Malawi’s John Chilebwe 1915 abortive insurgency: Futile labour amongst the benighted race

The story of the historic abortive insurgency of January 1915, starts with a thrilling initial incidence in 1900 when a youthful western trained minister and college graduate at 29, arrives back home in Chiradzulu, “to labour amongst his benighted race.”

He brings home not cheap stories of gigantic vessels that miraculously floated on huge masses of water with cargo and humans, or wonders of magnificent architectural buildings hanging above each other in America. He brings home class: he displays a new taste of attire, ingenuity and an enormously boosted ego, which ofcourse is way too good for his skin color.

More surprisingly, he harbors strong, unfamiliar intolerance, and contempt against socio-economic and civil injustices and various atrocities of Chitaganya-cracy.

John Chilembwe; martyer

Through a decade that follows his return; he successfully erects churches and schools and recruits nearly 2000 young and adult native scholars. He preaches and teaches great virtues of hard-work, self-respect and self-help.

Gradually the thrill in the story dies from about 1910 when the youthful western trained minister, Reverend John Chilembwe himself, now 39, is highly challenged with the management of his head quarters, the Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) which is hit by financial crises. He also suffers personal health setbacks –he endures asthmatic attacks and declining eyesight and general health.

However, the story wears a violent face which only predicts pending radical movements and perpetual conflict as it becomes evident that humble dictates of Christianity like “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” or “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,” which Chilembwe the Pastor is highly versed with, won’t hold him back from retribution.

He, in the interim relieve himself of his ministerial cloak and white collar, and quickly invents a contrary situation-befitting gospel; “love your neighbor, only if he is not British”. It is clearer now than ever before, that he won’t turn the other cheek, instead will slap back, despite his deteriorating financial muscle and general health. He, in an act of defiance, encroaches on a Whiteman’s estates and erects his churches, which the estate manager William Jervis Livingstone deliberately sets on fire.

Perhaps, from his PIM office, his gaze wanders through the window and catches the sight of heavy clouds of thick dark smoke hanging in the atmosphere on very familiar spots. Overwhelmed with shocking disbelief, he rushes to his churches aflame. He presses through the crowds to take a closer look. He does not ask the bystanders gathered around the scenes about the incarnate of the devil that has set his churches on fire. He gnashes and bites his lower lip firmly and shakes his head like a mad bull, as he impatiently watches his smouldering churches collapse into heaps of charcol and ash. He desist from immediate retaliation, but locks up the bitterness against William Jervis Livingstone inside the cage of his ribs, where a stack of grudges against him survive with every beat of his heart awaiting the rightful moment of blazing vengeance.

The fading excitement is revivified from around 1912 until January 1915 when Chilembwe is compelled by his abhorrent stance against the colonialists and the pressing need for liberation of his people to involve himself politically. Tension steadily rises in the wake of World War One in 1914, when ugly scenes of the war surface and Chilembwe can no longer contain prevalent disdain of the colonialists against his people; the limits of his patience are hurtfully overstrained.

He writes to the Nyasaland Times newspaper to publicly reprove the continuous involvement of Nyasaland Africans in the King African Rifles which is to him a sheer ploy that ensnares his countrymen to own slaughter; hundreds of thousands of Nyasaland soldiers shed blood, and get crippled for life, and die like chicken for a war and cause not theirs.

Due to the political implications of the letter, it is banned from publication by the war-time sensor and Chilembwe is consequently blacklisted with his immediate followers and scheduled for exile to Mauritius in December 1914, just few days before the insurgency.

The story reaches the climax, in the misty dark night of Saturday, January 23, 1915. The night is dead and the damp smell of mother earth hangs in the humid air, but reverberations of cricket’ chirping sounds and footsteps of bare feet rapidly thumping the ground break through the silence. A squad of half naked men, force their way through the thick green bushes; they wear ferocious faces and their hair is rough and messy.  With firm grips on their spears, they storm into Bruce estates and attack the notorious estate manager, Livingstone in his house. They decapitate him with a big axe, abduct his wife and 5year old daughter, and exit the house with the blood dripping head.

