A Night of Killing: The Story of John Chilembwe

This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series History of Malawi

The evening of the 23rd of January 1915 settled on the Shiré Highlands of the Nyasaland Protectorate without obvious mishap or portent. January, traditionally the wettest month of the year, could on occasions be drenched by upwards of 10 inches of rainfall, however, on this particular evening, the sky was sheer, the moon high and the stars clear and bright. The air was humid and still, the night warm. It was an African night. A chorus of reed frogs sang shrill and electric, counterpoised against the bored monotony of barking dogs. The steady rhythm of iron against wood. Conversations loud and uninhibited, strung out like telegraph lines between hillsides, between villages, between households and neighbours. It was the hum and tremor of concentrated humanity, spread like a living blanket over a crowded land.

Lying mostly above 2000 feet, the Shiré Highlands had always been, and would continue to be, the main theatre of commercial and political activity in the Nyasaland Protectorate. Surrounded to the west by the Zambezi and Shiré  River valleys, and to the east by the low lying coastal plain of Portuguese East Africa, these uplands of the southern lakes region are a tiny link in a vast geographic chain of mountains, lakes and valleys that trace a line from the Ethiopian Highlands to the Bergs of the Cape Peninsular. Even today it a virtual green island in a sea of heat and dust. As such, and like all the highland regions of Africa, if is heavily populated, heavily cultivated and ethnically diverse.

By the turn of the 19th century the population of the Nyasaland Protectorate was determined to be less than 3 million souls, under 2000 of whom were white, and slightly more than this Indian. The white population were divided roughly into those engaged in administration, missionary work and agriculture. Apart from a handful scattered up the length of the lake, most of these, along with most of the blacks and Indians, were focused on the Shiré Highlands. The Governor’s seat of Zomba and the principal commercial settlement of Blantyre were centred broadly in this area, and each situated less the 50 miles from the other.

At that time Nyasaland, in common with every political subdivision south of the Sahara, was under European domination, while central Africa, and much of the south, lay specifically under substantive British control. Nyasaland, along with Northern Rhodesia to the west, was a ‘Protectorate’, as distinct from a colony, dominion or self-governing colony of the British Empire. As a Protectorate, the assumption had to be that an agreement had been entered into by representatives of the Crown and whatever passed for indigenous or native authority in the region for the latter’s protection against some specific and intrinsic outside threat. This was a requirement, establsihed during the Berlin Conference of 1885, that was routinely abused by commercial or imperial agents from many European sources interested in colonial expansion. In the case of Nyasaland this occurred in 1907. It came about more or less as a consequence of Portuguese designs on the same territorial claim, and to some extent because of the self consuming paroxysm of slavery that had, by that time, reduced the territory to a dysfunctional husk of an ordered human society.

European settlement of the Highlands took place in three stages. These were: Christian, commercial and administrative. By the outbreak of the WWI European dominance of the territory had become total. Only a handful of whites at that time, however, less than 100 in fact, were freehold landowners, with the remainder being missionaries, employees, traders, administrators or retired civil servants.[i] These 100 or so large scale white-owned landholdings dominated the Shiré Highlands. Most been obtained by dubious purchase and/or questionable treaty, and their existence and land monopoly were responsible in large measure for potent political dissatisfaction that seethed under the surface of native life in the protectorate. The land tenure statistics of Nyasaland where reflective of those both north and south. The bulk of the land, and the best of it, had gone to the white man, while the rest, and indeed the most marginal, fell to the overwhelming majority of impoverished blacks.

Yet, on a night such as this, the manifold tensions of life in the British colonies lay hidden, as they often were, behind the conceit of the white man, and the black man himself, who tipped his hat without courtesy, and smiled without humour.

No single entity in the protectorate epitomised this unequal state of affairs more than the estates of Alexander Livingstone Bruce, occupying several thousand acres equidistant between the main settlements of Blantyre and Zomba, and the natural features of lake Chilwa and the massif of Mount Mulanje. The ostentation of such a large area under stewardship of the Bruce family was not necessarily matched by great productivity. The estates had been, and remained, economically troubled, and no less so under the stewardship of the current General Manager, William Jervis Livingstone.

