Pope Francis’ visit to Uganda at the end of November is likely to reignite a celebration of the Ugandan martyrs. But just how much of what we know about their story is true?
In the early 1870s, Henry Morton Stanley published a letter in London. The letter, purported to be from the King of the Buganda, Muteesa I, was an open invitation for missionaries of all Christian denominations to his kingdom. Its authenticity is disputed but it did not stop several missions from sending representatives to the Ugandan monarchy. The most famous of this men was Alexander Mackay, a Scot who settled among the Buganda, died and was buried in what is now Uganda.
Muteesa I was a political genius. Acknowledging the religious pressures emerging in his kingdom, he chose to play the sides instead of siding with any of them. He was more personally inclined towards Islam but allowed Catholics, Protestants, and traditional religions to thrive, but only so much as to limit each others growth. The threat of colonial domination was in the horizon but would not be as real as it would be for his successor.
On October 9th, 1884, Kabaka Muteesa I died and was succeeded by his sixteen year-old son, Mwanga II. Buganda tradition has no concept similar to the Crown Prince, where a monarchs successor is known before the reigning one dies. Instead, the Kabaka selects a successor from among his sons, and never the firstborn son, who then reveals himself after his father dies. This is a how a sixteen year-old man called Mwanga II became the Kabaka of the Buganda.
His father’s strategy of playing the sides had duped all three sides to believe he preferred them over each other. The letters of the missionaries back home praised the Kabaka and his wisdom, and influenced Britain’s early foreign policy with the Buganda. Mwanga II faced a different set of problems.
Kabaka Mwanga II’s tumultuous rule is most remembered for the murders of tens of Christian Buganda men and that of Bishop James Hannington of the Church Missionary Society. The generally accepted reason for the brutal killings, often including some form of slow torture with fire, is that the 45 young men were killed because they refused to sleep with the king. They refused because of their new faith and the encouragement of the missionaries. In 1964, 22 of the men were canonized and are now regarded as saints. History exalted them and vilified the serial rapist and homosexual that Mwanga became, at least in the records.
The letters and journals of the handful of missionaries who lived or visited Buganda in the 1880s point towards Mwanga as a self-indulgent and erratic man with foolish and barbaric ways, especially compared to his father. To this was then added the feather of being a rapist who put innocent Christians to death because they dared refuse his sexual advances.
One of the earliest written records of Mwanga’s sexual preferences was a letter by Alexander Mackay barely two months after the new Kabaka rose to the throne. The letter told the story of how a young page called Apollo Kaggwa had been punished for refusing the king. Mackay also wrote that the king had become addicted to marijuana and was cavorting with Arabs at court. It was from them that he had picked up homosexuality, Mackay wrote.
When Kabaka Mwanga put 45 Christian men to death two years later, and assassinated a white missionary, this became the only accepted reason. It was dressed in a garb of an assertion of authority, power, and obedience, and Mwanga became the king who killed pious people who disobeyed him. It didn’t matter that the Arab angle didn’t make much sense because the Kabaka before him had slaughtered 70 Muslim converts a decade earlier, curbing Arab influence at court.
But the story held anyway, and is still used to show just how perverted and flimsy the Buganda king was. One page was killed because the palace caught fire while he was out praying. Four Christian men were killed, another three beheaded, and other two castrated and killed, and others were hacked. In 1886, 26 of the pages were marched and burned alive in a huge bonfire at Namugongo. The 22 who were Catholic became saints, complete with a national holiday.
The sexual angle hid a more pertinent political one that was more likely the real reasons for the murders. Mwanga took the throne of Buganda throne during a time when there was an outbreak of smallpox, a plague at Nabulagala and a severe drought across most of East Africa. The German Imperial Army was progressing in what would become Tanganyika, and later Tanzania. With all these real threats to his power, Mwanga rightly feared the immigrants and their converts would form, or already formed, a spy ring within his own court. He also feared an invasion, hence the need to protect the kingdom from spies and possible infiltration.
Bishop Hannington approached Buganda from the back-door, Busoga. The move was suspicious and ill-advised because that direction was critical to Buganda’s security. In fact, Mackay had sent him a letter advising against using that route because of its sensitivity. The letter arrived in Zanzibar two weeks after Hannington had left. There could have been other reasons for Hannington’s death but killing him was obviously a bad idea, and completely turned white missionaries against Kabaka Mwanga.
There were many other reasons to question Mackay’s authenticity as a credible recorder of Mwanga’s reign. The new Kabaka had pushed Mackay and the two other missionaries permanently in Buganda at the time further from the seat of power, literally, within the court. They found access harder than it had been under Muteesa as Mwanga stamped his own form of authority in the Buganda?court.
