The Imperial Tussle: Missionaries give way to a Protectorate in Nyasaland

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series History of Malawi

The arrival on the lake of the British missionaries pitched the Portuguese on the coast into a fit of apprehension tinged with paranoia lest this be the vanguard of a concerted British strategy to rob them of their interests in the interior. Tensions between Lisbon and London had been steadily building since the days of Livingstone which had been amplified by the determined refusal of Portugal since the 1840s to implement any real practical measures to stamp out the slave trade in Africa.

In point of fact the arrival on the lake of the missionaries did indeed force the British Imperial Government to ponder their safety and well being, which once again brought under consideration competing aspirations to claim and administer the lakes area above the Ruo confluence. The first substantive British Consul appointed to Moçambique after Livingstone was Captain Frederick Elton, appointed in 1875, some years after Livingstone’s departure. Elton died on his first visit inland from coast, but nonetheless urged through the posthumous publication of his journals that Britain should extend the struggle against the slave trade to the interior . This would militate somewhat against frustrations placed in the way of the Royal Navy by the Portuguese in trying to enforce abolition in their territorial waters. Her Majesty’s Government, Elton urged, ought immediately to appoint a commissioner to the region to work amongst the complicit chiefs and traders to in some way detach them from the economics of slavery.

This message was echoed by Captain Elton’s successor Lieutenant H.E. O’Neill, who also urged from his base at the coast that the Imperial Government appoint some sort of a permanent representative to Nyasaland to attack the flourish human trade at its source. In 1883 O’Neill conducted a survey of the areas to the south and west of Lake Shirwa and was alarmed to discover the local Prazos engaged in a mutually profitable trade in slaves and guns with the local Yao that was serving to bolster Portuguese influence in the area as well as significantly empower the Yao in their brutal economic activities in the interior.

Appeals also emanated from the missionaries of the Livingstonia Mission for the Imperial Government to move to occupy the administrative vacuum, fearing that if it did not it was inevitable that the Portuguese would, which would render the work of the three organisations impossible due to the inevitable religious bigotry that would follow, and of course the practical restrictions that the Portuguese would immediately place on the movement of outsiders in the territory.

In the meanwhile the missionary effort had been accompanied by a simultaneous commercial thrust in the form of the African Lakes Company, or the Livingstonia Central Africa Company, formed in 1877 by a group of Philanthropic Scottish businessmen with the dual mandate of fostering both Christian development and commerce in alliance with, although theoretically independent from the missions. Its dividend was limited, and any surplus went to the missions. The Company was initially managed by two flamboyant Scottish brothers, John and Frederick Moir, who by 1879 had established themselves on the Highlands and where probing northwards up the lake thanks to the agency of the good ship Ilala. Within a few years they had established a presence on the north shore, and were attempting to pioneer a road north to link the two sister lakes of Nyasa and Tanganyika.

In the absence of an imperial administration, those whites settled along the lake for their individual reasons, and they were a miniscule force considering the area and populations of natives that they lived amongst, tended to acquire imperial airs of their own. These were manifest, as we have already heard, in the assumption of the role of miniature government, and particularly in the maintenance of law and order. The Moir Brothers also had a further precedent that they could draw on in envisioning the future role of the African Lakes Company in the administration of the territory.

Central to the British annexation of large parts of Africa, and indeed many parts of the world, was the concept of the Chartered Company, a publicly subscribed organisation formed for the purpose of exploration and colonisation. These companies operated under a royal or government charter which set out the terms under which the company could trade, defined its parameters of influence and described its rights and responsibilities. The most notable of these was probably the East India Company, formed in 1600, and responsible ultimately for the formation of the British Raj. Some 20 British chartered companies operated during the period of the British Empire, touching every continent on the globe, and with interests that ranged from colonisation to slave and fur trading. Other European countries also operated similar systems, but none with the breadth and influence of the British.

