Henry Stanley, British explorer and journalist, met King Mutesa, the Kabaka (king) of Buganda (a central Ugandan tribe) in April 1875. After sharing the simple story of Christianity with King Mutesa, he became very enthusiastic about Christianity and asked Stanley to write a letter to Queen Victoria of England, appealing for missionaries.
King Mutesa’s successor, King Mwanga, “became increasingly angry as he realized that the first converts put loyalty to Christ above the traditional loyalty to the king. Martyrdoms began in 1885. Mwanga first forbade anyone to go near a Christian mission on pain of death, but finding himself unable to cool the ardour of the converts, resolved to wipe out Christianity.”
Among the early martyrs of Uganda was English Bishop, James Hannington, the first Anglican Bishop of the Eastern Equatorial province. Bishop Hannington approached the Buganda Kingdom from the East. Unfortunately, unknown to him, there was a Baganda belief that its enemies would approach the kingdom from the eastern route. So, the Kabaka (king) sent warriors to meet this encroaching enemy. Before they killed Hannington on 29th October 1885, he is reported to have said, “Tell the Kabaka (king) that I die for Uganda.” These words are inscribed on his tomb at the Namirembe Cathedral.
On 3rd June 1886, King Mwanga ordered the killing of twenty-six of his pages – thirteen Anglicans and twelve Roman Catholics. Today, 3rd June is set aside as a public holiday to commemorate the Martyrs of Uganda. Thousands of people from all over East Africa travel to the site of the martyrdom to remember their courage, sacrifice, and testimony…even unto death.
These early Christians were martyred at Namugongo. Their martyrdom produced a result entirely opposite of Mwanga’s intentions. The example of these martyrs, who walked to their deaths singing hymns and praying for their enemies, so inspired many of the bystanders that they began to seek instruction from the remaining Christians
Within a few years the original handful of converts had multiplied many times and spread far beyond the court. The martyrs had left the indelible impression that Christianity was truly African, not simply a white man’s religion. Most of the missionary work was carried out by Africans rather that by white missionaries, and Christianity spread steadily. Uganda now has the largest percentage of professed Christians of any nation in Africa.