Uganda Martyrs' Shrine, Namugongo
THE JOURNEY TO NAMUGONGO AND HOLOCAUST
The journey to Namugongo and Holocaust

The following summary account of the martyrs' journey to and burning at Namugongo is based mainly on the testimony of Denis Kamyuka and other eye witnesses as narrated in The African Holocaust, The Story of the Uganda Martyrs, by J.F. Faupel.

Denis Kamyuka, a Catholic also condemned to death with the martyrs, is a survivor and prime witness of the Namugongo holocaust, who only survived the fire at the last minute. He was mysteriously spared by some of the soldiers, who judged him incapable and too weak for the death penalty. He not only provided the information about the martyrs including the holocoust during the beatification process, but was also present at the beatification ceremony of his companions in 1920.


Sentencing to Death by Burning

When the persecution immediately leading to the Namugongo Holocaust finally broke out on 25 May 1886, King Mwanga's Court was at Munyonyo, a royal enclosure near Lake Victoria about six miles from Mengo, Kampala. That night he condemned to death 2 martyrs, Denis Ssebuggwawo and Andrew Kaggwa who were killed at Munyonyo the following morning.

An artistic illustration of the Namugongo Holocaust
An artistic illustration of the Namugongo Holocaust

On the morning of 26th May 1886, Kabaka Mwanga summoned his chiefs to discuss the 'disobedience' of his pages. Satisfied with the subservience of his chiefs, Mwanga gave orders for all the pages to be assembled and brought before him. He also commanded the attendance of Mukaajanga, the chief executioner and his assistant executioners. Mwanga also appointed a royal legate, with powers to seize and plunder Christians in the villages away from Munyonyo.

When Charles Lwanga stood in the position Kabaka Mwanga commanded, he said, 'That of which a man is fully conscious he cannot disavow.' Then addressing himself to the Kabaka, he said, 'You, Sire, are always telling us that we must do our duty, and you know that we have never shirked it despite the threats of your enemies. Today then, once again, we take up the position you command.'

'Are you all Christians?' Mwanga asked.

'Yes. We are Christians,' the pages replied.

'Are you unshaken in your resolve to remain Christians?' Mwanga asked.

'Yes, quite definitely! If you choose not to regard that as a crime, we shall be grateful to you, but we shall never cease to be Christians, whatever the outcome.' the pages replied.

Mwanga then shouted, 'Tie up all the Christians!' Then turning to his victims, he said 'I am going to burn you all!' Then he gave the order to Mukaajanga, 'Take them to Namugongo and burn them!'

March to Mengo

After the death sentence had been passed by Kabaka Mwanga, the executioners threw themselves on the young men and began to tie their wrists and necks with cords.

In the confusion Mukaajanga, pleaded desperately with his own 'son and father', Mbaaga Tuzinde, to renounce his religion. 'Give up this foolishness which will send you to the stake! Only say that you have abandoned religion, and I will hide you' The seventeen year old boy baptized that morning by Charles Lwanga firmly rejected the offer. 'Hide me?' he said, 'Father, what are you thinking of? I am a Christian, and I shall remain one to the last'.

Christians were roped together in two groups, one consisting of the older and taller pages, the other of the smaller boys. As they passed the court-house, the chiefs assembled there hurled insults at them, calling them snake-eaters and shouting, 'Let the Kabaka kill you! We shall give him other pages.'

Ceremonial opening of the death-march at Ttaka Jjunge

Mukaajanga made preparations for the ceremonial opening of the death-march at Tabataba, now known as Ttaka Jjunge, about a mile from Munyonyo on the road to Mengo. At Ttaka Jjunge he ordered a drum call to be sounded which, taken up by all the drummers, produced a thrill of excitement and terror in the hearts of the hearers. This signalled the beginning of the execution.

As the echoes of this awe-inspiring sound died away, Mukaajanga staggered up to Pontian Ngondwe and drove his spear, aptly named the 'drunken man', into the breast of the gallant soldier who bravely stood to meet it. The first thrust did not kill the martyr, so the old man stabbed again. Mukaajanga continued to pierce the body of the martyr long after life was extinct stabbing and stabbing again with his spear until he tired. Mukaajanga then told his men to hack the martyr's corpse to pieces, which they did, scattering the remains in all directions.