By the late 1800s the process of acquiring a Royal Charter had evolved from a matter of being close to or petitioning the crown, as might have been the case with such famous companies as the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company, to proving that local political entities were desirous of crown protection, the proof of which was a treaty or a concession from a chief or potentate making this specific request, or allowing agents of the company free access to the country for the purpose of mining or trade. These would at times have dubious legal value thanks to the means by which they were acquired, the questionable rights of individual signatories to make sweeping concessions, on behalf of non-subject populations and the degree to which the requests made by company agents were fully understood by those being petitioned.

Such was the case in 1885 as the British Consul for the ‘the territories of the African Kings and Chiefs in the districts adjacent to Lake Nyasa’, A. G. S. Hawse, arrived in the territory to find John Moir actively soliciting signatures from Makololo, Tonga and even Yao chiefs to documents purporting to cede control over the territory to the African Lakes Company. The management of the company then intended to seek a Royal Charter for the colonisation and administration of the territory on behalf of the Crown.

Hawes was in fact the second such consul to appointed by the Imperial Government in order to place an official presence in the lakes region, in part to forestall Portuguese interest, but in part also as a stopgap before it was decided what to do.

Why Hawes, whose predecessor had died of fever less than a year after arriving in the territory, determined to halt the imperial ambitions of the African Lakes Company it is hard to say. The principal was hardly without precedent, besides which if the Imperial Government had no particular interest in committing itself and its treasury to the protection and government of the territory, why not a chartered company? Hawse was by all accounts was rather pompous and ineffective presence himself. This was largely thanks to the fact that he had no resource and no official support and was reliant for just about every material need on the Blantyre Mission. He nonetheless made it his signature objective to let it be known to all who had signed a Lakes Company document that the Company did not, as it claimed, speak on behalf of the Crown.

The attitude of the Imperial Government itself was nothing of not ambivalent. So long as the Portuguese were making no aggressive attempts to enforce their claim to the interior there seemed no reason to commit resources to its defence, or indeed to tamper with the current status quo. The Portuguese were beleaguered on many fronts, and on the eve of the Berlin Conference offered no particular threat to anyone outside of the immediate administrative zone of a handful of coastal ports and settlements. It was acknowledged by one colonial official of the time that Portuguese influence did not extend in any meaningful way more than a few miles out of Lourenço Marques.[1] In fact the only region with any semblance of administrative control was the Zambezi Valley, and even there Portuguese efforts to maintain the garrisons of Tete, Senna and Zumbo were barely effective. Livingstone tended to confirm this fact in his Missionary Travels when he remarked: ‘I thought the state of Tete quite lamentable, but that of Senna was ten times worse.’[2]

Of more immediate concern was the question of access up the Zambezi and Shiré Valleys which were broadly speaking zones of Portuguese control. Livingstone and the Zambezi Expedition had been the first to test the Portuguese attitude in this regard, and despite poorly disguised tensions, Livingstone had not experienced any particular problems. After 1875 the Livingstonia Mission also were afforded the courtesy of free access to and from the Shire Highlands, but this could not be relied upon, and British interests on the lakes could not in the long term depend on the capricious ebbs and flows of the Portuguese mood.

That mood was in fact growing increasingly jingoistic in tone, with calls for the Portuguese standard to be raised on Lake Nyasa growing daily in pitch. In 1882 an armed expedition launched from Quelimane established the Ruo confluence as the front line of Portuguese influence. There it happened that the Portuguese confronted territory by then known as Makolololand, the Makololo being descendants of those who had accompanied David Livingstone on his Zambezi explorations and had chosen the Shiré Valley as a new home after his departure. These men had affection for neither the slave trade nor the Portuguese, which for a time served as a buffer between the rather forlorn Portuguese push north and the very fragile British interests on the lake.

Thus matters rested, but they could not rest for long. Leopold II of Belgium was pressing ahead with his claim to a vast swathe of central Africa. South Africa up to the line of the Limpopo was uneasily divided between Briton and Boer. The natives of what had been the dominions of the Sultan of Zanzibar were making treaties of protection with German Karl Peters of the German East Africa Company, corresponding with German intrusions into south west Africa, Cameroon and Togoland. Uncertain exactly how to proceed, but certain only that something needed to be done, the Portuguese tried to stamp their claim to the lakes region by demanding that any foreigner desiring to enter or settle buy a ‘Ticket of Residence’ in the ‘province’ of Moçambique. They also taxed all shipping related to the African lakes Company, even seizing a Company steamer, releasing it only when diplomatic representations from the British forced a reaction from Lisbon that in turn forced the colonial authorities to relent.[3] It was becoming increasingly clear that the only alternative to recognising Portuguese dominion over the territory was to establish a British Protectorate in its place.

