Henry Masauko Blasius Chipembere

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Henry Masauko Blasius Chipembere (5 August 1930 – 24 September 1975) was a Malawian nationalist who played a significant role in bringing independence from colonial rule to his native country, formerly known as Nyasaland. He died in exile in Southern California, of complications arising from diabetes.[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Chipembere's father, Habil Matthew Chipembere, was a teacher from a prosperous Nyanja family studying for the priesthood in the African Anglican church. Henry Chipembere was born in Kayoyo in Ntchisi (in the Kota Kota district bordering Lake Nyasa). His mother gave him the name "Masauko", which means "suffering" or "troubles", because it had been a difficult pregnancy. He was educated in Nyasaland and later, after some time at Goromonzi secondary school in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), at Fort Hare college in South Africa, from which he graduated in the early 1950s. For a brief period thereafter, he worked in the colonial civil service as District Assistant, serving first at Domasi in the Southern Province, under the District Commissioner, then at Fort Johnston and finally at Dedza in the Central Province.

On December 30, 1954, he attended an informal meeting in Blantyre, Nyasaland, with like-minded young Nyasas, including Kanyama Chiume, who decided to ally themselves with the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC), then a rather moribund political organization dominated by an earlier generation demoralized by its failure to prevent the federation, in 1953, of Nyasaland with bordering Southern and Northern Rhodesia.

In 1955, in order to provide a safety valve for African political self-expression, the Colonial Office agreed that the number of seats reserved for Africans on the Legislative Council should increase from three to five. These African members would be nominated by Provincial Councils: although the Provincial Councils were largely composed of chiefs, their members were receptive to popular wishes, and they nominated Congress members or supporters to the Legislative Council. In March 1956, aged only 25, Henry Chipembere resigned his civil service post in order to stand for election. He was elected by an overwhelming majority to represent the southern province, along with Chiume for the northern province, Ralph Chinyama, ND Kwenje and Dunstan Chijozi (who was a sympathizer with, but not a member of, the NAC). The Council also included eleven official government members, headed by the Governor, and six non-official European members (so-called unofficials).

Chipembere and Chiume, particularly, electrified the country with their audacious and aggressive participation in the Council. The existing members, mostly European, had conducted proceedings with traditional British decorum and restraint, and presumably expected the new members to behave similarly; but these two asked awkward questions and made radical proposals which unsettled and embarrassed the existing membership. Shortly thereafter, when it was decided to publish transcripts of the Council's proceedings, the resulting publication, Hansard, reportedly became a bestseller, particularly among young Nyasas who were totally unaccustomed to seeing others of their kind challenging authority so openly. Chipembere later said that his behaviour here was inspired by Hastings Kamuzu Banda, whose speeches in London five years earlier against the federation of Nyasaland with Southern and Northern Rhodesia had been similarly daring and inflammatory. In April 1955, at the 11th annual conference of the NAC, Chipembere and Chiume proposed secession from the Federation as official policy.

In November 1956, Chipembere wrote to Dr Banda, then in quasi-retirement in the Gold Coast (later Ghana), asking for his support in getting two African MPs, Manoah Chirwa and Clement Kumbikano, to resign from the Federal Assembly in Rhodesia, something which they had allegedly undertaken to do once they had officially protested against federation in the assembly on Congress's behalf. Chipembere felt that their participation in the Federal Assembly weakened the Nyasas' case for seceding from the Federation, which they had been adamantly and overwhelmingly opposed to in the first place. Banda, who had always regarded participation in the Federal Assembly as a betrayal, temporized and counselled patience, but Chipembere and Chiume nevertheless, on December 31, 1956, put a motion before Congress proposing that Chirwa and Kumbikano should be ordered to step down. In an eleven-hour debate, however, their motion was defeated; in part, it is thought, because of the opposition of older members of Congress who regarded Chipembere and Chiume as too young and inexperienced to be taken seriously. It was probably this that determined the younger element to ask Banda, an older and highly respected man who had spent his entire adult life away from his native Nyasaland, to return and lead the campaign for secession (and ultimately independence).

In March 1957, TDT Banda, a leading member of Congress supported by the younger element, went to the Gold Coast to participate in that country's independence celebrations, and while he was there visited Banda in order to try to persuade him. Banda was still reluctant, and two weeks later Chipembere wrote him a letter repeating the request. Later that year, partly in response to further moves by Sir Roy Welensky, the prime minister of the Federation, towards attaining dominion status for the Federation (which would make secession very much harder to achieve), Banda finally agreed to return, on various conditions which essentially gave him autocratic powers in Congress. (Banda also threw his weight behind the demand for the resignation of the two Federal MPs, which happened shortly thereafter).

