The story of the Uganda martyrs is said to have started in January 1885 when members of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) asked the king for permission to leave as they were going to Kagei in Tanzania to have some letters sent back home.
They were officially seen off by the kingdom, with Katikkiro (Buganda’s prime minister) Mukasa presenting Alexander Mackay with gifts such as foodstuff to be used during the journey.
On January 30, 1885, Mackay, Robert P. Ashe and three native boys as their helpers set off for the journey to Kagei from the mission house in Busega. Three hour’s into the journey, they were attacked and ordered back to where they had come from without explanation.
Upon reaching near the CMS mission house where the Anglican martyrs’ church in Natete is today, the missionaries were released and their two servants taken away.
Mackay and Ashe went to see the prime minister and to seek an explanation as to why they had been forced back. Unfortunately, the prime minister was indifferent to their inquiries.
To get his attention, they sent him gifts hoping they would soften his heart. But the gifts were rejected.
On January 31, 1885, the three teenage boys who were with the two missionaries – Mark Kakumba, 16, Joseph Lugalama, 12, and Noah Serwanga, 19 – were killed at present-day Busega Anglican Martyr’s Church.
Their executioner, Mudalasi, a Muslim, first asked them if they admitted being followers of Jesus Christ before burning them.
Mudalasi went on to ask the boys if they believed they would resurrect if they died. Their answers angered him and he threatened to burn them. But they never relented in their resolve.
Serwanga was the first Ugandan to shed blood for his faith when he had his arms cut off before being thrown in the fire. Kakumba suffered the same fate.
However, when it came to the turn of 12-year-old Lugalama, the only Munyankole martyr, he pleaded, saying: “Please do not cut off my arms. I will not struggle; only throw me in the fire.”
Months after the killings in Busega, news of a guest through Buganda’s back door reached Mwanga’s courts.
Having been warned of the dangers posed by such a guests to his kingdom, Mwanga ordered his execution. But he wanted the death of Bishop Hannington kept away from the missionaries.
Shortly after Hannington’s death, the royal court experienced some calamities which made Mwanga to think that Mackay and Ashe were bewitching him. First, he got an eye infection and before it could cure completely, his entire royal court was destroyed by fire when his gun powder box exploded.
He sought refuge at the prime minister’s house. But while there, lightning struck the house were the Katikkiro kept his gun powder. The hut caught fire and the entire homestead was burnt down. That was when he fled to Munyonyo where he was when he called for the massacre.
On the eve of sentencing the Christians to death, Mwanga returned from a failed hunting mission, only to find his pages away for Christian instructions. When they returned, he ordered the closure of the palace to prevent their escape.
While the others were being taken to Mengo that evening, two Anglican pages who had been condemned to death – Musa Mukasa and Muddu-aguma – were killed within Mukasa’s shrine at Mulungu.
The rest of the condemned were taken to Namugongo at the place officially gazetted by Kabaka Kyabagu, Buganda’s 26th king, in 1760 as a place for executing royals, palace chiefs and officials deemed to be a threat to the throne.
The killing site, now known as Nakiyanja in Namugongo, had some permanent features. These included the holding cell where the condemned where kept as they awaiting their death, the pyre where the people were burnt to death, and the torture tree known as Nndazabazade.
The torture tree was where parents of the victims would see their children for the last time. They would then sit under a tree, watch and say, “Nndazabazade zilabye nolumwa ga ozaala ate n’olaba omwanawo ga akaaba nga bamutta.” (The plight of a woman’s womb; it’s through pain that she gives birth and she also sees her child crying being killed)
With all the preparations done, on June 3, 1886, the executioners prepared by smearing themselves with red ochre and soot, wore amulets and bells around their arms and ankles, wore a leopard skin, head gears made out of animal skins, and birds feathers.
The victims were marched from Mukaajanga’s home to the execution site in one file. As they moved, each was tapped once on the head, a ritual to prevent the dead person’s ghost from seeking revenge on the king.
It was here that all the martyrs, both Catholics and Anglicans, save for Charles Lwanga, were burnt.
Lwanga was killed separately for two reasons: As part of the cleansing ritual, the deputy chief execution had to pick any one of the condemned people and kill that person from a different spot other than the official pyre.
Senkole, the deputy of Mukaajanga, had misunderstandings with Lwanga from the time he was the overseer of the digging of Kabaka’s Lake. Senkole pulled Lwanga out and killed him where the Catholic shrine is.
According to the head of the devotion to the cause of the martyrs at Namugongo Shrine, Fr Muwonge, “had it not been for Senkole to kill Charles Lwanga away from the rest, I don’t know where our (Catholic) shrine would be.”
Those who reached Nakiyanja included Naoh Walukaga, Alexander Kadoogo, Freddrick Kizza, Robert Munyagabyanjo, Daniel Nkabandwa, Kiwanuka Giyaza, Mukasa Lwakisiga, Lwango, Mubi-azzalwa, Wasswa, Kwabafu, Kifamunyanja and Muwanga Njigija.
At Nakiyanja, they were wrapped in mats made of reeds and horizontally laid on the prepared pyre. It was set on fire and the martyrs burnt from their feet as the fire consumed them upwards.
Other execution sites for the Anglican martyrs were Busega, Namanve, Mityana, Munyonyo and Mengo.
In total, there are 23 Anglican martyrs. However, unlike their Catholic counterparts they were not canonised.