On the evening of the 23rd, William Livingstone was at home in his modest farm brick and thatch house. The homestead was a standard estate senior staff house , pleasantly situated on the blade of a wooded spur, and some 80 feet or so above the offices, workshops and stores of the Magomero section of the estate. The front of the house overlooked the  section labour and workshops compound, behind which a thickly wooded valley fell away to an invisible stream a mile or so distant. This was the Namadzi River which forms part of the eastern watershed of the Shiré Highlands. The rear of the household was set against the neatly tended coffee and tea plots, subdivided by towering eucalyptus groves  and odd remnants of indigenous woodland.  It was here, on the back veranda, that Livingstone may have, on any given morning have savoured a cup of estate grown coffee as he contemplated the glow of the sunrise against the blue flanks of dominating Chiradzulu Mountain, some eight miles distant.

Chiradzulu was the home of another landowner, one more modestly endowed. It was the site of the Providence Industrial Mission, the brainchild of a particularly gifted native by the name of John Chilembwe, who, under the influence of the dawning 20th century, was one of many blacks dreaming of a utopian future under indigenous government in an environment of pan-African egalitarianism. Chilembwe, 44- years old, was a rare phenomenon in colonial Africa at that time. Gifted with narural intelligence and determination, and influenced by a variety of  emerging liberal religious and theological concepts flowering throughout Africa at that time, he had been able to studyin the United States, from where he returned with the belief that the black man of Africa stood on the cusp of a great epoch of enlightenment and change.

We will deal in more detail with the life and emergence of Chilembwe as an African revolutionary in later chapters, but for the moment it is sufficient to say that his vision of freedom and equality had tended time and again to be frustrated by the visions of men like Alexander Livingstone Bruce, and indeed landowners, colonists and colonial administrators across British Africa, who believed in a more measured journey towards black self determination, and one that would reach fruition in some future century. On the lower rungs of the white ladder stood functionaries such as William Jervis Livingstone. These were men of the middle management of white African colonial enterprise who tended to regard black ambitions as virtual sedition, and were often guilty of heavy handed, and indeed sometimes violent assertions of the innate superiority of the white man and his God given destiny to rule the world into perpetuity.

William Jervis Livingstone was a man easy to identify if one wished to put a name and a face to what irritated the blacks of the Shiré Highlands most about their status under colonial rule. Towards blacks in general he was arrogant, uncivil, demanding, and at times violent. If any examples were to be made among the whites of the territory, it is hardly surprising that William Jervis Livingstone should be the first.

On that particular evening William Jervis Livingstone might well have joined many other members of the small white expatriate community of the highlands at the Blantyre Sports Club for the usual festivities associated with the Annual General Meeting. In those early weeks and months of the Great War there was a lot to talk about. A local volunteer force had recently repulsed a German attack at Karonga on the northern tip of the Lake, and soon afterwards the local German garrison commander, General Paul Emil von Lettow Vorbeck, had inflicted an unexpected defeat on the lightly defended British position of Jassin some 50 miles north of Tanga on the coast of German East Africa. General Jan Christian Smuts had, at about the same time, led the occupation of Swartkopmund in German South West Africa by South African troops, striking a death blow to German ambitions in that region, and moving the African front line right onto the doorstep of the Nyasaland Protectorate. It was very much at forefront of settler concerns at that time that the Germans might at any time launch a full-blown invasion of Nyasaland.

Livingstone, however, remained at home at Magomero that evening with his wife Katherine, his two young children, and a houseguest, Mrs. Agnes MacDonald, wife of a local Director of Customs. It also happened that a certain Mrs. Emily Stanton of Zomba was visiting her sister-in-law, Alice Roach, while her brother, JT Roach, an estate engineer, spent the night in Blantyre. The Roaches lived on a separate hilltop a short distance from the Livingstone’s, as did Duncan MacCormick, an estate planter, who, aside from his black servants, lived alone. There was, therefore, eleven white souls in the vicinity of Magomero that night, including three young children in the Roach household. Each household was  within walking distance, but discretely separate from the other.

By about eight thirty, dinner in the Livingstone household had been cleared away, Mrs MacDonald had retired to her own room and, under candlelight in the bathroom Katherine Livingstone was preparing to bathe. In the half light of the bedroom Livingstone himself lay on the double bed in his pyjamas playing with the couple’s infant son. Katherine, meanwhile, about to disrobe, noticed that the cat had not been let out, and asked her husband to attend to it. A moment later, as she stepped into the bath, she was abruptly distracted by a sudden shout from her husband, a series of heavy thuds, and then the pitched wailing of her child – all in a matter of a split second.

