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Was John Chilembwe’s uprising necessary?

If John Chilembwe were given a second chance to be a citizen of Malawi, he would regret being one of the freedom fighters. The pain he went through in the hands of the colonisers does not warrant the miserable life his people are facing.

Reading, A Night of Killing: The Story of John Chilembwe written by Peter Baxter, one can really understand the kind of a patriot Chilembwe was. After 100 years after his death, the story for the newly branded nation, Malawi, has become a hub of thieves, unrepentant murderers, unpatriotic and unforgiving characters. Malawi has turned into the abyss of injustice where the poor are getting poorer while the rich are becoming richer each passing day.

That evening of January 23 1915 settled on the Shire Highlands of the Nyasaland Protectorate without obvious mishap or portent. January, traditionally the wettest month of the year, could on occasions be drenched by upwards of 10 inches of rainfall; however, on this particular evening, the sky was sheer, the moon high and the stars clear and bright. The air was humid and still, the night warm. It was an African night. A chorus of reed frogs sang shrill and electric counterpoised against the bored monotony of barking dogs. Conversations loud and uninhibited, strung out like telegraph lines between hillsides, between villages and between households and neighbours. It was the hum and tremor of concentrated humanity, spread like a living blanket over a crowded land.

Lying mostly above 2,000 feet, the Shire Highlands had always been, and would continue to be, the main theatre of commercial and political activity in the Nyasaland Protectorate. Surrounded to the west by the Zambezi and Shire river valleys, and to the east by the low-lying coastal plain of Portuguese East Africa, these uplands of the southern lakes region are a tiny link in a vast geographic chain of mountains, lakes and valleys that trace a line from the Ethiopian Highlands to the Bergs of the Cape Peninsular.

On that evening, William Jarvis Livingstone was at home in his modest farm brick and thatch house. The homestead was a standard estate senior staff house, pleasantly situated on the blade of a wooded spur, and some 80 feet or so above the offices, workshops and stores of the Magomero section of the estate. The front of the house overlooked the labour section and workshops compound, behind which a thickly wooded valley fell away to an invisible stream a mile or so distant. This was Namadzi River which forms part of the eastern watershed of the Shire Highlands. The rear of the household was set against the neatly tended coffee and tea plots, subdivided by towering eucalyptus groves and odd remnants of indigenous woodland. It was here, on the back veranda, that Livingstone may have, on any given morning have savoureda cup of estate-grown coffee as he contemplated the glow of the sunrise against the blue flanks of dominating Chiradzulu Mountain, some eight miles distant.

Chiradzulu was the home of another landowner, one more modestly endowed. It was the site of the Providence Industrial Mission, the brainchild of a particularly gifted native by the name of John Chilembwe, who, under the influence of the dawning 20th century, was one of many blacks dreaming of a utopian future under indigenous government in an environment of pan-African egalitarianism. Chilembwe, 44 years old, was a rare phenomenon in colonial Africa at that time. Gifted with natural intelligence and determination and influenced by a variety of emerging liberal religious and theological concepts flowering throughout Africa at that time, he had been able to study in the United States of America, from where he returned with the belief that the black man of Africa stood on the cusp of a great epoch of enlightenment and change.

William Jarvis Livingstone was a man easy to identify if one wished to put a name and a face to what irritated the blacks of the Shire Highlands most about their status under colonial rule. Towards blacks in general, he was arrogant, uncivil, demanding and at times violent. If any examples were to be made among the whites of the territory, it is hardly surprising that Livingstone should be the first.

On that particular evening, Livingstone might well have joined many other members of the small white expatriate community of the highlands at the Blantyre Sports Club for the usual festivities associated with the Annual General Meeting. In those early weeks and months of the Great War, there was a lot to talk about. A local volunteer force had recently repulsed a German attack at Karonga on the northern tip of the lake, and soon afterwards the local German garrison commander, General Paul Emil von Lettow Vorbeck, had inflicted an unexpected defeat on the lightly defended British position of Jassin some 50 miles north of Tanga on the coast of German East Africa. General Jan Christian Smuts had, at about the same time, led the occupation of Swartkopmund in German South West Africa by South African troops, striking a death blow to German ambitions in that region, and moving the African front line right onto the doorstep of the Nyasaland Protectorate. It was very much at forefront of settler concerns at that time that the Germans might at any time launch a full-blown invasion of Nyasaland.

