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three pairs of lovers with space



The following story of a violent clash over Greek love between traditional Africans and Christian missionaries in 1885-87 is recounted by Cambridge Professor Ronald Hyam in his Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester, 1990) pp. 186-189.  The numbering of his notes has been adapted.

       The Kingdom of Buganda in 1880

The longest account of the clash was given in one of Hyam’s sources, J. F. Faupel’s African Holocaust: the Story of the Uganda Martyrs (London, 1965), itself a revision of J. P. Thoonen, Black Martyrs (London, 1941), based mostly on missionary testimony and told from their point of view.  Unsurprisingly, it was thus one-sided and, as an avowed "attempt to make the martyrs of Uganda better known, and their steadfast faith better appreciated", reverential of the martyrs. Nevertheless, Faupel’s account clarifies a point critical to understanding the story and omitted by Hyam, that local custom insisted on unswerving obedience to the ruler from his pages. For this and some lively details, Hyam’s account is here interspersed with additions from Faupel’s (pp. 78, 99-100, 110, 145-6, 159-61) in a different font, between square brackets and initialed thus: [JFF: …]


Buggery in Buganda


'In my opinion,' said Iskhomakhos, 'those who are mad about sex cannot be taught to care about anything more than that. It is not easy to discover any hope or concern more pleasurable than a passionate desire for sexual intercourse with boys.' [Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 12.13]


Missionaries the world over, whether Catholic or Protestant, have always consistently targeted anal intercourse as one of the first traditional practices to be eliminated. One reason for Christian hostility was the association of sodomy with Islam. Xavier in Japan in the mid-sixteenth century had three principal messages: pray only to God, give up sodomy and stop infanticide. He and his preachers were ridiculed in the streets by incredulous Japanese: ‘these are the men who think sodomy is wrong!’ It was widely and openly practised among Buddhist monks and at the Tokugawa court. Ricci in Peking only a little later found it everywhere: ‘the horrible sin to which everyone here is much given, and about which there seems to be no shame or impediment’.[1] Their Protestant successors were even more opposed to it. In Buganda in the late 1880s confrontation on this issue resulted in the martyrdom of a considerable number of boys and young men at the court of Mwanga (Kabaka, 1884-88, 1889-97).

These Bagandan martyrdoms were grouped in three phases. In the first, three Protestant boys from Alexander Mackay’s Church Missionary Society entourage were killed in January 1885. In the second, thirty-one boys and young men were burned alive in a mass funeral pyre at Namugongo on 3 June 1886, while their leader, Charles Lwanga, was martyred separately. Of these, thirteen were believed to have been Catholics, thirteen Protestants and five non-Christians, who were probably in the main unbaptised neophytes. In the third phase, an unknown number perished in the mopping-up operation finally concluded on 27 January 1887. In 1964, twenty-two Roman Catholic Baganda martyrs were canonised as saints, of whom thirteen were pages at the Kabaka’s court. Seven of them were eighteen or younger, mostly about fifteen or sixteen, though one of them may have been a thirteen-year-old. Of the rest, many were ex-pages.[2]

