A very black boy with a gleaming smile…

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series History of Malawi

His life was gentle, and the elements so mix’d in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’ – William Shakespeare Julius Caesar

With the plaintive note ‘Dear Mr. Booth, you please carry me for God. I like to be your cook boy[1], John Chilembwe transitioned from the limited horizons of a Nyasaland native to a man of international perspective and white man’s manners. The process was not immediate, and neither was it rapid, but it began with an unlikely fusion of destinies.

John Chilembwe, as much as the imperfect oral record of births and deaths at that time can reveal, was born near a hill called Sangano, or Tsangano under the evening shadow of Chiradzulu Mountain. Many layers of myth obscure the facts of his lineage, but what is known is that his father was a Yao tribesman of humble circumstances, known either as Kaundama or Chilembwe.[2] His mother, according to differing accounts, was a Mang’anja slave captured by his father during the great disturbances of the 1860s, or a free Mang’anja or Chewa woman named Nyangu of august royal pedigree.[3] Joseph Booth, on the other hand, was a Derbyshire born missionary, lately of Australia, who had arrived in the territory in 1892 with an egalitarian vision, a denominational itinerant and a rigidly fundamental frame of mind.

Both men were products of their environment. John Chilembwe was a Nyasa in the contemporary sense of being of mixed blood in a region of rapidly changing demographic balance, while Booth was a colonial Baptist undulating on the ripples of Victorian enlightenment. He was not to be the vehicle for his own vision, however, for he was the true Baptist, and merely laid the path for another to follow. It was John Chilembwe who was the man of destiny. He was a 22-year-old native of unremarkable stature; who sought God and some material security in the shadow of a white man; who was to learn much and travel far, but on a journey that would not have a happy conclusion.

In 1892 matters on the ground central Africa were far from resolved, and the difficulties of frontier life for the very few whites in residence in the territory were still considerable. The settler character had yet to form, for at that stage very few whites had found their way into the territory, and those that had here yet to establish the nature of their relationship with the natives. The missions maintained, as missions tended to all over the non-European world, to adopt and cultivate a highly paternal attitude to the blacks, by which they regarded blacks as children, and expected themselves to be regarded as fathers. It therefore stood to reason that they felt that the natives had no right to question the prescriptions of their betters, but were to do as they were told, and accept that the missionaries on the whole had their best interests at heart.

Into their midst the settlers and planter began to drift. The Shiré Highlands, that lovely plateau that Livingstone himself had first identified as having the best climate possible for a white man in the tropics, was where most sought to acquire land and settle. In  doing so they also tended to look down on the blacks, not always with attitude of enmity, but always with a certain contempt, believing that blacks simply lacked the wherewithal to govern a modern society and where destined into the foreseeable future to remain in the kindergarten of civilisation. Here they would, if they could, learn their manners from the white man. Naturally not all white men who entered into this sphere had the will or mental capacity to justly treat a population more or less subjugated to their authority, and allowed certain inherited class distinctions to warp their perception. This often combined with self interest and ignorance to create a class of white who disliked the blacks for reasons of their difference, who mistreated them because they had the power to do so, and stole what they had – the land – because they were able to.

One of Harry Johnston’s first civic responsibilities on arriving in the territory as first Commissioner was to disentangle the messy business of white land tenure and put the existence of a permanent settler community on a solid, legal footing. Quite a lot of the bad feeling that followed Harry Johnston out of office in 1896, after some seven years of service to the territory, and in certain quarters it was considerable, was over the matter of his handling of land.

Although perhaps highest in profile, and more demanding in terms of acreage, the European settlers, be they hunters, concessionaires or planters, where not the only factors in the kaleidoscope of shifting ethnicity that, although always a feature, had been rapidly accelerated during and after the time Livingstone. Land had been changing hands between competing native groups since time immemorial: those active in the slave trade; those fleeing the slave trade those emigrating away from Portuguese tax and labour regimes in Moçambique; those Arabs and Swahilis playing one off against the other, stealing land from all, and finally the Portuguese Prazieros active on the borders of the territory likewise jostling for territory, land and influence. Alongside this the fifth column of Indian traders, some drifting in from the Portuguese sphere, others involved in the slave trade, and yet others amongst the military personal who had opted to stay on.