However the British vacillated on the matter, as they were wont to do, and the status quo continued. Consul Hawes was left in no doubt regarding the authority of his appointment when he inquired of the Foreign Office what he ought to do if a servant were kidnapped by slave traders. Use what tact he could, was the unhelpful reply, and avoid any unnecessary embarrassments. When he asked for the provision of a dozen rifles he was asked in reply who was to pay for them? He then grumbled that he could see no possibility of an improvement in the humanitarian crisis in the region unless the British intervened directly in the way placing of armed steamers on the lake to arrest the transit of slaves, and launch a direct confrontation with Yao of the highlands to force them to abandoned the slave trade.[4] Soon afterwards he took a leave of absence and did not return.

This did not, however, mean the end of Hawes’ active service in the territory. An extraordinary turn of events ensued as a consequence of the shuffle of power and allegiance on the map of central Africa that sucked he and virtually every lay white man in the territory into one of the lesser known little colonial wars of the period.

Prior to the events leading up to and following the Berlin Conference the Arabs had held dominance in central Africa as the main force of trade, and in the main, particularly during the 19th century, that trade had tended to be in slaves. The nominal domains of the Sultan of Zanzibar – the areas between the equator and 10º south, and east more or less of 25º of latitude, with tendrils of interests slipping as far down the coast as the mouth of the Zambezi, and inland down the Luangwa Valley in modern day Zambia – were utilized by his agents and other Islamic elements of Swahili/Arabic origin as the main trade catchment for the Indian Ocean trade axis in slaves, ivory and various other commodities. No other force existed in the entire territory other than the harassed masses who provided the raw materials, and a handful of dominant tribes who were heavily implicated in the slave trade themselves, and generally welcoming of Arab influence.

All this changed, however, with the sudden ignition of interest in the region precipitated by the Berlin Conference. As the Belgians to the west and the Germans to the east began to effect control over these regions, the Arabs and their surrogates began to arm themselves more comprehensively that had hitherto been necessary,  and began to establish petty sultanates among the tribes of the interior, and moreover to drift into areas that remained free of overt colonial claim or occupation. Principal among these at that time was the hinterland of Lake Nyasa, and in particular the northern quadrant occupied by a group known as the Wakonde, Nkonde, or Ngonde.

There was much about this part of the lake, and the Wakonde themselves, that was commendable. The area in question was a vast alluvial plain of remarkable fertility bordered to the north, east and west by mountains, and in the south by the lake. It was drained by several rivers, and was moderate in both health and climate. Living within this Garden of Eden the Wakonde had developed a similarly attractive aspect and invariably impressed early explorers with their cleanliness, passivity and pleasantness of nature. Bearing in mind the degree to which the native peoples of the region had suffered violence and predation, and how diminished as race they had become after a generation of more of death and depletion to the slave trade, it is hardly surprising that the whites entering the country at that stage were rarely impressed with the quality of people that they met. The Wakonde on the whole has so far escaped the worst of this, but manifestly that was about to change.

The dramatis personae of this phase of the struggle for the soul of the region were two men as opposed in ideology as they were in background and appearance. L Montieth Fotheringham was manager of the African Lakes Company store in Karonga, a settlement on the lake shore situated on the west shore of the Lake just south of the heartland of the Wakonde. Fotheringham was the sort of archetype of popular imagination that was thought to exist in the colonies more frequently than they actually did. He was a raw Scotsman, by then in his early thirties, heavily built, with the pale complexion typical of the northern latitudes, sheltered by a deer-stalker hat, rubicund rather than florid, and tending to abstinence instead of the usual tropical mores of alcohol and fever.

