In a previous post about the new film, God Loves Uganda, it was briefly mentioned that David Kato’s assassin attempted to smear his victim by portraying the murder as a response to an “unwanted sexual advance” made toward him by Kato. This insinuation isn’t new to the region now encompassing Uganda’s history, for a similar charge has been leveled against a former monarch of the Kingdom of Buganda for nearly one hundred and thirty years. The campaign to distort and misrepresent the actions taken by Kabaka (King) Basammula Ekkere Mwanga II of Buganda in the early years of his reign (1884-1888; 1889-1897*) has its roots in the immediate aftermath of a controversial round of executions carried out on the order of the King. The official narrative of the events surrounding these 30-45 killings promoted at first by European Christian evangelical missionaries and now largely accepted as official Ugandan history, holds that these were acts of retaliation by Mwanga II on newly-converted African Christians for refusing to allow the King to sodomize them; sodomy being “against the teachings of Christianity”. These events, portrayed as the martyrdom of African Christians at the gruesome hands of a murderous homosexual pagan-tyrant, are accorded such significance in Ugandan history that they are commemorated every year on June 3rd with a national holiday known as “Martyr’s Day”, a day for honoring and remembering those men who gave their lives for Christianity in the face of Mwanga II’s tyranny. Is it possible that David Kato’s murderer, Sydney Enoch, was hoping to conjure up the Martyr’s legacy when he cited the familiar trope of an “unwanted sexual advance” as a reason to commit murder? Was he trying to implicitly convey to the judge that David Kato and Kabaka Mwanga II were “cut from the same cloth” so to speak?
Imperialist entrenchment on the Kingdom of Buganda didn’t come as a result of any decisions made on the part of Mwanga II. The common presence of foreigners in the region is largely attributed to actions taken by Mwanga II’s father, Walugembe Mukbya Muteesa I, who reigned as the 30th Kabaka of Buganda in the years 1856-1884. Muteesa I came to the throne at a time when European missionary groups representing just about every religious faction of Christianity one can imagine were penetrating further and further into the African interior from the coasts, often laying the groundwork for European conquest over the land by first uprooting the indigenous inhabitants’ historical faiths and religious practices. The Europeans were not alone in their determination to achieve this goal, however. Years before the first European arrival, Arabs were converting Africans into faithful followers of the Islam. This conversion proved beneficial to their lucrative Arab ‘trade’ in African slaves. (**) As of the mid-19th century, none of the competing religious sects – Islam, Roman Catholicism, Anglican or other Protestant Christian factions – were able to establish complete dominance over the regions deep within the contenintal interior. The Kingdom of Buganda in particular appeared stubbornly resistant to penetration and refused to comprimise on their ancient customs and traditions, rooted as they were in classical African institutions, in order to satisfy some foreign visitors who claimed they were of a ‘superior’ culture. This began to change, however, with a risky decision made by Kabaka Muteesa I Walugembe, one that in hindsight proved a fatal one. Muteesa I, of course, had no way of knowing at the time that allowing foreign missionaries into his kingdom would have such a devestating impact on Buganda’s future. At first the missionaries came in small numbers and gave very little appearance outwardly of being the threat they eventually became. Missionaries, in contrast to many other European “visitors” to Africa, came armed not with an abundance in arms, ammunition or bayonets, but with a Holy Book they claimed was the actual written word of God. There was also some strategic thinking at work in Muteesa I’s thinking. The Kabaka had been frequently bumping heads with the localized Council of Elders. The Council of Elders was, in traditional African societies, composed of the democratically-chosen representatives of the various regions under the kingdom’s protectorate. They alone, as representatives of the people, had the ability to check the King, and could even remove him from his role as representative of the will of the people if they felt it was the desire of their constituents (only used as a last resort). Muteesa I may have supposed that the introduction of foreign religious doctrines into the kingdom and the acceptance of them among a significant part of the population would potentially eradicate or diminish the influence wielded by the Council. After all, in the religious doctrines of both Christianity and Islam, it is the Almighty’s word which reigns supreme. With the Word of the Supreme Being so clearly written out, the will of the majority becomes only secondary. Or, as another blogger put it, “Followers were easily inspired to oppose anything and anybody in the name of Jesus, God or Allah!”
