The story of the Uganda Martyrs is well known throughout this African nation. June 3 is the official commemoration of the Martyrs and is honored as a national holiday. Though we think of martyrdom as an ancient stage in Christian history, the Uganda Martyrs gave their witness to their faith just over a hundred years ago.

The first king of Buganda to deal with Christians was Mutesa I. He welcomed missionaries to his land. In the early 1880s, Arab Muslims, French Catholics and English Anglicans came for the first time to this east African nation. Mutesa seems to have favored the Christians and many of his people eagerly studied and converted to the Christian faith. In fact, these first converts were called abasomi, meaning “readers,” because they read the Scriptures.

The king himself was never baptized because he would have had to abandon his many wives. But he was not drawn to Islam. He took a policy that permitted his subjects to choose their own religious adherence, and he himself died still clinging to his traditional African religion.

Mutesa died in 1884. His son, Mwanga II, had been impressed with the missionaries and even gave them his enthusiastic support. But soon after he came to the throne, he changed his attitude and became a persecutor of the Christians. The precise cause of his sudden change is a matter of debate. But surely one of the most important factors was the fact that the new Christian converts seemed to give their entire loyalty and allegiance to Christ as king rather than their tribal monarch.

Bishop James Hannington, the first Anglican Bishop assigned to the region, came across Kenya through the country of Busoga, vassals of the Buganda. He and his companions were discovered and imprisoned by the Busoga chieftains on the king’s orders. Hannington and six missionaries were killed on October 29, 1885.  

Mwanga then launched a persecution of Christians on a broader scale. It is not known just how many would give their lives, but some 45 individuals were known to have been martyred from 1885-1886. The greatest number of these, 24 in all, were burned to death at Namugongo on June 3, 1886.  

There are two shrines to these Christian martyrs, one with a Roman Catholic Basilica (dedicated 1975) about a mile and a half from the other, the Anglican Shrine shown here. This is fitting because, as it turned out, half of the young men slain were Roman Catholic and half were Anglican.   The Roman martyrs were first honored in 1920, and were declared saints by Pope Paul VI in 1964 – the first Africans to be so honored. The Anglican martyrs were recognized by Archbishop Robert Runcie on his pilgrimage to Namugongo in 1984. Archbishop George Carey also honored the shrine with a visit in 1998.   Although international recognition of these witnesses to the Christian faith came relatively late, the Uganda Martyrs and their example inspired the Christians of this nation right from the start, and their courage and commitment is credited with the remarkable growth of the churches in this African nation. Tertullian had said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” That is certainly true in Uganda.

Detail of muralUCU team at ShrineMartyrs' ChapelNamugongo Seminary HallSite of the martyrdomDean tells the storyVisitors to the ShrineExecutioner's hut
The photo at the head of this page is a panoramic portrayal of the Martyrdom of the Ugandans at Namugongo, done by a local artist. It is housed in the
main building of the Namugongo Seminary at the Anglican Shrine. A detail of the mural is shown in the small photo at left. Click on this photo for a
larger view. Next is the group of UCU Partners who visited the Shrine. The third photo is of the small chapel at the Shrine. Next is the main Seminary building.
The last four photos show: the site of the martyrdom, visitors listening to the Dean of the Seminary relate the story of the Martyrs, and the executioners' hut.