At Mengo

The prisoners reached Mengo late in the evening, and were lodged for the night in the executioners' encampment.

In the morning, the executioners informed them that they intended putting one of them to death at the nearby execution site, where Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe had met his death some six months earlier. Immediately, Athanasius Bazzekuketta, still thirsting for martyrdom, volunteered. 'Take me!' he exclaimed. Athanasius was promptly taken to the spot at the foot of Mengo Hill, just at the back of the present Nakivubo Stadium, and there hacked to pieces, his executioners chanting, as they went about their task. He was died on the morning of 27 May 1886, aged about twenty.

March to Namugongo

Namugongo is a little over eight miles from Mengo. The route followed by the martyrs was rather more than ten miles, which proved too much for one of them, Gonzaga Gonza. Unable to proceed on, he was killed on Lubaawo Hill at the order of Mukaajanga about midday on 27th May 1886.

As many of the roads they followed were little more than narrow tracks through the bush, the prisoners marched in single file, tied neck to neck. As they went along, words of encouragement were passed backwards and forwards along the line.

Mukaajanga, the chief executioner, marched at the head of the file, to the sound of the little drum which proclaimed his chieftainship and which was recognized as his by the whole country. The prisoners, whose necks and feet were chafed by the cords and slave-yokes or by the stocks, could not keep up with him, but they struggled along, reciting prayers and the lessons of the catechism as they went.

At Namugongo

At Namugongo there was a prison, but the prisoners were not confined in it. Mukaajanga ordered the executioners to lodge the prisoners in executioners' enclosures throughout the village. As they separated to be taken to their lodgings, those who had been the first to become Christians said to the others, 'You have heard that our friends have been put to death. They are now with Jesus Christ. Let us remain firm like them, and we too shall go where they have gone, to Jesus Christ.' Those who inspired others with courage were Charles Lwanga, Bruno Serunkuuma, James Buzabalyawo and Anatoli Kiriggwajjo.

For a full week, the prisoners were kept in confinement at Namugongo. During the week, Mukaajanga and his assistants set about the task of preparing for the holocaust. Vast quantities of firewood had to be cut and brought in to build the pyre, some thirty-three feet by twenty-two, and sufficient firewood placed in reserve to ensure that the bodies of the victims were entirely consumed. Time was also needed for cutting the elephant-grass reeds, which were then laced together to make the rush-mats, in which the victims were to be wrapped before being placed on the pyre. The preparations were not completed until the eve of the Ascension, 2 June 1886.

3rd June 1886

The hut (Mukaajanga's command post) at Namugongo
The hut (Mukaajanga's command post) at Namugongo

Early on the morning of Ascension Thursday, 3 June 1886, the executioners, their faces smeared with red-ochre and streaked with soot, swooped upon the huts in which their victims were confined. On their heads were fantastic wigs, fashioned from the tails of small animals and birds' feathers and, to complete their attire, they wore the skins of leopards or other animals around their waists, strings of amulets round their necks and bangles of bells on their ankles.

Having removed the stocks, slave-yokes and rings from their prisoners' limbs and necks, the guards tied their hands behind their backs and led them out into the open space before the chief executioner's house.

Here an astonishing scene was enacted, unique in the history of the Namugongo execution site. As each fresh batch of prisoners was led out from its quarters, they were hailed with cries of joy and congratulation from those already assembled. This joyous enthusiasm reached its peak when Mbaaga Tuzinde was seen approaching, between two guards. 'Here comes Mbaaga,' cried one. 'Look, they are bringing him too!' 'Well done, brave lad!' they called out as he drew nearer. When he joined the waiting group, all his companions gathered round him, offering their congratulations and expressing their joy at this reunion. 'Well done!' they said. 'You have overcome the devil! Our Lord is pleased with you! You are a credit to our religion.'

When all the prisoners were assembled, Mukaajanga gave the order to proceed.

The prisoners set out with unconcealed joy, walking in single file; Gyavira, Mugagga, Kizito, Weerabe and Kamyuka; each of them with a silent prayer on his lips. After ten minutes' march, they encountered Senkoole, the Guardian of the Sacred Fuse. He held in his hand the Sacred Fuse with which, as the prisoners filed past him, he tapped on the head each of those singled out for death. Kamyuka's head was not tapped.

