Charles Lwanga, a young page in the royal court of Buganda (now part of Uganda), was burned to death in 1886 at the order of King Mwanga, after refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ. Lwanga, who was in his mid twenties, had become
the protector and pastor to a group of young men who worked in the royal court, many of whom had been led to faith and baptized by him. Mwanga's wrath was fueled by what he perceived to be divided loyalty among the pages because of their devotion
to God and their growing unwillingness, under Lwanga's guidance, to submit to his homosexual abuse. Mwanga ordered twenty nine pages, including Lwanga, to parade before him to recant their faith or die. Three recanted, and the remaining twenty
six were sent out to be burnt alive.
The deaths ignited astonishing growth in Buganda, so that 25 years after the martyrdoms 40% of the tribe had been baptized. Bugandan missionaries in turn spread the gospel to the rest of East Africa and the whole continent.
The African kingdom of Buganda was "discovered" by British explorer, J. H. Speke in 1862 and visited by Henry M. Stanley, a British journalist, in 1875. Both Speke and Stanley wrote books that praised the Baganda for their organizational skills,
massive army and navy, and willingness to modernize. Stanley described a town of about 40,000 surrounding the king's palace, which was situated atop a commanding hill. He noted a corps of young pages who served the king while training to become
Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries soon followed, as well as Arab muslims. Mutesa allowed his people to join any religion, but he remained a traditionalist. By the mid 1880s there had been substantial conversions among the Baganda, especially in
the royal court, where the missionaries had focused their attention for strategic reasons. When Mutesa died and was succeeded by his son Mwanga, however, the cost of being a Christian rose dramatically and tragically.
Charles Lwanga was born around 1860 in Ssmgo County and was raised in Buddu in the southwest. At age 18, Lwanga started working for the chief of Kirwanyi and travelled with him to the capital of Buganda in 1880. Lwanga became interested in the teaching
of the Catholic missionaries and began to attend their instructions. When freed from service to the chief, Lwanga joined a group of recently baptised Christians in Bulemezi County.
When Mwanga became king in 1884, Lwanga entered his royal service. A natural leader, he was immediately put in charge of the royal pages and quickly won their confidence and affection, not least because of his skill as a wrestler. Lwanga understood his
job to be to give instruction and guidance to the royal pages and shield them from the evil influences at court. With his encouragement and under his mentorship, many pages turned to Christ.
King Mwanga was concerned that the converts had diverted their loyalty to some other authority so that he could no longer rely on their allegiance at all costs. The ultimate humiliation for him was that they resisted his homosexual advances – it
was unheard of for mere pages to reject the wishes of a king. Mwanga was thus determined to rid his kingdom of the new teaching and its followers.
The first three martyrs were killed at Busega Natete on January 31, 1885. The executions reached their peak with the death of Lwanga and twenty five other "Ugandan Martyrs" on June 3, 1886. Lwanga was burned first and burned more slowly to increase
the suffering. Throughout most of it he prayed quietly, and just before the end, he cried out in a loud voice `Katonda,' – `My God.' By Jan 27, 1887, when the last death in Mwanga's campaign occurred, a total of at least
forty five young Africans had been killed.
Impact of the martyrs
The martyrdoms drove the infant East African church underground but not into retreat. There was dramatic growth in the churches, even during the oppression. More people were baptized than martyred, and at the very peak of the terror, congregations of
fifty and more attended services
. Within two months of Lwanda's death, Anglicans had baptized two hundred and twenty-seven people, and the Catholics may well have baptized even more. Baptisms included
prominent members of the royal court such as the admiral of the fleet.
The oppression eased in 1888 when Mwanga was deposed, but the astonishing growth continued. Soon the missionaries were far outnumbered by local church leaders, and church growth was led by the Africans. In the 1890s revival swept the Ugandan Protestant
community, which then sent out large numbers of missionary evangelists. Their work was so successful that Baganda was 40% Christian and the rest of Uganda 7% Christian by 1911, ready for the even more dramatic
East African Revival that began in 1929.
- Aylward Shorter "Slow death by burning",
Quarterly Review of Mission January 2004
- "The Christian Martyrs of Uganda", The Buganda Home Page
- John Bauer, 2000 Years of Christianity in Africa (Nairobi: Paulines, 1994) pp. 233-44.
- Ashe, Robert P. Two kings of Uganda London, 1889
- Ashe, Robert P. Chronicles of Uganda New York, 1895
- Neil Lettinga, "19th Century Missions in the African Interior: Buganda" African Christianity Homepage,