His is not a name regularly mentioned when heroes of African ancestry are called, but in Malawi, especially, and in the Diaspora where stories of black struggle go beyond the superficial, the name John Chilembwe still resonates.
Last year marked the centenary of the Chilembwe uprising against the British imperial powers in Nyasaland, which would later become known as Malawi. Though details about Chilembwe’s early life are largely undocumented, he is believed to have been born in the Chiradzulu region of Nyasaland sometime around 1871 to a Yao father and a Mang’anja slave.
The Mang’anja were the traditional ethnic group of the area, but fell victim to enslavement by Arab and Yao slave traders. The Yao, originally from northern Mozambique, fled famine in their native country and served as middlemen for the Arab slave raiders.
Chilembwe, a mix of the two ethnic groups, embodied the plight of both. He grew up under the prevailing atmosphere of insecurity of the southern Nyasa regions. When the British colonized the area in 1891, naming it Nyasaland, they established newly organized governance and missions, and sought to control the indigenous people of the region.
In the autumn of 1892, Chilembwe met the Baptist missionary Joseph Booth, who had recently established the Zembesi Industrial Mission as an alternative to the older Scottish Presbyterian missions that exploited the indigenous population. Though Chilembwe initially applied to be Booth’s cook, he quickly became a close friend and ally of Booth and took care of Booth’s daughter.
Booth worked for a number of churches and had no denominational loyalty; he taught a radical equality that resonated with Chilembwe’s own sense of black pride. In 1897, Booth took Chilembwe to the United States, where a Baptist church sponsored him through Virginia Theological College. Here he seems to have come into contact with contemporary African-American thinking, especially that of Booker T. Washington.
He returned to Nyasaland in 1900 as an ordained Baptist and founded the Providence Industrial Mission, which developed into seven schools.
Chilembwe preached an orthodox Baptist faith, along with a morality that opposed alcohol and emphasized the values of hard work, personal hygiene, and self-help. Chilembwe seriously seemed to believe that European-style propriety and etiquette would bring respect and success from Whites. His schools emphasized modern methods of agriculture, and by 1912 had 1,000 pupils, plus 800 in the adult section.
Events after 1912 disillusioned Chilembwe. A famine in 1913 brought great hardship and starvation to many peasant farmers. Mozambican refugees flooded into Nyasaland, and Chilembwe deeply resented the way they were exploited by white plantation owners. When World War I broke out the following year, Africans were conscripted into the British army, and Chilembwe protested both from the pulpit and in the local Press. The white landowners were infuriated by his nationalist appeal, and several of his schools were burned down.
Added to personal problems of declining health, financial difficulties, and the death of a beloved daughter, Chilembwe’s sense of betrayal deepened into fury.
In careful detail, Chilembwe planned an attack on the worst of the area plantations, which was known for cruelty to its African workers. Whether Chilembwe thought that his rebellion would spark a general uprising is difficult to determine, because he had no clear long-term goal.
With 200 followers, he struck swiftly, and three plantation managers were killed. One of these, a cousin of David Livingstone, was notorious for burning down tenants’ chapels, whipping workers, and denying them their wages. His head was cut off and displayed on a pole in Chilembwe’s church.
The rebels, however, scrupulously observed Chilembwe’s orders not to harm any women or children. The colonial response was immediate and ruthless, resulting in the death of many Africans. Chilembwe was captured and shot immediately.
Chilembwe must have been aware that the uprising was suicidal when he called on his men “to strike a blow and die”. It was, nevertheless, the first resistance to colonialism that went beyond attempts merely to restore earlier traditional African authority; his rebellion looked towards
a future nation.
In this sense, Chilembwe and his followers –– mostly educated, Christian, small businessmen –– demanded for themselves the same place in the modern world that they saw Europeans enjoying.
The uprising, though short-lived, left an indelible mark. George Shepperson, Cambridge don and foremost scholar of Chilembwe, later noted: “Since Nyasalanders had no myths like those of the old Ghana to inspire communal confidence, 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 predecessor, inserted Chilembwe on all bank notes.”
Today, to most Malawians, Chilembwe’s memory still lives on as a symbol of courage and sacrifice.