The Legend of John Chilembwe

Despite official neglect, the memory of Chilembwe, a resistance leader, lives on as a symbol of courage and sacrifice in Malawi.

John Chilembwe on Malawi's Ten Kwacha note.

The year 2015 marks a centenary after the Chilembwe uprising against imperial Britain – an activity that is believed to have influenced, in some way, Marcus Garvey. Reverend John Chilembwe was born circa 1870 in the then ‘nameless’ enclave that later became British Central Africa before mutating into Nyasaland (land of the lake), now Malawi. In 1892, initiative led him to knock on the door of the radical missionary Joseph Booth, whose famous dictum was ‘Africa for Africans’.

In 1897, Chilembwe and Booth, headed for the United States of America, via London and Liverpool. In the US, Chilembwe was encouraged by African Americans to part with the now penniless Booth. Chilembwe, with the help of the Negro Baptist Convention, attended the Virginia Theological College. The failure of the Reconstruction period and the reaction of the Baptists to the Jim Crow laws would have an impact on Chilembwe. In the US, he also met other future African leaders including John Dube, who later became president of South Africa Native Congress, later the African National Congress (ANC).

In 1900, an ordained Chilembwe was back in Malawi, with the backing of the National Baptist Convention. He was a new man and very keen to show it, drawing complaints of ‘natives living beyond their station’ from the settler community. He soon became the vocal mouthpiece of the disfranchised Africans, from women’s rights to equality based on Christian values, from the virtues of educating the African to concerns over land tenure. In 1903, when Africans were sent by the British to fight the Ya Asantewa in present Ghana, Chilembwe complained loudly.

In 1859, famed Scottish missionary David Livingstone ‘discovered’ Lake Malawi and the east African slave trade. Back home in Britain, he campaigned for the introduction of Christianity and formal commerce to counter slavery. Early attempts resulted in disaster as the first missionaries out of Oxford and Cambridge ran into trouble against some Yao chiefs, then slave agents of the Swahili traders.

Attempts were made again after the much publicised burial of Livingstone at Westminster Abbey, resulting in the establishment, in 1876, of Blantyre (now Malawi’s commercial city), a tribute to Livingstone’s birth place. Closely following on the missionaries’ heels were businessmen and speculators and, before long, the alienation of land through mainly nefarious means.

Chilembwe bought land and set up his industrial mission in Blantyre’s neighbouring district of Chiladzulo, adjacent to the vast Bruce Estates, owned by none other than Livingstone’s own daughter Anne and run by William Jervis Livingstone, a distant relation, and a man who was to embody for Chilembwe everything that was wrong with the white settlers. For Jervis, Chilembwe was the archetypical ‘native above his station’. The laborers at the Bruce Estate, mostly of Yao and Nguru stock, the latter having migrated from present Mozambique after fleeing famine and harsh Portuguese rule, looked to Chilembwe for a patron figure.

Chilembwe accused Livingstone of, among other things, burning his churches and schools. When the colonial government turned a deaf ear, Chilembwe is reported to have suggested taking matters in his own hands.

By 1913, Chilembwe was in a tight corner: funding was hard to come by, he owed money for his very impressive cathedral, his gun licence for commercial ivory hunting was revoked, the famine of 1913 pushed more Africans towards him for help, and his poor health (asthma and failing eyesight) and the death of his daughter compounded his burdens. But the proverbial straw was the start of the Great War in August 1914 which saw his audience decrease as Africans were conscripted in large numbers to fight against German East Africa (now Tanzania). In November 1914, Chilembwe penned a scathing letter admonishing the government:

…In times of peace, everything for Europeans only…But in time of war [we] are needed to share hardships and shed blood in equality…

On Saturday 23 January 1915 he started an uprising. Chilembwe plotted to kill all white men in the protectorate, save for a few missionaries sympathetic to his cause, to bring about a new order in the region. The first casualty was Jervis Livingstone, his severed head a prized trophy by Chilembwe’s men. Others were sent to Blantyre–in the true fashion of John Brown of Harper’s Ferry–to break into the armoury and steal guns and ammunition. This mission was a failure of sorts with the supposed leader, John Gray Kufa, deserting and an accidental alarm being raised by Chilembwe’s men. Legend has it that Chilembwe preached the next day’s church service with the head of Livingstone next to the pulpit where he is reputed to have said the words: ‘Let us strike a blow and die for Africa’.

A few skirmishes with government and volunteer forces ensued but, by Tuesday 26 January, his whole mission had been abandoned. His impressive cathedral was then demolished with explosives. The uprising was quelled by 3 February 1915 when its leader was shot while trying to cross into Mozambique. In the aftermath, his fellow conspirators were either hanged or shot on a firing line.

The uprising, though short-lived, left an indelible mark. George Shepperson, University of  Edinburgh professor and foremost scholar of Chilembwe, later summarised the uprising thus:

[His] ideas may have been utopian…borne their format in action dictated by despairing frustration. But at their heart was a solid matter of fact element that was constructively forward looking, and kept for the most part within the bounds of practical, if remote, possibility.

Since Nyasalanders had no myths like those of the old Ghana to inspire communal confidence, said Shepperson, Chilembwe’s name could be utilized. In 1958, Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first president, inserted himself in the Chilembwe narrative as the one prophetized about by Chilembwe himself to free Malawi from white rule. In 1994, Bakili Muluzi, Kamuzu’s successor, inserted Chilembwe on all bank notes. Surprisingly, not much has been done by the current Malawian government in the 100th year of his uprising. Still, to most Malawians, Chilembwe’s memory lives on as a symbol of courage and sacrifice.

  • If you want to read more on Chilembwe, I can highly recommend George Shepperson’s Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Nyasaland Rising of 1915 (Edinburgh University Press, 1958).

Further Reading

An unfinished project

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Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.