Inside the bedroom Katherine Livingstone was confronted by a confused scrimmage of bodies. It seemed that the moment her husband had opened the front door he had been charged, and door flung wide, by a press of anonymous black men who immediately set upon him and stabbed him with a spear. He retreated to the bedroom, managed to collect his rifle, but had no time to load it. With his eyes wide, his handlebar moustache dripping with blood and spittle, he screamed at his wife to rescue the children and run. As he did so he was vainly trying to beat back with his rifle a knot of excited assailants who were pressing against him and menacing him with a variety of bladed weapons. Before she could even contemplate a response, however, Katherine Livingstone was heavily thrust down into an armchair from where she could do nothing but watch in paralysis has her husband began to buckle under the weight of the assault. Very quickly Livingstone was pressed to his knees, and after two wretchedly misdirected blows, he was decapitated with an axe and his head tossed into his wife’s lap. Watching in terror, his five year old daughter Mary Nyasa was drenched with blood.

Mrs. MacDonald, meanwhile, in another part of the house, had noticed through an open window a body of black men moving about suspiciously in the yard. Subsequently, when she heard the eruption of deadly hubris coming from the direction of the Livingstone’s bedroom, she guessed that something was terribly amiss. She called to her manservant Kamwana who was billeted nearby, and who recognising also that murder was afoot. Kamwana crept into the room and aided his mistress as quietly as possible in exiting the window. Thereafter the pair ran for the cover of the bush at the perimeter of the property and quietly slipped away into the night.

As William Livingstone was dying under the axe, however, Duncan MacCormick was listening to the vague reports from his own servants that some sort of disturbance was under way at the Livingstone residence. Wholly underestimating the deadly nature of events he left his house unarmed, and made his way across the valley towards his neighbour’s residence believing that a few stern words and a cuff across the back head would suffice, as it always had done, to restore order in matters of native dispute. However, as he arrived at the front door of Livingstone’s home he was met by a phalanx of excited raiders ushering out Katherine and the children. One of the attackers promptly drove a spear through his chest. Duncan MacCormick died in a pool of blood on Livingstone’s veranda with the sound of confusion and hysteria ringing in his ears. Katherine Livingstone and her two children, meanwhile, were led out into a dark night, now stunned and silent, and then on through the broken cover of bush towards an uncertain fate.

The gory trophy of Livingstone’s head, meanwhile, was snatched up, impaled on a pole, and carried away by a certain Abraham Chimbia. Katherine Livingstone, understandably in a state of shock and consternation, was ushered along with her children in the direction of the Roach’s house. Along the way she had the courage and presence of mind to press her captors for some information. She asked why her husband had been killed?

We are killing all the white men.’[ii] Came the reply.

Katherine then let it be known that she had managed to send an appeal for the Big Guns, which had an immediate effect on her captors. A number of them broke off and fled into the darkness, necessitating a delay as they were re-mustered and returned to the group by the others. In the meanwhile the party approached the Roach household. At about 9:30pm the men forced their way in and ordered Mrs Roach, Emily Stanton and the three young Roach children into the yard where they joined the shocked and distraught Livingstone family. Inside the house men moved from room to room searching for JT Roach himself. When they realised that he was not at home they satisfied themselves with smashing windows and furniture and removing two rifles and some 1000 rounds of ammunition. A handful of personal servants joined the white captives out in the yard before all  were ushered forward once again, this time down a darkened foot trail through the bush. Katherine Livingstone again warned the men around her that on the way they were certain to meet the Big Guns. This did not alter their immediate direction, however, but it was later revealed that the men though it wiser to make no more attacks that night. In riposte, however, Katherine and the others were informed by their captors that by then all the whites in Blantyre had been killed. It was further added that, upon that night, twenty million blacks were rising up across Africa to banish the white man from the continent.

Some five miles away to the southeast, a similar sequence of events was playing out in the Mwanje Section of the  Bruce estates where  a handful of white estate employees lived in some isolation in the hills above the Namadzi River. It happened also that the section manager, a Scotsman from Linlithgow by the name of John Robertson, was securing his house in preparation for retiring when he heard a knock on the door. He asked who it was and received the reply:

‘Come to the door. I have something to tell you.’

Having conferred with a night watchman the previous evening regarding a disturbance of some sort in the section cattle pens, Robertson approached the door expecting a similar encounter. As he lifted the latch, however, and peered outside, a spear was thrust through the half opened gap that penetrated both his arm and a his chest. Robertson reeled back. but thanks to the direction in which he had approached the door, and the weight of his reaction, the door slammed shut and the latch fell.