The larger estates and acreages alienated by whites on the Shiré Highlands stood out as the most obvious muddle to be resolved. One of the main brokers in this process had been John Buchanan, who, as British Consul from 1887 to 1891, registered the ‘sale’ of a number of enormous estates. His own land purchases amounted to some 168 000 acres in Zomba, Blantyre, Chiradzulu and Thyolo. The Moir brothers acquired a series of estates totalling 55 000 acres, while a certain British/German trader by the name of Eugene Sharrer was able to secure title to a combined area of 372 500 acres across the Shiré Highlands. In total, by 1890, a million acres of the Shiré Highlands had passed into a the ownership of a handful of Europeans. Notable among these was Alexander Low Bruce, Edinburgh millionaire, and husband of David Livingstone’s daughter Agnes.  Bruce was owner of two estate brokered on his behalf  by John Buchanan. The first was Likulezi, comprising 7 448 acres of the fertile slopes of Mount Mulanje, and the second a substantial block north of Chiradzulu, and including the village of Magomero that held such potent symbolism for the Livingstone family.[4]

Most, if not all of this land had been acquired by a variety of means, none of which, not even among the missions, could be fairly described as legitimate. The purchase of land, often for the meanest trade in beads and other trifles, and from native authorities who had no right to alienate the land from the group commonality,  was common. Some land was purchased from tribal leader that did have authority, some by means of gifts of land solicited for a variety of reasons, and some by means of quite simple and outright theft. In a 1903 judgement issued in a land dispute arising between the Superintendent of Native Affairs and the heir of John Buchanan,  Justice Nunan, hearing the case, remarked with incredulity that the 60 000 acres in question had been sold for £50 in trade goods – a quantity of cloth, coloured stuff, guns, powder, brass wire, beads and other things – amounting to perhaps the value of one fifth of a penny per acre.[5]

In the aftermath of the conference of Berlin, when in effect the starting gun was fired for the race to seize what could be taken of Africa, this process of acquisition obviously accelerated rapidly, and the situation on the already over crowded Shiré Highlands became even more confused as large areas were claimed by white settlers upon which native settlements existed whose status was now clearly uncertain. The reason that this land was so easily obtained is complex, but broadly speaking the general insecurity and shifting allegiances across the highlands made those in a position to do so eager to give what they had away in exchange for some sort of stability. Often those in occupation had only recently gained control, and often, thanks to the depopulating effects of famine and slave trade, much of the land was under populated anyway. All over the Shiré Highlands this was becoming the case, and it was to provide fertile employment for generations of departmental bureaucrats, special commissions, academics, historians, anthropologists and politicians.

In order to lay the foundations of a stable and ordered society, which was the primary task of Johnston’s administration, this matter needed promptly to be resolved. Johnston immediately placed a moratorium on further land alienation, and placed what un-alienated land still remained in trust under the Crown for the use of blacks. He then held an inquiry into European ‘ownership’ of land, requiring that all who claimed ownership show reason for their tenure, after which he applied himself to assessing the variety of claims that were produced. Between 1892 and 1893 he issued to most claimants examined ‘certificates of claim’ which assured them freehold tenure on their new land. A few claims which were revealed to have been acquired fraudulently or by sharp practices where reversed, while others that appeared to be based on insufficient purchase price or other considerations he ratified only after the payment of an additional sum to the natives.

The most potentially divisive aspect of the land question remained the fact that large numbers of natives remained in residence on land that had been sold or otherwise alienated from under them, and who had been neither consulted nor resettled. To this Johnston applied a principal that, although not obviously explosive at the time, contained the potential to be so as populations grew and as the productivity of newly demarcated commercial estates began to rapidly increase. In Southern Rhodesia, and to a lesser extent in Northern Rhodesia, Native Reserves, later termed as Tribal Trust Lands, provided the solution to large numbers of blacks displaced by white claims to their land, but in Nyasaland, land resources did not really permit this, and furthermore this was one of the fundamental differences between the commercial and predatory system of Company rule, and the infinitely more benign system of direct rule from Whitehall under a governor, or in this case a general consul or commissioner.

Instead of allocating specific native reserves, Johnston wrote into each certificate of claim a ‘non-disturbance’ clause. This stated in simpler terms that no native village or plantation existing on alienated land at the date of the issue of the certificate was to be disturbed or removed without the consent in writing of Johnston himself, or his successors. No natives, meanwhile, where permitted to extend or add to their villages and gardens without the prior consent of the ‘proprietor’.

While this was well meaning solution to a problem not of Johnston’s making, but a fait accompli brought about as a consequence of the general white infiltration of Africa, and to a significant degree by the pioneering work done by the missionaries before him, it simply left the explosive issue of native land rights, and native rights in general, for future generations of colonial administrators to grapple with.