Martyrdom of Charles Lwanga

Already, Senkoole had singled out Charles Lwanga, declaring, 'You, I am keeping for myself, to sacrifice to Kibuuka, Mukasa and Nnende. You will make a prime offering.'

In taking leave of the rest of the group, Charles said, 'My friends, we shall before long meet again in Heaven. I stay here and go on ahead of you. Keep up your courage, and persevere to the end.'

In choosing his own personal victim, Senkoole was following the traditional procedure of a ritual execution, which prohibited the presence of the Guardian of the Sacred Fuse at the actual scene of a large execution. He was, instead, expected to select one victim and burn him apart from the others. The rite of tapping each of the condemned with the Sacred Fuse was designed to render the ghosts of the victims powerless to take their revenge upon the spirit of the Kabaka.

Senkoole took Charles Lwanga to a spot about fifty yards from the road, not far from the tree known as Ndazabazdde, where a small pyre had been prepared. At his request, Charles was allowed to arrange his own death-bed of firewood. Then he lay of the the pyre and was burnt slowly. Just before the fire stopped the beating of his heart, Charles Lwanga cried out in a loud voice, 'Katonda! (My God),' and died on the morning of Ascension Day, 3rd June 1886.

At the Execution spot

The prisoners arrived at the place of execution, a mile and a quarter from the residence of Mukaajanga, and sat down in a group. They kept saying to one another, 'Here we are, at Heaven's gates. In the twinkling of an eye, we shall see Jesus.' The poor pagans laughed at them, saying, 'Hark at their ravings! Don't they fear the flames? Do they think we are preparing a treat for them?'

They were stretched on reeds held together with fibre thongs, their hands tied firmly behind their backs, and their legs strapped together. The edges of the reed covers were folded over their bodies, and they were rolled in them so as to make movement impossible. Whilst one group of executioners was busy tying them up in this way, others built the pyre from the piles of firewood which had been collected. Then lifting the human faggots they had prepared, they laid them on the pyre.

When all the victims had been laid on the pyre, the executioners brought more wood, which they piled on top of them. While this was being done, the Christians were heard, each reciting the prayers which came to his mind at that supreme moment.

Mbaaga Tuzinde clubbed to death

Out of pity to spare Mbaaga Tuzinde, his 'son' the pain of the fire, Mukaajanga ordered his assistants to club the boy to death and throw his lifeless body into the flames. They took him some distance apart and did so, killing him instantly. Mbaaga Tuzinde refused to renounce his faith despite entreaties of Mukaajanga even at the site of the pyre.

The Holocaust

When Mukaajanga saw that all was ready, he signalled to his men to station themselves all round the pyre, and then gave the order, 'Light it at every point.' The flames blazed up like a burning house and, as they rose, the murmur of the Christians was heard coming from the pyre as they died invoking God.

The pyre was lit towards noon. The executioners themselves admitted later that they had never seen the like. 'We have put many people to death,' they said, 'but never such as these. On other occasions the victims did nothing but moan and weep, but the Christians were wonderful. There was not a sigh, not even an angry word. All that was heard was the soft murmur on their lips. They prayed until they died.'

When the fire was dying down, the executioners took forked branches and, lifting up the charred corpses, spread them afresh and piled more wood on them. The fire flared up again. A third time they added wood so as to reduce the bodies of their victims to ashes in order to thwart the revengeful activities of their ghosts.

The Aftermath

It is said that Mukaajanga, after having killed the martyrs, took out his handkerchief, covered his face and wept, because he had killed his son, Mbaaga Tuzinde, and his brother, Nakabandwa. But by God's endless miracles, Mukaajanga became a Christian. He was baptized Daniel before his death and burial in Kakiri, Buyoga.

Thirty-one prisoners, excluding Charles Lwanga, were burnt in the great holocaust at Namugongo on Ascension Thursday, 3 June 1886. Of these, twelve are officially recognized as Catholic martyrs. They are: Achilles Kiwanuka, Adolphus Mukasa Ludigo, Ambrose Kibuuka, Anatoli Kiriggwajjo, Bruno Sserunkuuma, Gyavira, James Buzaalilyawo, Kizito, Luke Banabakintu, Mbaaga Tuzinde, Muggaga and Mukasa Kiriwawanvu; nine are officially recognized by the Anglicans. It has generally been assumed that the remaining ten were pagans, who had been in prison and under sentence of death for offences other than religion.

 

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