A race-based colonial rebellion was doomed to failure. But it built a legend.
1. FROM THE VILLAGE TO VIRGINIA
2. THE AWAKENING
3. THE BOILING POINT
4. THE REVOLT
5. THE AFTERMATH
This is the story of a man from an obscure, impoverished land who made a major impact on his fellow Africans’ lives.
An active clergyman in his mid-40’s, he died in a hail of bullets in 1915. Long before the Kenyan Mau Mau and the Black Panthers in America got the same idea, he instigated a bloody uprising by the black population.
On a map of Africa find Egypt. Then move your finger down the Nile. Where Tanzania meets Mozambique and Zambia there’s a landlocked pregnant-caterpillar-shaped country. That’s today’s Republic of Malawi. Until 1964 it was the British Protectorate of Nyasaland.
Our story begins here about 1870.
1. FROM THE VILLAGE TO VIRGINIA
John Chilembwe came from southern Nyasaland. His father – possibly a Muslim – ignored the local Christian missionaries. Chilembwe’s mother was a slave captured from another tribe.
His early life was inconspicuous. Even his pre-baptismal name is uncertain. He acquired some literacy and by the age of 20 was attending a mission school. Soon he met the man who shaped his destiny.
That man was Joseph Booth (1851-1932). An ardent Baptist, Booth advocated self-reliance and hard work for both worldly success and salvation in the hereafter. Moreover, he insisted everyone is equal before God. He left class-ridden England for Australia, where his egalitarian values were more admissible. A Melbourne atheist challenged Booth to obey Matthew 19:21 by giving all his money to the poor.
I’ll do more than that, Booth announced. After his wife’s death in 1891, he sold his business and went to Nyasaland. Booth proclaimed his missionary work among the Dark Continent’s pagans would inculcate both God’s Word and the lessons of thrift, hard work and self-sufficiency.
He engaged John Chilembwe as a servant, student and interpreter. Booth’s Zambezi Industrial Mission recruited Africans to grow coffee. Subsistence farming leads nowhere, Booth announced. Cash crops are the future. But his knack for underestimating difficulties and overestimating his managerial skills combined with Africa’s storms and droughts to produce failure.
By 1897 he’d made himself unpopular with Nyasaland’s whites. Africans deserve self-rule, he insisted. Colonialism is naked exploitation. It is unchristian. Independence must come, and the sooner the better.
A typical conversation went like:
Reverend Booth, have you been out in the sun too long? Your opinions are absurd!
Really? Do you think we whites are destined to rule Africa forever?
Who can say? But I can say the natives are lazy children, incapable of self-rule. Give them something to eat and something to play with and they’ll idle their lives away. They lack all capacity for logical thought. They’ve no sense of responsibility. The whole notion is preposterous.
Oh? And yet aren’t we here to raise the natives’ lives so they can eventually govern themselves as our equals?
Did you say as our equals? Were you not a Baptist minister I should say you were inebriated. Why, the very idea..!
But Booth was neither drunk nor addled by the tropical sun. He argued passionately: Education is paramount. When enough natives can read and calculate, they can teach others to do likewise. They will need white teachers no longer. Nor will they require white pastors to preach. Africans can teach and preach for themselves.
That year he took John Chilembwe to America to study for the ministry. Chilembwe was an eager pupil, fervent in his devotions and keen to preach the Word. Who better to prove Booth’s point?
He would now experience life as an African in Lynchburg, Virginia.
2. THE AWAKENING
Their destination was the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. En route to Lynchburg, the aspiring minister soon learned that “negroes” – or the much cruder word in common use – couldn’t share train carriages with whites. His ship-berths were always less commodious than those available to white passengers. Most hotels and restaurants were off-limits to him. Booth could sit inside a horse-drawn carriage, but the white passengers insisted Chilembwe sit outside with the driver. And on American streets he had to step aside for white pedestrians.
Everything conflicted with Booth’s sermons about everyone being equal before God. Lengthy discussions ensued about this.
The seminary’s principal was a black man, Gregory Hayes. People addressing Hayes as “Sir” impressed Chilembwe. During his Lynchburg years the African saw ordinary black Americans wearing shoes, participating in the cash economy, using cutlery and reading newspapers. True, as residents of Virginia they couldn’t vote, but in many respects they lived just like many whites.
Chilembwe pondered all this. Africans should be able to live such lives, he thought. But we go barefoot and fear white civilization. Why?
Along with theology he devoured books by Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He learned about the anti-slavery activist, John Brown. And Chilembwe probably encountered something by young W.E.B. Du Bois, who urged black Americans to embrace their African heritage.
Ideas swirled in this newly ordained minister’s mind as he returned to Nyasaland in 1900. There he “laboured amongst [his] benighted race” and started the Providence Industrial Mission. Its purpose was to foster hard work, self-respect and self-sufficiency among the natives. Joseph Booth – all thoughts of Matthew 19:21 now forgotten – sent encouraging words from South Africa, America and Britain. Booth had become a semi-nomad, exiled from Nyasaland. He embraced new sects like other men embraced new mistresses.
