From Mwanga to Museveni: Sex, Politics and Religion in Uganda – By Magnus Taylor
By far the most high-profile international story to come out of Uganda of late has been the passing of the anti-homosexuality bill. This has been covered both here and elsewhere extensively, so when I came to Uganda I made a conscious decision not to write about it – other people could do it with greater insight and expertise. However, over the weekend I visited the Uganda Martyrs shrine at Namugongo on the outskirts of Kampala – a Catholic memorial to thirty two members of Kabaka Mwanga’s court, put to death in 1886 for converting to Christianity under the influence of European missionaries. Twenty two of the Catholic martyrs were canonized in 1964 and the significance of their act to the international community of Catholics has been marked with visits by the pope in 1969 and 1993. However, the other side of the story is that the Martyrs were executed because they refused to have sex with the absolutist Kabaka Mwanga, an act of disobedience that could not be tolerated.
Largely for the above reason, the “˜Uganda Martyrs’ have gained some international attention recently and have been re-animated to take their place within the country’s contemporary debate on homosexuality. However, references to the martyrs in this debate, including that made by Richard Dowden on this blog, have simply stated that the men were put to death by Kabaka Mwanga because they refused to sleep with him. This explanation seems to run counter to the “˜official’ explanation of the Catholic Church, which sets them out as martyrs to their beliefs as Christians. It seems to me to be slightly more complicated that this – both explanations are true, but connected. The Uganda Martyrs refused to have sex with the Kabaka because they were Christians and persuaded of its sinfulness by newly-acquired learning from the bible. Such an interpretation raises some interesting questions (and problems) for those propounding the explanation that homosexuality is un-African and its origins are external to the continent.
Mwanga II was Kabaka for a relatively short period in the 1880s, during which time Europeans were beginning to exert influence on the Buganda kingdom. This came in the form of missionaries arriving during the rule of the more (in)famous Kabaka, Mutesa, who had welcomed them to the kingdom and invited them to carry out their work there. One result was a number of Christian converts within the large royal court. Mwanga saw this as a threat to his political control of Buganda and reacted violently to representatives of the new faith – a British missionary, Bishop Hannington, was captured and killed under the orders of Mwanga in 1885.
Mwanga also attempted to reverse the conversion of his kingdom and executed the Christian converts within the court either by beheading or burning. There is an account of the event, “˜Black Martyrs’, written by a British Catholic priest called J.P Thoonen, which quotes a Buganda man called Kiwanuka (see John Blevins’ “When Sodomy Leads to Martyrdom” for a more complete account.) This introduces the parallel, but associated, element of homosexuality into the story of the martyrs: “At that time, the king practised the works of Sodom. Moslems and pagans were prepared to do those things with the king, but the Catholics absolutely refused. For that reason the king began to detest us, and deliberated with the pagans and Moslems about putting us to death, us the Catholics”. So, according to Thoonen, the martyrs refused to sleep with the probably bi-sexual Kabaka Mwanga because they were Christians, not because this kind of sexual practice was particularly unusual among the Baganda at the time.
Blevins actually looks through the contemporary source material and finds scant reference to this refusal to have sex with Mwanga as a reason for the executions, coming to the conclusion that whilst this element of the account is likely to be true, it was the European take on the events that elevated it in importance. Further evidence for the missionaries and their sponsors that Christianity, and with it “˜civilisation’, should be brought upon these people of the African interior.
The site of the martyrs’ execution, now in the outskirts of Kampala at Namugongo, has become an important place of pilgrimage for East Africa’s Catholic community. Every year the anniversary of the executions is marked on June 3rd as “˜Martyrs Day’ – a public holiday across Uganda. This has grown to become a gathering of more than a million Catholics, many coming from a far as neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania, and is probably the most important Christian pilgrimage in Africa. The explanation you get from the current tour guide at Namugongo is also interesting. Whilst the story of Mwanga being gay is not immediately volunteered, when asked about it our guide was happy to accept that this was probably true, but I got no sense that he thought this detracted from the fact that the men were Christian martyrs.
