Professor John McCracken

27 Oct 2017
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Professor John McCracken 1938-2017, Historian of Malawi

John McCracken has been a towering figure in several overlapping scholarly communities. He has been part of the University of Stirling almost from its foundation. He has likewise been closely associated with the University of Malawi since it was founded almost at the same time in the 1960s. He has been a major player in the wider community of African studies, a past President of the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom, from which he received the prestigious award of Distinguished Africanist in 2008. And he played a leading role in the Higher Education work of the Scotland Malawi Partnership.

John considered himself a slow starter academically but his imagination was caught by history during his final year at school. 1959 saw him going up to St John’s College Cambridge where he fell under the spell of Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher and their new approach to imperial history that took seriously the experience of the colonised as well as of the coloniser. This shaped his postgraduate research on the Blantyre and Livingstonia Missions in Malawi.

Following a year of intensive archival research he took up the offer of a teaching post at the fledgling University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This appointment not only allowed John to cut his teeth in University teaching but plunged him into African political realities. The forces of African nationalism were rising in Rhodesia and being met by the implacable resistance of the white settler Government of Ian Smith. It was not a situation that easily allowed for neutrality and John soon knew which side he was on.

A little-known fact is that John was arrested in Rhodesia in 1964, after taking part in a peaceful protest against the closure of the only newspaper sympathetic to African nationalism. He was detained for only a few hours but his colours were nailed to the mast. Though in his historical work he would always strive for objectivity and impartiality, his close understanding of the African nationalist cause opened up perspectives that had hitherto been closed to European imperial historians.

The same year John made a research visit to Malawi, picking his moment nicely so that he could join the crowd in the stadium on the day Malawi became an independent nation. Who would have guessed that the young newly-arrived Scotsman looking on so intently would later become the most authoritative interpreter of the seventy years of British rule in Malawi? One thing was for sure – he knew he would be back.

John’s next move took him to Tanzania where he joined a group of brilliant young historians who were pioneering a radical pro-African understanding of African colonial history. In this period, he was proud to maintain, the cutting edge in the study of African history was found not in any of the prestigious Universities of the UK or US but at the brand-new University of Dar-es-Salaam.

When John returned to Scotland in 1968 it was to another newly-founded University – Stirling, which would be a congenial academic base for the rest of his life. Malawi was never far from his thoughts, though, and when the opportunity came in 1980 to become Professor of History at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, John jumped at the chance. The next three years were both fulfilling and formative. With such stimulating colleagues as Kings Phiri, Owen Kalinga, Megan Vaughan and Wapu Mulwafu, scholarly collaboration deepened into profound personal friendship that would continue to be productive and inspirational for many years to come. It is exemplified in the volume he co-edited with Phiri and Mulwafu, Malawi in Crisis: The 1959/60 Nyasaland State of Emergency and its Legacy, based on a conference held in Zomba to mark its 50th anniversary.

When John returned to Stirling in 1983 he found himself at the height of the Thatcher era with cut-backs to University funding the order of the day and morale at an all-time low. Offering leadership in this context was extremely demanding but still there were creative initiatives such as the establishment of the Centre of Commonwealth Studies of which he was the founding Director.

Meanwhile, John was writing. His early work Politics and Christianity in Malawi remains in print forty years after its first publication - to John’s delight, in an affordable Malawian paperback edition. Klaus Fiedler of Mzuzu University, remarks that: “It has become the basic scholarly book for Malawian Church History….I have recommended it often to my students.” In this way John’s work continues to be highly influential among a new generation of Malawian students.  

Even more so since the publication in 2012 of his magnum opus - A History of Malawi 1859-1966, not only the outstanding study of Malawi’s colonial history but regarded as among the best single-country histories ever to be written about any African nation. John brought to this book a knowledge of the relevant primary and secondary sources that is unrivalled in its range and depth. His qualities of numeracy are also evident as many of his points are driven home by reference to statistical data. At the same time, you are led along by a masterly story-teller with an eye for the details and anecdotes which add interest to the narrative. Above all, he has a remarkable capacity to put himself in the shoes of ordinary Malawians and to explicate what social, political and economic changes meant for them. And all delivered in wonderfully crisp prose. Without any sacrifice of academic rigour it turns out to be a real page-turner. Scholars, students and general readers will always be grateful to have such a magisterial, gripping and dependable account of this formative period in Malawi’s modern history.

John was a highly principled scholar – infinitely conscientious in his supervision of students, in external examining and in the refereeing and reviewing that he did for such periodicals as the Journal of Southern African Studies; meticulous to the point of perfectionist in the preparation of his own published work; not much interested in University politics from a careerist point of view but ready to fight tooth and nail when he believed that scholarly integrity was at stake; passionately committed to the academic development of younger colleagues, especially the Malawian historians with whom he worked across four decades.

As Scotland’s relations with Malawi have revitalized since the turn of the century, John stood out as an advocate of the need to be a “critical friend”, ready to speak out when there is injustice to be confronted. While he admired the mobilization and activism of the new phase of Scotland-Malawi engagement, he urged that, building on the long history of interaction, it should also foster a strong analytical quality. John himself exemplified the friendship that has united Scotland and Malawi across generations, offering and receiving respect and affection whether with distinguished academics or domestic workers whom he knew from his days in Zomba.

He will be remembered as someone who combined wit, charm and deep humanity with sharp judgement and critical acumen. The leading Malawian historian Wapu Mulwafu has indicated his legacy in these terms: “I shall remember John as someone who was extremely generous with his time and resources. His ideas will continue to inspire many for years to come. In my opinion, it would not be an exaggeration to describe John McCracken as the father of modern Malawian history.”

He is survived by his wife Juliet, children Matthew and Caroline and grandchildren Amelia, Charlie, Alfie and Laurie.

Kenneth R. Ross OBE

Chair, Scotland Malawi Partnership


Photo: John McCracken speaking powerfully about good governance at the SMP’s 2011 AGM.