What figured into the King’s calculation most importantly, however, was the need to thwart any potential invasion of Buganda by Arabs and Afro-Arabs who were steadily converting surrounding African regions into Islamic strongholds as they traveled from Zanzibar in the east and from Sudan to the north . To an African leader in the position of Muteesa I at the time, Christianity could understandably be seen as a having potential to act as a powerful buffer against what for a long time appeared to be an unstoppable Muslim conquest. (^*) Forming an alliance with a foreign religion that had the backing of an immensely powerful empire seemed like the only sure way to counter the formidable Arab armies. In the 20th year of Muteesa I’s reign – 1876 – the kingdom which until then was virtually inaccessible to outsiders, suddenly opened it gates to foreign missionaries.
From 1876 onward Buganda and the regions surrounding it were bombarded by one Christian missionary group after the next, the most notorious of these being the comically-titled “Society of the White Fathers”. The Christian missionaries acted just as Muteesa I had hoped they would, successfully offering a challenge to Muslim influence in the area and severely undermining the traditional Council of Elders. One thing Muteesa had not foreseen, however, was that his health would deteriorate drastically in the years to come. With so many competing religious factions being held in check solely by the King, the startling revelation that Muteesa I was gravely ill sent shockwaves throughout the kingdom. Suddenly it seemed as if Buganda’s future could be jeopardized. While the circumstances surrounding his sickness seems to have confounded most observers, the European missionaries claimed a spiritual ability to declare a diagnosis. The Kabaka, the Christians declared, was suffering from a terrible disease that afflicts only those men who indulge in the most heinous of all acts: sodomy. In other words, Muteesa I’s suffering was a case of Divine Punishment for the king’s sins, a curse from the Almighty. Though it’s easy to interpret the Europeans’ absurd diagnosis as an attempt on their behalf to try and manipulate the situation to their advantage, it’s just as likely that these Christians believed this nonsense as well. (+) But whatever their motivations, the truth of the matter surrounding the King’s death soon became irrelevant. For now the Kingdom’s religious pilgrims would have a new ruler to contend with, one who would not allow them to encroach on his kingdom unchecked.
When Muteesa I passed away on October 9, 1884, he vacated the throne to his sixteen year-old son, Bassammula Ekkere Mwanga II. The fact that Mwanga II was still just a teenager at the time he became the 31st Kabaka of Buganda is conveniently left unmentioned in most of the subsequent retellings of these events, especially when discussing his alleged relationships with other male pages of the royal court. The truth of the matter is that with or without these alleged intimacies, the religious crusaders were put off by the new King from almost the moment he ascended to the throne. Any hope the missionaries might have had that Muteesa I’s young son was going to follow in his father’s footsteps and allow them free reign was quickly demolished in the first year of Mwanga II’s reign. This King took an altogether different approach when it came to foreign intrusions into his kingdom, and he came to see European missionaries as more akin to invaders than faithful clergymen. But the general disappointment that most missionaries felt with Mwanga II gave way to horrified outrage in October of 1885 when the King, upon receiving word of the British Anglican Bishop James Hannington of the Church Missionary Society approaching from the east, ordered the Bishop executed. In re-telling this history, the execution order is usually portrayed as if it were the result of a cold-blooded calculation on the part of the king, who never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his forceful might. But this view fails to take into account the extreme amount of pressure the King, barely even 17 years of age at the time, was under to act, and act swiftly. Shortly before receiving word that Bishop Hannington was approaching, he’d received the frightening news that the German Imperial Army just annexed the region south of Lake Victoria. Mwanga felt as if Buganda was being closed in on all sides, and in an act of desperation the young King made an erratic decision to hold the British Bishop off by having him killed. Unfortunately such crass decision-making had the adverse effect of emboldening the opposition to his rule.
This wasn’t the only incident that occurred in the first year of Mwanga’s reign that later proved to be controversial. After only a few months on the Bugandan throne, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary wrote a letter fretting over the behavior of Buganda’s new King. And it was this letter, written in 1884, which would become the primary source for asserting that Mwanga II was some sort of “child predator” who liked to use young men as he would one of his wives, despite the fact that Mwanga was just 16 years old at the time the letter was written. The letter was written by Minister Alexander Mackey. Mackay had set sail from Southampton, Britain in 1876 headed for Zanzibar on Africa’s east coast. From Zanzibar he traveled westward into the continental interior, finally reaching Buganda in 1878. He was among the missionaries who’d witnessed at close range the demise of an African monarch who, in contrast to his successor, was altogether tolerant if not receptive of the Christians’ message. In 1885 Minister Mackay was among the most horrified upon learning how the famed Bishop Hannington was killed on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga II. In the 1884 letter, Mackay mentions a young African man named Apollo Kaggua, a convert to Christianity. Kaggua, Mackay claims, used to ‘service’ the Mwanga II. But ever since he’d accepted the teachings of the Christian Faith as his own, Kaggua began openly rejecting the King’s advances, a rejection Alexander Mackay gleefully hails as “a splendid disobedience and brave resistance to this Negro Nero’s orders to a page of his, who absolutely refused to be made the victim of an unmentionable abomination.” Whatever one believes about the reliability of this account, given it was written by one of the King’s enemies who clearly had a religious agenda, it takes a wild stretch of the imagination to conclude from this that the mass amount of executions that the Kabaka ordered in subsequent years are derived from anger he felt after sexual rejection. Yet that is precisely the way historians have described it.
