About John Chilembwe in Edinburgh


I thank my friend Mike Bamford, secretary and treasurer of The Society of Malawi for presenting me with the Society’s Journal volume 68, Number One for the year 2015. It is exclusively a report on symposium to mark the Centenary of the Chilembwe Rising in Nyasaland in 1915 which was held at New College, University of Edinburgh on 7th February, 2015.

At the time of writing this article I have read three quarters of the articles and have found them intellectually refreshing. The journal starts with the photograph of John Chilembwe that was taken when he was a student in the United States in the year 1898 or thereabouts, one of the collections about personalities in Malawi by David Stuart Mogg. You may have seen the photo already in special editions and other paper which are annually devoted to Chilembwe Day. But in this Journal the picture appears more distinctly with the young Chilembwe looking thoughtful.

On the next page is the letter Chilembwe wrote to the Nyasaland Times of November 1914 titled ‘The voice of African Natives in the Present War.’ The Nyasaland Times as you know was the name of what is now The Daily Times until the day Nyasaland became the independent state of Malawi.


The letter reflect several aspects of John Chilembwe. His English vocabulary was wide and quite sophisticated for an educated African of that time and that he was much concerned with racial equality and social justice. I have seen in the past this letter reproduced in West African magazines which implies that his grievances had been felt there as well. After all, we read that in the Gold Coast (Ghana), soon after Kwame Nkrumah returned from his college days in England ex-veterans in World War II, went on demonstration against the government which had not paid them service pensions and that the government shot more than 20 of the demonstrators. The gist of Chilembwe’s letter was that after serving in this Great War which had just broken out would the government treat African veterans better.

On page two of the magazine is the photo of the mature son of John Chilembwe, who was born John Chilembwe Jnr. but after his father’s uprising and death was dropped in favour of Charlie because white people said they did not want to hear the name John Chilembwe again. He is paired with Professor Shepperson to whom all Malawians who cherish the memory of John Chilembwe owe abundant gratitudes.

Without the Edinburgh historian and biographer of John Chilembwe, Malawi’s second greatest hero would not have been well known. His writings inspired other Britons like David Stuart Mogg who have continued to discover more and more about Chilembwe and other figures in the history of Malawi. Without these scholars the historiography of Malawi would have been shaky.


I should like to dwell more on the well crafted essay by Brian Morris titled ‘The Chilembwe Rebellion’; he discussed among other things the objectives of the Chilembwe rebellion. The Commission of Inquiry on the Chilembwe uprising was “The extermination or expulsion of the European population and the setting up of a Native state or theocracy of which Chilembwe was to be the head”.

There were suggestions by Africans respondents that the rebellion was merely symbolic, that Chilembwe did not intend to get rid of the colonial government but just to make it responsive to African grievances.

My discussion with men like the late Wilfred Mtambo and W. Pilgrim Chigamba who — as young men — attended Chilembwe’s last rally at the PIM and acted as messengers, Chilembwe did not intend to murder or expel all white people. He had a list of the bad white man drawn and William Jarvis Livingstone was at the top of this list.

Chilembwe definitely wanted to set up an independent state. As far back as 1895 Joseph Booth, his mentor, was saying an African Christian state should be set in 20 years time. During his association with American black missionaries he learned how Liberia and Haiti, the only independent negro states, had gained independence. Chilembwe had ample self confidence and he believed he could manage a self-governing Nyasaland.

The rising was less localised than some people suggest. The majority of his followers were Lomwe’s, then known Nguru’s, but there were Nyanja’s, his fellow Yaos, Wilson Zimba was from the Northern Province. Chilembwe had discussed the rebellion with Ngoni leader Filipo Chinyama of Ntcheu, who — when the rising started — organised a militia to go as link with the main rising in Chiradzulu. Chilembwe’s uprising was not a tribal but African or national. The letter he wrote to the Nyasaland Times spoke of African underprivileged compared with Europeans.

About the year 1912, the Resident (District Commissioner) at Chiradzulu ordered Chilembwe not to build more schools after he had built only seven. Both Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic Missionaries had made representations to the government that Chilembwe was building his schools in their sphere of influence and that his teaching include Ethiopianism or what today would call African nationalism.

Whoever is really interested in the history of Malawi and the true stature of Chilembwe as a home-grown missionary, educationist and nationalist should spare time to acquire Volume 68 and read it. It is not just informative but intellectually stimulating

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