The paradox of John Chilembwe’s patriotism

Malawi deserve a pat on the back for the glamorous reverence accorded to her valiant son, Rev John Chilembwe long gone, yet whose blood still flows in our veins and whose unyielding spirit and voice is portrayed and reverberated in our  constant craving for freedom, human rights and democracy today.

As our tradition dictates, we never converse ill of the deceased, but I feel except when vital lesson ought to be drawn out of their lives. Having compensated John Chilembwe with his due respect the past few days, my quest still leaves me no choice but to summon for some extra elucidation and candid critical analysis of our hero and martyr. Having gone through the western education system, just like any other anti-colonialist, he used it to challenge western power, bravo! By acquiring education, he had acquired the most lethal weapon against colonialism, which he was more than enthusiastic to overthrow. He however, never really thought a war of his making could reasonably depose colonial rule. Instead, he had hoped that his actions would provide the spark necessary to ignite immediate irrepressible uprisings among the natives.

John Chilembwe

This is evident in his lack of contingency plan and forethought should he goof that night.  His rationale in this was faultless but events were yet to prove whether his interpretation of the black frame of mind and his timing had been accurate. In the evening of January 13, 1915 John Chilembwe launched a military ambush on Europeans. His object was to exterminate or evict the European population and set up a native state or theocracy of which he was to be head. It is what transpired this night, which draws an apparent paradox of Chilembwe’s military tactic and patriotism.

Chilembwe had no any strategic plan when he resolved to rebel. Apart from being a poor planner, he had no trained military men, no weapons and most grievous, he had overestimated his military competence. He staged a barbaric and brutal massacre of white men and ravage of the neighborhood. This is evident in the most atrocious murder of the Bruce Estate manager, William Jervis Livingstone, a cousin to Dr David Livingstone who they beheaded in the presence of his wife and 5 year old daughter.

Chilembwe’s men broke into Livingstone’s house. They thrusted her wife Katharine into an armchair from where she could do nothing but watch in paralysis the sudden fate of her husband. They charged against Livingstone, manhandled and pressed him down to his knees while they chopped off his head with a big axe and tossed the blood dripping head into his wife’s lap. Watching in terror, his 5 years old daughter Mary was drenched with his dead father’s blood. As William Livingstone’s throat was being hacked like wood, his white neighbor Duncan MacCormick was listening to the vague reports from his servant that some sort of disturbance was under way at the Livingstone residence. Wholly underestimating the deadly nature of the event, he left his house unarmed and made his way to his neighbor’s house, hoping to restore order with a few words, like in the usual matters of native dispute. Sadly, as he arrived, he was met by a mob of raiders ushering Katherine and her two children out. One of the attackers swiftly drove a spear through his chest. Duncan MacCormick collapsed and died in a pool of blood at Livingstone’s veranda.

Meanwhile, they snatched up the glory trophy of Livingstone head, impaled it to a pole and carried it away with them as instructed by their general, John Chilembwe. They captured the blood bathed Katherine with her children and paraded her along in the company of her dead husband’s head. Along the way, she gathered courage to question her captors why they had killed her husband. “We are killing all white men,” was the reply. Not disposed to bear any more abuse of his people, Chilembwe had planned to massacre all European men in Nyasaland, perhaps behead most of them.

The same evening while Katharine Livingstone, and her children were being ushered southwards to the Providence Industrial Mission, in Chiradzulu, and Duncan lay dead at Chilembwe’s veranda, another gang of black men had left the same place under instructions from John Chilembwe and were on their way to Blantyre Township. Their target was a fortified compound of the African Lakes Corporation where was held a stock of firearms. In the vicinity of African Corporation, unlike their previous endeavors, they faced resistance that ridiculed and unraveled their unfortunate scheme.

Chilembwe’s men escaped in haste with according to some sources only five rifles; three.303 Martini-Enfield and two snider rifles but lost four men. It amazes me what exactly john Chilembwe was thinking. He wanted to fight using stolen weapons, which his men had no training to use. I also wonder why he went to steal the weapon after he had already started the fight, instead of securing the weapons first, and then engage the military attack. This act could only be done by a person with out military tactic and no prudence.

At 11:30 am, the following day, Chilembwe held a triumphal service to a large gathering of his followers with the head of William Livingstone displayed beside the alter as evidence of what had been achieved. At a Christian ceremony, a decapitated head of an enemy, a fellow human being was displayed. An eyewitness to this ceremony told on how Chilembwe preached resolution and courage in the face of what was to come. Livingstone’s head was exposed to the whole congregation and was visibly there throughout ceremony.

The paradox of the man of God stealing weapons and bringing to the alter a human head of the man he had brutally butchered, is really subject to scrutiny. As a clergy, Chilembwe was leading his people into a political evolution. The involvement of the clergy or church with politics is an unresolved debate among Malawians. Nonetheless, the clergy has an obligation to safeguard the freedom, human rights and democracy with the spirit of nationalism. John Chilembwe, however, had harbored so much contempt over mistreatment of his people that he countered colonialism with rebellion and compromise of the very Christian dogmas he was advocating in his ministry. This might also be one of the reasons why John Chilembwe did not get support from the natives who had been Christianized. In as much as they yearned for freedom from the colonial bondage, they might not have considered throat cutting and blood shed as a means to the end.

Emperor Haile Selassie said, “ Through out history it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voices of justices when it mattered most, that made it possible for evil it triumph.”

John Chilembwe opted for action against inaction. He struck the first blow for the African Revolution, which finalized 80 years later with the independence South Africa.  The first blow to shatter the widespread imperial belief that the natives were happy under foreign dominion. We must emulate Chilembwe’s boldness and patriotism in denouncing what we feel are yokes of oppression and infringement of our rights, but with strategic planning, foresight and civilized approach. We must not out of contempt and fury lose our prudence and compromise the very Christian dogmas that we embrace. Let not political antagonism crucify our conscience, faith and doctrines on the cross of democracy and human rights.

Malawi became a fully independent nation in 1964 and a multi-party democratic nation in 1993. The church and Malawi played collaborative civilized roles that did not involve throat cutting and blood shed and we are safe to keep it that way. When I look back at the bloodshed of July 20, 2011, I ask myself what plan and foresight was there? Where was patriotism? The brutal vandalism of property in an already back trailing economy and loss of beloved 20 souls, to me, it looks like a paradoxical phenomenon of Malawian Patriotism.  It should have hurt to wake up on July 21, and learnt that we had only succeeded in vandalism and bloodshed but had not moved the mountain of our problems not an inch. If anything, we had buildings to rebuild and bodies to bury. They died for a noble cause may their souls rest in peace but I only wish they had lived to see the dawn of Change.

When the reality of defeat dawned on him, Chilembwe retreated towards Mozambique. He dumped the Livingstone’s head along the way, which his pursuers retrieved. However, the concurrent missing of his wife, daughter and grave, with his flight into Mozambique, presents one with a temptation to conclude that he might have survived an fled with his family into Mozambique. Hence, his death could have been staged to avoid the rise of another Chilembwe to challenge the colonial power. As a saying goes, if the truth about something is not known, anything can be true about it.

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