To this day there are numerous sites on the web dedicated to the 30-45 Christian Martyrs who were killed from 1886-1887 ostensibly as retribution for having denied their king the pleasures of gay sex. If such a narrative sounds far too absurd to be true, it’s probably because it is. When Kabaka Mwanga II inherited the throne from his late father, it was under siege from all sides of the religious spectrum. Though the Europeans had not yet advanced on the Ugandan region militarily, they had been steadily laying the groundwork for European control first and foremost by uprooting the people of their indigenous religious faith and practices, teaching that real salvation could come only through the worship of a foreign God. All around him, Mwanga II saw traditional African societies give the appearance of collapsing. With Afro-Arabs further up north, British Europeans to the east and west, and Germans to the south, the threat of foreign domination and colonization seemed increasingly possible. Once the young Kabaka suspected some of the pages of his Court as being part of plot to destroy his kingdom from within, he took drastic action by having them killed. These 30-45 men, all converts to Christianity, were put to death based on Mwanga’s belief that they were acting as informants for the European missionaries. And while his actions in this manner are an atrocity of the highest order, they do not constitute martyrdom for the victims. Just as the murder of Bishop Hannington was an act motivated first and foremost by a fear for the future of his kingdom, the mass killing of the Christian converts was motivated by a desire to protect the Bugandan Kingdom as well. In that sense, Mwanga II did something that many African leaders did not. He foresaw what the result was likely to be if Europeans were simply allowed to carry about his kingdom unchecked, and he had a sense that they were laying the groundwork for the complete domination and subjugation of his people by a foreign empire. As one by one his most loyal pages began converting to Christianity, the King sought to undermine what he perceived as their attempted usurpation of the throne by simply eliminating them altogether. After killing them off, he sought to drive out all the missionaries from his kingdom, but by this time it was too late. Christianity – Anglican and Roman Catholicism – and Islam had become an active presence in the everyday lives of many of Buganda’s people. The widespread outrage the king sparked by ordering the executions of the religious converts did nothing to mitigate the matter, for they were perceived as acts of religious intolerance as opposed to being politically-motivated. In the words of David Aster in The Political Kingdom in Uganda: a study of bureaucratic nationalism, “The Church Missionary Society used the deaths to enlist wider public support for the British acquisition of Uganda into the [British] Empire.” Thus the slain were not only seen as victims, but as full-fledged martyrs nobly nobly marched to their deaths in the vein of Christ.
In 1888, just three years into Mwanga II’s reign, the now 20 year-old King was forced from the throne by a unified army made up of Christians and Muslims alike. Enemies though they were, the competing religious factions found common ground in their desire to remove the threat of Kabaka Mwanga II. With Mwanga out the way, an exclusively Muslim coup followed the Christian-Muslim alliance and that removed the Kabaka, and installed in place of Mwanga his elder brother Kiweewa on the Bugandan throne. Kiweewa was essentially a puppet ruler, whose only real purpose was to establish a façade of legitimacy on a kingdom coming apart at the seams. With this sudden absence of strong leadership over the kingdom, European companies suddenly found a much friendlier climate in which to conduct business in. The single largest benefactor of the Islamic coup was ironically not the Muslims, but the British East African Company. Founded in 1886, the B.E.A.C. became immensely profitable almost overnight. Two years later, after acquiring huge sums of land “between Mombasa and Lake Victoria”, it was renamed the Imperial British East African Company. The company was allowed to flourish as it never had before with Mwanga out of the picture.
