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John Chilembwe a forgotten hero.

On 23 January 1915, John Chilembwe, a Baptist pastor, led an Uprising against British rule in Malawi (then known as Nyasaland). It was crushed in less than a fortnight on 3 February when Chilembwe's body was found by government troops. Eighty-eight years on, Chilembwe, a true African hero, has remained unknown outside Malawi. As Africans in the UK celebrate Black History Month, it is time to wheel Chilembwe out of global anonymity into public esteem.

What did you do in the great war, Dad" asked the Boy. "I, my son? ... why, I took part in the great battle of Chilembwe!", exclaimed the Father as he puffed out his chest with pride and touched a ribbon which nestled close to his waistcoast pocket. "Was it a big battle, Dad? I can't find anything in the history books about it. Please tell me about it."

"My son," exclaimed the parent, "you won't find anything in the history books about it because it was too tremendous, too terrible, too magnificent and too momentous to be compressed within the poor pages of any mere book"--Cassandra Vates in Zomba In 1950, Book of the Fancy Fair ... in aid of the British Red Cross (War Charity) Fund in Zomba, 24 August 1918.

Eighty-five long years after Cassandra Vates had satirised the suppression of Chilembwe's Uprising, you still need to look hard in bookshops worldwide to find any book mentioning the event.

"But," as George Shepperson and Thomas Price testify, in their 1958 tome on the Uprising, titled Independent African, "the story of John Chilembwe and his enemies and associates (particularly the radical British Christian missionary, Joseph Booth), once heard, even in outline, is not one which is quickly forgotten."

Credit though should go to President Bakili Muluzi's government thanks to them, John Chilembwe will be hard to forget now, after the government on assumption of office nine years ago, did him the high honour of putting his face on all the denominations of Malawi's currency, the Kwacha (photo above).

In fact, to be fair to Muluzi's predecessor, President Kamuzu Banda, in 1965 Banda's government had put Chilembwe's face on a set of four commemorative stamps issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the Uprising. Even then, today if you asked most people (except Malawians) about John Chilembwe, they would ask back: "John who?"

That such an African hero is still unknown outside his own realms, should entice Continental and Diasporan Africans in the UK celebrating Black History Month, to go in search of John Shepperson and Thomas Price's 576-page hook, Independent African-John Chilembwe and the Nyasa-land Rising 1915. It is by far the best-researched and sweetly written book on the Uprising this side of Heaven. But for that book, this piece could not have been written.

So, who was John Chilembwe and why did he rise against British rule in Nyasa-land? Shepperson and Price tell the story much better (and I am going to ,allow them to set the background with this extensive extract from their book):

"In 1892," they write, "some semblance of formal administration and order was beginning to appear in British Central Africa. On 1 February 1891, its first Commissioner and Consul-General had been announced; and between 14 May 1891 and 22 February 1893, a Protectorate was defined and declared over the country that was to be called officially, from 1907 onwards, Nyasaland.

"Harry Johnston, the first Commissioner, was a little man who made up for his lack of size by his tremendous vitality ... At the heart of all [his] problems lay the one question still in the centre of the triangle of troubles among native Africans, Europeans settlers and administrators in modern Africa: ownership of land. In the year's between the mid-1870s and the arrival of Johnston, land in many parts of the Nyasa regions had been changing hand very rapidly. Some had been taken away in tribal forays from one set of Africans by another, and the Arabs had stolen it from all ...

"And right into the middle of these Nyasa highlands, which David Livingstone had seen as such admirable centres from which selected European settlers could spread the civilising influences of commerce and Christianity, numerous European concerns (mission stations, traders, planters, white hunters, mineral concession-seekers) mainly of Scottish origin had established themselves.

"They had secured land from native peoples and chiefs by a variety of means: Purchase from native authorities who had no right to alienate the land from the tribal commonalty; purchase from native authorities who had; gifts from native chiefs and peoples; outright filching from native chiefs and peoples.

"The process had speeded up after the Berlin Conference in 1885, when the scramble for Africa may be said to have begun formally. The powers of Europe had given a definite signal to their roving, unofficial representatives in Africa to start, and the great treaty race was on.

"British, French, Germans, Portuguese, Belgians and Italians rushed into the flay, armed with treaty-making forms, intent on securing the marks of at least a few native rulers and thus of acquiring some form of 'title-deeds' to land which would enlarge the boundary in Africa of their national spheres of influence ...

"Nowhere, perhaps, in East and Central Africa was the pattern more complicated than in the little Protectorate that was left to the British in the Nyasa regions after the international share-out.

"This was the melee Commissioner Johnston faced in 1892 when, in order to lay the foundations of a stable official administration, it was his duty to try to sort out the whole matter by holding an inquiry into the European ownership of land and by making arrangements, under the aegis of the Crown, for the remaining land to be held in trust for the it, rare inhabitants of the country ...