They bump into Duncain MacCormick at the door, also an employee at the Bruce estate and neighbor of Livingstone who approaches the veranda of Livingstone’s house to patrol his residence upon hearing noises from the place. But one of the men greets the unarmed MacCormick with a swift thrust of his spear into his chest. MacCormick instatly falls dead on the veranda and a stream of warm blood gushes out of his hollowed chest. Just like Livingstone’s body inside the house, MacCormick’s body lies in a pool of blood except that it still has a head.

In obedience to a direct order from Chilembwe himself, the men spare white women and children but abduct and parade them along swampy paths meandering through thick bushes towards PIM headquarters at Mbombwe where Chilembwe anxiously awaits their arrival –especially the arrival of Livingstone’s head.

The very night, Chilembwe’s amasses another larger group of fighters at his PIM headquarters and orders them to head for Blantyre. Their mission is loot the armoury situated at the center of the highly fortified African Lakes Corporation and secure guns and ammunition. Chilembwe’s rationale behind the stealing of guns, which his men can’t fire, and the desperate attempt to steal the guns having already engaged the enemy beats every logic or military tactic.

The group of thieves journeys the night through and arrives in Blantyre during the early morn hours of Sunday, January 24. Unlike the glorious triumph at Bruce Estate the previous night, Chilembwe’s men are fired upon at African Lakes Corporation. They flee with their spears, digging their bare heels in filthy muddy swamps, and manage in their haste, to secure not more than five guns and a handful of ammunition. Some members of the group are apprehended and later shot dead.

Monday, January 25 is probably the worst of Chilembwe’s days on earth.  In the solitude of his Church, he walks aimlessly from one corner to another holding his loaded head between his hands. Chilembwe’s head abandoned on the pulpit stares at him mockingly with an open mouth. He frowns at the disturbing news of loss and lack of local support for the uprising which relentlessly bombard his ears and echoes tormentingly across avenues of his mind.

Overcome by extreme lethargy, He hastily sneaks out of PIM on Tuesday, January 27and flees towards the Mozambican border. He successfully stays at large for one week, but is eventually shot on the ran, on Tuesday, February 3, 1915. He dies on the spot, still in his youth at 44. His followers and participants in the uprising, much of whom are his church members get executed.

Going through this story, especially the serial events of the uprising itself, from the brutal decapitation of William Jervis Livingstone  until  Chilembwe’s lethargic retreat and the execution of his 200 followers, I can only embrace one conclusion that the story of Chilembwe’s insurgency is told and analyzed through skewed views.

We approach the story with a preconception of a heroic, nationalistic freedom fighter and an altruistic martyr who deserves nothing less than limitless praise and sympathy. While this conception of Chilembwe could be true, I feel it is overemphasized at the expense of factual history of what he actually accomplished or more precisely failed to accomplish and why?

Chilembwe’s  January, 1915 uprising was  probably not just about nationalism, bravery and a cause of liberation; he might have suffered from a high degree of panic, as he revolts a few days after he learns about his pending exile. He probably wished to strike while he could, also considering his waning general health, he could not wait for a proper time in the future that looked dim.

He also was overwhelmed with vendetta and vengeance. That is why he brutally murders Livingstone first before anything else and displays his head on the pulpit to his native congregation during a Sunday morning service in his church on January 24. He had longed for Livingstone’s head for a long time, for burning down his churches and mistreating his people.

He knew he would die, but he would rather die on Nyasaland soil, than endure the humiliation of exile- and death would be a deserved honor, if he sends Livingstone ahead of him.

Due to the panic and vengeful motive, the uprising was poorly planned, poorly communicated, and executed with the highest degree of mediocrity.


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G.shepperson, T. Price; Independent Africa: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting and Significance of Nyasaland Native rising of 1915. The University Press, Edinburgh 1958

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