Reverend John Chilembwe (1871 – 1915) was a Baptist educator, pastor and an early activist in the resistance to colonialism in Nyasaland. Today, January 15 of every year is observed as John Chilembwe Day in his honour for fighting against colonialism. He is regarded as the father of Malawian independence.
John Chilembwe attended the Church of Scotland mission in about 1890 and returned to Nyasaland in 1900 to found the Industrial Providence Mission (PIM). He instilled the values of hard work, self esteem and self help in his community. In 1913, Chilembwe came into conflict with colonial authorities and white settlers over such brutal aspects of colonial rule as hut taxation, land alienation and the problem of Thangata system, harsh treatment of African workers on European estates, erosion of traditional chiefly authority, and the recruitment of African men for service in British imperial wars elsewhere in Africa and abroad.
Chilembwe returned to his home territory (now known as Malawi) in 1900. He married and started the Providence Industrial Mission, which still exists today. Chilembwe was the pastor of this mission. It is not known if he received a divinity degree in Virginia or abroad, although he studied at Virginia Theological Seminary. After his return, he became dissatisfied with the pace of change. A major source of this dissatisfaction came from the A.L. Bruce Plantation where the foreman, William Jervis Livingstone, could not be dissuaded from maltreatment of the African workers, and even burned down their church several times. His burning of Chilembwe’s church, the last time in 1913, established a great enmity in Chilembwe. Though Livingstone was given a formal citation by legal authorities, the colonial government was not interested in pushing the issue further. There were other indignities, some resulting from a greater need for labor with the onset of World War I, which was fought in Africa as well as Europe. The frustration that the people felt and the lack of solution caused Chilembwe to incite an uprising for change in 1915, despite knowing he would likely perish. At a meeting before the rebellion, he said, “Let’s strike a blow and die,” echoing the words of John Brown before the Harper’s Ferry Raid in 1859 that led to the American Civil War.
On January 23, 1915, inspired by Chilembwe’s words, rebellions were incited at four sites: Blantyre, Limbe, and the A.L. Bruce Plantations at Magomero and Mwanje. Rebels went to Blantyre and Limbe to capture rifles and ammunition held there by the African Lakes Company, and another group went to the A.L. Bruce Plantation at Magomero. One group attacked the plantation house and another attacked a plantation-owned village of Mwanje where there were two white households. At the plantation house, Livingstone was killed and his wife and children were taken captive. A planter living nearby, Duncan MacCormick, came to assist and was killed. The third house was occupied by women and children at the time of the attack. They were captured and taken hostage and some of the caches of weapons held there by a local rifle club were taken. Mwanje did not hold military value but Chilembwe’s men believed there were weapons there. Rebels badly injured the station manager John Robertson, but he and his wife managed to escape through the cotton fields. They killed Ferguson, a plantation stock manager. Two other residents escaped through the cotton fields to raise the alarm at another property six miles away.
Rebels cut the telephone lines between Zombe and Tete and between Blantyre and Lilongwe, which delayed news that this rebellion had started. So on January 24, 100 rebels raided the weapons store at the African Lakes Company, which did alert the authorities, but they managed to get away with some rifles. Although Chilembwe was the intellectual and spiritual head of the rebellion, he was also a Christian pastor and remained in Mbombwe praying instead of participating in the violence.
By January 24, 1915, the government had activated the First Battalion of the Settler’s Militia and the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in the north of the country to end the rebellion. KAR launched a failed attack on Chilembwe’s forces in Mbombwe on January 25. On January 26 rebels attacked a Catholic mission at Nguludi, killing the guards, injuring the priest, and burning down the church. Militia forces attacked Mbombwe again and took over as most of the rebels had fled towards the eastern Portuguese territory now known as Mozambique, with the intent of heading north towards German-occupied Africa during the World War I conflict.
Mbombwe fell and government troops blew up Chilembwe’s church effectively ending the rebellion. Three hundred rebels were caught and imprisoned. Forty rebels were executed. Thirty rebels evaded capture and settled in what is now Mozambique. Chilembwe was killed by soldiers while attempting to cross into that territory. He was fatally shot on February 3 near Mlanje and buried in a secret grave to prevent it from becoming a shrine. Twelve days had passed from the onset of the rebellion until his death. Although it was by no means the largest rebellion in Africa, it was significant and there were numerous government inquiries and speculation of the possible spread of insurgency. The British Official Commission asserted that the main cause of the revolt had been Chilembwe’s education in the United States.
What remains of Chilembwe’s memory?
Chilembwe features on Malawi’s banknotes and he is remembered in a public holiday every year on 15 January – Chilembwe Day. But as I grew up in Malawi, the then President for Life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, rendered Chilembwe as a peripheral figure in the fight for Malawi’s independence
Credit: Virginia University of Lynchburg museum