In the meanwhile, and as something of a side issue, Johnston militated against the break up of the larger estates by fixing a price of 5/- an acre for land in the settled areas, which was five times the similar rate in the Transvaal, which had the dual effect of causing something of a stagnation in the development of the Nyasaland economy adding to a growing impatience on the part of Cecil Rhodes towards his more civic minded protégée. Rhodes had in mind for the Protectorate something along the lines of his Native Reserve system, which, it was hoped in Southern Rhodesia would create a landless proletariat driven to the labour market for survival which was the defining resource necessary for the economic development of the colony. In Nyasaland the native land tenure question became not one of the terms under which natives would be driven from the land, but the terms under which they would be allowed to settle.

There were some among the missionaries who recognised the growing imbalance of the new imperial order, and although many had welcomed the arrival of a formal British administration in the territory, not all welcome the sudden influx of secular interest that diluted their own long held monopoly on native attention, and disrupted their own style of micro-imperialism that had emanated from their little spiritual bastions. One things that the missionaries rarely lost sight of, however, was the fact that they existed for no other reason than the advancement and general well being of the blacks. Although it might be stretching a point to suggest that they advocated the rationale of leaving Africa to the Africans, they did wish it to be known and understood that the key to Africa was the African, and that the object of European involvement was to expedite the eventual capacity of Africans to govern themselves.

There was one missionary in particular who attempted to advance this principal farther than any other dared, and in doing so he created enemies not only within his broad fraternity, but without. Joseph Booth was an enigma. Part fool, and part visionary, he was at very least ahead of his time, and if it had been possible that the seeds of his message could have fallen on more fertile ground, the colonial history of Africa might have been very different, and in certain key areas, might have played out to the benefit of all who were looking to the 20th century in Africa as a time of both economic opportunity and bondage.

Booth arrived in Africa on a tide of egalitarianism that had its inspiration in many quarters, but primarily in the work of such pioneering missionaries as William Carey who a century earlier had established ‘self help’ missions in India that, advocating a philosophy of the levelling of caste, had come under bitter criticism from the government for the obvious potential ramifications of a policy of equality in a colonial context. Underscoring the work of men like William Cary was the notion that missions and missionaries where not placed simply to alert lost souls to the light of God, but to enlighten them to civilization and modernity in ways that would allow them to exploit the benefits in a condition of equality. Education, therefore, was not to be provided in literary terms only for the purpose of reading the Gospels, but to teach people how to support themselves in a modern context, in industrial terms mainly, and in trades that would advance their existence in line with similar advances underway in Europe.

Joseph Booth, never anything less a radical, took this one step further, and stepped onto African soil for the first time with a belief already firmly in place that Africa was for the Africans, and that any white secular or missionary activity, other than his own, was necessarily suspect. With this combination of naïveté and idealism he flew violently in the face of older and more established catechists, who, notwithstanding their paternalism, and a high degree of personal comfort established after two decades of pioneering labour, believed that their protectionist formula – that of dispensing the medicine without handing over the bottle – was the correct approach to African development,  and that in the fullness of time it would correctly condition the black man for full independence in the light of God.

The industrial mission, therefore, was hardly a new concept internationally, and in fact underscored a lot of the work that African American educator Booker T Washington undertook during the reconstruction period following the American Civil War. It also was a large part of a similar debate underway between missionary educators in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia and their counterparts in the formal administration. As native education began to gather pace in both territories, administrators found it difficult to wean established mission schools, those that had carried the burden of native education during the period when no other alternatives existed, away from the notion of literary education being given primarily for ease of conversion, and towards industrial education aimed at ensuring that blacks as quickly as possible were able to enter the workforce as low level artisans and semi skilled workers.

In practical terms it is hard to imagine any social agency at that time objecting to a philosophy like this, but with it Booth brought inevitable political overtones that appeared likely to many to breed political radicalism in blacks. Blacks, it was generally accepted, had no business harbouring political notions of  freedom for their own, nor even their children’s generation. This, however, was precisely the effect that Booth’s radical ideology had on a young black named John Chilembwe who entered his employment as a houseboy, an assistant and a companion in the first days of the Zambezi Industrial Mission.

