“Yas, Queens (and Kings)! History’s Most Scandalous Queer Royals” is a weeklong series in celebration of LGBTQ History Month chronicling both queer erasure and monarchal shenanigans of the past.
Legend has it that Mwanga II, the 31st kabaka, or king, of Buganda in what is now modern-day Uganda, sentenced some 30 to 45 men to death in his court in the 1880s for refusing his sexual advances. Those men were beatified in 1920, then canonized in 1964, and every June 3, Christians around the world commemorate their sacrifice for Martyrs’ Day. Mwanga, on the other hand, was vilified as a homosexual rapist, and homosexuality in turn became not only a sin but a crime punishable by death in the region.
The effects of Mwanga’s alleged indiscretions can still be seen in Uganda, where President Museveni recently denied rumors of a renewed effort to pass a “Kill the Gays” bill. Museveni himself has referred to the disgraced kabaka while denouncing homosexuality as a foreign concept. “I hear there was homosexuality in Mwanga’s palace,” Museveni said in 2010. “This was not part of our culture. I hear he learnt it from the Arabs.”
But the truth is, as it often is in history, far more complicated than that. First, homosexuality is part of every culture. Always has been and always will be, regardless of what the law has to say about it. Mwanga didn’t “learn” homosexuality from the Arabs—his father, Muteesa I, had cracked down on Muslim influence in the kingdom before the 16-year-old Mwanga took the throne after his father’s unexpected death in 1884.
Muteesa, a shrewd politician and an ornery sonuvabitch, spotted the growing influence of European powers, Islam, and Christianity—both in neighboring kingdoms and within Buganda’s borders. So in an effort to deter the spread of Islam, he had 70 Muslim converts in his court executed. But he also invited Christian missionaries into Buganda to force outsider religions to compete and keep in each other in check. It’s called compromising, but that plan went flying out the window when Muteesa suddenly got sick.
According to the European missionaries, Muteesa was being punished for his own love of sweet, sweet sodomy. Because, you see, that was at the root of all evil for 19th-century white Christians. After all, buggery, a.k.a. butt sex, was a capital offense in England from 1523 to 1861. That’s more than 300 years during which you could die for something that like a third of straight men have tried in their lifetime. England exported these buggery laws to all its colonies, which is why homophobia is rampant in so much of Africa and the Caribbean. And it’s also why when Muteesa’s heir, Mwanga, decided to play tough with Christian missionaries, they decided to paint him as a raging sodomite—”they” primarily being Scottish Presbyterian missionary Alexander Mackay.
Mackay had been friends with Muteesa, who had welcomed missionaries into his kingdom so he could basically keep an eye on them, but he was met with a chillier reception from the 16-year-old boy king. In a letter written in 1884, Mackay accused the newly crowned kabaka of being addicted to marijuana and cavorting with Arabs. (I mean, saaaaaaame.)
Mackay also wrote favorably of a young man in the king’s court who refused Mwanga’s advances, calling his “an act of splendid disobedience and brave resistance to this Negro Nero’s orders” and saying he “absolutely refused to be made the victim of an unmentionable abomination.”
Mwanga was no fan of Mackay either. In January 1885, he had all male foreign sympathizers in Buganda arrested, including five boys in Mackay’s service. One was released, but the other four were killed. Then things took a real turn in October of 1885, when Mwanga had Scottish bishop James Harrington executed upon crossing over into Buganda. The whole attack may have been a misunderstanding, but nevertheless it galvanized support against Mwanga.
Between 1886 and 1887, Mwanga had 30 to 45 men killed whom he believed were conspiring with the European missionaries—not for left-swiping him in the sheets. Turns out, his suspicion was correct: In 1888, Christians and Muslims managed to put their differences aside, banded together, and removed Mwanga from the throne.
The young monarch would make a deal with the Protestant Christians to become the kabaka again in 1892, but with his power severely diminished, he realized he had to get rid of the colonizers. He started building a rebel army in secret, and in 1897, Mwanga waged a war against the British. He lost, and after some more attempts at rebellion, Mwanga was ultimately exiled to the British-held Seychelles islands in 1899, where he died four years later at age 35.
Mwanga and Buganda represented one of the last oppositions to white rule of the African continent. But what thanks does the Kabaka get? He’s made into a big old gay monster because, as we’ve learned, history is always written by the victors.
The truth is, Mwanga II was probably bisexual—he had 16 wives, but homosexuality wasn’t a big deal until Christian missionaries made it one—but he didn’t murder innocent boys for refusing to share his royal bed. Rather, he was trying to protect his kingdom and his people from being conquered by the white man. Thus, he shouldn’t be remembered as a gay supervillain but instead as a queer hero.
Homosexuality isn’t the enemy—looking at you, Uganda. Imperialism, however? Well, that’s a different story.