When were they born? Where were they born? And what did they excel in as young children? How did they become integrated in their community? What are their plans for the future? What are their ambitions when they came of age? How many of them want a life in service? Of course, these children, and yes, they are children, are already in a life of service in the King's palace in this photograph. Kabaka Mwanga was installed on the Buganda throne in 1884. When your parents worked in service of Mwanga, that is, if your father or uncle was one of the King's men, then when you came of age, and in that period you came of age as an adolescent, were taken to the palace and you promptly began your life in service of the royal family. So, they were a dignified and purposeful group, devoted to serve at the palace.
One has to always focus on the bare bones of history: who are these children in Mwanga's court? These children are in some way pulled away from the life they lived prior to their voices breaking. I am thinking about the things children did at that time. Possibly, under the age of 11, they built their own musical instruments; they got acquainted with humanity through their mothers and grandmothers' stories. If they were lucky they trained in the manners and locution of Luganda with a paternal aunt. In a creative sense, they built slingshots, hunted songbirds. They fetched water from a well, and, like everyone else, cared for the plantation.
Of all the children in the image, which one anticipates the changing world? Even remotely, which of them anticipates a different future? Their life, their world, was shaped by this changing world. A commentator wrote that a few years after this photo was taken these children would go against Mwanga. It is something quite unimaginable. Although, I must admit that this version of the story suggests something quite profound. This suggestion of their rebelliousness towards Mwanga's court places them in history as the first modern subjects of Buganda. A submission to the changing times, drastic changes in attitude, and the provision of dreams makes them unconventional for their time.
Another commentator suggests that, here in this photograph, kneeling before the French missionary Leon Livinhac, their hands folded across their chests in a cross, they were defying Mwanga. This is a romanticized story. Yet this romanticism when contextualized in Mwanga's reign is not hyberbolic. The tumultuous years of Mwanga's reign are often described as the most sensitive years of 19th century Buganda, culminating into the religious wars of 1886-1892.
It was Mwanga's father Kabaka Muteesa, who in 1876 wrote a letter asking for a priest to "show him the way to God." Muteesa's claim to Catholicism was anything but straightforward, leaving so many loose ends for his son to tie up. In 1885, when the first religious killings happened in Buganda, Mwanga knew that religion was about power, and his reign shows how religion can be manipulated in order to dominate and oppress. It was that kind of politics. Mwanga's fascination with religious ideologies, one day following one God, and another the next, shows the King's affinity for power.
What was at stake in this changing world? The entire shift of a world was centered around the idea of a multiplication of ideologies; was based upon the diversity through which whiteness, as evidenced in this image, would become its own hegemony in palace life. In recalling the question of the future, it is obvious that their world was changing through a diversification of ideologies. One has to remember that their own dreams, their own sense of self, was at this point, at the ripe age of puberty dictated by their parents who were loyal to the service of the King. I imagine them as submissive to the many conflicting visions of competing religions. It is the easiest thing to do to determine one's identity when caught inside the torrent of conflict. It wasn't the fact that they were terrified and helpless children. It was how their personal history collided with the political turmoil of the Mwanga reign, that caused them to identify strongly with Catholicism.
Who called them anything else? What came before this? At the age of 10, before a boy's voice breaks, the child is anxious to grow up. But what a space to grow up in. Who will you grow up into when ushered into the church of a white man? He addressed himself to the children as Mon Pere. My father was his name, but which father did they imagine in God's house? Already removed from a simple life, assuming an aristocratic position, what did they make of inheritance in God? It is questionable that they had aspirations beyond Mon Pere's church. They lived a comfortable life in the palace. Here they are wrapped in white cloth. Who went to the plantain garden covered by such whiteness? Who can fetch water in such a garment? Whiteness is material. Changing clothes signalled, for these children, growing up. After all, if you asked them, they couldn't tell you who they were before this photograph was taken.
It seemed as if their life, and their sense of self-worth began with this material whiteness. This coming of age story shaped by whiteness continues to haunt us. When I visited the Uganda Martyrs shrine as a 10 year old—the same age as the children in the photograph—I could not get the image of the pond out of my mind. In front of the shrine is a painting, a kind of historical map of the location, showing armed men killing each other next to the pond. This pond has remained the only pure coordinate in this cartography of history. Today it is built into a mausoleum. Rows of seats on each side line the small pond. A lone altar faces the water. This is where Pope Francis held mass.
An image crossed my mind, in which they were wrapped in dry reed and barkcloth, with their crucifixes in their throats. I remember faintly gazing into the distance, the great expanse of trees that surround the pond blowing in the wind, and imagined the fire that consumed them. A shrine was built for them.
The most haunting thing about this photograph is that we cannot imagine these children outside the paradigm of whiteness. They are too pure for us to imagine otherwise. Mwanga, we're told had them killed. He did not have the foresight to know that anyone who opposed whiteness would sooner than later lose their place in history. We remember that these children were murdered. Their antagonist is crossed out of the script, and inscribed into the margins. It is more difficult to see Mwanga than to look at the children in the photograph.
He is behind those prison walls of history that cannot be forced open. In a future museum, his name and his head belongs to the museum section before modern African history. How ironic this future story of the man: Mwanga began his tyrannical reign the same year as the Berlin conference that changed the African future. His name and image are antithetical to the colonial Africa lying flat on the proverbially long conference table, its colonialist participants pointing long cartographical instruments at its shadowy navel. Did any of the participants see Mwanga's dark face staring back? His name was mentioned at that table by the French and the English officers, both of whom shook their heads, seeing the near danger ahead.
Muteesa's letter asking for a priest to show him the way to God made the white fathers come in droves in 1876. They left, perhaps, with an ironic intuition that France could no longer be saved from its moral decadence. The white fathers reading Muteesa's letter, resolved that Buganda, out of the dark continent described by Hegel, had at last admitted to its much greater moral decadence. They were surprised to discover that the older Baganda were set in their ways, and that only the children seemed innocent, pure, and uncontaminated.
What we see in this image is what the photographer wants us to see. We see pure innocence. One forgets that there is a photographer of this image, because the photographer has ceased, in our time, in being its author. Who made this image? Who makes such images today? The author of this image is a reporter for the French Missionary Society. Were they aware how central their image would become to African Christianity? This is one of the most reproduced images in 20th century Uganda, and continues to serve as proof of Catholic belief.
What do they imagine their future to be? How much do they know? Questions are not prudent. In Jamaica Kincaid's one page story, Girl, one is told and they should, like a prudent child, listen. What do prudent children listen to? Their past, absent from this image, nothing more than a faint pencil sketch. Their future, now, colored by these white garments.
What strikes me most is what is missing from this image: sound. Their articulations of French and Latin names: that the mind thought in this historically white language, but their tongues augmented that sound to reflect a blackness. They called the man in the photo Mapeera. Something less ambiguous. Guavas. The fruit that one found in the fields, or in the bush. It was easy, less heady. Calling their priest, guavas, showed an incredible sense of humor and irony. It showed their willingness to adopt, on their own terms.
What would you have done in their shoes?
Having no real sense of self, they are not the distant ghosts of our past. In fact, they are not far from us at all. We ask the same questions, now. What do you imagine your future to be? I'd like to imagine that the future was possible for the children in this image. Yet which one of them imagined death so soon?
How did they live, learning and burning?
Photograph of Msgr. Leon Livinhac and his followers available in the public domain.