Livingstone, however, remained at home at Magomero that evening with his wife Katherine, his two young children, and a houseguest, Agnes MacDonald, wife of a local Director of Customs. It also happened that Emily Stanton of Zomba was visiting her sister-in-law, Alice Roach, while her brother, J.T. Roach, an estate engineer, spent the night in Blantyre. The Roaches lived on a separate hilltop, a short distance from the Livingstones, as did Duncan MacCormick, an estate planter, who, aside from his black servants, lived alone. There was, therefore, 11 white souls in the vicinity of Magomero that night, including three young children in the Roach household. Each household was within walking distance but discretely separate from the other.

By about 8:30 pm, dinner in the Livingstone household had been cleared away, MacDonald had retired to her own room and under candlelight in the bathroom Katherine Livingstone was preparing to bathe. In the half light of the bedroom, Livingstone himself lay on the double bed in his pyjamas playing with the couple’s infant son. Katherine, meanwhile, about to disrobe, noticed that the cat had not been let out and asked her husband to attend to it. A moment later, as she stepped into the bath, she was abruptly distracted by a sudden shout from her husband, a series of heavy thuds and then the pitched wailing of her child – all in a matter of a split second.

Inside the bedroom, Katherine was confronted by a confused scrimmage of bodies. It seemed that the moment her husband had opened the front door, he had been charged, and door flung wide, by a press of anonymous black men who immediately set upon him and stabbed him with a spear. He retreated to the bedroom, managed to collect his rifle but had no time to load it. With his eyes wide, his handlebar moustache dripping with blood and spittle, he screamed at his wife to rescue the children and run. As he did so, he was vainly trying to beat back with his rifle a knot of excited assailants who were pressing against him and menacing him with a variety of bladed weapons. Before she could even contemplate a response, however, Katherine was heavily thrust down into an armchair from where she could do nothing but watch in paralysis as her husband began to buckle under the weight of the assault. Very quickly Livingstone was pressed to his knees and, after two wretchedly misdirected blows, he was decapitated with an axe and his head tossed into his wife’s lap. Watching in terror, his five-year-old daughter Mary Nyasa was drenched with blood.

As Chilembwe was receiving word in Mbombwe that the Angoni rising had amounted to very little, and had since petered out, the captive party was approaching a river on the other side of which the lead scouts spotted a group of government askari. In fact, what had been encountered was a hastily assembled force comprising a handful of European volunteers and native members of the Kings African Rifles (KAR) under the command of a certain Captain L.E.L. Triscott. Triscott been despatched from the Chiradzulu Boma to investigate the situation at Mbombwe once it had been ascertained that no more attacks were occurring and that Chilembwe himself appeared to be consolidating his defences in the vicinity of his church. A brief exchange of fire at that location resulted in the death of Hinges, Katherine’s personal servant. A that point, most of the escort fled leaving the woman in the hands of government agents.

Meanwhile Triscott and his force followed up in skirmish order and soon came under sustained fire from an encirclement of maize gardens in the vicinity of the church compound. It seemed that what firearms had been captured where now concentrated in the area of the church from where the combatants were able to maintain a steady rate of fire. After a brief but fierce fight that resulted in the death of two KAR regulars and the wounding of three and the death of approximately 20 rebels and the capture of several more, the assault force withdrew. Chilembwe could draw little comfort from this tactical victory, for more devastating than the loss of some of his men was the realisation that with this brief action the native regulars of the KAR had illustrated that they were not on the side of the rebels, which had been a significant pillar of Chilembwe’s hopes for a successful rising.

In the meanwhile, the four captive remaining in Blantyre from the African Lakes Company raid were summarily tried and shot at 4:30 in the afternoon. The firing squad comprised eight members of the European section of the Nyasaland Volunteer Reserve and the bodies of the four were left in plain sight for the edification of any among the onlookers who felt inclined to follow their example. In the immediate aftermath, a number of similar summary executions were to follow.

Chilembwe now had two choices if he were to maintain the military complexion of his rising. He could fortify his compound and make a last stand, trusting that such a hopelessly heroic action would prompt the hoped for general insurrection or he could melt away into the countryside and conduct a guerrilla campaign that, using the proximity of Portuguese-administered territory in the east, might in incremental terms attract large numbers of the population over to his side. In the event, Chilembwe proved himself less of a military man than he had supposed. In due course, a large body of his force deserted and fled by way of the nearby Nguludi Roman Catholic Mission where a last and wasteful attack was made. This resulted in the severe beating of the resident priest Father Swelsen and the death of an orphan child in the inferno that followed the torching of the mission.

Was Chilembwe’s uprising a mere game? Has the struggle yielded any fruits for us? But the fight was in vain. We have sold the sense of patriotism with much passion. We have promoted greed to the escalating swing. We have made poverty an identity for our kinsmen and allowed our children not to get proper education.

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