“As the flames rose, their voices could be heard praying and encouraging one another.” Young Kizito’s last words were “Goodbye, friends.” We are on our way.”
This is how missionary Aylward Shorter, who has written extensively on the role and impact of the Catholic Church on modern East Africa, describes the final moments of the Ugandan martyrs.
June 3, 1886 marked the culmination of the execution of the Uganda Martyrs by order of Ssekabaka Mwanga II, the King of Buganda. On this date, three Christian converts were burned to ashes at the Anglican shrine while 12 were killed at the Catholic shrine.
At least 45 martyrs were murdered 137 years ago for their faith. Among them were 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts and a number of Muslims believed to have been executed earlier.
On May 26, 1886, the king summoned 26 royal pages, who had embraced Christianity, and asked them to denounce the new faith, which they rejected. They all declared that they were ready to remain Christians until death. This angered Mwanga and he decreed that they would all be taken to Namugongo, where they would be burned alive.
Reverend James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest, author and publisher, writes in one of his articles on the martyrs of Uganda, that even after reaching Namugongo, bound with ropes, chains, iron rings and yokes of slaves, they waited a week.
Meanwhile, Reverend James writes that “martyrs in chains were praying and singing hymns; the Catholics among them recited morning and evening prayers, grace before and after meals, as well as the Angelus and the Rosary, in preparation for their death.
In the History of the Martyrs of Uganda (June 3, 2011), Reverend James writes: “On June 3, before the execution of the rest of the young men, Charles Lwanga was put to death by the king’s men. He was wrapped tightly in a reed mat, a yoke was slung around his neck, and he was thrown on a pyre. Mocking his executioners, Charles allegedly shouted: “You are burning me, but it is as if you were pouring water on my body! Before dying, he shouted “Katonda” or “My God” in a horrible way.
The young converts, mostly men, had been forced to walk in chains for more than 28 kilometers from Munyonyo, south of Kampala city, through Ntinda to Namugongo where they were finally killed under the command of the executioner in chief, Mukajanga.
Walking on tiptoe, others crawling with chains tied around their necks, young converts were whipped through the bushes. The marks of torture on their bodies did not arouse empathy in the hearts of their tormentors.
The harrowing statutes of how the executioners thrust swords into the stomachs of some of the martyrs, pouring out the intestines. Some of the effigies depict amputated limbs and heads crushed with hummers before being set on fire.
When Ssekabaka Mwanga felt threatened by the invasion of the Christian religion, he ordered the murder of all converts, including his own right-hand men.
The wave had begun with the murder of Joseph Mukasa Balikudembe on November 15, 1885, after killing Noah Sserwanga, Mark Kakumba and Joseph Rugalama, among other white missionaries.
At 16, Denis Ssebugwawo, believed to be Uganda’s first martyr, was beheaded on Mwanga’s orders at Munyonyo where the chief executioner, Mukajjanga, had established his office.
At the Namugongo shrine, the martyrs had been tied with reeds around their bodies after being tortured. A fire was lit on them, reducing them to ashes.
According to the Anglican Shrine Museum’s tour guide, Ms Esther Makumbi, the experience stunned the executioners as the martyrs instead burst into song.
“The skin of the martyrs felt the pain and the body burned but not their souls. They remained strong and happy as they sang their way to death. But it made those who burned them believe even more,” she said, explaining to tourists, some of whom wept at the vivid images.
Among the Catholic martyrs was St Jean Marie Muzeeyi, for example, who was beheaded and later his body dumped and dumped in a swamp at Mengo. St Noa Mawaggali was harpooned and savaged by dogs, St Mbaaga Tuzinde was bludgeoned to death before being burned at Namugongo while St Matthias Kalemba Mulumba was dismembered and left for dead.
Then there was St Charles Lwanga who showed incredible faith and great leadership. For this he was punished, first, by being separated from his fellow Christians and later by being burned from head to toe in Namugongo.
Of the 22 Catholic martyrs, 13 were burned alive at Namugongo.
Fr Nicholas Mulumba, deputy director of the Kampala Archdiocese’s Social Communications Department, said pain is pain and it doesn’t matter how the various pilgrims were killed.
Christian historians of martyr shrines recall that the executioners came to believe that the young men’s faith was truly strong.
Mr Enock Rukundo, the administrator of the Anglican Shrine’s museum, says these harrowing accounts of the martyrs’ final hours have since become monumental sites for tourists who come to pay their respects for a fee.
“We are ensuring that this legacy is preserved and that the pain these martyrs endured is kept alive. Believers come here to worship through these saints,” Mr. Rukundo says.
Learn more about Muslim martyrs
Although their exact number is not known, historians say many Muslims were persecuted for what they believed in, as early as 1857 when Kabaka Mutesa I ascended the throne following the death of his father, Kabaka Suna. At the time of Suna’s death, the Islam which they claim had begun to take root in Buganda.
Like his father Suna, Mutesa was fascinated by Islam and took great pride in studying the Quran and its teachings. Although the king did not impose the new religion on his subjects, it is said that he sometimes envies the king.
The written history states that at this time many people started to learn the new religion and he even ordered the construction of a mosque in his Kasubi palace, then known as Nabulagala.
Dr Muhammad Kiggundu, director of communications, research and international relations in the office of the supreme mufti, said the Muslim martyrs were executed before their Catholic and Anglican counterparts by Kabaka Mutesa I.
“The Muslim community does not celebrate them prominently because Islam discourages pilgrimage to places of martyrdom except for the annual pilgrimage they make to the holy city of Makkah,” Dr Kiggundu said.
Muslim martyrs, Dr Kigggundu said, were executed for different reasons, including refusing offers from Kabaka Mutesa I after believing he was uncircumcised, a requirement for Muslims. Furthermore, they rejected other foodstuffs, including its meat, claiming that it had been slaughtered by non-Muslims.
MARTYRS and their denominations
1. Rugarama Yusuf
2. Kakumba Makko
3. Sserwanga Nuwa
4. Mukasa Moussa
5. Mbwa Eriya
7. Muwanga, Daudi
8. Kayizzi Kibuuka
9. Mayanja, Kitoogo
10. Muwanga, Njigija
12. Kadoko, Alexander
14. Kiwanuka, Giyaza
15. Kizza Frederick
17. Lwakisiga, Mukasa
20. Robert Munyagabyangu
21. Nakabandwa Danieri
23. Walukagga Nuwa
1. Balikuddembe Y. Mukasa
2. Pontiano Ngondwe
3. Athanansious Bazzekuketa
4. Gonza Gonzaga
5. Lwanga Karoli
6. Andrea Kaggwa,
7. Ssebuggwawo, Denis
8. Mulumba Matiya
9. Mawaggali, Nowa
10. Baanabakintu, Lukka
11. Buuzabalyawo, Yakobo
12. Gyaviira Musoke
13. Kibuuka, Ambrosio
14. Kirigwajjo, Anatoly
15. Kiriwawanvu Mukasa
17. Achileo Kiwanuka
18. Adolf Ludigo, Mukasa
20. Tuzinde Mbaaga
21. Jean-Marie Muzeeyi,
22. Bruno Sserunkuuma,
1. Yusuf Sebakiwa
2. Amulane Tuzinde
3. Musirimu Lwanga