John Chilembwe, Malawian Freedom fighter, martyr and preacher-man with his wife, Ida, and daughter, Emma. Circa 1910. Chilembwe’s image also appears on the obverse of Malawian banknotes printed between 1994 and 2000.
The man described by a Scottish missionary in then Nyasaland (Malawi) as "above the ordinary type of mission native," was a tall, asthmatic, celebrated American-trained Baptist preacher and educator who attempted bravely, in the manner of American abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, to strike a strong blow against white racism and colonial rule. "After his training in United States, returning to Nyasaland in 1901, Chilembwe was an early figure in the resistance to colonialism, in Nyasaland (now Malawi), opposing both the treatment of Africans working in agriculture on European-owned plantations and the colonial government's failure to promote the social and political advancement of Africans. Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, Chilembwe organised an unsuccessful uprising against colonial rule."
In different Uprising attacks, his men beheaded Jervis Livingstone, killed two other white men and several Africans while sparing a number of white women and children, looted an ammunition store in a large nearby town, and retreated to pray. When the rising failed to arouse local support, a forlorn Chilembwe fled toward Mozambique. Unarmed, wearing a dark blue coat, a striped pajama jacket over a colored shirt, and gray flannel trousers, he was killed by African soldiers on February 3.
After the death of John Chilembwe, his wife, Aida and the daughter Emma were never heard of again. It is argued that Dr. Kamuzu Banda, the first president of the Republic of Malawi destroyed the chronological history of the Chilembwe's descendants. Kamuzu Banda acted in that way so that he could proclaim himself as the only practical freedom fighter in those days. He was afraid that people could also associate his capabilities with those of Chilembwe's descendants.
It has also came to light that the Chilembwe descendants still live in Zambia for instance the children of his sister Kumphita was the daughter of Nyangu and Nyangu the Mother of Chilembwe and Kumphita, Kumphita was the mother to Che Ebulo Kwali and Che Ebulo was the father to John Kwali and John Kwali.
Today, Chilembwe is celebrated as a hero for independence, and John Chilembwe Day is observed annually on January 15 in Malawi. Chilembwe’s image also appears on the obverse of Malawian banknotes printed between 1994 and 2000.
John Chilembwe, and his pal John standing, full-length, on steps, in Liberia or Malawi. Circa 1900. Courtesy HistoricalFindings
There is limited information about John Chilembwe's parentage and birth. Historians are still not certain on his actual date of birth and parents. However, an American pamphlet of 1914 quoting Joseph Booth, an eccentric, apocalyptic British fundamentalist missionary of Baptist persuasion who employed the young Chilembwe as domestic staff claimed that John Chilembwe was born in Sangano, Chiradzulu District in the south of what became Nyasaland, in June, 1871. According to Booth, that Chilembwe's father was a Yao and his mother a Mang'anja slave, captured in warfare. This information was contemporary; in the 1990s, John Chilembwe's granddaughter stated that Chilembwe's father may have been called Kaundama, and was one of those who settled at Mangoche Hill during the Yao infiltration into Mang'anja territory, and that his mother may have been called Nyangu: his likely pre-baptismal name was Nkologo. However, other also quite recent sources give differing parental names. Chilembwe attended a Church of Scotland mission from around 1890.
In 1892 he became a house servant of Joseph Booth, a radical and independently-minded missionary. Booth had arrived Africa in 1892 as a Baptist to establish the Zambezi Industrial Mission near Blantyre. Booth was critical of the reluctance of Scottish Presbyterian missions to admit Africans as full church members, and later founded seven more independent missions in Nyasaland which, like the Zambezi Industrial Mission, focused on the equality of all worshippers. In Booth's household and mission where he was closely associated with Booth, Chilembwe became acquainted with Booth's radical religious ideas and egalitarian feelings. : "Candidly now, is it not a marvelous picture to see elegantly robed men…preaching a gospel of self-denial to men and women slaves….I have never felt so utterly ashamed…. We ought to…conform to [the] teaching [of the Gospel]." This gospel of African freedom alarmed the colonial government and other missionaries.
According to Booth, Chilembwe had a great desire to learn and write; he soon became a trusted companion of Booth’s children.
In 1897, Booth traveled with Chilembwe to Lynchburg, Virginia, in USA. Here Chilembwe and his mentor, Booth, amicably parted ways. Chilembwe then attended the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, (now Virginia University of Lynchburg), a small African-American Baptist seminary. In the seminary Chilembwe learnt the contemporary prejudice against negroes and was exposed to radical American Negro ideas from the principal, Gregory Hayes a militantly independent Negro. He imbibed the ideological ferment of African-American intellectual circles and learned about John Brown and other abolitionists and emancipators such as , Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and others. He was ordained as a Baptist minister at Lynchburg in 1899.