In June 1958, Chipembere, Dunduzu Chisiza and Chief Kutanja, joined with Banda in meeting the Colonial Secretary, Lennox-Boyd, in London to discuss a new constitution for Nyasaland (one which had already been roundly rejected by Nyasaland's governor, Robert Armitage). Lennox-Boyd ‘took note’ of their views but said he did not think Congress represented Nyasa African opinion.

The following month, on July 6, 1958, Banda returned to Nyasaland after an absence of 42 years. At a meeting of the Congress in Nkhata Bay on August 1, 1958, Banda was named President of the Congress and nominated Chipembere as Treasurer General. The campaign for independence began in earnest. Chipembere and most other leading Congress activists were in their late 20s or early 30s, but Banda was over 60. As well as the age difference there was disagreement about Banda’s role: the activists saw him as a figurehead, but he saw himself as the leader of Congress and expected their obedience. Banda appointed Chipembere as Treasurer of Congress, Chiume as Publicity Secretary, Dunduzu Chisiza as Secretary-general and he also appointed four other young radicals to the party’s Executive Committee, ignoring older moderates. However, he made it clear that he regarded his appointees as subordinates, not colleagues.

Fight for independence[edit]

Chipembere, Chiume and the two Chisiza brothers (Dunduzu and Yatuta) played a critical role in organizing Congress as a political power and creating support for Banda. Banda hitherto had been known mostly only by the intellectual element in the country, although there was a vague awareness of his story among many of the people. By their proselytizing, however, the "Young Turks" created an almost messianic image for their new leader and elicited a tremendous response from the people. They toured the country speaking to crowds assembled by the newly energized Congress. In quite a few cases, this resulted in unrest and rioting.

In January 1958, Banda presented Congress proposals for an African majority in the Legislative Council to the governor, Sir Robert Armitage. As this would have led to a demand for withdrawal from the Federation, Armitage refused. This breakdown in talks led to Congress demands for more violent anti-government action, and leading Congress activists made increasingly inflammatory statements. On January 24 and 25, 1959, there was a meeting of Congress held without Banda near Blantyre, which became known as the "bush meeting". Allegedly, the Young Turks discussed using violence and intimidation as a means of furthering their push for independence. In a letter to Chiume, Chipembere wrote that "for the first time, Congress adopted 'action' as the official policy -- and 'action' in the real sense of action". (This letter was published as an appendix to the report of the Devlin commission investigating disturbances in Nyasaland—see References below). The Governor received reports from police informers, who claimed Congress planned the indiscriminate killing of Europeans and Asians, and of its African opponents, the so-called "murder plot". There is no evidence that a murder plot existed, but the refusal of Banda or other Congress leaders to condemn the violent actions of Congress members gave it some plausibility. Armitage prepared for mass arrests and, on 20 February, troops from Rhodesia were flown into Nyasaland. On February 20 and in the days following, both Chipembere and Yatuta Chisiza made a number of speeches. On February 20, 1959 itself, Chipembere addressed a crowd at Ndirande near Blantyre and the crowd threw stones at passing motorists. Other disturbances followed, and the police or troops fired on some of these, leading to four deaths.

Finally, on March 3, 1959, Armitage declared a State of Emergency over the whole of the protectorate and arrested Banda, other members of the Congress executive committee and as over a hundred local party officials. The Nyasaland African Congress was banned the next day. Rather than calming the situation immediately, in the emergency that followed fifty-one Africans were killed and many more were wounded. Many of the arrests were made early in the morning of March 3, 1959, and the sweep was known as Operation Sunrise, and by the end of the day most principal Congress leaders had been arrested and detained. Some were released very quickly, but 72 prominent detainees, including Banda, were flown to Southern Rhodesia. Chipembere, together with Banda and the Chisiza brothers, was imprisoned in Gwelo (now Gweru), in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). These senior members of Congress were housed in the European wing of the jail, separate from the lower-level detainees. There, Chipembere studied history, politics, and philosophy, and he and the other Congress inmates, including Dr Banda, discussed their plans for an independent Nyasaland. However, there were some tensins: Banda became concerned with Chipembere’s volatile temper, and Banda’s increasingly authoritarian attitudes alarmed his three fellow prisoners.