Mrs. Robertson, meanwhile, hearing the commotion, hurried into the room. There had the presence of mind to remove the spear from her husband’s arm and stem the blood with an improvised bandage. As this was going on it was clear from the sounds of jubilation outside that the house was surrounded. In the midst of it all a second white man, the section stock manager Robert Ferguson, another Scotsman, this time a native of Dumfrieshire, stumbled into the house from the rear after banging frantically on the door. A few minutes earlier, in his house a short distance away, he had been recumbent on his bed reading his mail when he was surprised by a mob of black men who invaded his bedroom and plunged a spear into his chest. Failing to follow up the attack the assailants appear to have stepped back and allowed him to run from his room and flee the house in the direction of his neighbours.

John Robertson, meanwhile, had taken up his rifle, left the house and was firing into the darkness in the direction of the mob. By then, however, the thatch roof had been set alight and a gathering blaze was pushing dense smoke through the thatch and into the room.   By the light of the fire Robertson was suddenly aware of Robert Ferguson stumbling out of the darkness with a spear shaft protruding from his chest. Mrs. Robertson helped him to the couch and gingerly withdrew the blade, but it was too late, and Robert Ferguson died moments later.

Robertson and his wife were now clearly in mortal peril. The thatch above them was slowly being engulfed by flame, but more critically the house was quickly filling with smoke. They left Ferguson where he lay and fled out of the rear of the building and took refuge in an outside kitchen. This could only be temporary refuge since it too was made grass. There, however, they found their house servant also taking cover from the attack. The Servant was persuaded very reluctantly to step out of the kitchen in an attempt to ascertain what was going on, but no sooner had he done so that he was speared and left wounded in the middle of the battle ground. With two rifles in hand, and his wife alongside him reloading, Robertson fought a game defence against a poorly armed, but numerically vastly superior force.

With the main house now ablaze it seemed only a matter of time before the kitchen would be torched. In enormous peril the two slipped out into the darkness and quietly made their way through a cotton plantation and then into the shelter of thick bush. Resisting the temptation to take pot shots at the natives mingling under the light of the two burning buildings, Robertson and his wife waited in the hope that their attackers would conclude that both had died in the kitchen fire and leave the scene. In due course it appears that this is precisely what happened.

The moment that the couple deemed it safe to do, and by Robertson’s account at about two o’clock in the morning, they emerged from their hiding place and began, dressed only in their nightclothes, to make their way through the bush towards the main road. Their objective was the main compound of Magomero where they intended to take shelter with the Livingstones. Robertson probably had a fair idea by then that what had transpired was more than a robbery or some sort of organised banditry, and was bristling with suspicion as he and his wife wove their way down hill through a network of apparently silent and sleeping villages. The atmosphere, however, was pregnant with expectation, and if the local natives where conspicuous by their absence from the footpaths and village compounds, it seemed likely that they knew precisely what was afoot.

This fact was confirmed to Robertson when the pair plunged out of the network of bush trails and arrived on the dusty main road. By then a pale dawn had begun to illuminate the horizon and Robertson could make three natives standing beside the road at a place called Chimwaliro. Although not overtly aggressive, the trio were uncharacteristically sullen. Robertson demanded that they account for themselves, but was greeted by silence. He then ordered them to move on, but was ignored. Upon that he raised his rifle and shot one dead, which prompted the other two to flee.

Still no wiser to the wider events of the evening, Robertson and his wife continued on down the road in the direction of Magomero. In due course they came upon a herd boy who, although neither cooperative nor hostile, let it be known that a visit to the Livingstone household at that time would probably be unproductive.

In the meanwhile, a neighbouring planter by the name of Kemper, whose Namiwawa Estate was situated along the Blantyre/Zomba road, and some eight miles distant from Magomero, woke early as was his custom. As he was taking his morning tea on his veranda his house servant presented him with a garbled account of the previous evenings disturbances at Magomero. The excited man concluded with an assurance that Livingstone had killed himself.

Like Duncan MacCormick, who now lay dead in Magomero, Kemper saw no reason to arm himself or barricade his home, but instead set off immediately to investigate, believing securely in his innate authority as a white man. A short distance down the main Blantyre/Zomba road he encountered the Robertsons staggering  in the direction of his homestead, both in their nightclothes, utterly exhausted, and with Robertson himself clearly in need of medical attention. Kemper abandoned his journey to Magomero,having been briefed of the facts. The three then continued on to Zomba where the first alert was raised.