Chilembwe developed close contacts with independent African churches, including Seventh Day Baptist and Churches of Christ congregations, with the aim of uniting some or all of these African churches with his own mission church at the centre. Chilembwe also had some contact with Watchtower followers, but the extent of these and the influence of Watchtower's millennial beliefs on him is minimised by most authors except the Lindens. Although the vast majority of those found guilty of rebellion and sentenced to death or to long terms of imprisonment were members of Chilembwe's church, a few other members of the Churches of Christ in Zomba were also found guilty.
Reverend John Chilembwe, church, school, Miss Delaney, window, Liberia, Malawi, c1900. By HistoricalFindings
By 1900, Chilembwe was back in Nyasaland, in his own words, "to labour amongst his benighted race". He worked for the National American Baptist Convention, who also provided two American Baptist helpers until 1906. Backed financially by the National Baptist Convention of America, Chilembwe utilized the opportunity to start his Providence Industrial Mission (P.I.M.) in Chiradzulu district. His PIM after suffering initial stagnated growth, soon he had established a chain of independent African schools, constructed an impressive brick church, and planted crops of cotton, tea, and coffee. He sought to instill in fellow Africans a sense of self-respect. By 1912, Chilembwe`s schools had 1,000 pupils and 800 adult students.
He preached the values of hard-work, self-respect and self-help to his congregation and, although as early as 1905 he used his church position to deplore the condition of Africans in the protectorate, he initially avoided specific criticism of the government that might be thought subversive. However, by 1912 or 1913, Chilembwe had become more politically militant and openly voiced criticism over the state of African land rights in the Shire Highlands and of the conditions of labour tenants there, particularly on the A. L. Bruce Estates.
Baptism by John Chilembwe in Liberia or Malawi
n the Shire Highlands, the most densely populated part of the protectorate, European estates occupied about 867,000 acres, or over 350,000 hectares, almost half of the best arable land. Relatively few local Africans remained on the estates when the owners introduced labour rents, preferring to settle on Crown Land where customary law entitled them to use (sometimes overcrowded) land belonging to the community, or to become migrant workers. However, planters with large areas of available land but limited labour could engage migrants from Mozambique (who had no right to use community lands) on terms that Nyasaland Africans found unacceptable. These were called "Anguru", a convenient term employed by Europeans to describe as a number of different peoples, mostly speaking one of the Makua languages, often the Lomwe language, who themselves used various names to refer to their places of origin in Mozambique. They left Mozambique in significant numbers from 1899 when a harsh new labour code was introduced, and especially in 1912 and 1913 after a Mozambique famine in 1912. In 1912, the British Colonial Office described them as working for such low wages as were “a record for any settled part of Africa”. Many of those convicted after the rising were identified as "Anguru".
Conditions on the estates where the "Anguru" became tenants were generally poor, and Africans both on estates and Crown Lands were subjected to an increase in Hut tax in 1912, despite food shortages. P.I.M. was situated in an area dominated by the A L Bruce Estates, named after a son-in-law of David Livingstone. From 1906, A. L. Bruce Estates developed and started to plant a hardy variety of cotton suitable for the Shire Highlands. Cotton required intensive labour over a long growing period, and the estate manager William Jervis Livingstone (reputed to be a distant relative of David Livingstone) ensured that 5,000 workers were available throughout its 5 or 6 month by exploiting the obligations of the labour tenancy system called thangata, underpaying wage labour and by often violent coercion. Alexander Livingstone Bruce, who controlled the A L Bruce Estates operations, instructed Livingstone not to allow any mission work to be carried on or schools to be opened on the Bruce Estates, although the company provided free medical and hospital treatment for workers.
The considered view of Alexander Livingstone Bruce was that educated Africans had no place in colonial society and he opposed their education. He also recorded his personal dislike for Chilembwe as an educated African, and considered all African-led churches were centres for agitation, and prohibited building them on the estate. Although this prohibition applied to all missions, P.I.M. was the closest, and became a natural focus for African agitation, and Chilembwe became the spokesman for African tenants on the Bruce Estates. Chilembwe provoked confrontation by erecting churches on estate land, which Livingstone burned down because he considered them as centres for agitation against the management and because they made potential claims on estate land.
Chilembwe was angered by Livingstone's refusal to accept the worth of African people, and also frustrated by the refusal of the settlers and government to provide suitable opportunities or a political voice to the African "new men", who had been educated by the Presbyterian and other missions in Nyasaland or in some cases had received a higher education abroad. A number of such men became Chilembwe's lieutenants in the uprising.
Although in his first decade at P.I.M., Chilembwe had been reasonably successful, in the five years before his death, he faced a series of problems in the mission and in his personal life. From around 1910, he incurred several debts at a time when mission expenses were rising and funds from his American backers were drying up. Attacks of asthma, the death of a daughter, and his declining eyesight and general health may have deepened his sense of alienation and desperation.
