Chapter 4: The Martyrs of Uganda (1885-1887) by R. Sashikaba
The work of the martyrs of Uganda interests me because, firstly, Christian witness in Uganda is a typical example for the Africans who uphold and keep their faith for God. Secondly, it is the very place where, in 1976, the Idi Amin Government was recognized internationally as a lawless regime, where Christians were killed in large numbers, since 1971 figuring around 400,000. They were killed on charge of plotting against the country without any truth or basis. This paper concentrates on the martyrs during the period 1885-1887.
Social and Political Background
Uganda is a British protectorate in Central Africa, lying at the northern end of lake Victoria in Wyomza region of Kenya. A hundred years ago, Uganda was known as Buganda. The country was first visited by Henry M. Stanley, who in 1875, sent word to England that king Mtisa of Uganda was anxious to have missionaries sent there. In 1877 the mission in Uganda was started by CMS and, in 1879, the Roman Catholics arrived in the land.
However, when the Christian missions were being planted in Uganda the colonial division in Africa occurred at the same time identifying missionaries as White conquerors.
Persecutions began during the time of king Mwanga the son of Mtisa who in the beginning loved the missionaries. King Mwanga was addressed as ‘Lebo Kabaka’ -- ‘my Lord, the king’ and the king’s minister was called katikiro.
In 1878 five missionaries came to Uganda. After their arrival they ransomed slave children and started an orphanage which was to be the nucleus of future Christianity but they were disappointed by the poor response from the people. At the same time the children were very difficult to handle. So, in October 1882 the fathers left the field but in spite of that a few converts left behind did not abandon their faith but instead won other young people over to Christianity.
When Mwanga became king he asked the fathers to return but it was only after three years that they had returned and there was great joy for the praying ones as they were called to return.
Reasons for Persecution
The Christians increased in number and were staunch in their faith. They refused to accept all their traditional customs and so they were accused of destroying their traditional order. They refused to offer sacrifices to the tribal gods. They even refused to kill their enemies and take them as prisoners of war. They led an upright and honest life. Mwanga felt threatened that the Christian faith might bring down the wrath of the ancestors on the kingdom. However, the Christians though faithful to Mwanga did not obey him in one area, that was when the king commanded them to commit acts contrary to the law of God, they refused and instead prayed and listened to the Word of God. Mwanga had the habit of homosexuality and his subjects and servants were his victims but the Christians resisted him courageously.
The more serious plan of Mwanga was when he learned from the local traditional forecast about the arrival of an invader from the East who would ‘devour’ Buganda. To this he reacted with force by treating the Protestant native Christians with great cruelty He murdered the Anglican Bishop Harrington and he shifted his target to his pages.
The Cause of Martyrdom
Joseph Mukasa was the first person to be martyred. He was the chief katikiro and he was called the ‘Balikuddembe’ -- a man of peace. Joseph Mukasa was martyred as he was against the evil works of Mwanga in spite of being aware of the fact that the consequences would be the death penalty. He tried to save his colleagues from the practice of homosexuality and further he intervened when Mwanga ordered the missionaries, who were coming to Uganda to be killed. Mwanga thought that he would no longer find any obedient servant if Joseph Mukasa continued to teach his religion. Therefore he wanted to suppress him and his minister was also of the same opinion.
One day the king became sick and Joseph Mukasa gave him a dose of opium but the king became worse and he thought that Joseph was trying to poison him.
On the fateful day Joseph Mukasa was very calm and he knew what was going to happen since that morning Mwanga had sent him the body of a child. Mwanga’s minister had ordered the executioner to seize Joseph Mukasa. When Joseph Mukasa was brought before the king he was mocked by the king ‘now there will no longer be two kings’ and Joseph replied ‘I am going to die for God’. The king had ordered the executioner to burn Joseph, but Mukjanga, the executioner, loved Joseph and so he went about the execution slowly hoping that the king would change his mind.
The Manner of his Martyrdom
Joseph Mukasa went to his death like a free man. He refused to be bound. He said, ‘Why bind me? Do you think I shall flee? Flee where, to God? A Christian who gives his life for God is not afraid to die.’ The executioner took pity on him and before he was burnt alive, he cut off Joseph’s head. But before he died Joseph said to the executioner ‘tell Mwanga this -- I forgive him for killing me without cause, but he must change his life. Otherwise I shall speak against him at God’s tribunal.’ On hearing this, Mwanga killed a servant and mixed his ashes with Joseph’s so that he would not be recognized by anybody and talk against the king at God’s tribunal. Joseph was martyred on November 15, 1885, at the age of 26. He was the first Catholic to be martyred.