The third action of that evening confirmed the fact that what had taken place was indeed an attempted native uprising. As the Katherine Livingstone and her children and companions where being ushered southwards towards the Providence Industrial Mission, a much larger body of  black men had left the same place under instructions from John Chilembwe , and were now moving along the southern buttress of Chiradzulu Mountain in the direction of Blantyre township.  Their objective was the walled compound of the African Lakes Corporation wherein was held a stock of firearms on sale in the company store, and others stored for the use of Company agents.

What was later acknowledged to have been a highly disciplined and controlled series of attacks on the whites of both Magomero and Mwanje was not repeated on the assault on the the Lakes Company premises in Blantyre that occurred in the early hours of the following morning. This third group of rebels, by far the largest of the evening, was further from its objective when it began, and so had a far greater distance to travel to meet it. This gave the assembled conspirators more time to ponder their actions, and perhaps more time  for many to think twice and slip away. The sounds of revelry issuing from the grounds of the nearby Sports Club reminded all involved that there were many white men nearby, certainly many more than had been encountered at Magomero. By the time the raiding party was poised on the perimeter of the compound a significant amount of its commitment to the fight had been quenched.

A particular susceptibility of the white man in the colonies, meanwhile, has always been the social club. And although on this occasion there many more than usual gathered around the bar, by the early hours  of the morning there were very few of them paying any particular attention to the arrival on the outskirts of the township of a large body of armed and nervous black men. To make certain that news of the massacres in the countryside did not prematurely filter into town, the attackers had been careful to cut the telephone lines between Blantyre and Zomba, and those to Tete in Portuguese East Africa. Armed men were posted at the entrance to each house in the vicinity of the Lakes Company compound to  further ensure that any curiosity on the part of the local white, or black residents suspected of disloyalty to the rebellion, would be met with a sharp blade and a rapid despatch.

The overall scheme, however, began to unravel when a small attack force intent on penetrating the Lakes Company armoury were spotted from a distance by a lone night watchman. The sentry did not respond immediately, but instead kept the group under close observation. He followed them towards the armoury which was situated more or less in the heart of the Company staff compound and management quarters. A second night watchman then also observed the group, but he himself was spotted, and fired upon immediately and killed.

The rifle report alerted the Europeans, by then winding up and evening of drinking, who flooded out to join other Company employees congregating in the yard to see what was going on. A large single cylinder motorcycle was kicked into life which was mistaken by some of the raiders as a machine gun, and this, with the whoops and shouts of drunken revellers spilling out into the compound, caused a further large section of the attacking group to bolt and flee into the darkness. Those that held firm had no choice but to abandon stealth and attempt to storm the store and armoury to get what they could before the plan was completely exposed. It is probable that they intended to abduct the duty superintendent who had the keys and force him to unlock the doors, but since he was now fully cognisant of some sort of disturbance, the store was charged and the raiding party escaped in haste with a meagre haul of three .303 Martini-Enfield and two Snider rifles with a few hundred rounds of mixed ammunition.

Throughout the entire confused and confusing evening John Chilembwe paced the floor of his church in an isolated turmoil of anxiety. He sat at the centre of events waiting anxiously for some news or intelligence of how the evening had progressed. His orders had been specific, his plans minutely laid, and yet much of what he had hoped would happen lay in the both good grace of God and the unpredictability of the human response. He existed at that moment very much in the penumbra between action and reaction. John Chilembwe never really seriously imagined that a war of his making could reasonably topple colonial rule. Instead he had hoped that his actions would provide the spark necessary to ignite a multi-polar reaction amongst his countrymen, who, although existing in a society riven by divisive ethnic loyalty, were commonly opposed to the enemy of white colonialism. His rationale in this was faultless, but events were yet to prove whether his interpretation of the black mood and his timing in the matter had been accurate.

The object of the rebellion as defined by the official commission of inquiry appointed by the local imperial governor was the extermination or expulsion of the European population, and the setting up of a native state or theocracy of which John Chilembwe was to be head.[iii] When viewed in a 21st century context this might have seemed obvious, but it was this observation, accurate to a degree, that set John Chilembwe apart from many other African rebel leaders. From the moment that he had ordered forth from his church the groups of conspirators, who, in the three pronged raids of the evening, had so far killed three white men and ravaged a portion of the neighbourhood, John Chilembwe had declared himself to be a pan-Africanist in the modern revolutionary tradition.His idea was not to shake off foreign domination and return to some utopian tribal existence of the past, but instead to make use of the gifts and lessons of modernity in the construction of a modern African state under modern and enlightened African leadership; and this not necessarily himself.

