Why Remember John Chilembwe?

28 September 2022
John Chilembwe Day

As we joined the unveiling of Prof Samson Kambalu’s, statue of John Chilembwe in Trafalgar Sq this week, we invited former SMP chair and respected historian, Rev Prof Ken Ross, to tell us more about John Chilembwe and his fight against colonial rule...

In the context of everything that happened during the First World War, a short-lived “native rising” in Nyasaland, resulting in the deaths of three Europeans whom it targeted and of its leading African participants, scarcely registers as having any great significance. Even at the time, leading Europeans tended to play it down, looking on its leader John Chilembwe as a rascal who let a feud with the manager of the local estate get out of hand in the febrile war-time atmosphere. Yet Chilembwe’s action caught the imagination of the nation that became Malawi in 1964 and he looms large in public consciousness today, his photograph on the banknotes and a public holiday in his memory every year. Now he will be commemorated on another stage as Samson Kambalu’s Antelope sculpture takes its place on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth for the next two years.

The sculpture invites us to reassess colonial history by foregrounding someone who chose to resist British colonial rule. Though Chilembwe is remembered for the violent uprising of January 1915 it is important to recognise that for the preceding 15 years, his resistance to colonialism had been entirely peaceful. His Providence Industrial Mission did everything that Christian missions in Africa normally did at that time – but with a difference. Its network of schools gave a good all-round education but also included a social and political critique that exposed the injustices of colonial rule. Its agricultural and commercial activities aimed to promote self-reliance in the local communities. Its dress code – smart European-style clothes – signalled a determination to claim an equal place in the new world that was emerging in Malawi. All of this represented an implicit challenge to the colonial order – the Bruce estates that surrounded his mission refused to allow PIM churches to be built on their land.

A big historical question is what prompted Chilembwe to abandon this peaceful and progressive programme and stake everything on an unlikely attempt to overthrow the British colonial administration by force of arms. Clearly, one major factor was the outbreak of the First World War, in which thousands of Malawians were killed or maimed for life, without any prospect that their sacrifice would benefit their own communities. This was deeply troubling to Chilembwe and sets the context for the relatively small-scale violence that was entailed in the rising. There is some evidence that Chilembwe did not expect his rising to succeed, that it was an act of martyrdom – “strike a blow and die.” On the other hand, he had a serious strategy in place with a plan for simultaneous actions in different parts of the country and an attempt to ally with the German army in neighbouring Tanganyika (your enemy’s enemy is your friend). One of his lieutenants, David Kaduya, had served in the Kings African Rifles and knew how to run a military campaign. Had they succeeded – as they almost did – in their daring bid to arm themselves from the British administration’s weapons store in Blantyre, it is possible that Kaduya’s men would have been a match for the Government troops. Fine margins!

In the event, the rising was quickly extinguished, Chilembwe himself shot down as he apparently made for the border with Portuguese East Africa. 46 of his followers were executed, going to the scaffold singing hymns that affirmed their faith in Jesus as Saviour for, like their leader, they took part in the rising as convinced Christians. Around 300 were given lengthy prison sentences, from which they later emerged to lead the re-establishment of the PIM from 1926. After the trials and executions things quickly settled down – there was a long and gruelling war to be fought. Colonial rule remained the order of the day, continuing in place in Malawi for another half-century. But Chilembwe was not forgotten. His action became a matter of pride to Malawians, part of what kindled the hope that one day they would take control of their own destiny. When Malawi finally did gain its independence, its first President Kamuzu Banda was jealous of his status as national liberator and reluctant for the memory of Chilembwe to be given any limelight. But after the fall of Banda in 1994, the nation gave Chilembwe pride of place among its heroes. He remains, however, an enigmatic figure, the complexities of his life and thought explored in a monumental 1958 book titled Independent African by George Shepperson, Professor of Commonwealth History at Edinburgh University, and Tom Price, a leading figure in Scotland-Malawi relations during the middle years of last century (https://www.africanbookscollec...).

At least one element of the complexity is evident in Samson Kambalu’s sculpture. For the champion of African nationalist resistance to colonial rule stands alongside a white man, the Zambezi Industrial Mission missionary John Chorley. The sculpture is based on a photograph of the two of them, taken when Chilembwe invited Chorley to be the preacher at the opening of his magnificent new church at Mbombwe in 1914. This certainly complicates things for anyone looking on Chilembwe as an anti-white fanatic (as many have done). Still more complicated is the fact that the Zambezi Industrial Mission was founded in 1892 by a radical English missionary named Joseph Booth who became Chilembwe’s mentor. Booth was utterly opposed to colonialism – he once petitioned Queen Victoria to return Malawi to African rule by 1920. Much of Chilembwe’s critique of colonialism he learned from Booth, though the latter as a lifelong pacifist did not approve of the rising.

A striking feature of Kambalu’s sculpture is the difference in scale between the two figures – the towering Chilembwe contrasting with the diminutive Chorley. There is an aptness to this since Chorley has been largely forgotten while Chilembwe has become possibly the most celebrated figure in Malawi’s history. The larger historical point, however, is that resistance to colonialism has ultimately proved to be more significant than the European domination that Africa had to endure.

A further element of complexity, perhaps hinted at in the sculpture, is that the 1915 rising polarised opinion among the Europeans in Nyasaland. The settler population, its spokesman none other than David Livingstone’s grandson Alexander Livingstone Bruce, had been critical of the educational work of the Christian missions. As they saw it, the value of the African population was simply to provide manual labour for their estates. Education was only likely to give them ideas about getting above themselves, making them “cheeky” and insubordinate. Chilembwe epitomized what they saw a danger to colonial society and his rising, for them, was conclusive proof that offering education to natives was a totally misguided policy. Bruce proposed in the Legislative Council that mission schools be closed with immediate effect. Here he was met head-on by Robert Laws of the Livingstonia Mission and Alexander Hetherwick of the Blantyre Mission. Their entire project was centred on offering high level education to the African community with the idea that educated Africans would be equipped to take their place in the economic and political life of the country. Laws and Hetherwick eventually prevailed, their educational work continued and ultimately produced most of the leaders of Malawi’s successful drive for independence.

The fact that a European missionary, however diminutive, stands alongside Chilembwe in Kambalu’s sculpture is eloquent testimony to the complexity and ambivalence of his place in history. Yes, there is need to reassess the inherited understanding of British colonial rule and Chilembwe looming large over Trafalgar Square will represent this challenge. At the same time, his portrayal alongside his European missionary friend is subversive of stereotypes and simplification. Perhaps it also bears witness to the power of friendship to reach across the great inequalities and injustices that still divide us – and to work together for a fairer and more hopeful world.