Uganda recently passed draconian anti-LGBT+ laws, claiming that homosexuality is “un-African”. But the east African country’s history gives the lie to this.
In the 1880s King Mwanga II executed 45 of his male courtiers, partly for the Christian converts’ refusal to accept the king’s traditional right to sleep with them. These men are the founding martyrs of Ugandan Christianity, and their story upsets a lot of the myths about traditional society put about in modern Uganda.
When Ugandan MPs passed the law in May, the parliament’s speaker Anita Among said, “The Western world will not come to rule Uganda.” In fact, far from LGBT+ rights being imposed by a liberal West, homophobic attitudes and laws came with British colonialism.
Before capitalism took hold in the 19th century, there was no such a concept as “homosexuality” or a “homosexual person”. In Britain, the rise of industrialisation and urbanisation were creating the conditions for freer and more varied sexual relationships and gender identities among ordinary people. They had distanced the new working class from the morality and authority of the Church, used to justify the old class structure under feudalism.
But the mass migration to the cities, where men, women and children faced back-breaking labour in the factories, was breaking apart the working class family. This had huge implications, because it was simultaneously undermining the family’s role in reproducing the next generation of labour.
Horrified, sections of Britain’s capitalist class sought to build up the working class “nuclear family” in the longer-term interests of the system. “Sexual deviants” that threatened to undermine this late Victorian ideal faced increasing persecution from the latter half of the 19th century. Homosexuality became an identity, a category of person that was deviant and had to be repressed.
The British Empire exported homophobia to its colonies. The first law—Section 377 of Indian penal code—was introduced in 1860 and became a model around the Britain Empire. It was passed as part of a raft of changes to ensure total control for the British authorities a year after the defeat of the great Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Missionaries spread across the expanding empire. They schooled newly conquered peoples that their freedom would come through overcoming their “primitive”, “immoral” lifestyles and learning British virtue and the protestant work ethic. In fact, indigenous people were offered a role as suppliers of cheap materials and consumers of manufactured goods made elsewhere.
Were missionaries just tools of imperialism? The most famous, David Livingstone, represented the Church Missionary Society (CMS), and explored Africa to open it up to trade with Britain. His motto was, “Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation”. He believed that to end suffering and slavery in Africa commerce was required. And, to make that future secure, the British Empire had to move in with its “civilisation” and morality.
The events in Buganda—part of modern day Uganda—were driven by the imperial scramble for Africa. In the mid-19th century, it was a rising regional power spreading its influence around the Lake Victoria region. This led to an influx of traders and new religious ideas, including both Islam and Christianity.
Egypt’s rulers were attempting to expand their influence south and create an Egyptian empire in east Africa to escape their own domination by Britain and France. Under Buganda’s 30th king, Muteesa, Egyptian Islamic missionaries were welcomed in the court. They created a thirst for literacy, particularly among the court pages (royal servants).
Each of these religions were related to imperial expansion. Islamic scholars had been building links with Buganda since the mid-1860s. It’s no coincidence that British CMS and French White Fathers, who arrived in 1877 and 1879, gained favour only after Egypt began a military expansion in 1875.
Muteesa turned against the Muslims, who he now saw as trying to undermine his power and executed many converts. His 16-year-old son Mwanga succeeded him when he died in 1884. He was more hostile to the Christian missionaries, rightly believing that their increased activity was directly linked to attempts to gain control over the kingdom.
His court pages had converted, and he saw them as an enemy within. Their rejection of same-sex traditions was the trigger. On 3 June 1886 he executed 22 Catholic and 23 Anglican pages. The martyrs are national heroes in Uganda and the anniversary of their death is a national holiday.
None of this is to suggest that there is any kind of liberation in a king having coercive sexual rights over any subjects. The point is that no one had previously thought it was odd because the relationships were same-sex.
Current Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has spotted the problem with the fact that homosexuality already existed in Mwanga’s court. He tried to square the circle by claiming it had been introduced by the Egyptian presence. In the 2010 Martyrs’ Day speech he said, “This was not part of our culture. I hear he learnt it from the Arabs. But the martyrs refused these falsehoods and went for the truth, which is why we are honouring them today.” This makes no more sense than blaming the West.
Historian John Blevins has studied the shifting interpretations of Mwanga’s actions at different times. He noted that what’s held up as important in Mwanga’s story has varied over time, depending on the broader context.
The use of the term “pages” should not give the impression that these were children—European courts had had “page boys” as servants. The majority were older than Mwanga. Incidentally, it was during the colonial period that authorities added the idea that paedophilia was involved.
Meanwhile, someone who studied in Uganda’s Anglican college in the 1970s said that students never mentioned the LGBT+ dimension. For them, the troubling moral issue was whether the converts should have supported the “nationalist” Mwanga against the colonialists.
The Times newspaper argued at the time that this was the chance to establish the church “on the blood of the martyrs” and such success could decide “the happiness of the interior of the vast continent for generations.” In practice this meant that soldiers and colonists would replace missionaries in Britain’s intervention.
In 1888 a combined group of Christians and Muslims overthrew Mwanga, but a month later the Muslim group took power. Mwanga went into alliance with the Protestants and returned to the throne, though the power struggle would continue for a number of years.
While all these events were going on the imperial powers had divided Africa between them at the notorious Berlin conference of 1884. No African countries were invited, not even Egypt. The conference placed Buganda in Britain’s sphere of influence. In a move of extreme cynicism on both sides, Mwanga united with British forces to consolidate power.
The British appointed Lord Frederick Lugard as their representative—he had already fought for empire in Afghanistan, Sudan and Myanmar (Burma). By the time Mwanga died at the age of 35 he was in exile, having fallen out with the British again. Uganda had become a “protectorate” of the British Empire.
Today, the legacy of the British Empire continues to blight LGBT+ people’s lives. of 72 countries with such anti-LGBT+ laws still in place in 2018, 38 had experienced British colonial rule.
While many of these laws date back to colonialism, right wing US Evangelical Christians have heavily promoted them over the last decade or so. Such groups have funded many campaigns—including an earlier attempt to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality in Uganda in 2008. And parts of Uganda’s new law echo Britain’s Section 28, which prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities between 1988 and 2003.
At the same time, many politicians justify imperialism by claiming a “progressive” West has to promote LGBT+ rights in “backward” countries.
In 2018 Trinidad and Tobago, in the Caribbean, voted to decriminalise homosexuality in 2018. Then British prime minister Theresa May—who previously opposed equal marriage in Britain—called on other former colonies to do the same. “I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced and the legacy of discrimination, violence
LGBT+ oppression is rooted in the development of capitalism in the 19th century, and imperialism helped lay the ground on which it can grow. So winning liberation means being part of the fight against imperialism, and never siding with it no matter its official “progressive” justifications.
African societies had varied and fluid ideas about gender and sexuality in the past, compared to the colonialists’ claustrophobic views.
Britain’s foremost anthropologist known for his investigations of African cultures, EE Evans Pritchard, did his research among the Zande and the Nuer in the 1930s. But did not mention homosexuality in any of his extensive writings until shortly before his death in the 1970s. If there had not been a shift in Western academics’ attitudes, this very African sexual practice would have remained unrecorded and effectively erased from history.
These examples of the mutability of human sexual experience are not a blueprint for the future. But they show that we had societies with very different ideas about sexuality and gender before, and so it’s possible to have a society without LGBT+ oppression.
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