John Chilembwe struck the first blow for the African revolution. Thereafter, that revolution, in a largely unchanged form, was to roll across the African continent  from Cairo to Cape Town, and conclude 80 years hence with the founding of the independent nation of South Africa.

John Chilembwe’s Providence Industrial Mission was situated in the eastern shadow of Chiradzulu Mountain at a site called Mbombwe. It’s history in 1915 had been brief, but it’s impact had been, and would continue to be, enormous. Chilembwe himself was an unprepossessing man, and hardly appeared to be a figure of great destiny. Photographs taken of him in the years prior to his rebellion reveal a fondness for formal attire of the late Victorian style. In one particular portrait he sits dressed in a pale worsted suit, with a tight collar and a bow tie slightly askew. His wife stands beside him dressed demurely in a dark, ankle length dress, with a high and equally restricted collar, and leg of mutton sleeves. She has one arm resting on her husband’s shoulder, and a little girl in a riding suit stands with one arm on his knee. There is a casual familiarity about this photograph that belies the stern aspects of all three, and suggests that the arch Victorianism that the photograph seeks to portray is little more than skin deep. All three could at any moment collapse into laughter.

There was precious little laughter to be heard that night, however, as Saturday evening turned slowly into Sunday morning. Chilembwe’s isolation was not literal, but it was real nonetheless. In a small candlelit vestibule attached to his grandiose church, he would have been attended to by various people associated with his mission. Some of these were his lieutenants with whom hushed conversations were periodically held. As with with most men of a messianic inclination, Chilembwe held a particular attraction for women. His wife Ida and a handful of others would have held vigil for him that night. All to varying degrees would have been touched by the intuition that if the fall of the white man was overdue, the personal reckoning of John Chilembwe was at least imminent.

Much had come to pass in the weeks, months and years prior to this night, that had made such a night possible, and sunrise would reveal whether he had succeeded or failed. It is probable that in his heart he already realised that his actions had been quixotic and premature, it is almost certain that his attendants conceded before he did that the moment that a black man had hoisted his spear against a white man, and stepped over the threshold of murder, it was all as good as over.

This fact notwithstanding, events were in motion, and John Chilembwe could do nothing more at that point than wait, and hope. Every so often he would push back his chair and walk across the floor of his empty church to peer out of a window into the darkness. Once the moon had dipped below the horizon the darkness would have been complete, and  thesilence unbroken. Perhaps he felt a profound alertness in the silence of that night. While it lasted hope remained alive. Perhaps the darkness and silence shielded the distant cries of white women and children, or the clarion call of settlers preparing to defend their homes and bomas; or perhaps, as Chilembwe most fervently hoped, it gave cover for the furtive movement of many black feet collecting weapons and massing to join the struggle. It might even have hidden the movement of Askari and Shutztruppe from German East Africa, flooding across the lake to aid the blacks of Nyasaland in driving the British from the continent of Africa. The possibilities were endless, but as the first of the rebels began to trickle back into base, the truth began to dawn.

The leader of the Blantyre contingent, a local elder and religious leader John Gray Kufa, returned with the disappointing haul of five rifles and the news that four members, including one badly by cut glass thanks to the headlong rush into the Company stores, had been left behind and presumably captured by the whites. This meant that the authorities would by then be fully cognisant that they were dealing with an organised rebellion, and that in due course some forceful response could be expected. This fact was confirmed a little later when Chilembwe received the report that Robertson and his wife had survived the attack on their homestead, and had been assisted by Kemper to Zomba where they would have raised the alarm. A little later another group arrived, led by Abraham Chimba, who handed over William Jervis Livingstone’s head, which, most reliable accounts agree, Chilembwe received and placed alongside his alter in preparation for the Sunday services to he held later. The captive white women and children had been billeted overnight at the home of a certain Jonathan Maniwa situated a few miles away, but by dawn they were on the move again and heading towards Mbombwe.

Chilembwe greeted this last item of intelligence with some relief. He had ordered the apprehension of the women and children, but he personally he had no particular interest in entertaining, meeting or confronting any of them. Here again he stood on the cusp of action and reaction. It was easy to lie awake at night imagining the day when he would look down on a white person for the very first time, but it was another matter altogether to be confronted by such a white person, who, even in capture, could be relied upon to be imperious, superior and disrespectful. His relationship with whites up until then had been the same forced obeisance required of any black individual by the rules of colonial occupation. The most odious and widely despised of these being the convention – not a law or entrenched custom, but a rule nonetheless –  that a native wearing a European style hat was required to salute a white man by tipping it.[iv] To him, and most blacks, this was a fact of life as familiar as drill to a soldier. It was not easy to relinquish, and Chilembwe, even though he had never worn a hat, was not confident that he would be able to.