"Between 1892 and 1893, he gave to most Europeans in the country 'certificates of claim' which assured the freehold tenure of their lands. A few claims, the result of apparent sharp practice and chicanery, he refused outright. Others, which he believed were based on insufficient purchase price, he granted upon payment of an additional sum to the natives concerned.

"In the areas of the 1915 Uprising, Blantyre and Mulanje, three pence an acre was the maximum increase he enforced. In less settled parts of the Protectorate, it was as low as a half penny an acre.

"To some Europeans, who trod no proper claims at all but who wanted "land, he granted it as much the same low rates out of the Crown land while he had demarcated when all the original European claims had been considered and assessed.

"Johnston did two things in this year of land assessment which were to work out their strange logic 20 years later in the Rising of 1915: he inserted a 'non-disturbance clause' in many of the certificates of claim, the interpretation and infringement of which was to provide John Chilembwe in 1915 with much of his African following ... On most of the certificates of claim issued in 1892-3 to European land-holders, the 'non-disturbance clause' ran:

'That no native village or plantation existing at the date of this Certificate on the said Estate shall be disturbed or removed without the consent in writing of Her Majesty's Commissioner and Consul-General, but when such consent shall have been given, the sites of such villages or plantations shall revert to the Proprietor of the said Estate. No natives can make other and new villages or plantations on the said Estate without the prior consent of the Proprietor .'"

Thus, from Blantyre (the unofficial capital of the Protectorate which had been named after the little industrial town in Scotland where David Livingstone was born), Johnston, in one fell swoop had dispossessed the Africans of the Protectorate of their land with his "no-disturbance clause".

Enter John Chilembwe. He was born in June 1871 and in 1892 had gone to work as a servant for the English missionary, Joseph Booth (born in Derby in 1851). Booth and his small daughter, Emily, had arrived in Nyasaland in August 1892 via Australia where he had gone to live when he left England.

As a youth, Booth was a strong non-believer in the essence of God, although his father, John Booth, a real estate agent, was a man of strong religious convictions, As he grew up, the young Booth changed his views, converted to Christianity and became a pastor--and a radical one to boot.

But his radicalism and egalitarianism became his undoing when he arrived in Nyasaland. Benefiting from Commissioner Johnstons land apportionment acts, Booth had bought a piece of land near Blantyre for coffee growing. He paid his African workers much higher wages (18 shillings a month) than the average European settler (who paid 3 shillings a month). Soon Booth had fallen into disfavour.

His fellow Europeans intensely disliked him for his pro-African views and actions, and even after he was deported from the Protectorate many years before Chilembwe's Uprising, Booth was still blamed in the House of Commons back in London for the Uprising. His sin, perhaps, was "by association" with Chilembwe. He had employed him in 1892 as a servant to look after her small daughter, Emily, while he was off on his missionary travels. Booth's wife was too ill to travel with him to Nyasaland from Australia where she finally died in May 1894. Many years later, Emily who grew up under the loving care of Chilembwe, would write that but for Chilembwe, "I doubt very much if I could have survived". She said Chilembwe "was intelligent and quick in his thought processes; his face and eyes were alert. He moved with assurance and decision."

Chilembwe had arrived in the Booth household with only a smattering of English, learnt at a missionary school. But he had, as Emily wrote later in life, "a great desire to learn and write, and to gain the truths of Christianity. It was in greater qualities than these that our John excelled."

According to Emily, Chilembwe "knew his own mind and was not easily to be turned from his purpose ... He was so kind and true--so thoughtful and unselfish.

Without his faithfulness and dependability, I doubt very much if I could have survived, or if Father could have completed the seeking-out, and the buying of land for a mission station." In all, Chilembwe's apprenticeship with Booth lasted for five years. In 1895, Booth went to America for the first time and was greatly touched by the "American Negro" struggle for equal rights. What he saw influenced him so much that he took Chilembwe along with him on his second trip to America in April 1897. Chilembwe returned three years later a totally changed man.

While in America, black Baptist preachers had impressed upon Chilembwe to part company with Booth (as both had become poor and their association was resented by both sides of the racial divide). But Chilembwe was reluctant to leave Booth, who later wrote that Chilembwe "would not leave me in poverty to be made comfortable himself".

Chilembwe agonised for two long years, and it took a magnanimous Booth, in 1899, to put him out of his agony by advising Chilembwe to leave. "And so," write Shepperson and Price, "Chilembwe was then for two years put into a Negro college, the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, after which he returned [to Nyasaland in 1900] as a full-blown, round-collared, long-coated 'Reverend' of the regulation type."

