The Martyrs of Uganda


Historical background

The worldwide colonization by European countries was the result of a search for new extraction areas, raw materials, and trade routes, stimulated by the rapid progress in the fields of shipbuilding, navigation, and cartography, among other things. This imperialist greed went hand in hand with scientific curiosity, as well as with a great proselytizing zeal from the Christian churches. But in the first place these enterprises were indebted to the courage and perseverance of the great explorers.

One of these was Henri Morton Stanley, an American journalist commissioned by the New York Herald to track down Scottish missionary David Livingstone. This was the first European to penetrate to Eastern Africa. After Stanley had successfully completed this mission, he crossed Africa twice more, the last time in Congo, by order of King Leopold II.  During his trips through the lake district of Eastern Africa, he was struck by the great religious interest and intelligence of the natives, which motivated him to insist in his reports on sending new missionaries.

Broadly speaking, one can see a gigantic circular movement in the history of Christianity. From the core area of ​​Christianity in the Levant, it spread mainly north, east, and westwards, finally becoming firmly established on the American continent. Mainly from the North and the West, the religion of the gospel ended up deep in the African interior. On the eastern flank of Africa, from the 7th century onwards, the Arab slave trade was accompanied by a spread of Islam, which had very quickly conquered the coastal areas of N-Africa.

Persecutions and Christian Martyrdom

In 1877, the first Anglican missionaries arrived in the kingdom of Buganda, which is now a province of Uganda. Two years later the White Fathers followed (*). After some initial disagreements, the two groups decided on a friendly missionary cooperation. It turned out that Stanley’s appeal was a hit, because very soon the first conversions followed, including at the court of King Moetesa I. However, that success also had a downside: it aroused the distrust and jealousy of other courtiers. The result was that in 1882 all foreigners had to leave the country.

Two years later, Moetesa died. His heir to the throne, Mwanga II, allowed the foreign missionaries back in and was initially sympathetic to the Christian proclamation. But he also quickly changed his mind. First, there were again the rumors that the missionaries were foreign agents who had to prepare the capture of the land. The new king, tyrannical, addicted to hemp and, like his father, a bisexual with a gay penchant for young pages, was easily influenced by this. He ordered the murder of all strangers, along with hundreds of converts. In 1885 a new mission led by Anglican Bishop James Hannington was also killed.

His mayor of the palace Moekasa, who was one of the first converts and passed on his faith to his fellow courtiers, blamed his master for both this bloodshed and his intimate relations with young boys.  He was beheaded by order of the king on November 15 of the same year. Nevertheless, Charles (or Carolus) Lwanga, a page baptized by Moekasa, continued his evangelization at court. He, too, urged his young fellow believers not to give in to the king’s sexual desires. This fearless religious behavior led to an even more merciless Christian persecution and horrible torture.

Mwanga had Dionysius (or Dennis) Sseboeggwawo beaten to death, a sixteen-year-old convert and one of his most beloved boys. Several others followed. A judge, Mathias Mulumba, was tortured to death. Finally, the cruel king presented his pages with the choice of renouncing their Christian faith or dying.  Following the example of their leader Charles Lwanga, a group of mainly young courtiers chose to be martyred.

From Lwanga we know that first his feet were charred. He bore the pain and said to his executioners, “It’s like pouring water on me. Repent and become a Christian”. Afterwards, like most of his friends, bound in a wicker mat, he was slowly burned over a smouldering fire on June 3, 1886.

Many of them can be seen in the group photo below. She was taken into the Muhumbi Mission of Tanganyika (present day Tanzania) in September 1885, less than a year before their horrific deaths. They had traveled there to greet their new bishop, Mgr. Léon Livinhac.

Canonization and feast day

It is these 22 mainly young men and adolescents who were included in the calendar of the saints, because only for them the ecclesiastical court has been able to prove that they died for their faith. They were beatified by Pope Benedict XV in 1920 and canonized by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council in 1964. June 3, the day of their death, became their day of remembrance. In Uganda it is a national holiday.

It should be added that along with these 22 Catholics, 14 Protestants and 1 Muslim were also killed for religious reasons. In total, between November 15, 1885 and January 27, 1887, at least a hundred martyrs would have fallen.

Christian martyrdom

Martyrdom does not only exist in Christianity. Islam, for example, also knows and worships its martyrs, but they must not have actually been killed for that worship. The mere fact that a dead Muslim during his lifetime showed willingness to die for his faith makes him a martyr.  People who die for other ideals, such as the independence of their country, can also be called martyrs. But the martyrs recognized by the Church are those who, with or without torture, were specifically killed for their persistent testimony to the truth of Christianity.

The first known Christian martyr was Stephen (stoned in ± 35 AD.C., with the knowledge of Saul, who became the apostle Paul after his conversion). Dying, he had a vision of heaven, and his last words, like Christ’s, were a request for forgiveness for his executioners. Many have followed him to martyrdom, especially as a result of the hatred of rulers who regarded Christianity as a danger to their position of power. Even in our day, this continuous series is not yet over, because worldwide Christians are the most persecuted, usually as a result of religious fanaticism or ideological blindness.

All those who died like this are full-fledged martyrs, but only those whose “case” could be thoroughly examined are included in the church saints’ calendar.  For the martyrs of the Christianization of Uganda, this is only the case for “Carolus Lwanga and companions”, while, as mentioned,  it is about a much larger group of Africans who gave their lives for their unshakable faith in Christ.

Fruits of martyrdom

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed for new Christians.” This statement of church father Tertullian (ca. 160-230 AD.C.) was reaffirmed in Uganda.

King Mwanga was finally exiled by the British to the Seychelles, where his life ended in a dark way in 1903, after his baptism with the Anglicans.  Father Simeon Lourdel, who had led the mission, died in 1890 at the age of 37. The mission then numbered 2,200 Christians and about 10,000 catechumens.

-PHOTO Pater Lourdel

Father Simeon Lourdel with brevier

Soon seminaries were opened for priests and novitiates for religious, also schools for catechists. In 1911, Catholics made up 30% of the population and Anglicans 21%. Christianity has now become the main religion with 84%. Today, 41.9 % of the population is Catholic and 35.9 % Anglican.  About 12% is Islamic (mainly Sunni). The worship of the martyrs is strongly ingrained, there is even a “Uganda Martyrs Trail”.


– Missionaries of Africa ( )

– Wikipedia


– Harmen Jansen ( )

(*) White Fathers: “Society of Missionaries of Africa”, founded in 1886 by Card. Charles Lavigerie, Archbishop of Algiers.

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