The Karonga Mandala had been established in 1884 with a view to establishing trade with the Wakonde, and moreover to spearhead a further advance north by way of a proposed road from the northern tip of Lake Nyasa to the south extremity of Lake Tanganyika. The arrival of a trading establishment in the region immediately attracted the attention of local Arabs looking for a market for ivory. A number of these settled in the vicinity, assuring as they did the wary Wakonde of their fair intentions. Principal among them was a typically mixed blood Mussulman of uncertain lineage by the name of Mlozi. Mlozi governed the slave trade north of the Lake, owed nominal allegiance to the Sultan of Zanzibar, and armed with gunpowder and the Moslem faith, regarded, and called himself, a Wazungu, or an Arab.

Mlozi was following a long line of similar slave barons, many of whom carried the dual aspects of wealth and religious respectability with a capacity for abominable cruelty and a despotism that seemed to have nothing less than a diabolical source. This was the source of the terror associated with the slave trade, and the bedrock of the successful domination of vast areas and large numbers of people by a relatively small number of interlopers. Fotheringham described him in fair terms as a shrewd, middle aged man of generally unremarkable appearance, but with eyes that observed with an unnerving quality of restlessness and cunning.

Along with two close associates, Wazungus Kota-Kota and Msalema, Mlozi moved into the vicinity of Karonga where all three constructed fortified stockades, and gradually assembled an armed force, assuring their nervous Wakonde neighbours all the while that they had nothing to fear. For more than a year this continued to be the case, with Mlozi cultivating good relations with both Fotheringham and the Wakonde, however tension perceptively began to increase, and following a series of staged provocations a sudden attack was launched in October of 1887 that precipitated a general massacre, with those of the Wakonde who survived being run down, rounded up and enslaved.

Having revealed his hand Mlozi began to reap staggering profits from the fresh fields of Wakondeland. In combination with ivory, and anything else tradable, the melancholy sight of ordered trains of men, women and children, linked together by slave sticks, or gorees – a forked bough of a tree bound to another and locked to a slaves neck by a steel staple – became common along the roads and footpaths heading east to the coast. Weeping cries and shouts, the haze of smoke, the crack of the slave whip, the echo of gun fire and the angry shouts of the ruga-ruga, Angoni surrogates famed for their fearsome aspect and unspeakable cruelty, characterised the once peaceful plains of Wakondeland.

Fotheringham was appalled, but not altogether surprised. More sobering than this, however, was the realisation that he now stood as the sole obstacle between the three Arab cantons and phenomenal wealth, and moreover the only champion in any position to stand between the Wakonde and total annihilation. It is here that an unlikely Victorian hero stepped forward, grasped the nettle, and determined to stand up to the aggressor. How he intended to do this with an inventory of eight loyal ‘station boys’, 13 old Chassepôt rifles and 34 cartridges is hard to imagine, but after taking stock he determined that if his collection of grass huts and storerooms were attacked, he would fight back.[5]

Fotheringham then set his men to work preparing breastworks along the perimeter of his compound, and in the meanwhile sent runners in all directions to summon any white man available who could come to aid the defence of Karonga, as the redoubtable Ilala down the lake for the same purpose, after which all he could do was wait.

Hawes, meanwhile, before leaving the territory, had been travelling east of the lake when he heard about the ructions at Karonga, and he hurried north in the company of Lakes Company manager John Moir as soon as both men were able. On their arrival they found that a small army of assorted white men had gathered at Fotheringham’s side to confront Mlozi, who perhaps had begun to realise that he had committed a blunder by not overrunning the store compound earlier when the storekeeper and his native staff had been alone and largely undefended. His reluctance came possibly as a consequence of the pro-British stance held by his nominal suzerain the Sayyid, or Sultan of Zanzibar. Among the garrison were Consul Henry O’Neill who had been in country on a visit to the Livingstonia Mission, his brother-in-law who had come up to the lake to collect botanical specimens, the Rev. J. Bain, a nearby missionary, and another company man John L. Nicholl, who had been engaged on the construction of the north road,  and a London solicitor by the name of Alfred Sharpe who just happened to be in the territory hunting big game.