In the four-year ‘Civil War’ that followed, Mwanga formed a politically necessary alliance with the Protestant Christians in the 4-way religious battle for the heart of the kingdom. And in 1892 Mwanga II was formally restored as Kabaka of Buganda after the Protestant Christians emerged victorious in the war. Unfortunately things had changed dramatically in the short time he was away. The very power and authority that had come with being Kabaka was now reduced to the point of irrelevance, and whatever land the Imperial British East African Company didn’t already claim as its own was being contested by others. Everyone from “British missionaries, French priests, Swahili traders, German adventurers, even an Irish trader in German uniform (Charles Stokes)” claimed to have a stake in the region, “all hoping for a profitable agreement.” Seven years passed before these foreign competitors realized there was still one last obstacle left blocking their path to complete domination. Not once in those years had they ever suspected that Mwanga II was secretly strategizing and concocting a plan to drive all of them off the land for good.
According to the Catholic historian and Professor John Waliggio, during “the period between 1892-7… Mwanga began to form his own party to challenge the two-party system of the Christians. His party was based not on any one religion but on the common element that appealed to most Baganda, the opposition to white rule.” After five years of secret plotting, the time was ripe to regain what was lost, and Mwanga’s rebel army attempted to drive the invaders from the land. Unfortunately his plan did not succeed. Rather than accepting defeat, however, Mwanga mobilized a second army whilst exiled in Tanzania. The army fought its way back into Buganda but did not succeed in restoring the former king to his glory, and they suffered defeat the next year at the hands of militia forces mobilized by the Imperial British East African Company. In 1899 the Brits, realizing that as long as Mwanga II remained on the mainland of the continent he would be a constant thorn in their side, forcibly transported him to the British-controlled Seychelles Islands, hundreds of miles west of Zanzibar. There Mwanga, who’d up to this point stubbornly refused to waver in his dedication to indigenous African culture and tradition, found himself isolated on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean surrounded by nothing but strangers. Sometime around 1900-01, records show that he was baptized and given a new name, “Daniel”. Having been removed from the land of his birth and the society he grew up in, the man born Mwanga II Basamula Ekkere must have at last come face to face with the devastating reality – that the kingdom he’d fought tooth and nail to protect and preserve was no more. Less than four years after arriving on the Seychelles Islands, Mwanga II died at the tender age of 35. With Mwanga II dead, it seemed as if the final defiant cry of African resistance had been silenced. It was the dawn of the 20th century, and complete domination of Africa by Europe was nearly accomplished. It would be another 4-5 decades before new African leadership would emerge to give voice to the anti-imperialist spirit of resistance, a spirit derived from the continent’s vitality which has characterized it ever since the earth came to be.
One hundred and ten years after Kabaka Mwanga II’s death, his role in Africa’s history is still being distorted and misrepresented. He’s still portrayed as the ultimate villain in Bugandan-Ugandan history, a narrative reinforced on June 3rd of each year with the official commemoration of Christian Martyrs’ Day. The saintly status these 30-45 victims have risen to was consummated in October, 1964 when Pope John Paul VI had 22 of these victims canonized as Martyrs of the Roman Catholic Church. (*^) In death, the Christian Church would not allow Mwanga II to rest in peace, and falsehoods about him appear repeatedly in modern-day publications. The effect this distortion of history continues to have on Ugandan politics cannot be overstated. Take, for example, the assertion made by Alexander Mackay in 1884 that King Mwanga learned bisexuality “from the Arabs.” This sentiment, first voiced by a representative of the so-called “Western civilization” modern-day Ugandan politicians claim to be pushing against, was echoed recently in 2010 by none other than President Yoweri Musevi himself. The current President of Uganda, unyielding in his assertion that homosexuality is a characteristic completely alien to pre-colonial African society, acknowledged that “I hear there was homosexuality in Mwanga’s palace. This was not a part of our culture. I hear he learnt it from the Arabs.” What Musevi did not consider, however, is that Mwanga II was just as much opposed to Arab cultural colonization as he was to European.