           Mwanga II King of Buganda

The Kabaka’s court contained about 500 pages, drawn from the best families throughout Buganda. They were, among other things, responsible for the Kabaka’s personal safety. Sodomy may or may not have been introduced by the Arab traders, but it was well established at court under Mutesa long before Mwanga’s accession. A conventional harem was available, but Mwanga preferred the pages. (From his point of view he was, after all, surrounded by the pick of Buganda’s boyhood.) He was totally involved in male sex himself as a boy. At the same time he had been attracted to Christianity, and had begun to receive instruction. However, once it was clear that Christianity meant renouncing anal intercourse – and he checked the point carefully [JFF: ‘Is it true?’ he asked, ‘that you forbid the satisfaction of certain natural desires?’] – Mwanga, in angry disbelief, declared it was asking the impossible. He was only eighteen when he succeeded to the throne, and many of his court officials were only a little older than himself, that is, at the peak of their sexual imperiousness. His chancellor (the katikiro) was a passionate addict of coitus with boys, which he combined with increasing dislike of Christianity. The martyrdoms of the first phase were triggered off because chancellor Mukasa had selected a particularly attractive boy of about eleven or twelve either for himself or Mwanga, and the boy had refused. In the period following, more and more pages [JFF: who, according to Kiganda tradition, should have had no desire but to obey their Kabaka’s slightest wish] refused sexual overtures under the influence of their majordomo, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, who had become a Christian. [JFF: He was clever at argument.] He discreetly taught the boys the new religion, convincing them sodomy was wrong, and making excuses for his converts not to respond to any summons from the Kabaka which looked likely to end in a sex session. [JFF: Whenever Mwanga sent for one of the younger and more handsome pages, under circumstances that appeared to him suspicious, he would send the lad scampering off  … for a catechism lesson and then report to the Kabaka that the lad was absent. At other times he would countermand orders, intercept messages or side-track those who brought them. Also, taking his life in his hands, he would attempt to persuade Mwanga to give up his evil ways. ‘O my Master,’ he would plead, ‘I beg and implore you, do not act like that, because God detests uncleanness. Leave my Christians alone, and rather leave to the Muslims the vileness with which Satan inspires them.’

It is not surprising that the affection and esteem in which Mwanga had held his royal servant began to give place to anger and irritation.]

It now became a regular occurrence for boys to reject propositions. If Mwanga resented this, it was as nothing compared with the fury of other boy-lovers at court, who began to taunt Mwanga with his lack of control over the pages. [JFF: ‘Do you not see that they despise you?’ complained the Muslim Majusi. ‘Does one refuse anything to a Kabaka? Are you still their king?’ Another warned him: ‘When the white men have taught all these children, they will be the masters of this country.’]

Twenty pages later martyred meeting their new Catholic bishop in Tanganyika late 1885

The result was the removal and execution of majordomo Joseph, his ostentatious replacement by a Moslem who was an unequivocally proselytising pederast, and the re-establishment of the old sexual hegemony. Sodomy came at once more and more into the open, being freely indulged in, as court officials became determined defiantly to break once and for all the threat of Christian teaching to their way of life. The leadership and protection of the Christian pages was now assumed by Charles Lwanga. [JFF: His physical prowess at the wrestling contests, so popular at Court, made him something of a hero to his younger charges.] He became the principal martyr.[3]

When the storm broke, the court was at Munyonyo. This was little more than a hunting-lodge, serviced only by a comparatively small complement of pages. But for this circumstance, the holocaust would have been much greater in scale. The precipitating incident was the sudden refusal of sodomy by Mwafu, an exceptionally beautiful boy who had become Mwanga’s favourite [JFF: [having] quickly succumbed to the blandishments of his royal master. … Daudi yondo, one-time chief of Mukono (Basiro), … says, ‘When Mwafu, the son of Chancellor Mukasa, came to court, he was a very pretty boy. Soon the Kabaka took a fancy to him and committed sodomy with him.’ This piece of evidence, read in conjunction with Mwanga’s fulsome praise of the youth, … explains why Mwanga’s smouldering anger against his Christian pages burst suddenly into an all-consuming flame.] The Christians were trying to convert Mwafu. This was the last straw. Not only were fresh pages refusing to be drawn into the Kabaka’s sex circle because of their acceptance of Christian teaching [JFF: humiliating him themselves by refusing to comply with the wishes of their Kabaka and thus offering him an affront unprecedented in the history of Buganda], but the Christians were now attempting to detach from him even those who were his regular partners [JFF: by teaching … the religion which made them prefer death to submissions to his shameful demands.

             Pages converted to Catholicism kneel before their bishop Livinhac

On the afternoon of Tuesday, 25 May 1886, Mwanga suddenly decided to go hippopotamus hunting and, sending the young Kizito ahead to order the canoes, left his palace at Munyonyo at about two o’clock with some twenty attendants. No hippo was sighted; so after shooting at a few birds the royal party returned to the lake shore at about five o’clock.

