Tuesday, 27 November 2012

John Chilembwe

John Chilembwe is regarded as something of a martyr in Malawi today. I found a reference to him in a book about Malawi history I've been reading.

My grandfather was a missionary in Malawi 1913-1919. He wasn't a priest or a preacher, he mostly built houses, schools and churches for the mission effort. He wrote some notes of his time there and I've put them here. So I have been reading a few books about the early missions in Malawi, wondering if any of them refer to my grandfather (only one so far, he was a minor player in the scheme of things). But I did find references to John Chilembwe and my grandfather's comments on him were interesting to compare.

First, we have to know about Joseph Booth, an Englishman who arrived in Malawi in 1892 with his nine year old daughter. He writes of his arrival:
"...I reached this spot, weary, sickly and weak. My little daughter was with me... A drenching rain was falling. Several Angoni men were sheltering under a grass roof they had constructed on the boughs of that tree. They had made a fire there and were crouching round to keep warm... Yet these men out of their good nature got up instantly and insisted that myself and little child should sit around the fire while they stood close to the trunk of the tree in the rain to get what shelter they could."
Booth, unlike some of the English he met in Malawi, seems to have understood that the Africans were just as human as he was. As such he was regarded as a radical by some members of the English administration. His catch cry was "Africa for the Africans" which did not go down too well with the English settlers. I'm not sure just what the other missionaries made of him, but they were likely enough more sympathetic. A driving concern for the English missionaries was the slave trade. Raiders did good business in Malawi raiding villages and selling their captives on the coast. The missions' general approach was to generate enough local industry to make the slave trade comparatively unattractive. The Administration's approach leaned more towards using force to stamp out the trade.

Life for the missionaries was pretty tough. They seemed to die like flies over there, subject to tropical diseases unheard of back home. My grandfather came home alive, but with illnesses that blighted the rest of his life.

Back to Chilembwe, though. Booth hired Chilembwe as a 'house boy', basically a domestic servant, and proceeded to educate him along with the others in the mission he set up. He seems to have been a star pupil and part of the family. Booth's daughter, Emily, wrote of him years later with sisterly affection. Booth and he travelled to the USA in 1897.

By 1915 Chilembwe was running his own mission, helping with the rather too many disputes the local Africans had with the English settlers, and campaigning against the idea that Africans should be helping fight the English war (WWI). And that is when the real trouble started. The actual incident seems to have been quite minor and, though it was represented as an African uprising, it resulted in about three English deaths, several injuries and Chilembwe and his friends were pursued by police and shot. There was also an unsuccessful and possibly unconnected attempt to raid the munitions depot in Blantyre, one of the key towns in Malawi. The whole affair seems to have been over in a week apart from a Commission of Inquiry launched by the Administration which concluded Chilembwe had been treated unfairly and the issues he had raised were valid.

But where communication is tricky rumours can spread. My grandfather was quite some distance from the centre of it but he heard of the Chilembwe 'movement'. Here is what he says:
It was while I was building the church at Kayoyo that the "Chilembwe" movement started probably influenced by some enemy in Britain. Anyhow it never got beyond Blantyre where it started. The order was sent out for every boy to kill his master and thus free the country of whites so that Chilembwe would take charge. It was some while before I heard of this through the mail and I asked Stephen about it, had he heard about Chilembwe?
"Why didn't you tell me, were there not enough of us here to protect you?"
"Why should I cause you worry?"
Can we trust a native? And this was the man who was allotted the job of cutting my throat according to Chilembwe.
Of course it is more likely that Chilembwe issued no such orders, but it also looks like if he had the missionaries at least would have been safe enough. The Africans seemed to have a pretty clear idea of the missionaries' motives, understanding that these were good people doing their best, and they responded accordingly.

Ref: Malawi: History of the Nation, Bidglai Pachai
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