MARTYRS DAY 2024: The story of the Catholic Uganda Martyrs

When the current Martyrs Shrine was built, part of these relics was returned to Namugongo for veneration. The relic hangs in a glass at the front of the Altar in the Shrine.

There are twenty four (24) Uganda Catholic Martyrs, twenty two killed between 1885 and 1887 under the orders of Kabaka (King) Mwanga of Buganda and two killed in 1918 in Paimol, Northern Uganda.

Most of the twenty two Martyrs were pages in the king’s palace before they were killed by their master and king. Thirteen of these were burnt to death at Namugongo and nine killed in other different places.

The first to be martyred on 15th November 1885 was the King’s major domo and Christian leader, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe. He was killed because he had pleaded with the king not to kill Bishop James Hannington, an Anglican Missionary, who had made an attempt to enter Buganda from east, then considered to be the backdoor of the kingdom. Joseph was beheaded and burnt at Nakivubo swamp, at the Kampala City center.

The main persecution that led to the Namugongo Holocaust broke out on 25th May 1886 at Munyonyo, then a royal enclosure near Lake Victoria when King Mwanga condemned Christians to death With the Spearing and condemning to death Denis Ssebuggwawo. He (Denis) was killed on the following and the same day as Andrew Kaggwa.

On the 26th of May 1886, as a ceremonial opening of the death-march, Pontian Ngondwe was speared by Mukaajanga, the chief executioner, his corpse hacked and pieces scattered to all directions at Ttabataba, now known as Ttaka Jjunge, about a mile from Munyonyo on the way to Mengo.

In the morning of 27th May 1886 at Mengo, Athanasius Bazzekuketta who was thirsty for martyrdom, volunteered to be executed at a spot on the foot of Mengo Hill where Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, his leader had been martyred earlier.

On the same day, while at Old Kampala on his way from Mengo to Namugongo, Mathias Kalemba Mulumba refused to walk further in demand for execution. His hands were cut off first, fresh removed from his back and roasted then his legs cut off, blood vessels and veins tired, and traditional herbs applied to wounds to stop him from over bleeding. He died three days later from thirst.

Tired on their necks and feet to another by the cords and slave-yokes or by the stocks, the Uganda martyrs had to walk for over ten miles to reach Namugongo. But about a mile from their destination, Gonzaga Gonza who could hardly keep up with the pace collapsed at Lubaawo hill, he was speared at about midday on 27th May 1886.

In Namugongo, the Uganda martyrs were confined for about a week before execution, in that time, the executioners went about with preparatory activities like collection of enough fire wood and cutting of reeds to be used in the event, this took until 2nd of June.

The 3rd of June 1886, on the feast of the ascension, Charles Lwanga became the first victim of holocaust, Ssenkoole, the Guardian of the sacred fused had singled him out, following the traditional procedure of a ritual execution, which prohibited his (Ssenkoole) presence at the actual scene of a large execution but rather expected to select one victim and burn him apart from the others.

Ssenkoole took Charles Lwanga to a spot about fifty yards from the road, he (Charles) was allowed to arrange his own death-bed of firewood. Then wrapped in reeds laid on the pyre and was burnt slowly from the foot to the head at about midday, 3rd June 1886.

Achilles Kiwanuka, Adolphus Mukasa Ludigo, Ambrose Kibuuka, Anatoli Kiriggwajjo, Bruno Sserunkuuma, Gyavira, James Buzaalilyawo, Kizito, Luke Banabakintu, Mbaaga Tuzinde, Muggaga and Mukasa Kiriwawanvu are the twelve catholic that were burnt in the great namugongo holocaust together with thirteen Anglicans and six other prisoner that were on death sentence for other offences other than religion.

Martyrs killed outside Namugongo include; Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe and Atthanasius Bazzekuketta, at the city of Kampala (St. Balikuddembe Market), Denis Ssebuggwaawo and Andrew Kaggwa, killed at Munyonyo, Pontian Ngondwe killed at Kyamula (Ttakajjunge), Matthias Kalemba Mulumba killed at Old Kampala, Noe Mawaggali killed at Kiyinda-Mityana, Gonzaga Gonza killed at Kamuli-Lubaawo and lastly John Mary Muzeeyi killed at Mmengo-Kisenyi.

Thirty one years after the Namugongo holocaust, two young Christians from the Acholi people of northern Uganda, Daudi Okello, a chatecist and ILDO lLWA an assistant were martyred by a party of raiders. They were dragged from their hut and pushed to the ground, speared several times on 18th of October 1918 at midnight. Their bodies were not buried until later by the local community.

The aftermath of the Namugongo holocaust

After the death of the Christians in Namugongo, the executioners hanged around the scene adding more firewood to the fires to ensure that the victims’ remains were consumed to ashes. However, their efforts were in vain and it was not so long before they abandoned the scene with some of them giving up their duties as executioners.

Although the execution of the Uganda Martyrs marked the end of the use of the village of Namugongo as an execution ground, the remains of the Christians were left unburied because movements around Namugongo were rendered unlawful and also victims of the king’s anger were considered unworthy for decent burials; persons that buried such victims were consider traitors.

Six months later, three Christians, Matayo (Matthew) Kirevu, Bwaliri Kamya and Lewo (Leo) Lwanga amid fears of being charged with treason, in cover of the night went to Namugongo and collected the remains of St. Charles Lwanga. By 8:00am of the following day the trio had delivered the bones to Fr. Simeon Lourdel at the mission where they were cleaned and wrapped in a red cloth, put in a copper case and buried in the sacristy of the church at Nabulagala.

However, after the mission was deserted because of the religious wars, the location the box was lost since the church had been burnt down and parish turned in to a bush.

On 13th of November 1892, a catechist who was digging his garden recovered the box which was taken to Tangayika by Msgr. Hirth, 1899, and when Buganda stabilized politically, the box containing the remains (later relics) was returned by Msgr. Henry Streicher who was the Archbishop of Buganda.

From 1915, the remains were stored at the Archbishop’s chapel, then in 1964 taken to Rome for the canonization ceremony. When the current Martyrs Shrine was built, part of these relics was returned to Namugongo for veneration. The relic hangs in a glass at the front of the Altar in the Shrine.

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