In any story, a witness is the best source. They give first-hand information that is usually accurate. It has been more than 133 years since the Uganda martyrs were executed.
The judge who ordered for their brutal execution, many of them at Namugongo on June 3, 1886, was Mwanga II, king of Buganda Kingdom. Namugongo had always been one of the “execution shrines” of Buganda Kingdom. At the time more than 40 martyrs were executed, most of the White missionaries had been expelled from Buganda by Mwanga and fled to Ssese Islands on Lake Victoria. Mwanga was furious because they had spread Christianity that was making his subjects disobey him and ignored traditional beliefs.
Execution survivor speaks
In 1935, a Catholic priest, the Rev Fr JL Ddiba, 43, authored a book: “Eddini mu Uganda” meaning religion in Uganda. The priest interviewed several Ugandans who witnessed history unveil. The witnesses included mothers, brothers, sisters, other relatives, colleagues as well as survivors of the June 3, 1886 Namugongo massacre, among others.
However, of all the most prominent witness was Denis Kamyuka. Kamyuka and two others, Semeo Ssebuta and Karoli (Charles) Welabe were on June 3, 1886 miraculously spared by Mukajjanga, the Buganda kingdom chief executioner during the Namugongo execution. Kamyuka told the priest that he was aged about 12.
He narrated that the trio was arrested on May 26, 1886 with Martyrs Karoli (Charles) Lwanga, Kizito, Mbagatuzinde, Bruno Serunkuma, Yakobo Bazabalyawo, Ambrose Kibuuka, Mugagga and Gyavira. Others were Akileo Kiwanuka, Aldolf Ludigo Mukasa, Anatoli Kiriggwajjo, Athanasio Bazekuketta and Gonzaga Gonza.
They had been arrested from different places and taken to Ettambiro (shrine) at Namugongo, north of Kampala city in Wakiso District.
“On the night of June 2, 1886, the Abambowa, Kabaka’s special guards, spent it tormenting and ridiculing us,” Kamyuka told Fr Dbiba. He went on: “In the morning, the Abambowa, got us from the Nvuba prison where we had been put since our arrest. We were tied arms behind and assembled in the Mukajjanga’s compound. As were being taken to Mukajjanga’s compound, the Bambowa were tormenting us. They yelled: “today parents will cry. Today, the world will smell evvumbe”
When they reached Mukajjanga’s compound, they met other colleagues, who had been arrested from elsewhere. They were overjoyed. Kamyuka narrated: “We greeted each other. “Otyano? Olutaro lwaffe lwe twalindirira lutuse. Translated as: “How are you? The war we have been waiting for has come,” and he goes on: “As we greeted each other, we said: Munnafe ogumye webale! Oluwangundde, Yezu Kristu akutegedde akusimye, Kulika” meaning: “Comrade, You have succeeded, Jesus Christ has understood, appreciated, thank you”
They had been undressed by the Bambowa to humiliate them. As they were going to the execution spot, they met Mr Ssenkobe, the head of the Kabaka guards. Mr Ssenkobe hit hard every prisoner on the head with his big walking stick. This was a ritual performed by the Chief Mumbowa when a person was about to be executed. This was done to symbolise that it was not the Kabaka who had killed you but the Mumbowa.
Kamyuka also recounts: “Senkobe hit all the rest except the three of us: Denis Kamyuka, Simeo Ssebuta, Karoli and (Charles) Welabe”.
While there, they were given local beer to drink. According to Kamyuka, in Buganda, whoever was about to be executed would be given beer to drink. But he does not mention why that was so. The Chief Mumbowa ordered that they be tied by the legs and laid down facing the sky.
Although Kamyuka, Sebuta and Welabe were still tied arms behind, their legs were not tied such as others. This was on the orders of Mukajjanga – but were seated adjacent watching everything. Then Balikuddembe told the trio that the fact they were not hit on the head, meant that they were not going to be executed. He urged the trio to join them. Mukajjanga ordered that some of them be dismembered. Indeed, they cut them into pieces. None cried in spite of the pain. Instead, they were jubilating which stunned their tormentors.
It had been decided that they would be killed in the most heinous manner. And so, some were to be burnt alive. Earlier, loads of firewood had been collected. A mountain of firewood was heaped on each individual dead or alive on the orders of the chief executioner. Moments later, Mukajjanga ordered, Nnavuluba, a bully Mumbowa to set fire about mid-day, according to Kamyuka’s account.
The trio escapes death, sent to prison
When Mukajjanga had finished the execution, he turned to Kamyuka, Sebuta and Welabe, who were still seated hands tied behind. “Kati mwe muboneradde” translated as: “You, you have learnt”. Kamyuka remembered the chief executioner’s stern warning. Unfortunately, the interviewer did not question Kamyuka what was ringing in his mind especially when Mukajjanga ordered that the trio be taken to his home in Butowards Bweyogerere or when they were sent to prison the following day.
The three spent a night at the home of Mukajjanga. “The following day, we were taken to Kibuga, [Buganda’s capital] and put in prison where we spent a year before we were released. Semeo Sebuta and I were released on June 4, 1887 while Karoli Webale was released on September 3, 1887,” Kamyuka narrates his ordeal. Webale was set free with two other believers, Noe Batulekeddeki and Joseph Nsingirisa, who also survived the Namugongo execution.
From records available, Walabe was killed on April 29, 1889 in the battle during the war to bring back Kabaka Mwanga to the throne. While in 1891 Sebuta abandoned the Catholic Church and joined Malaki, a new faith. The new sect had been founded in 1913 by a Muganda, Joshua Kkate Mugema, a county chief. The sect was named after their chief apostle Malaki Musajjakawa, a former Protestant school teacher.
In 1926, Sebuta passed on. The Catholic priests had tried in vain to bring him back to their faith. Daily Monitor was not able to establish when Kamyuka died.
