On November 28, 2015, as part of his recent tour of Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic, Pope Francis visited the Anglican and Catholic shrines to the 45 Uganda Martyrs at Namugongo. In his homily, Francis acknowledged both the Catholic and Anglican martyrs, “whose deaths for Christ testify to the ecumenism of blood.” Francis’ ecumenical acknowledgment, however, obscured both the colonial Christian and queer sexual contexts in which Kabaka Mwanga ordered their execution in the mid-1880s. Indeed, the Martyrs have long stood central to the tensions between international encroachment in Uganda and Ugandans’ efforts to establish, in the words of Pope John Paul II in his homily at the Namugongo shrine in 1993, “a Church that is truly Catholic and truly African.”
The specter of these young male converts executed at the orders of Kabaka Mwanga in the 1880s still haunts contemporary Ugandan society. While they can serve as a reminder of earlier Christian devotion, they also stand as witnesses of a battle over homosexuality in contemporary Uganda. Ultimately, the Uganda Martyrs point to the complex and multifaceted legacy of colonialism in the shaping of African spiritual, sexual, and political identities.
When Mwanga, the kabaka (ruler) of the pre-colonial polity of Buganda, ordered various pages and other members of his court to be executed in the mid-1880s, both Protestant and Catholic missions were less than a decade old. Mwanga’s father, Kabaka Mutesa, had invited Christian missionaries to his court in 1875, in part to counter an influential Muslim faction. For Mutesa, Catholics were a political balance to the strong Muslim presence at court, as well as to the Anglican delegation, which was associated with British colonial power to the north in the Sudan. Following the death of his father in 1884 and amid European imperial encroachment—the Germans from the east, the British from the north—Kabaka Mwanga feared the Christian factions in his court could be turned into foreign proxies. What is more, young male pages who had converted to Christianity, led by Charles Lwanga, began refusing the kabaka’s sexual advances. This insubordination, combined with fears of insurrection, sparked his execution order.
The history of same-sex sexuality in Uganda is a complex one, made more difficult by a dearth of written sources, profound shifts in attitudes introduced by large-scale conversions to Christianity in the early twentieth century, and lingering effects of colonial-era restrictions on non-heteronormative sexuality. Some historians, such as Yves Tourigney and J.A. Rowe, have followed early missionary observers, taking the sexual relationship between Mwanga and his pages as evidence of the singularity of Mwanga’s “vice.” In his 1964 essay “The Purge of Christians at Mwanga’s Court,” Rowe highlighted the fact that Kabaka Mwanga could compel his court’s pages to engage in sexual acts with him by using his status, suggesting that such practices contravened “traditional Ganda mores,” as well as the newer moral teachings of both Protestant and Catholic missionaries. However, this historical interpretation disregards the reality that African sexualities, including sexual encounters among persons of the same gender, were part of complex relational, religious, familial, and political systems. Scholars like Sylvia Tamale as well as activist groups like Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), have worked to problematize these ahistorical assumptions about Ugandan sexualities in the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods. Through this process, they have made visible practices and identities that were obfuscated by the Uganda Protectorate’s creation of a modern, monogamous, and heterosexual married couple as the religious, legal, and moral ideal.
From the late nineteenth century onwards, the establishment of an indigenous, Ugandan Christianity incorporated European churches’ teachings on homosexuality. Ugandan churches acknowledged the Martyrs for their religious persecution while ignoring or distorting the sexual contexts that informed their executions. This distorted sexual history has been advanced by influential Pentecostal pastors like Martin Ssempa, a sensationalist preacher and vehement supporter of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2009. In an open letter that railed against American Christians who reneged on their support after they learned that the bill would punish “aggravated homosexuality” with the death penalty, Ssempa wrote:
You were indeed affirming Uganda’s Christian’s [sic] long historical struggle against institutionalized homosexuality. This boycott was not the beginning of the struggle. In fact on June 3rd 1886, 26 Ugandas new converts to Christianity [sic] were martyred for their stand against a deviant king who had taken to the practice of sodomy. There faith [sic] in Christ emboldened them to stand against homosexuality, resisting to the ‘point of shedding blood’.
Here the Uganda Martyrs are invoked as prototypes of Uganda’s contemporary struggle, which the bill’s supporters view as resisting a decadent and insidious form of Western imperialism. This was a talking point that Ssempa borrowed from Ugandan Anglican clergy, like Archbishop Henry Orombi, who used the historical example of the Uganda Martyrs and their resistance of “homosexuality” to challenge the Episcopal Church’s ordination of priests and bishops in same-sex partnerships, a conflict that has effectively split the Anglican Communion.
In recalling the blood of the martyrs, Ssempa also demands the blood of “gays.” And by holding up the Uganda Martyrs as willing to die instead of surrendering their moral convictions on “homosexuality,” Ssempa exhorted Ugandans to accept whatever penalties Western nations might dole out in response to the passage of the “Kill the Gays” bill. This was a kind of twisted “ecumenism of blood,” as the bill garnered support from Pentecostal, Anglican, Catholic, and Muslim religious leaders in Uganda.
And yet, Ssempa’s invocation of the martyrs represents a different take on dominant narratives that reject sexual variance as a result of colonization. Frequently, the claim levied in Uganda and elsewhere across the continent is that “homosexuality is un-African,” an import from decadent colonial powers. Because Western governments and NGOs have threatened to withdraw aid to homophobic African states, they have inadvertently helped to crystallize debates over sexual rights along lines of African sovereignty. But by linking the Uganda Martyrs as resilient to the aberrant sexuality of the kabaka, Ssempa assigned same-sex desire to a pre-colonial African leader, undermining the argument that such desire only came through colonial intervention.
Still, the religious connection that Ssempa seeks to make is relatively straightforward: Christianity provided the martyrs with the moral clarity and spiritual framework to reject same-sex sexual activity, even at the risk of death. Rhetorically, Kabaka Mwanga is rendered part of the pre-colonial, pre-conversion darkness that came before subsequent Enlightenment. It is a complex argument that both carries colonial logics of Western uplift and declarations of African sovereignty in a contemporary moment of LGBTIQ rights. At its core, this argument requires an assumption of both legal proscription of homosexual acts and Christianity as inherently African, despite their origins in European colonialism. It also requires a complicated discursive maneuver that consigns queer desire and sexual activity to the realm of non-African.
When Pope Francis visited the Namugongo shrine, he reflected upon both the Anglican and Catholic martyrs in an attempt to highlight the unifying potential of the sacrificial love of God. His speech, and much of the subsequent media commentary, have done little to consider openly the complex and intertwined colonial histories that link the 1880s to the present. Yet the papal speech at a shrine to colonial-era martyrs highlighted a basic and critical question that Ugandan Christians have been struggling with for well over a century, imbedded in John Paul II’s earlier homily: What does it mean to be “truly Catholic,” “truly Anglican,” “truly Christian,” or “truly gay” and still be “truly Ugandan”?
T.J. Tallie is an Assistant Professor of African History at Washington and Lee University. His work focuses on race, masculinity, and sexuality in nineteenth-century colonial South Africa and other settler societies. He also tweets from @Halfrican_One
Jason Bruner is an Assistant Professor of Global Christianity in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. He is currently working on a manuscript titled Living Salvation: A History of the East African Revival in Uganda, ca. 1930-1950.
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