Fortunately challenges to this “official” history, as written by the colonizers, are starting to emerge. Although they are few in number, these challenges signal a much-needed reevaluation of colonialism’s true cultural and historical legacy in Central East Africa. The 2011 publication of Professor Samwiri Lwanga Lunyiigo’s (of the Makerere Institute of Social Research) book titled Mwanga II: Resistance to Imposition of British Colonial Rule in Buganda 1884-1899, turned more than a century’s worth of Euro-centric “scholarship” on its head. For the first time Mwanga II’s actions were taken into consideration connected with the events that occurred in the region at the time. In essence, this was really the first time a noted historian examined the rise and fall of Mwanga II without the inhibitor of the Euro-centric lens, and he discovered the reality of the period was profoundly different from what he and many others had been taught. Prof. Lunyiigo concluded after an immense amount of research “that Kabaka Mwanga II of Buganda killed the Christian martyrs at Namugongo not because he hated religion but because they were collaborating with the European missionaries and spying on him.” He also takes a critical approach to the accounts left by European missionaries like Alexander Mackay, noting that if the Mwanga’s victims were in fact martyred because they adhered to their Christian beliefs, “missionaries like Mackay who claimed they had come to introduce religion in this part of the world would have led by example and offered to die with the Ugandan martyrs. That way, they would have equally attained martyrdom for their sacrifice.” Approaching these historical events from this perspective, one is likely to conclude that the murders were motivated by politics. These men were political enemies attempting to undermine the kingdom. And while their slaughter was morally reprehensible, this should not be confused with religious persecution and certainly should not be misinterpreted as retribution for refusing to have sex with the king. As one Daily Monitor book review puts it, “[Lunyiigo’s] book compels a courageous interrogation of the true credentials of the new religions as servants of God or imperialism.” The obvious conclusion is that of the latter.
What Mwanga II’s reign, and more importantly the politicization of it by the Church, teaches us is that history and collective memory of that history can be twisted and misrepresented by political elites in order to reinforce and justify injustices of the present. Distorted and misappropriated history should never go unchallenged; for once these narratives are ingrained in peoples’ minds they are incredibly difficult to penetrate. We’ve seen how an atrocity like the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which the West was much more compliant with than it has ever let on, is regularly invoked by neo-Liberals as a clarion call for U.S. “humanitarian” military intervention. Neo-Conservatives on the other hand regularly invoke the horror of the European Holocaust – a horrific bloodbath of 6 million Jewish people which stemmed from the Europe doctrine of white supremacy – to justify displacing and subjugating the refugees of Palestine. Such horrendous historical events should be taught as deterrents against scapegoating, exploitation, and propagation of racism and imperialism, not as justifications for them.
* After being deposed in 1888, Mwanga allied with the Protestants, one of four competing religious and military factions. After forming the alliance in 1889, he was again Kabaka of Buganda, but this was contested by claimants representing other religious factions. When the Protestants emerged victorious in 1892, Mwanga II was once again a formally recognized monarch, although his authority had greatly diminished.
** The Arab slave raids and shipments across the Indian Ocean into the Eastern Hemisphere began significantly earlier than the European slave raids and shipments of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean in the Western Hemisphere. The significant difference is that its origins were not based on race, at least not initially, for at the height of Muslim conquest there were just as many white Europeans held as slaves in Arab countries as Africans. Another key difference is that there remained a possibility for a slave to eventually become master in the very household he’d been enslaved in, something completely alien to Western slavery. However, after the Mameluke rebellions against the Arabs in Egypt during the 14th century, “the Ottoman Turks’ conquest of Constantinople in 1453”, and the ascendance of Portugal’s slavery-based economy in the 16th century, slavery became a fate restricted to Black people alone. As Bruce Baum writes in The Rise and fall of the Caucasian Race (page 28): “…racialized slavery emerged only with the development of Atlantic slave trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”
^* According to the Pew Research Center, at the dawn of the 20th century 76% of Africans south of the Sahara still adhered to the traditional African Faiths & Spiritual beliefs of their forefathers. Just 14% were Muslims and a far lesser number, 9%, were Christians. North Africa by this time had long since been Islamized and in many ways Arabized. Since the rapid expansion of European colonialism spread over the course of the 20th century, however, the religious outlook changed dramatically. And as of 2010, a full 57% of Africans south of the Sahara desert are estimated to be followers of Christianity, as opposed to 29% who are Muslims and now just 13% who say they follow the traditional Faiths exclusively. However, it’s important to note that many if not most Christian and Muslim converts on the continent have incorporated certain aspects of their traditional spiritual values into their current religious practices as well. The following map shows that as the 20th century began Christianity was not the predominant religion in very many parts of Africa. The map labels Muslims “Mohammedans” and snobbishly labels followers of indigenous African religions as “Heathens”.
+ After all, how many times have we heard the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world declare that the AIDs virus is just God’s punishment for gays in our own era?!
*^ The remaining 8-23 ‘martyrs’ (the number varies depending on the source) were not officially canonized because they were followers of Protestant religions, although Pope John Paul VI did not neglect to mention them at the ceremony.
- Mwanga II of Buganda and Uganda Remixed
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- How Hannington came to die in Buganda
- Gay Ugandan King Proves That Homosexuality is Not Un-African
- Lipschut, Mark R. & Rasmussen, R. Kent. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. (1978). Pages 165-166.