Thoughts on Malawi’s freedom fighters


Malawi’s reaction towards Colonial Administration was noted right from the onset of the imposition of the colonial rule. Some tribes or individuals resisted, others collaborated while others simply negotiated for a peaceful coexistence.

With the passage of time, however, it became clear that most Malawians were unhappy with the colonial policies which were believed to have negatively affected their lives socially, economically and politically.

This development prompted some brave Malawians to start openly opposing some of the policies introduced by the Colonial Administration. For instance, John Chilembwe, founder of the Providence Industrial Mission in Chiradzulu mounted an open rebellion against the colonial administration following the imposition of the Thangata system (a form of labour tenancy which was seen to be harsh) as early as 1915. Much as the rebellion did not yield the intended purpose as it was believed to have been rushed over, the message was clear that Malawians were not comfortable with some of the colonial policies.


However, it is important to note that prior to the Chilembwe uprising some mission-educated Malawians, especially those under Livingstonia Mission, formed native associations whose main aim was to force the colonial authorities to develop good policies to benefit the majority of the Africans. The first one of its kind was formed in 1912 in Karonga by Simon Mhango with Levi Mumba as its secretary. This was followed by the formation of the West Nyasa Native Association at Bandawe in 1914 and later the Mombera Native Association founded among the Northern Ngoni with the approval of Inkosi ya Makosi M’mbelwa.

At this juncture it is important to note that Dr Robert Laws encouraged the formation of such associations because he believed that they provided an important forum for the emerging class of literate Africans to discuss their grievances and probably find possible ways to present them to the colonial authorities. While working in Zomba, Levi Mumba was instrumental in the formation of native association both in Zomba and later in Blantyre. Much as they were seen as marginal pressure groups, their contribution to the political history of Malawi cannot be downplayed. The founding members of the Nyasaland Africa Congress in 1944 emerged from these associations. From this background, it can be noted that quite a good number of Malawians played a crucial role in our liberation struggle, yet their existence in our literature has either been mentioned in passing or omitted all together. Also missing are the critical events one of which is the 3rd March 1959 massacre in Nkhata Bay District which marked a turning point in our liberation straddle.

Looking at the current trends, the government of Malawi has placed much emphasis on the Chilembwe uprising, downplaying the role other deserving Malawians played towards the liberation struggle. We have in mind the roles played by Charles Matinga and that of the victims of 3rd March, 1959 in Nkhata Bay district among others.


The 3rd March 1959 Crisis

The events that took place in Nkhata Bay on 3rd March, 1959 marked the critical juncture or the turning point in the fight for our independence. Brave Malawians from across the country that were at Nkhata Bay Boma during that moment stood their ground in protest against the arrest of their country men and women who were being taken to Zomba, famous for political detentions then. The ship that docked at Nkhata Bay was believed to be carrying Malawians, the majority of whom were from the North, following their political activities in some parts of the Northern Region. It was believed that it docked to carry some political activists who were detained at Nkhata Bay police station to join their colleagues in the ship enroute to Zomba.

It became absolutely difficult for the District of Commissioner of Nkhata Bay then (Mr Brook) to contain the pressure. Using the intimidatory force comprising mostly the federation forces from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the Anti-riot Act was read aimed at dismissing the protesters. They never moved an inch still demanding the release of their fellow countrymen and women who were believed to be in that ship. Following the rules of the game of the time, the Anti-riot Act was read three times as required by law which either the protesters did not understand or simply they braved the scenario at hand. The soldiers then opened fire against the unarmed protesters leading to the death of quite a good number of them (men and women). Some managed to escape.

Following this development, the fight for independence took a different tone. A number of riots were reported across the country. It became clear for the Federal Government then that this was a failed ‘project’.

Critical events that followed included the release of Dr Banda in April 1960 who later became the first Head of State of the country. This was followed by the release of some of his fellow prisoners from the Kanjedza detention camp in Limbe. Discussions towards formal handing over of power to the locals started on a serious note this time around. Eventually Malawi became independent in 1964.

Despite its significance, the 3rd March event has not been treated as a national event. Rather it has often been treated as a Nkhata Bay event, which is unfortunate. The Malawi Congress Party-led government of the time chose the type of heroes they wanted to honour in line with their political interest. One such event was the over-glorification of the Chilembwe uprising of 1915. All other events were overshadowed.

It is therefore important to cast our net wide to incorporate the forgotten heroes that played a critical role in our liberation history. The focus should depart from the preferred heroes.

The Muluzi Administration

The only meaningful visible recognition of the 3rd March event was noted during the UDF-led government of Dr Bakili Muluzi. A pillar was constructed close to the site where quite a good number of protesters were shot dead. Following that development yearly events are organised by the District Commissioner’s office. Missing is the national flavor. The event does not carry the pomp it deserves.


Malawi has a rich political history which deserves to be given a proper place in our national history. Giving maximum attention to preferred events denies Malawians knowledge of who their heroes are. It is critical especially to the young generation to understand in detail the route map to our political independence. That will instill national pride. The contributions made by deserving Malawians like Levi Ziliro Mumba, John Fredrick Sangala, Isa Lawrence, ‘General’ Flax Musopole, Kapote Mwakasungula, Charles Matinga and Reverend Thomas Maseya should be given a proper space in our political history. Of course, not forgetting the 3rd March, 1959 event which marked the critical juncture in our political history.–Special Essay by Chrispin Mphande

The author is works in the History Department at Mzuzu University but writing in his personal capacity 

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