On disembarking, the Kabaka, already disgruntled at the failure of his hunt, walked a few paces, looked around, and said:

‘I do not see any of my attendants here. Where are they?’

‘They did not know that you were out hunting,’ replied one of his companions …. If they had known they would have been here to a man.’ Mwanga refused o be placated.

‘Rubbish!’ he said. ‘I know very well where they are; they have gone off to the white men to study religion. Now I know that the country is no longer mine, but the white men’s. Even Mwafu, the son of my Chancellor, the only one of my pages who is completely loyal and devoted to me, always ready to obey my slightest wish, even he is absent; and here I am, alone and forsaken. It’s a disgrace!’

A boy called Kayiggwa, who was watching the return of the hunting party, said:

‘I met Ssebuggwawo and Mwafu on the road, near Ttake Jjunge. They were on their way towards Mengo.’

‘There!’ exclaimed Mwanga. ‘They have gone to Kisule’s place to learn religion. Am I your Kabaka? Or does Buganda belong to the white men? Don’t I provide enough meat for you at the Palace, or are the snakes you eat at the white men’s place more palatable than the meat I provide?’

All the way back to the palace, Mwanga continued to grumble in the same vein.

Arrived at the palace, he entered the enclosure by the rear gate and made his way to his own apartments where, finding no pages in attendance, he began to shout angrily for them. The cry was taken up by others, and before long, both Ssebuggwawo and Mwafu came running. Meanwhile, Mwanga demanded his spears from Apolo Kagwa, his armourer and, too impatient to wait for the store to be opened, seized Apolo’s sword and hacked open the door himself. When the boys arrived, he shouted angrily at Mwafu:

‘Where have you come from? Tell me exactly where you have been, and no lying!’

‘I have been with Ssebuggwawo,’ replied the youth.

‘What have you been doing?’

‘He has been teaching me religion.

‘So!’ shouted the Kabaka, striking the boy with his hand. ‘It is Ssebuggwawo who sets you against me, and takes you constantly to Kisule’s to study religion! Did your father send you here to serve me or to learn the religion of the white men?’]

Since Mwafu was the katikiro’s son he escaped the wrath to come. But Mwanga was thrown into a paroxysm of rage. He struck and wounded Apolo Kagwa (a future katikiro), and demanded a decision from all the pages to hand as to whether or not they would meet his sexual demands. Any one of the martyrs could have saved himself if he had consented to sodomy. There were a few summary decapitations. Before the main executions took place (not on the same day), Baganda chiefs (some of them the fathers of the condemned and recalcitrant boys) were asked for their consent. This apparently, they readily gave: if these boys will not do your bidding, they replied, we will replace them for you with those who will. But they did not approve of any widening of the persecution against Christians in general.[4]

                                                    The burning of the Baganda martyrs 3 June 1886

A follow-up persecution outside the court nevertheless took place, but the Kabaka, having spent his anger upon his immediate entourage, left the organisation of this wider operation to the katikiro, who used it to settle some old political scores. This part of the persecution was not, however, really systematic. It was easy enough to escape or prevaricate. Some court favourites were pardoned; others had their sentences commuted to castration. Nevertheless, perhaps a hundred youths all told were killed in Buganda. No more Christians died after the last victim in January 1887. Mwanga was satisfied that he had demonstrated who was master.

There have sometimes been attempts to suggest that Mwanga was motivated by objections to Christianity other than those prompted by his sexual frustration. With any historical event it makes sense to distinguish long-term underlying causes from the immediate triggering episodes. It may be true that he was in a general way disappointed by the unwillingness of missionaries tamely to contribute to Bagandan needs as he defined them, for example as to gun supply. The emergence of a competing allegiance at court cannot have been welcome to a despotic king. It may also be the case that he was worried about the threat of a possible foreign take-over, and accordingly was especially anxious to have no kind of rebelliousness at court – but it was not an actual threat at this time. The idea that he might have seen the pages as spies or as politically disloyal seems untenable. The only information passed by them to Europeans concerned details of the murder of Bishop Hannington. The martyrs were remarkable not least for their personal loyalty to the Kabaka. Many of them could have fled when it was obvious they were doomed. Not one of Lwanga’s group did. This might, of course, suggest a deliberate and conscious desire for martyrdom, but even if this were a factor for a few of them, it could not possibly have held good for the entire group. Nor is it likely that boys only just into their teens would have identified as political subversives. Moreover, it is only by recognising the specific sexual causes, both long-term and short-term, of the Kabaka’s wrath, that it is possible to explain why the persecution was so patchy and incomplete, or why some Christians were rapidly reinstated into highly privileged positions. Ironically some were given so much new power that in 1888 they were able to engineer the so-called ‘Christian Revolution’ in Buganda.[5]

