John Chilembwe

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The last known photo of John Chilembwe (left) taken in 1914 about a year before his death

Reverend John Chilembwe (1871 – February 3, 1915) was a Baptist pastor and educator, who trained as a minister in the United States, returning to Nyasaland in 1901. He was an early figure in the resistance to colonialism, in Nyasaland (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. Today, Chilembwe is celebrated as a hero for independence, and John Chilembwe Day is observed annually on January 15 in Malawi.

Early life[edit]

There is limited information about John Chilembwe's parentage and birth. An American pamphlet of 1914 claimed that John Chilembwe was born in Sangano, in the south of what became Nyasaland, in June, 1871. Joseph Booth also stated 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.[1] Chilembwe attended a Church of Scotland mission from around 1890.

Influence of Joseph Booth[edit]

In 1892 he became a house servant of Joseph Booth, a radical and independently-minded missionary. Booth had arrived in 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.[2][3]

Booth left Nyasaland with Chilembwe in 1897; he returned to Nyasaland alone in 1899 but left permanently in 1902, although he continued to correspond with Chilembwe. After 1906, Booth was strongly influenced by Millennialism, but the extent to which he retained influence over Chilembwe after 1902 and influenced him towards millennial beliefs is disputed, although he strongly influenced Elliot Kenan Kamwana, the first leader of the Watchtower followers of Charles Taze Russell in Nyasaland.[4][5]

Education in the United States and religious ideas[edit]

In 1897 Booth and Chilembwe traveled together to the United States. Here, after parting amicably from Booth, Chilembwe attended the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, (now Virginia University of Lynchburg), a small Baptist institution at Lynchburg, Virginia. The principal was a militantly independent Negro, Gregory Hayes and Chilembwe both experienced the contemporary prejudice against negroes and was exposed to radical American Negro ideas and the works of John Brown, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and others. He was ordained as a Baptist minister at Lynchburg in 1899.[6][7]

After his return to Nyasaland, 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.[8] 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.[9][10][11] 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.[12]

Return to Nyasaland and mission work[edit]

In 1900 Chilembwe returned to Nyasaland, in his own words, "to labour amongst his benighted race". Backed financially the National Baptist Convention of America who also provided two American Baptist helpers until 1906, Chilembwe started his Providence Industrial Mission (P.I.M.) in Chiradzulu district. In its first decade, the mission developed slowly, assisted by regular small donations from his American backers, and Chilembwe founded several schools, which by 1912 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.[13]

Colonial grievances[edit]

In 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.[14][15] 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.[16] 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".[17]

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 coercion.[18] Alexander Livingstone Bruce, who controlled the A L Bruce Estates operations, instructed Livingstone (who was only the salaried manager and as such had to carry out his bosses orders),not to allow schools to be opened on the Bruce Estates. However the estates did, through the company provide free medical and hospital treatment for all its workers [19] and during the famine William Livingstone did open all his grain stores to feed the workers.

The considered view of Alexander Livingstone Bruce was that he had a vast estate to oversee, and his principal concern was to make it a paying concern having invested heavily in clearing and planting crops such as cotton, coffee and tobacco. He recorded his personal dislike for Chilembwe, and considered all African-led mission churches were centres for potential agitation, and so 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; Chilembwe became the spokesman for African tenants on the Bruce Estates. Chilembwe then knowingly provoked confrontation by erecting churches on estate land, which William Livingstone was ordered to burn down because his boss considered them as centres for agitation against the management.[20] William Livingstone's wife Kitty, as a teacher herself, was instrumental in helping to educate her own staff, teaching them to read and write.

Reaction to the colonial system[edit]

Chilembwe was angered by Livingstone's refusal to allow mission churches. He was 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 rising.[21][22]

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 and was known to be in monetary debt to several friends of his. From around 1910, he then 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.[23]

Background to the 1915 Uprising[edit]

The sources cited above agree that, after 1912 or 1913 the series of social and personal issues mentioned increased Chilembwe's bitterness toward Europeans in Nyasaland, and moved him towards thoughts of revolt. However, they treat 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.[24][25] In the course of 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.[26] 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, "have already shed their blood", others were being "crippled for life" and "invited to die for a cause which is not theirs". The war-time censor prevented publication of the letter, and by December 1914, Chilembwe was regarded with suspicion by the colonial authorities.[27] Censoring this letter by the Colonial Administration was one of the last straws for Chilembwe, and finally drove him to plan drastic action.