People: John Chilembwe,Providence Mission, colonialism, independence, Malawi,c1900. By HistoricalFindings
But Chilembwe`s profound alienation followed the outbreak and effects of the First World War as the key factor in moving him from thought to planning to take action, which he believed it was his destiny to lead, for the deliverance of his people. In the course if this war, some 19,000 Nyasaland Africans served in the King's African Rifles, and up to 200,000 served as porters for varying periods, mostly in the East African Campaign against the Germans in Tanganyika, and disease caused many casualties. One of the earliest campaigns, a German invasion of Nyasaland and a battle at Karonga in September 1914 caused Chilembwe to write an impassioned letter against the war to the "Nyasaland Times" newspaper, saying that a number of his countrymen, "We understand that we have been invited to shed our innocent blood in this world’s war….[But] will there be any good prospects for the natives after…the war?" Chilembwe asked. He argued that Africans were being "crippled for life" and "invited to die for a cause which is not theirs". He concluded that "We ((Nyansaland) are imposed upon more than any other nationality under the sun." The remainder of his open letter, signed "in behalf of his countrymen," was a sharp protest against the neglect of Africans. The war-time censor prevented publication of the letter, and by December 1914, Chilembwe was regarded with suspicion by the colonial authorities.
The Governor decided to deport Chilembwe and some of his followers, and approached the Mauritius government asking them to accept the deportees a few days before the rising started. The censoring of Chilembwe's letter appears to be the trigger moving him to an actual conspiracy. He began organising a rebellion, gathering together a small group of Africans, educated either at the Blantyre Mission or the schools of the independent, separatist African churches in the Shire Highlands and Ncheu District, as his lieutenants. In a series of meetings held in December 1914 and early January 1915, Chilembwe and his leading followers aimed at attacking British rule and supplanting it, if possible.
Using Garvey`s theme of “Africa for the Africans”, Chilembwe delivered a speech to his 200 followers with the inspiration of John Brown, that his attack is to "strike a blow and die, for our blood will surely mean something at last." This was the only way, he declared, "to show the whiteman, 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 all die by the heavy storm of the white men’s army." He warned them not to loot nor to molest white women.
On January 23, in different attacks, especially on the Bruce estates, his men killed William Jervis Livingstone and beheaded him instantly; two other European employees killed. Three Africans were also killed by the rebels, and European-run mission was set on fire and a missionary was severely wounded. All the dead and injured were men, as Chilembwe had ordered that women should not be harmed. They looted an ammunition store in a large nearby town, and retreated to pray.
On 24 January, a Sunday, Chilembwe conducted a service in the P.I.M. church next to a pole impaling Livingstone's head, but by 26 January he realised that the uprising had failed to gain local support. The realization of the failed uprising forced forlorn Chilembwe to flee towards Mozambique. Unarmed, wearing a dark blue coat, a striped pajama jacket over a colored shirt, and gray flannel trousers, he was tracked down and killed by African soldiers working for their British masters on February 3.
It is believed that his grave is unknown, however, it has recently emerged that after his shooting, a coroner took place at Mulanje Magistrate Court where his body was identified and later on buried near Chitakale river, with no memorable marks, at a place where the colonial regime then used to bury outcasts and death-row executes.
It is believed that the failure in Ncheu District may also relate to the pacifism of many Seventh Day Baptist and Watchtower followers who were expected to rise there.
After the failed uprising and death of Chilembwe, most of his leading followers and some other participants in the rising were executed after summary trials under Martial law shortly after it failed. The total number of those killed is unclear, because extrajudicial killings were carried out by European members of the Nyasaland Volunteer Reserve.
A Commission of Enquiry into Chilembwe’s uprising was appointed and, at its hearings in June 1915, the European planters blamed missionary activities while European missionaries emphasised the dangers of the teaching and preaching by independent African churches like those led by Chilembwe. Several Africans who gave evidence complained about the treatment of workers on estates, but were largely ignored. The official enquiry needed to find causes for the rising and it blamed Chilembwe for his mixture of political and religious teaching, but also the unsatisfactory conditions on the A L Bruce Estates and the unduly harsh regime of W J Livingstone. The enquiry heard that the conditions imposed on the A L Bruce Estates were illegal and oppressive, including paying workers poorly or in kind (not in cash), demanding excessive labour from tenants or not recording the work they did, and whipping and beating both workers and tenants. The abuses were confirmed by Magomero workers and tenants questioned by the Commission in 1915.
Livingstone alone was blamed for these unsatisfactory conditions, and the resident director of the A L Bruce Estates, Alexander Livingstone Bruce, who had absolute control over estate policy and considered that educated Africans had no place in colonial society, escaped censure. The concept that the only appropriate relationship between Europeans and Africans was that of master and servant was at the heart of colonial society, led by the landowners. This concept was precisely what Chilembwe fought against with his schools and self-help schemes, and ultimately why he turned to violent action.