By 1912 Chilembwe managed a network of mission schools. He’d also become a strident critic of Nyasaland’s all-white plantation owners. They cheated their native workers of their paltry wages. Arguing with the plantocracy was pointless: the white man’s word always prevailed. The owners started importing wretchedly poor blacks from Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). Britain’s Colonial Office described their wages as “the lowest in settled Africa”.
Chilembwe paid the nearby Bruce Plantation – and its savage overseer William Livingstone – particular attention. Mutual animosity developed. Alexander Bruce declared education wasted on Africans and this upstart preacher a menace to decent society. Chilembwe’s chapels on Bruce’s land tended to burn down.
Meanwhile, the mission’s American sponsors stopped sending money. Chilembwe’s other income – hunting elephants for ivory – evaporated when his gun permit was revoked without explanation. His daughter died. His eyesight and asthma worsened. He owed money. 1914 was grim. Then, to cap a perfect year, the Great War came to Africa.
3. THE BOILING POINT
During the Great War (1914-1918), Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal had a tacit agreement about this being a white man’s war and about keeping their African colonies out of the fight. It lasted barely a week.
German East Africa – Tanzania – became a war zone. British troops arrived from India. Europe’s African colonies mobilized for total war.
Each colony transformed its local Africans into expendable beasts of burden. Their pay and conditions were lamentable. Mortality rates were scandalous.
Chilembwe watched helplessly as British-led patrols dragged men and boys from their villages. He contemplated the Book of Daniel, contemplated justice and deliverance and imagined the mighty being brought to their knees. He also contemplated Elliot Kamwana’s prophecies.
Elliot Kamwana was slightly younger than Chilembwe and was also a Booth acolyte. He’d left the United Free Church of Scotland, deciding it wasn’t so free when it charged fees he couldn’t afford and denied him ordination.
Kamwana became a hospital attendant and preacher in South Africa. Booth – now in a seesawing relationship with the Watch Tower movement (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) – mentored him. Kamwana took Booth’s anti-colonial and egalitarian ethos back to Nyasaland in 1908.
People still remembered Nyasaland’s recent earthquake, portending the Apocalypse. Kamwana incorporated this into his sermons and mass baptisms. The end is nigh, he proclaimed. Repent! Walk the straight and narrow.
“Jolly good,” said the colonial government. “This Kamwana fellow’s fire-and-brimstone sermons will keep the natives from mischief, what?” But when he preached that all authority except Christ’s would soon end, they exiled him. Kamwana bounced around southern Africa before returning to Nyasaland. Meteor showers – another sign of the approaching Apocalypse – accompanied his return. It’s due in October 1914, he confidently predicted. This white man’s war clearly foreshadowed that.
November came and Kamwana went. His disciples flocked to John Chilembwe, their new champion for Africans’ rights. His incendiary sermons overflowed with Old Testament imagery about slavery and woe. In Nyasaland are we not like the Israelites of old, a captive people made to suffer?
Chilembwe avoided racist rhetoric. He thanked God for his Christian education. He hoped to see his “benighted race” become like black Americans: regular churchgoers partaking of white civilization like the “coloreds” back in Lynchburg.
In fact, if you could time-travel to 1914, dress appropriately and converse with Chilembwe, you’d best not disparage Christianity.
You: “You know, Reverend, before the white men came to Nyasaland, they had the bible and the natives had the land. Now the natives have the bible and the white men have the land.”
Chilembwe: How dare you say that, sir! Would you deny my benighted people the Word of God and the chance of salvation? Colonial rule is to be deplored. But for all its inequities it has at least opened our eyes to … etc.
He had no wish to return to pre-colonial idolatry. He merely wanted equal rights for his people. And, as the war intensified, so did his protests.
Chilembwe wrote to The Nyasaland Times (probably the first African to do so):
As I hear that, [sic] war has broken out between you and other nations, only whitemen [sic], I request you therefore not to recruit more of my countrymen, my brothers who do not know the cause of your fight, who indeed, have nothing to do with it.
…It is better to recruit white planters, traders, missionaries and other white settlers who are indeed of much value and who also know the cause of this war and have something to do with it…
The newspaper ignored the letter but alerted the authorities. They discussed exiling such troublemakers to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. But Chilembwe’s patience was exhausted. If the British wouldn’t listen to arguments, they’d listen to gunfire.
4. THE REVOLT
Gunfire. That meant a bloody insurrection.
Chilembwe studied a military manual and secretly trained his unarmed followers in rudimentary soldiering. A minister in northern Nyasaland agreed to split the whites’ reaction by having his own parishioners revolt once word arrived that the south was in rebellion.
But a Judas among Chilembwe’s disciples warned the authorities twice of this plan. He also warned a white Catholic priest who openly disliked Chilembwe. They all ignored him.
John Chilembwe chose Saturday, January 23rd, 1915. His final speech mixed frank realism with optimism.
He understood colonial rule, he said, and he knew their chances of success were slim. Whoever survived would almost certainly die in the inevitable reprisals. And hiding out in this poverty-stricken land – where peasants would readily tip off the authorities for a mere sack of flour – was suicidal.
Some survivors may reach Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), but both territories’ border patrols would be on high alert for fugitives.