Not actually deporting Chilembwe - which would have been the better course of action - the Governor investigated deporting him and some of his followers, and had apparently approached the Mauritius government asking them to accept the deportees a few days before the rising started. It is a fact though that William Livingstone, a whole year earlier, had repeatedly warned his local District Commissioner of potential insurrection and none of his warnings had been heeded. It is known that the District Commissioner had Chilembwe closely watched, yet refused to take any preventative action against him in order to protect the local population. Unquestionably, it was the censoring of Chilembwe's letter that appeared to be the final trigger moving him to an actual conspiracy, forgetting at this time he was a man of the church. 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 generally and supplanting it, if possible. However, it is possible that he learned of his intended deportation, and was forced to bring forward the date of his revolt, making the prospects of its success more unlikely, and turning it into a symbolic gesture of protest.[28] When he brought forward the date of the Shire Highlands rising, Chilembwe was unable to ensure that it could still be coordinated with the planned rising in the Ntcheu District, which was therefore largely abortive.[29] 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.[30]

1915 Uprisings and death[edit]

Main article: Chilembwe uprising

The aims of the rising remain unclear, partly because Chilembwe and many of his leading supporters were killed, and also because many documents were destroyed in a fire in 1919. However, use of the theme of “Africa for the Africans” suggests a political motive rather than a purely millennial religious one.[31] Chilembwe is believed to have drawn parallels between his rising and that of John Brown, and stated his wish to "strike a blow and die" immediately before the rising started.[32][33]

The first part of Chilembwe's plan was to attack European centres in the Shire Highlands on the night between the 23rd and 24 January 1915, to obtain arms and ammunition, and the second was to attack European estates in the same area simultaneously. Most of Chilembwe's force of about 200 men were from his P.I.M congregations in Chiradzulu and Mlanje, with some support from other independent African churches in the Shire Highlands. In the third part of the plan, the forces of the Ncheu revolt based on the local independent Seventh Day Baptists would move south to link up with Chilembwe. He hoped that discontented Africans on European estates, relatives of soldiers killed in the war and others would join as the rising progressed.[34] It is uncertain if Chilembwe had definite plans in the event of failure; some suggest he would seek a symbolic death, others that he planned to escape to Mozambique.[35][36] The first and third parts of the plan failed almost completely: some of his lieutenants did not carry out their attacks, so few arms were obtained, the Ncheu group had failed to form and move south, and there was no mass support for the rising.

The attack on European estates was largely one on the Bruce estates at Magomero, where William Jervis Livingstone was murdered and beheaded in front of his wife, small daughter Nyasa (5 years old) and infant baby Alastair then only 6 months old; two other European employees were also murdered - Duncan MacCormick from the Isle of Lismore (like William), and Robert Ferguson. 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. In wholly unchristian act, on 24 January, a Sunday, Chilembwe conducted a service in the Providence Industrial Mission church next to a pole where Livingstone's head was impaled - a macabre and gruesome incident in the extreme - especially where a man of the church was instrumental in its implementation. But by 26 January Chilembwe realised that his uprising had failed to gain local support. After avoiding attempts to capture him by the King's African Rifles when apparently trying to escape into Mozambique, he was tracked down and killed on 3 February 1915.

Aftermath of the Uprising[edit]

Most of Chilembwe's 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.[37][38][39]

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. The official enquiry needed to find causes for the rising which is fact might have been averted had their own colonial district commissioners been more in touch with the planter community and headed the many warning. .[40] Yet it chose to blame Chilembwe for his mixture of political and religious teaching, and another convenient scapegoat of the planter community, sighting unsatisfactory conditions on the A L Bruce Estates among others and and a supposed harsh regime of W J Livingstone who now murdered could no longer defend himself. The enquiry heard that the conditions imposed on the A L Bruce Estates were oppressive, including paying workers poorly or in kind with tobacco (not in cash), expecting excessive labour from tenants or not recording the work they did, and whipping workers. The abuses were confirmed by Magomero workers and tenants questioned by the Commission in 1915.[41] Kitty Livingstone, William's widow, was incensed at these accusations and wrote a long and passioned response, placing the blame squarely at the lack of proper colonial administration and supervision. She wanted explained why, if the conditions were as bad as suggested by the findings of the Commission of Enquiry, that nothing had been done earlier by government officials to remedy them. She was incensed at the suggestion that her husband was to blame, when he was not only now dead, but also only the salaried manager of the vast estate which brought about it own challenges anyway.

Livingstone therefore was blamed for these unsatisfactory conditions, when the resident director/owner 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.[42] 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 may have been precisely what Chilembwe aimed to fight against with his schools and self-help schemes, and ultimately why he turned to violent action,[43] although see also [44] for an opposing and similarly dated viewpoint. No amount of frustration should have allowed Chilembwe to resort to, or condone the slaughter of fellow Christians. Ironically, William Livingstone's own father had also been a baptist minister in Scotland.

Nyasaland Independence and legacy[edit]

Nyasaland gained independence in 1964, taking the name Malawi. Chilembwe's likeness have been seen on the obverse of all Malawian kwacha notes since 1997 until May 2012, when new notes were launched and 500 kwacha of which still honors his portrait. John Chilembwe Day is observed annually on January 15 in Malawi.