It was agreed that Nicholl would slip out of the fortified compound and hurry north to summon the Mwamba, kinsmen of the Wakonde, to assist in the campaign as the Arabs positioned themselves for an attack. The attack, mounted by some 500 ‘Arabs’ armed with guns and an undetermined number of spearmen, came early the following morning, but was repulsed by a stern defence of the walls by the handful of white men, who then congratulated one another rather nervously having not at all expected the first assault to melt back so easily. Encumbered now with some 1,500 Wakonde refugees, however, the odds were not good on their survival as the Arabs encircled the compound and settled in for a siege.

Nicholl, however, returned within a few days with a large body of Mwamba warriors who scattered the Arabs, but themselves soon disappeared once the prospects for loot had been revealed to be minimal, allowing also for the scattering of the Company natives who let it be known that this was the white man’s fight. So it was the vulnerable party of whites were forced to abandon their fortifications and retire to the safety of the reeds and swamps lining the lakeshore from where it would safer for them to wait for the arrival of reinforcements.

In the event these were just the opening sequences of a weary little war that would capture almost no metropolitan attention and would be seen in shades of criticism from many quarters, not least from Hawes as Her Majesty’s representative, whose opinion he expressed when he advised that the Company withdraw from the region in the interest of avoiding any further hostilities. Why Fotheringham had the bit between his teeth so, is difficult to interpret, but he bluntly refused to consider a withdrawal, even after his Manager John Moir wished him the best of British luck and retired from the field on board the Ilala and returned to the south of the Lake. It is probably that his motivations were a blend of altruism and selfishness, for he correctly surmised that to leave the field to Mlozi would spell the effective end of Wakonde who would be gathered up and shipped to the coast as one, but also it would mark the end of his own individual labours, and an admission of defeat which warms the heart of a Scotsman rather like a drink of water on hogmanay.

Opinion in the territory itself was divided, with the UMCA strangely adopting a ‘live and let live’ approach, alongside a majority of the missionaries who disagreed vehemently and advocated that a tough stance needed to be taken against the slave trade in the region. Henry O’Neill tended to agree with the pro-war camp, and even offered to remain on the frontline in a private capacity if permitted to by Her Majesty, but was prevailed upon by a by then petulant and angry Hawes to return to the field of his own consul and stop interfering in matters outside his jurisdiction.

Haws then left the territory, leaving his consular responsibilities in the care of John Buchanan who was an ex-lay missionary of the Blantyre Mission, one of founders of the Lakes Company, and moreover one of those who had been dismissed under cloud for alleged brutality and abuses against the local population.[6] Buchanan remained in the territory after this episode and redeemed himself as a pioneer of the coffee industry, but also a man who had learned his lesson, after which he won respect for his sober and level headed approach to most matters.

So it was with the Mlozi affair. In the company of the Rev. William Johnson, John Buchanan attempted a mediation between Mlozi and the Company, but returned from consultations with the new Sultan of Wakondeland convinced that nothing would be gained by honest brokerage, and that no peace was possible so long as the power of the Arab in the region was unbroken. En route back to the Highlands Buchanan paused at the settlement of a powerful Yao chief by the name of Makanjira who was known to enjoy a close alliance to the Arab slave traders, and attempted to let it be known that any interference in matters to the north would be to the detriment of the Yao. This incautious comment caused Buchanan to be seized, lashed to a post and flogged brutally, and held until all the trade goods carried by the Ilala were turned over in ransom. Buchanan repaired to the waiting vessel and was returned in great pain and humiliation to Zomba. Such was the low water mark of British prestige in the territory.


[1] Isaacman, Allen & Barbara. Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900-1982 (Westview Press, Boulder Co., 1983), p19

[2] Ibid. p 19

[3] Duffy, James. Portugal in Africa. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA., 1962), p102

[4] Ibid. p104

[5] Ransford, Oliver. Livingstone’s Lake, 1966, p164

[6] Johnston, Harry H. The Story of My Life, (Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis,1923), p211.

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