Even so, he urged determination. A copy of his speech survives. Like his letter to the newspaper, it displayed his loose grip on punctuation and idioms. It said in part:
This is the only way to show the whitemen, that the treatment they are treating our men and women was most bad and we have determined to strike a first and a last blow and then we will all die by the heavy storm of the whiteman’s army. The whitemen will then think, after we are dead, that the treatment they are treating our people is bad, and they might change to the better for our people.
Chilembwe divided his forces in three:
- Some would raid the Blantyre arsenal, stealing weapons for a killing spree.
- Others would raid the notorious Bruce Plantation – and the overseer Livingstone’s home – and exact revenge for years of cruelty.
- A few would carry a letter to German East Africa (Tanzania) which said something like: Now, Nyasaland is in revolt by we natives. This revolt is due to the terrible treatment we are treated. We beg you to strike while the iron is hot and to smite a mighty blow to the British in Nyasaland.
Chilembwe failed to grasp that couriers on foot would take ages to reach German territory. And a German invasion would take ages to prepare. In any case, the letter never arrived. The couriers were arrested trekking through neutral Portuguese territory.
After cutting the telephone lines, 100 rebels raided the arsenal. But its well-armed guards repulsed Chilembwe’s followers, who withdrew with only five rifles and ammunition.
At the Bruce Plantation insurgents stormed the sadistic overseer’s home. The Livingstones were at dinner when they attacked. Livingstone was wounded. As his wife bound his wounds they kidnapped her and beheaded him.
They speared another European nearby, found two rifles and captured more white women and children. But instead of keeping them as bargaining chips, they released them.
Meanwhile a Chilembwe lieutenant, Jonathan Chigwinya, led a raid on the plantation-controlled village of Mwanje. They speared a white manager in his bed. John and Charlotte Robertson escaped and raised the alarm as their African servant died defending them.
Where was John Chilembwe during this? At Providence Industrial Mission, deep in prayer. He’d delegated tactical leadership to David Kaduya, formerly of the King’s African Rifles (KAR). Chilembwe thanked the Almighty when his people brought him Livingstone’s head.
He conducted the Sunday service with Livingstone’s head on the altar.
Chilembwe was satisfied with Day One, despite the shortage of rifles. Then came bad news. He’d expected the news of this revolt to spread like wildfire and inspire similar uprisings. But they quickly fizzled out. And that upcountry preacher’s diversionary rebellion never happened.
Meanwhile the all-white Volunteer Reserve and native troops attacked Chilembwe’s mission, inflicting 20 casualties before withdrawing. The rebels combined sectarian animus with racial violence by torching a nearby Catholic mission, wounding its white priest.
During that fire the Volunteer Reserve-KAR stormed the Providence Industrial Mission again. To their astonishment it was undefended.
Chilembwe’s nerve had gone. Outnumbered and without support, he aborted the uprising. Everyone fled – mostly without success – disguised as peasants. Kaduya was the first to be captured and executed.
John Chilembwe was now Public Enemy #1, wanted dead or alive. The authorities combed the land. But first they dynamited the Providence Industrial Mission to show they meant business.
Chilembwe evaded capture for a week. Then, almost within sight of Portuguese territory, a police patrol cornered him and opened fire.
Only about 30 escaped arrest. The British imprisoned 300 insurgents. They hanged 40 more.
5. THE AFTERMATH
When the dust settled the British applied sledgehammer justice.
They burned the rebels’ homes plus the homes of people unconnected with the revolt pour encourager les autres.
- fined the area’s residents – including non-participants – 4 shillings, a hefty sum;
- confiscated all weapons;
- banned all public gatherings;
- imposed draconian restrictions on African-run churches; and
- introduced preferential treatment for the Yao tribe. The Muslim Yao shunned the uprising. Not because they loved colonial rule, but because of Chilembwe’s Christianity-coated message.
The Commission of Inquiry found that the Bruce Plantation’s management wanton cruelty engendered widespread bitterness culminating in insurrection. It singled out the late William Livingstone for particular criticism. The openly racist owner Alexander Bruce remained unpunished.
The Commission discovered earlier statements made by Joseph Booth predicting European rule in Africa would end by 1914 and the colonies would become independent democratic nations united with black Americans. It stated that considerable blame attached to Booth for filling African heads with dangerous nonsense.
The Commission recommended some cosmetic policy changes. The rebels remained under police surveillance long after their release. And as the years rolled by Chilembwe’s legend increased, as did academic analysis of the revolt.
Was he a race-based nationalist? Or a hopeless fantasist? Did his final speech demand martyrdom? Was the insurrection doomed because his urban, Christian, literate followers could never inspire Nyasaland’s rural, animist, tribal majority?
No single explanation will suffice. However, as the century progressed, the Chilembwe saga sustained dreams of self-rule. Independence – along with the name Malawi – came in 1964. The fledgling nation soon degenerated into a Christian North Korea whose obsessively puritanical dictator maintained an iron grip on power and fostered a personality cult.
But Malawi’s “lost decades” under the friend to apartheid-era South Africa (and Latin enthusiast) His Excellency the Life President, the Chief of Chiefs Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda is another story.