Ngoniland: road to annexation to British Empire


About the year 1886 or 1887, a British envoy visited M’mbelwa and asked him to place his kingdom under the protection of Queen Victoria. M’mbelwa asked what nature of protection since his kingdom was defended by his soldiers. No treaty was signed.

In 1891, the British declared a collection of chiefdoms west and south of Lake Malawi as Nyasaland protectorate. Ngoniland was excluded. After Harry Johnson had finished his conquest of Yao, Chiefs Mponda Zarafi (Jalasi) and Makanjira and the Chewa Chief Mwase and lastly the Maseko Ngoni Chief Gomani, he told the Livingstonia missionaries that he was preparing to invade Mombera’s territory. The missionaries advised him not to, saying for one reason the Ngoni were still too powerful. Just about nine years earlier, M’mbelwa’s army had defeated the powerful Bemba Chief Chitimkulu.

“Leave the Ngoni to us,” said the Scottish missionaries, “we will defeat them with the Bible. Already many of their young men are enrolled in our schools”.


About July 1904, thieves at Ekwendeni Mission broke into the store and went away with food items and other items. Chiefs failed to track down the thieves. The missionaries invited Sir Alfred Sharpe to come to Ngoniland and reopen negotiation for annexation. He arrived at Ekwendeni in September 1904 and found an Indaba waiting to receive him. Sharpe told the chiefs and commoners that he had not come to take away their power but to supplement it.

The negotiation lasted day long. The chiefs demanded that Sharpe should be administering them with the advice of M’mbelwa’s Indaba and policemen should be recruited within Ngoniland. About a month or so later, according to Dr Agnes Fraser, news of the annexation of Ngoniland to the British Empire appeared in the London Times. It must have been a landmark.

While in the rest of the country government stripped chiefs most of their traditional powers and introduced direct rule, in Mzimba, which they called Mombera, they recognised a principality like that of Barotseland (Lozi) in Northern Rhodesia, Buganda in Uganda and Ashanti in the Gold Coast. That is a protectorate within a protectorate enjoying some autonomy.


In 1953, the government decided to introduce district councils to which Native Authorities (NAs) and some commoners would belong. Under indirect rule which was established in 1922-23, each Native Authority was a separate local authority. In the same district, there might be several NAs. Only in Mzimba and Ntcheu where there were paramount chiefs were there only one NA.

The chairman of each district council was to be the District Commissioner. In Mzimba, the chiefs and the nobles demanded that their Paramount Chief M’mbelwa II be the chairman and that the government should acknowledge M’mbelwa Council as the district council of Mzimba. This is how the district council of Mzimba came to be M’mbelwa District Council rather than Mzimba District Council.

A king within a republic

Dan Chirwa suggests that it is impossible for a traditional ruler to be called king because there is no provision on the institution. He should know that right there in South Africa there is King Zwelitheni of the Zulu under the Republic of South Africa, there is Litunga (King) Lewanika of the Lozi in Zambia and there is Kabaka (King) of Buganda in Uganda; in France, there is principality (Kingdom) of Monaco though France is a republic.

These traditional authorities have no political power, they reign, they do not rule, they create no problems for presidents, they just satisfy local sentiments.

In a stable and well run democracy, pluralism rather than totalitarianism prevails. Differences between one ethnic group or another are allowed to exist. There is no Helenisation. In Uganda, the first president Milton Obote, who was from a tribe that had no king, abolished the kingdoms of Buganda, Bunyoro and Busoga. He made himself very unpopular. When Idi Amin staged a coup d’ etal, there was rejoicing. When about 20 years later, President Yoweri Museveni restored the kingdoms, Uganda achieved political and economical stability. Museveni has been in power for 30 years.

Dan Chirwa says the petition of the Mzimba Heritage Association should be treated with the contempt it deserves. He gives the advice that Rehoboam received and which resulted in the break-up of Ancient Israel.

Atupele Muluzi has been quoted as saying he will meet the Mziha delegation and reason with them. This is statesmanship.

The traditional authority of Mzimba, M’mbelwa V, has more than a million subjects and reigns over a territory almost as big as the Kingdom of Swaziland. Under pluralism, Mzimba affairs ought to be handled differently from those petty chiefdoms.

In democracy, inclusiveness rather exclusiveness is the road to stability.

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