In January 1885, the Kabaka ordered the arrest of all Buganda men found working for foreigners. Mackay had five young boys in his service, and he was at the time headed to the port to send letters. Only one was released. The other four, all under sixteen, were killed and burned. Two had their arms cut off before they were bound to a low scaffolding and burnt to death. The oldest one suffered his excruciating torture and death in total silence.
In this instance and several others, Mwanga’s ways were indeed barbaric but not unusual. Mackay wrote extensively about how Kabaka Muteesa I, Mwanga’s father, would have people killed for simply displeasing him. In one instance in 1880, hundreds of peasants were killed because the king was ill. Still, Muteesa became a darling in London and Mackay managed to balance this with stories of how he got personal with the king, even laughing off his request to get him an English princess to marry.
By choosing sodomy specifically, Mackay and his fellow missionaries were stoking a fire that was already burning through England. Known as the social purity movement, where social meant sexual, the movement opposed all forms of sexual contact that was non-reproductive. It preached sexual purity in all forms, denouncing prostitution, masturbation, and even sex for pleasure within marriage. At some point, a crude anti-masturbation belt was all the rage among its followers.
Buggery, the precursor word for sodomy, meant much more than anal sex. Even sodomy in its wider use was not just about homosexual sex but any form of non-reproductive sex. It was banned in 1533 as a capital offence and remained so until 1828. The punishment reduced to imprisonment and even then mostly for public acts of indecency. In the 1880s, the social purity movement peaked, pushing for all forms of containment of male lust. It succeeded in 1885, the same year Mwanga became known for his villainous massacre of Christians. The 1885 statute did a lot of things but one of its effects was that even private male homosexual acts were now banned. The most famous culprit of this would be the famed and flamboyant playwright Oscar Wilde in 1896.
This is the London to which Mackay’s letters were delivered. One that was obsessed with male sexuality and looking for ways to make sex as boring as possible, even for heterosexual couples. A gay king in a far-off kingdom in Africa thus made the perfect villain, especially when his victims were Christians. It didn’t help that he went for both sides of the Christian divide, killing both Catholics and Anglicans. The missionaries had found a villain, and as an ambitious expansionist and mercenary called Frederick Lugard would find out, one who was useful but flimsy.
What that version of history conveniently leaves out is that the few Christians who denounced their faith that day were actually elevated to high offices within the kingdom. Even a few who didn’t were given high profile jobs. The wily Mukasa, a carryover Chancellor from Kabaka Muteesa’s reign, was also opposed to Christianity and found ways of using his influence on the young Kabaka to do his bidding. The political and security reasons that most likely drove the decision to kill the 45 men were also conveniently erased. Kabaka Mwanga became the pervert king who could put anyone to death for refusing to sleep with him.
Whether or not Kabaka Mwanga was gay or bisexual (he had 16 wives) actually matters very little in retelling the story of the martyrs. That they were killed for their faith is not in question. What is untrue is that they were killed simply because they refused to have sex with him. Mwanga’s paranoia seemed to think the missionaries were turning his pages into spies. He was most likely right as missionaries formed the vanguard for colonial domination. A similar purging had happened in Japan many years before, where 26 people were killed. Combined with systematic suppression, this killed off Catholicism for a long time, and is one of the the reasons why the religion never caught on in Japan.
For his sins, real, imagined or exaggerated, Kabaka Mwanga was deposed in 1888 by a coalition of Christians and Muslims. His successor, his half-brother Kiweewa, wasn’t breaking the tradition that outlined that a first-born son should not succeed his father because he was succeeding his brother. When he refused to be circumcised, barely a month into his rule, he was hacked to death and replaced with another brother, Kalema, who lasted a year.
Mwanga changed tact, collaborated with the British and won back his throne, albeit with diminishing powers. Buganda became a Protectorate in 1894 and Mwanga, realizing his mistake, turned on the British in 1897. Only it was a little too late, and he ran to Tanzania, only to be deposed and detained. He was eventually exiled and died in 1903. Of this entire decade of strife, the British recorded and exaggerated Kabaka Mwanga’s misgivings but not their own, such as the massacre at the Battle of Mengo.
Kabaka Mutesa’s purge of Muslims is heavily downplayed, and the Kabaka favorably viewed by history for his political genius. Mwanga, who killed far less people, just chose his victims from the wrong demographic. His legacy became the story of an evil homosexual rapist king, while Christianity was portrayed as being under siege for fighting for sexual purity.
One Story is good,
till Another is told.