Nyasaland | 22 Jan 1915

We’re heading deep into the British Empire today, to Nyasaland (now Malawi). The regime in Nyasaland is an excellent subject to raise with anyone who likes to say nice things about the Empire, so let’s have a little look at what everyone’s dying in France for the honour of.


Europeans first came to this area of Africa in the 16th century with the arrival of the Portugese. It wasn’t until the 1860s that white missionaries began to appear. Twenty years later, with the Scramble for Africa well underway, the British Empire established the “Central” Africa Protectorate. Portugal had tried to put a claim on the land as part of Portugese East Africa (now Mozambique), but lost out basically because they didn’t have any flags there. Lots of flowery words are spoken about the need to combat the slave trade

The protectorate was subsequently renamed “Nyasaland”, after a local word meaning “lake”, and the Empire set about extracting value from its new possession. Vast swathes of land were quickly acquired from tribal chiefs and converted into farms. The protectorate soon started enforcing rents and a poll tax (known as the Hut Tax), payable only in currency. Of course, by far the easiest way to earn currency was to work for the white men who had most of it. All completely legal and above board, you understand. The land had been acquired perfectly legally, and the law of the protectorate allowed for rents and taxes…


And if it had ended there, then I guess you have an incredibly patronising yet intellectually consistent White Man’s Burden argument about modernising the place. But then we run into the thangata, a concept that might sound familiar. Before the Empire arrived, members of a tribe would do a certain amount of work for their chief as well as for themselves. Different tribes on friendly terms would also send working parties to each other at various times. So far, so innocuous.

And then the Empire arrived. The settlers who bought land from the tribes began claiming also to have somehow acquired the rights of the tribal chiefs. Including the right to demand thangata from the people living on their land, and to enforce it using the protectorate’s law. Soon it was established that a man could pay his rent and hut tax by working thangata obligations. For an Empire that claimed to be bringing modern civilisation, this all sounds suspiciously like feudalism to me!

And of course, few of the settlers would lower themselves to grow food. The settlers mostly imported or appropriated their food, leaving the workers to fend for themselves. After a while of quietly encouraging people to settle on their lands and grow food, the settlers began building plantations to grow commercial crops. Tea, coffee, cotton, tobacco. Thangata obligations grew, taking up more and more of the growing season, leaving people less and less time to keep the local food supply going. At the same time, when British law was introduced to the colony in 1902, all land without a formal freehold was appropriated outright as Crown land. You know, for the Africans’ own good.

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Meanwhile, the Portugese administration in Mozambique was somehow managing to be even more ridiculously oppressive and capricious. British settlers began encouraging people to come to Nyasaland and live on their estates, or on Crown land, instead. The influx of workers (coming in search of rights like “probably won’t be sold into totally-not-slavery”) ensured that wages could be kept low and rents high. By the 1911 census, the population was estimated at about 1 million Africans, 766 Europeans and 481 “Asians”.

Lewis Bandawe was one migrant across the border who later wrote a book. He writes vividly of the utter contempt held for Africans by the settlers in Nyasaland.

To go to the [white man] for any transaction was no pleasure. Every African was obliged to take off his hat for every European, whether government or not…every European, with the exception of the missionaries, had a whip made of hippo’s hide, which he used on his domestic servants or labourers.

I’m reminded of Ewart Grogan, who we met recently in Kenya, beating his African porters to death for a laugh. Bandawe also reports how the King’s African Rifles were given a free hand to use as much brutality as necessary to keep order and put down rebellions.

John Chilembwe

And as the war spreads to Africa, its effects are being felt in Nyasaland. The authorities are demanding more and more food to feed the King’s African Rifles. Recruitment efforts are increasing. John Chilembwe has had enough. Who’s John Chilembwe? “Local boy made good” would seem to cover it.

In 1891, he’d fallen in with the white Baptist missionary Joseph Booth, who preached a relatively radical message of equality and inclusion. Chilembwe then travelled to the USA and studied to become a Baptist minister himself, returning home in 1900. For the past 15 years he’s been trying to spread the word of equality across tribal and religious lines, attempting to speak out against injustice in Nyasaland without being openly seditious.

Back in November he wrote a letter to the Nyasaland Times, speaking of his disinclination to die for Nyasaland, or the Empire. He also made a plea to the authorities to recruit only Europeans for what he saw quite correctly as a war that had nothing inherently to do with Africans. The edition of the newspaper was promptly sat on by the colonial administration.

Nobody’s quite sure how long he’s been planning to go further than writing incendiary letters. As is usually the case with these things, the authorities have been tipped off already, but have failed to take Chilembwe seriously. During the night, Chilembwe begins to gather his followers. One way or another, he’s going to get some attention.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: The blanco over the Zeppelin raid continues. Murder raid! Airship barbarities! Other such fiery rhetoric. Interestingly, right in the middle of Page 9, there appears loud trumpeting of air raids on Essen and Ostend by the Allies. The Ostend piece notes “No civilians were harmed”. The Essen piece does not. Hmmm.

Elsewhere, Archibald Hurd’s naval column on Page 8 reports on “The Super-Submarine”, which is apparently capable of voyaging for 7,000 miles. Romania (and Italy) are both apparently ready to join the war on Page 9. There’s plenty of adverts for special War Insurance against further enemy action. And, on page 7, trade unions and workers’ committees are now drawing attention to the recent cost of living increases. Finally, Page 5 has the exceptionally old-fashioned headline “London Traffic Dangers”. Apparently increasing congestion has taken a “heavy toll of lives”. Glad we got that one sorted out!

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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