At 11:00 am Chilembwe held a triumphal service to a large gathering of his followers ,with the head of William Jervis Livingstone displayed beside the alter as evidence of what had been achieved. This fact has always been the most controversial vignette of the entire episode. With regards to his captives, Chilembwe had been most specific in orders that they should be harmed in no way, and treated at all times with due consideration and courtesy. Once the ugly business of William Livingstone’s killing and decapitation had been accomplished, Katherine Livingstone could cite no single instance when she and her companions had been treated with anything less than courtesy and respect. And yet, at a Christian ceremony, there should have been displayed, in fine, Conradesque barbarity, the decapitated head of the enemy?

Granted, many white chroniclers of the period have been at pains to emphasise this fact above all others, just as black chroniclers have tried by every means to avoid it, and whilst tales of ghastly rites and observances upon, and surrounding, the head, are no doubt overstated, the paradox of it’s presence beside the alter exists none the less. That the only recorded witness of the sermon remembered Chilembwe preaching resolution and courage in the face of what was to come, the trophy was there, it was revealed to the congregation, and was visible throughout.

After the service, with the fact indisputable that the rising had failed, a meeting of church elders was convened to consider the ramifications. These, of course, were certain now to be very severe. The first decision taken was to evacuate the women and children from the Providence Industrial Mission compound and send them all back to their home villages. A cave situated on a hill about five miles to the south was identified as a temporary refuge for those who were too heavily implicated in the rising to merge back village life. Thereafter Chilembwe appears to have succumbed to lethargy. Word was beginning to seep into his camp that in fact a limited uprising had been provoked among a section of the militant Angoni group north of the highlands, but Chilembwe decided to wait and see rather than act.

Accounts, meanwhile, differ as to the immediate whereabouts of the Katherine Livingstone and her party of captives. Early accounts of the episode put her and the others at Mbombwe under the direct care of Chilembwe, who one could imagine was giving a great deal of thought to their fate. Later versions, however, suggest that before the group reached Mbombwe they were diverted towards the local administrative boma at Chiradzulu in the hope that this might reflect better on their captors when they were apprehended. Perhaps  by then out of touch with the general state of the uprising, the leader of their escort, a certain David Kuduya, gave the white women a note to be delivered to the local District Commissioner that read:

……the chiefs of all the tribes have agreed to kill all the white men as they have cruelly robbed us of our motherland.[v]

A second version, perhaps more reliable, saw the captive party released and sent to Chiradzulu boma alone bearing a letter of an entirely different tone:

……we have accomplished what we set out to do, and we are waiting for our deaths. In proof whereof, we have sent his wife alive to explain to you what she saw this night about her husband’s death.[vi]

Perhaps at different times both letters where issued, which is not unlikely since the latter was handwritten in the elegant handwriting that Chilembwe had mastered, and furthermore, rather reflected the defeated mood that overcame him once his hopes had crumbled.

Many years earlier Dr. David Livingstone had accurately observed in reference to the chronic disunion of the people of the highlands: ‘.….. the Manganja could easily be overcome piecemeal by any enemy; old feuds made them glad to see calamities befall their next neighbours.’[vii]

All accounts agree, however, that apart from the trauma of her recent experience, and the difficulties of a long march from village to village along rough hill trails and footpaths, Katherine Livingstone and her weary companions were well treated and felt at no time that they existed under any threat. Whether sent forth directly by Chilembwe, indirectly by his order, or upon the decision of a junior, early on Monday morning the women and children set off towards the Chiradzulu boma.

The first authentic military engagement of the uprising took place shortly thereafter. As Chilembwe was receiving word in Mbombwe that the Angoni rising had amounted to very little, and had since petered out, the captive party were approaching a river on the other side of which the lead scouts spotted a group of government askari. In fact what had been encountered was a hastily assembled force comprising a handful of European volunteers and native members of the Kings African Rifles under the command of a certain Captain L.E.L. Triscott. Triscott been despatched from the Chiradzulu boma to investigate the situation at Mbombwe once it had been ascertained that no more attacks were occurring, and that Chilembwe himself appeared to be consolidating his defences in the vicinity of his church. A brief exchange of fire at that location resulted in the death of Hinges, Katherine Livingstone’s personal servant. A that point most of the escort fled leaving the woman in the hands of government agents.