As mentioned, the story of the Ugandan Martyrs has gained resonance of late due to the passing of the anti-homosexuality bill and the international controversy surrounding its latent and illiberal homophobia. President Museveni, whilst never keen on the legislation, did not let this stop him using the story of the martyrs’ refusal to submit to Mwanga’s own sexual proclivities for his own political gain. The president and his cabinet, along with other dignitaries and, of course, influential members of the Catholic Church in Uganda, attend the main Catholic mass on Martyrs Day, celebrated in the grounds of the Namugongo shrine. During his 2010 speech at the event, Museveni stated: “The African Church is the only one that is still standing against homo-sexuality. The Europeans are finished. If we follow them, we shall end up in Sodom and Gomorrah… I hear there was homosexuality in Mwanga’s palace. This was not part of our culture. I hear he learnt it from the Arabs. But the martyrs refused these falsehoods and went for the truth, which is why we are honouring them today.”
Museveni’s explanation that Mwanga “˜learnt it [homosexuality] from the Arabs’ is a fairly popular one, but Blevins argues that it is unlikely that Mwanga “˜learnt it’ from Muslims because they had little influence on his court. This followed the execution of over 70 Muslim converts under Mwanga’s father, Mutesa, a decade earlier. Like Christianity, Islam was seen as a threat to Mwanga’s political control of his kingdom.
The episode of the Ugandan Martyrs actually shows that homosexuality, or at least the act of men having sex with other men, needed no external influence to exist in pre-colonial Buganda. But the politically motivated execution of the Christian converts continues to be used by this generation of Ugandan leaders to strengthen their role as guardians of Ugandan culture and with it their hold on national political power.
Magnus Taylor is Editor of African Arguments.
Homosexuality has long existed in the world. But the holy books have always shown it as unacceptable to God. The argument that it is against African culture is not the real issue; obviously, it used to be against European culture too (in the sense of not being generally accepted). Europe has got to a point now where they do not accept that God’s laws, as stated in the holy books (the Bible, for example) are binding on them. We in Africa have not. Why is there so much pressure on us? Nobody has been able to stop two consenting adults to do whatever they want in the privacy of their home; but must we be forced to accept to marry them?
Africans do not dispute the existence of homosexuality on their land. However the establishment of same-sex marriage invalidates the immutability of gender and renders gender an irrelevant characteristic in the concept of human sexual relationships. If this does not pass as the most irrational act of the century nothing will. When a group pursue their rights to the destruction of other’s rights , that right is an unwanted luxury detrimental to society.
First, the western world came along to “civilise” us in their “christian” ways and force (yes, force) us to accept homophobia in the name of religion. Today they are back again to “civilise” us by force (yes, force, aid and all that)to reject religion(christianity) sanctioned homophobia that is (allegedly) now, “part of our African culture”.
mankind will never learn anything.
I dont understand why this writer is eager to establish the genesis of homosexuality in Uganda. Most acts in our culture are social constructs, and it does not mean if certain acts existed meant they were accepted. The King was King and influencial and if he had a deviant character does not necessarily mean his society accepted it. Culture is dynamic and if current acts of homosexuality is abhored by Ugandans so be it/ It does not matter whether it existed or not.
The first written suggestions about Mwanga’s alleged deviance association with christian converts are vague, brief, and not specific. They are written under a pseudonym, and are rumors that suggest a rumor and are written in a couple of journals in 1890. Well, converts were martyred mainly from 1885 to 1887. Why would it have taken so long to denounce Mwanga as a sexual deviant. Truth is Mwanga was vehemently hated for putting Hannington to death, from vacillating opportunistically between the foreign religions which he did not care about. At one time he sided with the muslims–the British rumored that Mwanga had learned homosexuality from the Arabs–there is no evidence of this ever having happened. It was all British propaganda. From just simple rumors, many “scholars” and average people have concocted fiction about Mwanga’s alleged homosexuality. Who were Mwanga’s homosexual counterparts, which page-boys did Mwanga ask to be his partners? 99% of the literature on Mwanga’s homosexuality is poorly referenced, and simply fiction created from friction. The most important and precise information about Mwanga was written in the last 15 years of the 19th century. None of these sources convincingly bring out Mwanga as a homosexual. Mwanga had people to death bcause they embraced foreigners and their reigions and power, thereby disrespecting him and his kingdom that was becoming eaten by foreigners. Even we are to go to extremes and assume that he was a homosexual, would unwanted advances warrant hunting out and killing converts most of whom he did not know personally? There was also an incident when Mwanga had planned to trick christian and muslim converts into an island where he would have them massacred. The plan was leaked by some of the pages and converts. Killing the converts for conniving with the colonialists and missionaries is a more sensible explanations. At the same time Mwanga did not have every page-boy or convert killed. He concentrated mainly on the very disobedient ones and used them as examples. The Scot Alexander Mackay, who was quite close to Mwanga and the converts, and feared for his life and sheltered converts, wrote extensively. At no stage in Mackay’s published writing is it suggested that Mwanga’s massacres had to do with homosexuality.
