Singing while they died

Daily Reading for June 3 • The Martyrs of Uganda, 1886

If you were to travel in Uganda to the small town of Námugónga, a few miles from Kampala, you would find there at the Anglican Church one of the most bizarre memorials ever erected—it is a large cross, and piled like cordwood beneath the cross are some 25 life-sized ceramic figures, with their heads and shoulders protruding from bundles of wood and cane rods which encase the bodies. The figures memorialize the 13 Anglican and 12 Roman Catholic native converts—most of them young boys—each of whom was wrapped in such a bundle of flammable material and burned alive on a great pyre in Námugónga by the Kabáka (or King) Mwánga in 1886. In all, between May 25 and June 3, as many as 100 native Christian converts were martyred by the Kabáka. . . .

The problem that finally brought matters to a head was Mwanga’s sexual taste for handsome young men and boys whom he enlisted as “pages” at his court. But when those boys and young men were converted to Christianity, they refused to be sexually exploited by the king, and Mwánga viewed that as insubordination. When he returned disgruntled from an unsuccessful hunting trip on May 25, 1886, none of the court pages were willing to greet him and his anger boiled over. . . . The next morning he summoned all his pages. Probably they had anticipated the summons and its outcome, because all the young Catholic catechumens had been baptized that night, and the Anglicans spent the entire night in prayer.

When the pages assembled Mwánga demanded that Christian believers step forward—and they did. Some of the pages’ relatives at court tried to persuade them to renounce Christ, but none would. Mwánga then pronounced the death sentence on a large number of them. Others not condemned to death were led away to be castrated. Further arrests followed during the next week. The Christian boys were tied together in pairs, and then forced to walk twenty-two miles to the place of execution. On Ascension Day, June 3, 1886, the majority of the martyrs were burned alive on the great pyre, Catholics and Anglicans together, each of them with his hands tied and his body wrapped in a bundle of wood and cane stalks. Before they died, they pleaded successfully for the life of a Muslim boy, Abdúl Azíz Buliwádda, who by mistake had been taken with them. . . . There was no wailing or screaming—the only person who wailed was the executioner. He had been forced to kill his own son: one of the boys who died in the fire.

The martyrdoms had the opposite effect from that which the king had hoped. The examples of these young martyrs who went to their deaths singing hymns and praying for their enemies so impressed those who saw or heard about it that before many years had passed, the number of Christian converts in Uganda had multiplied by thousands.

From Stars in a Dark World: Stories of the Saints and Holy Days of the Liturgy by Fr. John-Julian, OJN (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2009).

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