Meanwhile Triscott and his force followed up in skirmish order and soon came under sustained fire from an encirclement of maize gardens the vicinity of the church compound. It seemed that what firearms had been captured where now concentrated in the area of the church from where the combatants where able to maintain a steady rate of fire. After a brief but fierce fire fight that resulted in the deaths of two KAR regulars and the wounding of three, and the deaths of approximately 20 rebels and the capture of several more, the assault force withdrew. Chilembwe could draw little comfort from this tactical victory, for more devastating than the loss of some of his men was the realisation that with this brief action the native regulars of the Kings African Rifles had illustrated that they were not on the side of the rebels, which had been a significant pillar of John Chilembwe’s hopes for a successful rising.

In the meanwhile the four captive remaining in Blantyre from the African Lakes Company raid where summarily tried and shot at 4:30 in the afternoon. The firing squad comprised eight members of the European section of the Nyasaland Volunteer Reserve, and the bodies of the four were left in plain sight for the edification of any amongst the onlookers who felt inclined to follow their example. In the immediate aftermath a number of similar summery executions were to follow.

Chilembwe now had two choices if he was to maintain the military complexion of his rising. He could fortify his compound and make a last stand, trusting that such a hopelessly heroic action would prompt the hoped for general insurrection, or he could melt away into the countryside and conduct a guerrillas campaign that, using the proximity of Portuguese administered territory in the east, might in incremental terms attract large numbers of the population over to his side. In the event Chilembwe proved himself less of a military man than he had supposed. In due course a large body of his force deserted and fled by way of the nearby Nguludi Roman Catholic Mission where a last and wasteful attack was made. This resulted in the severe beating of the resident priest Father Swelsen, and the death of an orphan child in the inferno that followed the torching of the mission.

By Tuesday morning it had become clear the the situation was hopeless, and a hurried evacuation of Mbombwe was effected. By the time a second official attacking force, this time approaching from the west through, penetrated the compound, the mission was deserted. There had clearly been little order involved in the retreat, for a cup of hot tea still sat on a table in Chilembwe’s house, and the much travelled head of William Jervis Livingstone roughly abandoned on the outskirts of the village. A dog eared manual of military tactics was also recovered from Chilembwe’s home, the doctrines of which he had clearly only superficially imbibed, and abandoned ultimately in a headlong and irrational flight towards the frontier with Portuguese East Africa.


[i] Debenham, Frank. Nyasaland: The Land of the Lake. (H.M. Stationary Office, London), 1955, pge 92.

[ii] Landeg White, Magomero: Portrait of an African Village, 1987, page 138.

[iii] Report of The Commission Appointed by His Excellency the Governor to Inquire Into Various Matters and Questions Concerned With the Native Rising Within The Nyasaland Protectorate. 1916.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Landeg White, Magomero: Portrait of an African Village, 1987, page 139.

[vi] George Shepperson & Thomas Price, Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origions and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1815, 1958, page 285.

[vii] David Livingstone, A Popular Account of Dr. Livingstone’s Expedition to the Zambesi and its tributaries
And of the Discovery of Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa, 1858-1864
, Project Gutenberg, 2001, page 102.

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  • Gary Durrant

    My name is Gary Durrant from Kilmore, Victoria Australia.

    As a keen family history researcher I recently came across your article about A Night of Killing: The Story of John Chilembwe. I enjoyed the article and realized you where talking about one of my relatives, namely Alice Roach. Alice is my 1st cousin 3 times removed. Whilst Alice lived much of her life in Africa she was in fact born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1881 and died in Durban RSA in 1969.

    In your article you also refer to her ‘brother JT Roach’. I believe you are referring to her husband Thomas Joseph Roach who was born in Adelaide in 1876 and died in Durban 1936. Alice and Thomas where married in Blantyre Nyasaland, South Africa on 30 Sept 1909.

    The other information about the shooting and abduction and even Thomas not being at home closely matches details contained in a family letter written by Thomas and sent to his family back in Adelaide not long after the shooting.

    I hope this information is of use to you. If you would like any other information about the family please don’t hesitate to contact me.

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  • charles Carmichael

    Hi Gary,
    My name is Charles Carmichael, the same as my Grandfather of “Nachambo” to whom Mrs Mc Donald fled for help.I am interested to communicate further.

  • chimanimani

    Hi Gary, are you still out there?