Likely the first written rumor about Mwanga’s unusual rumored association with the martyrs is so vague and general and to further make it unconvincing is that it is written under a pseudonym (“Philo-Africanus”). Further, this journal piece was written in 1893; and that is five and more years after the martyrdoms. The journal article is very vile towards Mwanga, including over the murder of James Hannington. The article also puts forward a strong case for the British acquisition of Uganda, which twice in the article is referred to as the “pearl of Africa.” It can be suspected threat the pseudonymous author is Henry Morton Stanley. The British were determined to dig dirt on Mwanga, and to get rid of him. So, their manufacturing information about his misdeeds is not surprising. Another British joke: Mwanga learned to be gay from Mohammedans. Mwanga was quite traditionalist, and recognized the religions as part of the colonial machinery. The people put to death were variously catholic, protestant, and Muslim converts and were of various ages; and historically it was common for kings to put to death the wayward and disrespectful of tradition and royalty. There is also the joke that colonialists suppressed homosexuality in Africans. Sodomites in Black Africa were too statistically insignificant to be noticeable. The colonial laws introduced were imported laws that regulate what happens in European society. The late nineteenth century literature lays out that Mwanga became the heir because he strongly resembled his father Mutesa both in looks and character. Frederick Lugard was quite impressed by how Mwanga understood and reacted to the European incursion. But many regarded Mwanga as a more lenient king than Mutesa whose other name “Mukaabya” means the one who makes people cry. For example, Mukaabya put hundreds of Muslim converts to death for just refusing to eat his meat because the cattle from which the meat was obtained were not slaughtered by a Muslim. Muteesa had many wives. Mwanga had an impressive line-up of enviable beautiful women, and he even raided women from neighbors like Toro and had men killed. But Mutesa gained favor just because he allowed the British to come in–though he still, like Mwanga regarded the foreign religions as a joke, but still a very dangerous part of the colonial system that was there to annex Uganda and substantially reduce the power and influence of the Kabaka. And for young Mwanga, right from the beginning of his reign, he sought the company of youngsters and they fought alongside him. He was aware that many of his chiefs and other parts of the royal administration were defecting to the colonial machinery. As his young loyalists started to also defect and look down upon his power and traditions, that is when the “martyrdoms” were carried out, as examples of what the consequences would be. It was political and had nothing to do with homosexuality, and Mwanga probably knew very little about homosexuality. For one, he was quite vile to foreign practices and culture; though he had to cooperate with the militarily stronger and influential colonialists and missionaries. It is again, quite laughable, that Mwanga, one of the most formidable of Uganda’s resistors to colonial rule has become signified as Uganda’s standard homosexual.
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The author of the article must be gay. All his inclinations want to portray homosexuality as part of the African society but it’s never portrayed in the regimes before Mwanga.
Which evidence shows that the Martyr’s were killed b’se they failed to participate in sodomy.
Should we say Bishop Hannington was killed for the same reason?
There’s no way Arabs could import homosexuality into Buganda since they had earlier been there starting in 1840’s under Kabaka Ssuuna and his successor Kabaka Muteesa but never is homosexuality mentioned in Baganda oral tradition nor practised as the author claims.
Captain Lugard, who arrived in Buganda in 1890 asserts that sodomy isn’t indigenous in African societies but rather was brought in by the coastal people of which their influx increased with increasing caravans that were brought in by the works/occupation of IBEACo which got interest in 1890 onwards. Actually Jackson (also part of IBEACo) had arrived in Buganda shortly before Lugard.
Since Martyr’s were killed shortly after Mwanga’s ascension to the throne (1884) (Hannington killed in 1885) any threat to Mwanga’s succession can be considered for his brutality and not any hindrance to his leisure activities. Kings were polygamous then and there isn’t any justification that he was sexually starving to start such a practice.
Why isn’t there any record of Mwanga’s homosexuality before ascension to the throne, yet courts were already there and missionaries hard arrived in Buganda before 1880. Mwanga was already a sexually active adult at the time.
Stop twisting history to suit your narratives