Scholar and religious cleric Rev. Amos Kasibante dwells on the reviews of two books on the actions of Ssekabaka Basammula Ekkere Mwanga of Buganda who ordered persecution and killing of the now celebrated Uganda Martyrs in 1896.
Kasibante bases his analytical reviews of the two books from the previous reviews presented by two Ugandan newspaper reviews.
Rev. Amos Kasibante
THE UGANDA MARTYRS: POLITICAL OR RELIGIOUS?
In 2011 Professor Samwiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo, historian, published a book entitled, ‘Mwanga II – Resistance to Imposition of British Colonial Rule in Buganda 1884 – 1899’. It was launched in Kampala in September, 2012.
The monitor editorial ran a review of the book under the title, “Martyrs: Prof. Lunyiigo turns tables on colonial historians.
The name of reviewer was not mentioned although in the conclusion he or she writes in the first personal singular, saying, “I commend Prof Lunyiigo’s book for challenging the stereotype of Mwanga and for helping the reader to understand the beleaguered king and his kingdom…”
There was also a review of the book in the East African by Morgan Mbabazi (Religion, resistance and the politics of betrayal in the fall of Mwanga – The East African)
Does the SLL’s book break new ground?
For now I am going by the reviews in the two main newspapers. Both reviews state how the book smashes the colonial negative and demonising stereotypes of Mwanga and present this as a major breakthrough. But as a matter of fact, that is not a breakthrough or if it is, it is not an achievement of a Ugandan historian writing in the 21st Century. The average Ugandan will go by the simple stereotypes, but not anyone who has read books written by historians. Nor is the truth served by an overbearing anti-colonialist writing or teaching of the history of Buganda in the late 19th Century.
In my learning of history at Secondary School in the 1970s, Mwanga was no longer being taught simply as the villain and even later when I read for the University of Makerere University Diploma in Theology and Religious Studies was I treated to the negatively stereotypical image of Kabaka Mwanga. The circumstances of Mwanga’s reign and the persecution of the Christians were indeed presented as pretty complex.
I would regard as groundbreaking, as far as the history of the martyrs is concerned Professor Emeritus M.S.M Semakula Kiwanuka’s book, “A History of Buganda: From the Foundation of the Kingdom to 1900” (London: Longmans, 1971). Chapters 9 and 10 entitled, “The Era of Violence I” and “The Era of Volence II” respectively are of particular relevance to the question of the persecution of the Christians and the actors involved. He was writing with from a critical perspective. Another good book, small in size, is by David Kavulu and is entitled, “The Uganda Martyrs” (London: Longmans, 1969).
Still another scholarly source is J. M. Waliggo’s doctoral dissertation entitled, “The Catholic Church in Buddu Province of Buganda, 1879-1925” (University of Cambridge, UK, June 1976). None of these resources contain the overbearing stereotyping of Mwanga.
When Morgan Mbabazi writing in the East African says “Lunyiigo belongs to the camp that considers that historians have generally treated Mwanga unfairly” one is left to wonder what historians he has in mind. Perhaps he is right that the Lwanga-Lunyiigo’s book bursts the popular stereotype that the ordinary Christians who attend the Martyrs Day on June 3 have of Mwanga, but it is not a stereotype one finds in scholarly circles today.
Traitors versus nationalists: a simplistic division?
More recently, writers especially in the journalistic industry and students fed a high dose of anti-colonialist rhetoric have gone the opposite way of constructing an image of Mwanga that is as questionable as the stereotypical one. These Mwanga apologists present Mwanga (and his comrade in arms, Omukama Kabalega of Bunyoro) as a nationalist who trumps the Baganda collaborationists such as Apollo Kaggwa, Semei Kakungulu, Kizito-Kisingiri and Stanslaus Mugwanya. To these groups of “traitors” may be added the leaders of the Bitongole (fighting groups) which took part in the religious wars in Buganda, leading to the potentially divisive Buganda Agreement of 1900. We are even made to speculate that had Apollo Kaggwa and team joined with Mwanga to fight against the British, Buganda would have become independent like Ethiopia and perhaps Buganda and Bunyoro might have formed a great nation. Ethiopia deserves special study. Our imagination would be helped if we examined the situation of other peoples in Africa that fought wars of resistance against the British and the Germans and determined their level of success.
Political or religious? A modernist dualism?
An important point that Lwanga-Lunyiigo makes (according to the journalistic sources referred to here) is that the persecution of the Christian converts was political rather than religious: “He observes that the burning of the martyrs was a political rather than a religious execution because if that was not so, 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”. Two other arguments used to show that the killing was political rather than religious are that the White missionaries used the Basomi to spy on Mwanga, and that Mwanga would later appoint Christians such as Apolo Kaggwa, Honorat Nyonyinton into high positions and also spare “fundi” Kisuule (Kisuule used to repair guns).
M.S.M Kiwanuka in his book cited before was the first historian to argue vehemently that Mwanga had no intention of wiping out all the Basomi. Lwanga-Lunyiigo would only be stressing what Kiwanuka had written in the 1970s. Kiwanuka in turn got this information from existing records. But to argue that the killings were political rather than religious is misleading, for two reasons. In the first place,it puts a hiatus between religion and politics that did not exist in pre-colonial Buganda and all other societies. In the second place, it flies in the face of the facts. We know that one of the early converts to Christianity was Princess Clara Nalumansi. Quoting Fr Lourdel’s correspondence, Dr Waliggo writes that Nalumansi was baptised by Fr Lourdel at Easter 1886. She had the responsibility of guarding the royal tombs but after baptism burnt all the royal relics entrusted to her keeping, regarding them as ‘works of Satan’. The chiefs wanted her to be executed, but she was spared because of her status.
He also mentions the case of a Catholic catechumen who on becoming the father of twins refused to perform the traditional rituals, which included the king’s ‘okumenya olukanda’. Offence to the traditional religion was a factor in the killing of the Christians. In any case, at the execution site of Namugongo, Mukajanga the chief executioner would say, “Sinze nkusse; lubaale Nnende y’akusse” (I am not the one responsible for your death; it is the god Nnende).
There are few situations in history where religious persecution has been devoid of a political element. Religious persecution is often carried out not merely because someone is offended by the religious beliefs of other people but for fear of the impact such beliefs and practice might have on the body politic, on public morals and on received tradition.
Certainly, a key factor in the persecution of Christians was fear of the annexation of Buganda (and Bunyoro) by the European colonialist whom it became difficult to separate from the European missionaries. The situation was not helped by the European Christian missionaries preaching rival traditions of the Christian faith. It is not clear those that this rivalry had a direct impact on the persecution.
What is the lasting legacy of the Uganda martyrs?
Some of the points that those writing about the Uganda Martyrs, especially those writing from an anti-colonialist bent overlook include the non-aggressive, non-violent behaviour and courage of the martyrs, many of whom were very young. Yet another crucial point is regard to the question of the freedom of conscience when it comes to religion and challenge to political authority in the form of the power of the state. This last point is of particular relevance in Ugandan society and politics today where the tradition of the martyrs is in danger of being domesticated or where their prophetic significance is overlaid by an anti-colonialist rhetoric that is diversionary.
A. S. KASIBANTE