Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Uganda Martyrs

The final post (at time of writing) on the exgayuganda blog – it’s dated 1st May 2009 – ends with a reference to the Uganda Martyrs: “Pastor Martin Ssempa said that since the death of the Uganda Martyrs and the spilling of their blood on this soil, Uganda has been anointed for leadership in this area”. Who were the Uganda Martyrs? The historiography of the martyrdoms is somewhat confused and shifting, reflecting the attitudes of different historians. The most perceptive account is by Ronald Hyam in his ‘Empire and Sexuality’ (1990). Other accounts have omitted the central element, and I comment on this below.

Essentially, the Martyrs were boys and men who were executed on the orders of Kabaka (king) Mwanga in three separate waves in 1885, 1886 and 1887. Most were converts to the then-new religion Christianity, brought into the Kingdom of Buganda by western missionaries. In 1964, twenty-two of them were canonised by the Roman Catholic Church and are revered as saints. The actual events are not so straightforward, however.

The Kabaka’s court included around five hundred pages who formed an inner retinue with multiple functions including providing for his personal safety along with what we might term a ‘harem’ function. This was not an innovation of Mwanga’s; rather, it was a continuation of practice that was ‘well established at court under Mutesa long before Mwanga’s accession’. According to Hyam, ’a conventional harem was available but Mwanga preferred the pages’. These pages were all young, in their teens, but the Kabaka himself was only eighteen when he succeeded to the throne and found himself surrounded by young men who were the pick of Buganda’s youth. As a young man himself, he had received instruction in the new religion of Christianity but once he had been brought to understand that ‘Christianity meant renouncing anal intercourse – and he checked the point carefully – Mwanga, in angry disbelief, declared it was asking the impossible’.

However as incoming missionaries gained more converts, including increasing numbers of Mwanga’s pages, resistance to his advances grew to the point at which numbers of pages personally refused Mwanga – ‘it now became a regular occurrence for boys to reject propositions’. This in turn led to taunts that Mwanga, who had succeeded to the throne as an absolute monarch, was losing his authority. This gradual dilution of royal authority was compounded by continuing and increasingly urgent Christian attempts to detach Mwanga from his regular partners. He demanded a decision from his pages as to who would accede to his demands; the continuing refusals provoked him to order executions. Before the main executions took place, Mwanga consulted a number of Baganda chiefs, asking for their consent (some were fathers of the condemned boys) which was readily given: ‘if these boys will not do your bidding, we will replace them with those who will’.

The executions went ahead in three batches in January 1885, 3rd June 1886 and 27th January 1887; these events included a somewhat random element in that they were used by some court officials to settle old scores. In the aftermath, some Christians were reinstated to privileged positions.

Until Hyam produced his account, histories such as the UNESCO General History of Africa (Vol VII, Chapter 7 p. 160) tell us that Mwanga’s concerns were to resist ‘attempts by British agents to take over his country’ under the guise of missionary activity. The online Encyclopaedia Britannica gives an account in terms of resistance to the new religion: ‘Mwanga continued his persecution, destroying Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries alike’. An article of 2008 by Stephen Ssenkaaba in allAfrica.com also passes in complete silence over the sexual component, referring instead to ‘disobedient pages’. Mainstream religious histories also take the ‘pure martyrdom’ line. This, as Hyam is at pains to point out, is to miss the actual underlying causes and the actual triggering episodes of these executions. In short, the events of the Uganda Martyrs cannot be understood unless we accept that same-sex practice was part of the Royal Court of Buganda. There does not seem to be much evidence of it being accepted in wider Baganda society, but clearly it was not opposed at Court. It seems to me that it was, or might have been, conceptualised there as ‘service to the Kabaka’; in any case, it was not opposed by the boys themselves nor was it opposed by those chiefs who were consulted.

Ssenkaaba concludes his account with: “Drawing on his sociological background, Pastor Martin Ssempa says leaders make prudent decisions basing [sic] on advice. "I think Mwanga acted too hurriedly in his decisions." Despite his dilemma, there is little to show that Mwanga could have helped matters. His homosexual tendencies… and his capricious nature deprived him of the moral authority to exercise proper judgment.” This is the only mention of the 'h' word and the only acknowledgement of Kabaka Mwanga's sexual orientation.

And yes, that Pastor Ssempa. The same Pastor Martin Ssempa who would presumably condemn to death the last Kabaka of an independent Buganda as a ‘serial offender’ - in which he would merely be doing the Western missionaries’ job for them.

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