The mood in Britain, meanwhile, had long been moving toward relinquishing the colonies. Banda was released from prison in April 1960 and was almost immediately invited to London for talks at Lancaster House aimed at bringing about constitutional changes. Chipembere remained in prison, though he, along with others, was moved from Gwelo to Kanjedza near Blantyre in Nyasaland. In August 1960, while governor Robert Armitage was on leave and the more sympathetic Glyn Jones was Acting Governor, Banda began pressing for the release of Chipembere and the Chisiza brothers. There was some resistance; Iain Macleod, the Colonial Secretary and many Europeans regarded these three as violent extremists, and the month of August had seen further violent incidents. On 27 September, however, they were grudgingly freed, being among the last detainees to be released. They went immediately to Kota Kota, where the annual Malawi Congress Party (the new name of the Nyasaland African Congress) conference was being held. There, Banda produced them to the assembled but unsuspecting conference, wearing the red gowns of the ‘prison graduate’ and ‘camp finalist’. Chipembere was reinstated as Treasurer General of the party. Banda was made Life President of the party.

Despite Banda's release, tension in Nyasaland remained at a high level throughout 1960. In December, Chipembere delivered a speech in Rumphi in which he said (according to the Nyasaland Times, February 3, 1961), referring to a European member of the Legislative Council, "Give me the living body of Blackwood to tear to pieces. I'll do the job in two minutes". He was tried for sedition as a result of this speech and sentenced to three years in prison, and served two years in Zomba jail before his release in January 1963. While he was imprisoned, his father, by now Archdeacon in the Malawi Anglican church, assumed Chipembere's seat on the Legislative Council. Because he was in prison, Chipembere was unable to participate in the constitutional talks which brought about a general election, with full adult suffrage, in August 1961.

According to some reports, Banda deliberately avoided securing Chipembere's early release, as he had allegedly undertaken to do, because he feared the young firebrand would disrupt progress towards full independence. The new Governor, Glyn Smallwood Jones was willing to discuss Chipembere’s early release and Dunduzu Chisiza’s urged Banda to do so, Chipembere served much of his sentence, although in the end, Banda did secure his early release.

On February 1, 1963, Banda and his cabinet were sworn in, and the recently released Chipembere was given the post of Minister of Local Government. Shortly afterwards, Banda sent Chipembere, together with Chiume, on a two-month course of study in America, partly, it is thought, to allow the excitement generated by his release to die down, and partly to avoid the risk of further disturbances during the run-up to full independence. This did not stop him for long, however. By June, he was making speeches at Port Herald and Chikwawa inciting more violence against “capricorns” and “stooges”.

Malawi achieved independence finally on July 6, 1964.

The Cabinet crisis[edit]

Shortly after independence, on 19 August 1964, Chipembere departed to Canada for a conference. Meanwhile, back in Malawi, cabinet members including Orton Chirwa, Chiume, Yatuta Chisiza and others (with the notable exception of John Tembo, Minister of Finance), were growing restive under the autocratic hand of Dr Banda. They had several grievances against him, including that he had too much power (he was in charge of six different ministries, for example) and that he treated his cabinet with too little respect even in public. Matters came to a head on August 24, when they presented him with what they called the Kuchawe Manifesto (because it had been written at the Kuchawe Inn on Zomba plateau), a letter containing a list of demands. On September 7, Banda removed three of his cabinet members (Orton Chirwa, Kanyama Chiume, and Augustine Bwanausi) and Rose Chibambo, a Parliamentary Secretary. Three other cabinet members (Yatuta Chisiza, Willie Chokani and John Msonthi) resigned on the same day, causing the Cabinet Crisis of 1964. On September 8, parliament began to debate a motion of confidence in Dr Banda and his policies. Chipembere arrived back from Canada that evening. After failing to persuade Banda to postpone the remainder of the debate, Chipembere, in sympathy with his colleagues, resigned his cabinet position on September 8 and retired to the back benches. His speech on the second day of the debate failed to sway the parliament, which, moved by Banda's oratory, gave him a unanimous vote of confidence. Efforts to reinstate some of the ministers failed, and on September 26 and 27, a meeting planned by Chipembere in Blantyre was banned, ostensibly because he had not obtained police permission. There were clashes with Malawi Youth League members both in Blantyre and in Zomba. Chipembere left for Fort Johnson (now Mangochi), where popular support for him was strong.