Chilembwe's returned home seriously affected by the discrimination in America against black people. The fear and hatred that arose from this spate of discrimination was expressed in violence. According to Shepperson and Price: "A minor expression of this had already been noted in the mobs of young white men in Richmond, Virginia, who stoned Chilembwe and Booth for consorting together ... "Indeed, Chilembwe was in America at the time when the incidence of lynching was mounting. In the last 16 years of the 19th century, more than 2,500 Negroes had been lynched and in the first year of the new century, when Chilembwe was going home, there were more than 100 lynchings. These things touched Chilembwe immensely. When he returned a proud African in 1900, with financial support and blessings of leading sections of American Negro Baptists, he was ready to compete with the Europeans in Nyasaland in dress, speech, missionary work and all. Not surprisingly, he was accused by the Europeans of having "ideas beyond his station".

The Europeans greatly resented the fact that Chilembwe bought "European-style" dresses for his wife. While researching their book in 1950, Shepperson and Price said they were told by "the Rev. James Reid, the former Church of Scotland missionary in Nyasaland, of the annoyance to many Europeans that was caused by Chilembwe's buying European-style clothing for his wife in the local stores." But Chilembwe did not stop there. He instructed the women members of his congregation in wear dresses and bind their hair, while the men had to wear trousers, shirts, jackets and hats.

According to Shepperson and Price : "It was the hats which caused so much of the trouble. If [the Africans] wore them--presumptuous though this must have seemed to many of the Europeans they were expected to raise them to a white person. Failure to do this could mean a number of minor indignities, from the European's knocking-off of the offending object, to his implanting his boot on the scat of those other equally offensive articles in his sight--European-style trousers.

To many Europeans, an African in white man's clothing was 'getting above himself'; and, as some Africans have claimed, they were whipped when found in European dress and told to get into their own native garb again."

In the meantime, between 1893 and 1897, a large, new European estate, had been opened at Magomero near Chilembwe's home area, owned by the Scot, Alexander Livingstone Bruce, who employed another Scot, William Jarvis Livingstone (a distant relative of the great Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone), to man the estate.

David Livingstone himself had arrived in Nyasaland in 1859. Upon asking the local Yao people the name of the great lake on whose shores they lived, he was told "Nyasa" (which means "lake" in the Yao language). Livingstone immediately scribbled in his diary "Nyasa" as the name of the lake, and so it became known worldwide (including the country, Nyasaland), until the name was changed to Lake Malawi after independence in 1964. As fate would have it, the sprawling Bruce Estates would play a huge part in sparking the Cbilembwe Uprising in 1915 in which William Jarvis Livingstone would lose his head and life.

On his return from America, Chilembwe had started his own mission (churches and schools) with American Negro Baptist support. The mission had grown so fast that Chilembwe had to personally design and supervise the building of a much larger church (a cathedral in fact, the second best in the Protectorate, second only to David C. Scott's impressive Church of Scotland cathedral in Blantyre), to house his congregation at his headquarters in Chiradzulu.

As Chilembwe's mission grew, the political and social conditions in the Protectorate were becoming more and more disadvantageous to the Africans. For example, in the middle of 1900, 300 Nyasaland native soldiers of the Central Africa Regiment had been sent by the British to Ghana (then Gold Coast) to fight against the Asantes in the Yaa Asantewaa War. Earlier, Nyasa soldiers had been used as garrison troops in Mauritius and in many campaigns against rebellious tribal elements in the Protectorate; while another contingent had been sent into Rhodesia to deal with the Lunda chief, Kazembe.

Elsewhere, another 150 Nyasaland troops had been used by the British and all had been killed in campaigns in Somaliland. Chilembwe was particularly affronted by all this, and complained bitterly that the Africans who had lost their husbands and parents in the Asante war had not been compensated. Besides, the government was making widows of native soldiers to pay taxes.

And then, there was the land ownership problem. Between 1903-4, the government had made unsuccessful attempts to solve the land problem as more people (both African and European) concentrated in the Shire Highlands. The government's efforts became the main focus of the Nunan Judgement of 1903 that castigated "the growing tendency to treat the native, whether he is old or new settler, and whether any rights were secured to him under the 'certificates of claim' or not, as a tenant at will or even as an unfree villein or scriptus glebae."

A year after the Nunan Judgement, the government passed the Native Locations Ordinance (1904) that tried to introduce some fixity of tenure on the land for unsettled Africans by providing for the European principle of rent, which the African could pay either to the government or to a private European landowner.

As the Blantyre Mission paper, edited by Europeans, commented: "On the face of it, it is an anomaly that the native should in this way have to buy back land which was once his own. Where he once had fixity of tenure, he now has to pay for it at the rate of four shillings per annum. It is an anomaly but one of those anomalies which must be allowed for. The introduction of the white man with his new notions of private property in land was the predetermining cause, and this must be accepted as something that has come to stay.

"In the face of such statements," say Shepperson and Price, "Chilembwe was unlikely to be silent before the Africans of his churches and schools."
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Title Annotation:Black History Month
Author:Boateng, Osei
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6MALA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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