hajji Ashraf Ssimogerere who made a movie about the Uganda Martyrs and says that not all martyrs were killed. One survivor was Hajji Abdul Aziz Nsubuga Bulwadda who was Kabaka Mwanga’s Swahili interpreter.
His grandson Hassan Bulwadda says that his grandfather was the only survivor of the Uganda Martyrs. “The only reason he was saved was because chief prosecutor Mukajjanga was his uncle,” he adds.
If Mwanga thought killing the converts would end his problems, he was wrong.
It was only the beginning. On August 27, 1894, Mwanga signed a treaty for the kingdom of Buganda to become a British Protectorate. Three years later he changed his mind and declared war on the British and launched an attack. He was defeated and fled to Tanzania where he was arrested and interned at Bukoba.
Unsatisfied he made a comeback and attacked the British protectorate. He was captured and in April 1899 was exiled to the Seychelles where he was reformed, baptised into the Anglican Church thus getting the name Danieri (Daniel). He died in 1903, aged 35 years. In 1910 his remains were repatriated and buried at Kasubi. It is hardly a month to another celebration to remember the martyrs and this year Christians celebrate 50 years since Pope Paul VI canonised 22 catholic martyrs on October 18, 1964.
About the church
St John the Baptist Church, Kasubi is a historical fixture as the point where the first martyrs were baptised. Parish priest Father John Ssajjalyabene Miiro says the first martyrs to be baptised were Joseph Balikuddembe born of a Mutoro mother and Muganda father, Matia Mulumba (from Jinja), Anderea Kaggwa from Bunyoro and Lukka Banabakintu from central Uganda.
The church is commemoratively a burial ground for the four martyrs and the priest at the time. On the same spot, Fr Ssajjalyabene adds, is where the first Catholic missionaries Father Siméon Lourdel and Brother Amans Delmas settled, when they arrived on March 7, 1879. “The land of approximately two miles was offered by Kabaka Mutesa,” he adds.
The series on the Uganda Martyrs will continue next week.