The Collective Martyrdom
On May 27 the martyrs arrived in Wamugengo. They were bound very tightly and shut up in huts in small groups. Forks were put around their necks and they were attached to the posts of the huts. But even in that situation, the eldest in the group encouraged them to be courageous saying, ‘do not be afraid, hold fast! We shall not die twice; our friends are already with our Lord, we shall soon be with them.’ When they were in prison they recalled the death of Jesus, His resurrection and ascension. They prayed without ceasing and called God our Father.
On June 2, 1886. in the evening they heard the sounds of tam-tam and the death chants but even then they were not scared but instead prayed for strength. Early in the morning when they were released of their bonds and brought out, everybody was happy welcoming each other with joy, saying ‘how are you? The day of combat has at last arrived!’ This amazed the executioner who had said; ‘they are crazy, they seem to be going to a festival.’
Mbaga Tuzinde, the seventeen year old, son of the chief executioner, remained faithful to God, repeating the words ‘I am a Christian’ when his kinsfolk wanted to save him. On the day of the execution he arrived at the place at a run and joined the other martyrs. He was welcomed by his friends who said, ‘Bravo! Mbaga, you are brave. Thanks be to God’ Mbaga replied, ‘you have prayed for me, thank you.’
The Manner of the Martyrs
The hundred executioners had their faces painted black and red and with animal skin and martial head-dress, they danced and sang ‘today the kinsfolk of these children will weep’, but the praying ones were not afraid, saying ‘this is the place whence we shall go to see Jesus Christ. In one moment we shall see Him.’ The executioners were perplexed. They thought that these Christians were crazy.
The chief executioner gave a small gourd of banana to each person as was the custom, but no one would take it because they remembered Jesus. Their hands were tied behind their backs and their feet tied together and wrapped in bundles of reeds; they were put on a great pile of wood. Mukayanga tried to save Dani his kinsman but he refused to abandon his God. So he had him killed before rolling him in a bundle. And he went to Mbaga his son and Dani; "brother, my son, abandon your religion. The king will pardon you.’ Mbaga replied. ‘I want to die for God.’ ‘I will hide you.’ ‘No, they will find me. Kill me." Then his father said to him ‘go and be foolish elsewhere.’ He was killed before being put on the pile of wood. Mukayanga hid his face with a piece of cloth and wept because he had killed his son.
Among the praying ones three persons were pardoned by the king and so they were removed from the pile of wood before it was set on fire. The executioner placed one more heap of wood on top of them and lit the wood all around. The flame rose in a circle as over a burning hut but they only heard the mourning prayer of the martyrs who prayed till their last breath.
On January 27, 1887, Jean-Marie was beheaded in secret by the katikiro and his body was thrown into a pond. Jean-Marie was a friend of Joseph Mukasa and the page of king Mutha.
Firstly, unlike other martyrs we see that no trials were given to the Christian martyrs by the court, as in the case of Joseph Mukasa who was straight away ordered to be killed.
Secondly, the eschatological dimension of life was very prominent. The Christian hope after death was very strong in the mind of the martyrs.
Thirdly, can we justify the work of king Mwanga? Just because the colonizer had done wrong, the innocent missionaries were condemned to die.
Fourthly, here we see Christianity versus traditional religion. How can we interpret the gospel in such a situation without destroying their norms and ethos in the given situation?
Fifthly, their martyrdom was mainly because of the political threat to the king.
Sixthly, we see that the Christians stopped worshipping their ancestors which led to enmity between them and the Mwanga regime. But in my opinion, ancestor worship is still practiced in Christianity too. This was mainly because of the wrong teachings implanted by the missionaries.
Seventhly, the Uganda people and king Mwanga feared the wrath of God as they had an animistic philosophical idea of wrath from God if they displeased their pagan and tribal gods.
Finally, in the case of Joseph Mukasa and the martyrs -- their belief in God removed all fears. Thus their understanding of God was the ultimate.
The martyrs were crazy, indeed, they were crazy for God. Their faithfulness to God was so strong that they did not give in to human weaknesses. They never showed even the slightest sign of weakness but with courage and prayer on their lips they died. Their conviction in God was beyond explanation.
For our own Reflection
What motivated the martyrs to pray and sing even at the time of their martyrdom? What strength did they have ? Is their faith conviction reflective of their hope of life after death?
Chenu Bruno, et. al,, The Book of Christian Martyrs, London: SCM Press, 1990.