Martyrs refused to flee
If the Uganda Martyrs had wanted, they would have fled Buganda territory. They could have gone to exile in any other part of Uganda as many Baganda did whenever persecuted. They could have as well escaped and followed missionaries to Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria – although it would never have been easy.
They knew in advance of the plot to execute them. They had received good intelligence from Kabaka Mwanga’s palace about the plan to murder them. One of them, Balikuddembe, who was a [major-domo] in the palace had gathered good intelligence and shared it with some of his fellow Christians. But even then after discussing what would seem to be a dangerous situation, they unanimously resolved to die for their faith than revert to the traditional religion or flee to exile.
The Munno newspaper of July 1923, page 112, quotes Jemusi Miti Kaggo of Bunyoro as one of the many witnesses, who affirmed that it was Balikuddembe, who had also confided in Reverend Alexander Mackey, a Protestant missionary, about Mwanga’s plot to murder Baganda Christians and their European preachers. And that is how the European missionaries decided to flee to Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria.
The long journey to Martyrs Day
Execution orders. On June 3, 1886, Kabaka Mwanga II of Buganda executed Uganda Martyrs in large numbers at Namugongo. The enraged king believed that by heinously murdering more than 40 Christian, he would intimidate and stop the spread of Christianity in his kingdom. The king and his henchmen especially Katikiro Mukasa, were wrong.
On the contrary, the execution of the martyrs led to steady and firm increase in Christianity. Today, more than 133 years since the execution of the martyrs, the number of Christian pilgrims that throng to the Uganda Martyers Shrine Namugongo to witness the spot where martyrs were murdered and also pray has been increasing. Before Mwanga killed them, he had labelled them rebels. But 78 years later, in 1964, they were declared martyrs.
Interesting to note, by end of 1886, Christians especially Catholics had started making pilgrimages to places where the martyrs had been executed. They visited, most importantly Nakivubo, in Mengo, Kampala, Kiyinda in Mityana and Namugongo shrine. The pilgrims would pray to the martyrs to intercede for them. By 1887, word had reached the Vatican, Rome that miracles were happening to people especially in Uganda after they had prayed to the martyrs.
On August 14, 1912, Pope Pius X declared the Uganda Martyrs “Venerable”. This meant that the S.C [Sacred Congregation in Vatican] Rites had studied the report of the preliminary inquiry of 1888 and had agreed that the procedure –the process – could now be undertaken with a view to beatification.
The news was received with great joy by the church in Uganda, and special prayers of thanksgiving were offered in the mission stations.” This is documented on page 101 in the “So abundant a harvest” a book about the history Catholic faith in Uganda.
After the beatification of the Uganda Martyrs, in Rome, the Sacred Congregation directed Bishop Streicher in Uganda to set up an official tribunal in Uganda. Between 1913 and 1914, at least 120 witnesses had been interrogated – all of them contemporaries of the martyrs – many of whom themselves confessors to the catholic faith.
The records of the sessions of the tribunal formed voluminous reports about the miracles performed by the martyrs.
The report had originally been documented in Luganda and had to be translated into Latin before being sent to the Sacred Congregation of Rites in Vatican. It should be noted that because the First World War was ranging on, the documents could not be sent to Rome until 1916. After the Sacred Congregation had studied these reports and recognised their validity, in July 1917, the long process of beatification of the martyrs started. The beatification process took three years to conclude.
On February 10, 1920, the Sacred Congregation of Rites in Vatican voted in favour of the beatification of the martyrs. Three weeks later, at St Peter’s Basilica on June 6, 1920, the new Pope, Benedict XV granted the Decree of the Uganda Martyr beatification. Present at the Nun’s congregation.
Although people had been praying to the martyrs since 1886, it was in 1920 that permission was officially granted to honour the blessed martyrs publicly. In 1924, the Mill Hill Father acquired the land where the Namugongo shrine is build from a private owner and the first church was built. On June 3, 1975 was the official opening of the new martyrs’ shrine that stand today at Namugongo.
Speaking about the Blessed martyrs of Uganda, Pope Benedict XV mentioned why he had declared them the “venerables”. He said: “I wanted to give them to the Christian world as example of true strength of faith such as the world is much in need of. Most Christians may not have to face fire or sword, but they have to endure the insults and the mockery of the wicked and the impious.
The Christians of our own time may perhaps be satisfied to practice religion in private and ignore it in public.
The martyrs of Uganda showed a different spirit. May their example be of service to our children”
This was recorded in the book: “The Catholic Church in Uganda: Facts and Comments” by the French White Father, Y W F Tourigny, who had been in Uganda since the 1880’s. Earlier in 1934, Pope Pius XV had declared Blessed Charles Lwanga, special patron with God of the African Youth Movement of the catholic Action.
Declaration to martyrdom
Meanwhile, the process to martyrdom had been going since 1920. Bishops from Uganda had taken a very active part in the deliberation of the 2rd Vatican Council that was making the final verification of the reports about martyrs dating from 1888.
In 1964, Pope Paul VI, who had succeed Pope John XXIII in 1963, announced during the 3rd session that he would canonise the Blessed Uganda martyrs on a Mission Sunday.
This was after the miraculous cure of Sister Marie Aloyse Cribet and Sister Richildis Buck, both white Sisters, though the intercession of the Uganda martyrs had been recognised by the Sacred Congregation of Rites.
Ugandan Archbishop Joseph Kiwanuka was among the bishops, who signed the last petition for the canonisation during the preparatory sessions. On October 18, 1964, 22 Ugandans were declared martyrs at a function held at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
It is said more than 2,000 bishops from across the world and all other participants in the Vatican council were present as well as hundreds of pilgrims from Uganda and other parts of the world.