The following week was tense throughout the country, with government employees in Zomba going on strike and senior civil servants (almost all Europeans) staying home in fear of violence. On September 30, Banda signed an order restricting Chipembere to within four miles of his home in Malindi. On 25 October, Banda claimed at an MPC meeting that the ex-ministers were plotting to overthrow him by force. Chipembere left his house on 28 October to go into hiding, following which Banda ordered his arrest, “…alive if possible, but if not alive then any other way.” Chipembere later claimed that expatriate civil servants and security officers had turned Banda against him and his colleagues.

On the night of February 12, 1965, Chipembere together with about 200 local supporters moved into Fort Johnston. According to Hansard (a not unbiased source, as a government organ), they attacked the police station, killing the wife and child of a policeman there, destroying phone installations, both there and at the post office, and removing guns and ammunition from the police armoury. They proceeded in the direction of the capital, Zomba, but found that at Liwonde Ferry the ferry vessel was secured on the farther side of the Shire River. A detachment of the Malawi army caught up with them at noon the next day, but all except one escaped into the bush. This ended Chipembere's attempt at a coup d'état. Many of Chipembere supporters were Yao, and Banda promoted the recruitment of members of the rival Lomwe group as paramilitary police to contain them, stirring up ethnic tensions.

In March 1965, Chipembere, through Governor General Glyn Jones, made overtures to Banda to proclaim an amnesty in exchange for his agreement to leave the country. He also approached the US ambassador to Malawi, Sam Gilstrap, asking him to arrange a university place for him in the US. On April 26, with the help of both Glyn Jones and US interests, as well as the loan of an aircraft from the British South Africa Police, and with Banda's knowledge, he was secretly moved to Zomba, thence to Salisbury (in Southern Rhodesia), London, New York and California. Chipembere later claimed that an amnesty had been promised for his followers, but many of them were detained without trial. A few continued raids on government targets for some time, leading to retaliatory burning of local villages and the public hanging of one of the leaders in January 1966.


Chipembere spent the rest of his life in exile. He remained in California until August 1966 when he left for Tanzania, then ruled by Julius Nyerere and his African-Socialist Tanzanian African National Union (TANU) party. In Dar es Salaam, he taught at Kivukoni College. In early 1968, he attempted reconciliation with Banda through Lady Listowel and, through her, Glyn Jones.

"I am finished and useless", he told Listowel. "I can accomplish nothing, am unemployed, receiving a small pittance from the Tanzanian government... I do not wish to crawl back to Dr Banda but I am desperate". (From a letter by Glyn Jones). Although Banda reportedly expressed interest in allowing Chipembere back in exchange for his thorough recantation and support, this never came to anything.

Because of his diabetes, Chipembere wanted to live in a country with better medical facilities than Tanzania. While he apparently expressed a preference for Britain, the British government, wary of offending Banda, was allegedly not receptive. In 1969, Chipembere returned to the US, where he taught at California State University. He died in 1975, aged 45, survived by his wife, Catherine, and seven children.

In the early 1990s, after Banda had been ousted, Catherine Chipembere returned to Malawi and was the first woman elected to Parliament. She also served in the Ministry of Culture and Education before retiring to Mangochi, where she works with AIDS orphans and a women's knitting cooperative.

Their son Masauko Chipembere Jr is an internationally known Jazz artist.


  1. ^ Masauko Chipembere [1] Robert I. Rotberg, Harvard Magazine May–June 2010, pp 42—43
  • Henry Chipembere, Robert Rotberg, Hero of the Nation: Chipembere of Malawi, an Autobiography. Blantyre, Christian Literatur Association of Malawi, 2002. ISBN 99908-16-25-0
  • Philip Short, Banda, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London and Boston, 1974
  • Colin Baker, Revolt of the Ministers: The Malawi Cabinet Crisis 1964-1965, 2001 I. B. Tauris. ISBN 978-1-86064-642-3
  • Robert I. Rotberg, The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1965
  • Patrick Devlin et al., Report of the Nyasaland Commission of Inquiry, Cmnd. 814, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, July 1959.
  • Colin Baker, Sir Glyn Jones, A Proconsul in Africa, I.B. Tauris, London, 2000.
  • Colin Baker, Chipembere: The Missing Years, Kachere, Zomba, 2006. ISBN 978-99908-76-33-8.

External links[edit]

  • [2] Malawi Fact file
  • [3] Democracy Factfile
  • [4] Habil Matthew Chipembere
  • [5] South African Political History
  • [6] Sir Glyn Jones, as last governor of Nyasaland
  • [7] Account by Chipembere's son.