  1. ^ D T Stuart-Mogg, (1997). A Brief Investigation into The Genealogy of Pastor John Chilembwe of Nyasaland and Some Thoughts upon the Circumstances Surrounding his Death, The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 44-7.
  2. ^ G. Shepperson and T. Price, (1958). Independent African. John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915. Edinburgh University Press, pp. 25, 36-8, 47
  3. ^ K. E. Fields, (1985). Revival and Rebellion in Colonial Central Africa, Princeton University Press pp. 125-6. ISBN 978-069-109409-0
  4. ^ K. E. Fields, (1985). Revival and Rebellion in Colonial Central Africa, pp. 99-100, 105.
  5. ^ J. Linden and I. Linden, (1971). John Chilembwe and the New Jerusalem, The Journal of African History, Vol. 12, No. 4, p. 633.
  6. ^ G. Shepperson and T. Price, (1958). Independent African, pp. 79, 85-92, 112-118, 122-123,
  7. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (1970). Psychological Stress and the Question of Identity: Chilembwe's Revolt Reconsidered, in R I. Rotberg and A. A. Mazrui, eds., Protest and Power in Black Africa, New York, Oxford University Press, 356-8. ISBN 978-019-500093-1
  8. ^ R. Tangri, (1971). Some New Aspects of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915, African Historical Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, p. 307.
  9. ^ G. Shepperson and T. Price, (1958). Independent African, p. 417.
  10. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa: The Making of Malawi and Zambia 1873-1964, Cambridge (Mass), Harvard University Press, pp. 77, 85.
  11. ^ J. Linden and I. Linden, (1971). John Chilembwe and the New Jerusalem, The Journal of African History, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 631-3.
  12. ^ L. White, (1984). 'Tribes' and the Aftermath of the Chilembwe Rising, African Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 333, pp. 522-3.
  13. ^ R. Tangri, (1971). Some New Aspects of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915, pp. 306-7.
  14. ^ B. Pachai, (1978). Land and Politics in Malawi 1875-1975, Kingston (Ontario), The Limestone Press, pp. 36-7
  15. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, p.18.
  16. ^ L. White, (1984). 'Tribes' and the Aftermath of the Chilembwe Rising, pp. 513-15.
  17. ^ L. White, (1984). 'Tribes' and the Aftermath of the Chilembwe Rising, pp.515-18, 523.
  18. ^ J McCraken, (2012). A History of Malawi, 1859-1966 Woodbridge, James Currey pp. 130-2. ISBN 978-1-84701-050-6.
  19. ^ J. Linden and I. Linden, (1971). John Chilembwe and the New Jerusalem, p. 633.
  20. ^ R Tangri, (1971). Some New Aspects of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915, p.307.
  21. ^ G. Shepperson and T. Price, (1958). Independent African, pp. 240-50
  22. ^ J. Linden and I. Linden, (1971). John Chilembwe and the New Jerusalem, pp. 633-4.
  23. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (1970). Psychological Stress and the Question of Identity: Chilembwe's Revolt Reconsidered, pp. 365-6.
  24. ^ G. Shepperson and T. Price, (1958). Independent African, pp. pp. 234-5, 263.
  25. ^ R Tangri, (1971). Some New Aspects of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915, pp. 308-9.
  26. ^ M. E. Page, (2000). "The Chiwayo War": Malawians and the First World War, Boulder (Co), Westview Press pp. 35-6, 37-41, 50-3.
  27. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, pp. 81-3
  28. ^ R Tangri, (1971). Some New Aspects of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915, pp.309-11.
  29. ^ J. Linden and I. Linden, (1971). John Chilembwe and the New Jerusalem, p. 629
  30. ^ K. E. Fields, (1985). Revival and Rebellion in Colonial Central Africa, pp. 125-6
  31. ^ G. Shepperson and T. Price, (1958). Independent African, pp. 504-5.
  32. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, p. 84.
  33. ^ G. Shepperson and T. Price, (1958). Independent African, p. 239.
  34. ^ R Tangri, (1971). Some New Aspects of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915, pp. 310-12.
  35. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, pp. 84-6,
  36. ^ R Tangri, (1971). Some New Aspects of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915, pp. 312-13.
  37. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, pp. 87-91,
  38. ^ R Tangri, (1971). Some New Aspects of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915, p. 312.
  39. ^ P. Charlton (1993). Some Notes on the Nyasaland Volunteer Reserve, The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 35-9
  40. ^ L White, (1984). 'Tribes' and the Aftermath of the Chilembwe Rising, pp. 523-4.
  41. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, pp. 78-9.
  42. ^ J McCraken, (2012).A History of Malawi, 1859-1966, pp. 130-1.
  43. ^ L White, (1984). 'Tribes' and the Aftermath of the Chilembwe Rising, pp. 524-5.
  44. ^ Rotberg, Robert. Psychological Stress and the Question of Identity: Chilembwe's Revolt Reconsidered" in Protest and Power in Black Africa. p337-373. Ox Uni Press 1970

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