Mwanga died in exile in the Seychelles in 1903, a baptised Christian, and presumably in expectation of a joyous reunion with the martyrs in heaven.[6]

For the churches, what happened in Buganda in the 1880s was a chastening experience. No one could argue here the Tertullian thesis that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the church. It was thus forty years before missionaries again pushed an African society to the limits of its patience on a sexual issue. The storm then broke in Kenya over clitoridectomy. Although the results were not so dramatic as in Buganda, the Kenyan confrontation was actually more serious. It was one thing to have challenged the practices of a monarch and his court in respect of selected teenage boys, but it proved to be quite another to take on an entire community about the means of bringing its womenfolk to adult status. And as we shall see, missionaries themselves did not agree how to deal with it.


[1] G. S. J. Schurhammer, Francis Xavier: his Life and Times (trans. M. J. Costelloe), IV: Japan and China, 1549-52, Rome, 1982, pp. 77-85, 144, 154-5, 160-2, 259, 287; idem, Shin-tō: the Way of the Gods in Japan, according to the reports of Japanese Jesuit Missionaries in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Bonn, 1923, p. 169; H. Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism, London, 1963, pp. 199, 39 n. 2; D. H. Shiveley, ‘Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the Genroku Shogun’ in A. M. Craig and D. H. Shiveley (eds), Personality in Japanese History, California, 1970, pp. 97-101; J. D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, London, 1985, ch. 7: ‘The men of Sodom’, pp. 201-31.

[2] J. P. Thoonen, Black Martyrs, London, 1941, revised by J. F. Faupel, African Holocaust: the Story of the Uganda Martyrs, London, 1965; review by H. B. Thomas, Journal of African History, V, 1964, pp. 150-2. An attempt to list the names of the martyrs is made by H. B. Thomas, ‘The Baganda Martyrs, 1885-7’, Uganda Journal, XV, 1951, pp. 84-91.

[3] Faupel, African Holocaust; see also R. Oliver, Missionary Factor in East Africa, London, 1952 and 1965, pp. 103-5; Neill, Christian Missions, pp. 217-18; C. C. Wrigley, ‘Christian revolution in Buganda’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, II, 1959.

[4] Faupel, African Holocaust; E. Stock, The History of the Church Missionary Society, III, 1899, pp. 411-16 – the explanation given here was that the persecution began with ‘one page who refused to commit a disgraceful sin’. The Times, 30 October 1886, merely referred obliquely to Mwanga’s ‘insolent enmity’.

[5] J. A. Rowe, ‘The Purge of Christians at Mwanga’s court’, Journal of African History, V. 1964, pp. 55-71. M. Twaddle, ‘The emergence of politico-religious groupings in late nineteenth-century Buganda’, Journal of African History, XXIX, 1988, p. 81-92, points out that some ten years earlier Muslim pages had been put to death by Mutesa for taking their foreign religion too seriously; he regards the 1886 attack on Christians as being broadened in a similar way into something ‘more than just one frustrated individual’s campaign for revenge’. However, it is clear it was not just Mwanga who was sexually frustrated at court. See also P. Katumba and F. B. Welbourn, ‘Muslim martyrs of Buganda’, Uganda Journal, XVIII, 1964, pp.  151-63.

[6] Stock, History of the Church Missionary Society, IV, 1916, p. 86.




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