The Zambezi Industrial Mission had been hastily founded, and was being haphazardly run by Booth himself, with some help from his young daughter Emily and a succession of house servants whose loyalty they could never depend on, but whose light fingered dishonesty they always could. As he did with the established missionaries, Booth very quickly fell foul of Alfred Sharpe whose practical view of civil administration could not tolerate a excess of vision. Harry Johnston, on the other, hand something a visionary, himself and eccentric enough to recognise a fellow, was more accommodating. It was through Johnston that Booth acquired a piece of land in Mitsidi in the vicinity of Blantyre. There he shared a crude mud and thatch hut with his daughter, and preoccupied as always with the palpable future over the vague present, Booth was gratified when the slight, 21 year old African presented himself for examination, and attested in broken English to his desire to be Christianised, to work for the missionary and in exchange be raised to God.

Emily Booth later recalled the moment when she wrote in her autobiographical account of the time, This Africa Was Mine: ‘Father was despairing of ever being able to find a dependable boy, when out of heaven’s blue the right boy came to find us. He was a very black boy with white teeth and gleaming smile.’[6] She then went on to describe John Chilembwe as a Yao, a member of a strong and aggressive race, one who knew what he wanted and took it. Neither his cooking nor his English were astonishing in their perfection, but qualities of honesty, determination and purpose were balanced by a gentleness of nature, a disarming candour and an unselfish desire to please.

Some less smitten than Emily Booth might have remembered John Chilembwe as obsequious, secretive at times, and with a determination to please that might have hidden a selfish purpose. None of these things Joseph Booth noticed. The business of the mission occupied all of his energies, and if he was lavish in his praise of John Chilembwe, it was perhaps in the nature of his own determination to prove the worth of the native by over emphasising their qualities. Chilembwe was undoubtedly intelligent and conscientious, but it was the fact that the knives and spoons, the cutlery, silver, linen and clothing no longer took wings that more than anything else distinguished him, and both Joseph Booth and his daughter where glad to have made the acquaintance of ‘…the man sent by God whose name was John.’[7]

At the time that all this was taking place the natives of the territory had had time to adapt to conditions of peace under the protection of Her Majesty, and had begun the process of weighing up the benefits of taxation and dispossession under British rule against insecurity and war under their own.

The depopulation of the Shiré Highlands was quickly reversed as scattered groups of people began to venture down from the scattered hilltops where most had taken refuge during the decades of insecurity following the Yao invasions of the 1950s. With the banishment or death of the worst of the slavers and warlords, taking up residence in the lower lying valleys and plains of the Highlands did not carry with it such horrendous risks as it had in years past. Markets for produce were developing alongside growing populations in the urban centres of Blantyre and Zomba, and a nascent cash economy in the native sphere corresponded with the commencement of commercial development of the large white owned estates, then occupying roughly half of the arable land on the plateau. Very quickly the matter of primary concern to the white plantation owners became labour, and as Cecil Rhodes’ had predicted, the lack of a native proletariat precipitated a chronic labour shortage that was met with a by then reasonably well established strategy for mobilizing black cooperation.

Harry Johnston, while he may have rejected the notion of driving the black man of the land, did recognise that the future lay not in small scale village crop production but in capitalised estate agriculture that brought with it an inherent reliance on native labour. Consequently in 1894 he introduced a blanket 3/- per annum hut tax, to be paid in cash, or at the discretion of the Collector in produce, that fell due on 31 December, with a hut forfeiture penalty if the sum was not cleared by 1 March. The obvious intent was to force the still fundamentally collectivised  village population into the cash economy in order to jumpstart the growth of a labour class.

The strategy had mixed results, with early enforcement being both brutal and excessive, and somewhat at variance with the principals espoused by the many treaties offered on behalf of the Crown, and signed in the interests of advancing the protectorate. In June 1892 an incident was reported in the weekly publication distributed by the Blantyre Mission which highlighted very clearly the abuses inherent in the system, and the questions raised among native peoples regarding the intentions of the young administration in the light of this unexpected price of British protection. When a particular chief of the Chiradzulu region refused to either pay his taxes or to provide labour for road maintenance when requested by the administration, an armed force under Alfred Sharpe made its way towards his village. Upon arrival it was found that the occupants had fled. The village was burned and looted after which the village of a related headman was likewise similarly demolished and burned, along with granaries and standing crops.

The publication went on to comment: ‘We cannot conceive under what form of justice an act such as this should have been perpetrated.’[8] It was, of course, the simple justice of might is right, and the establishment of precedence so that all in future might recognise the folly of resisting central authority. The policy was admirably articulated by Hector Duff, future administrator and commentator of the period, who had this to say:

If we grant, as grant I think we must, that it is the duty of civilised nations, by reason of their civilisation, to control and instruct their savage brethren, then let us beware how we cavil at the force by which alone the way for that high purpose can be made clear.[9]

The opposing view was expressed by a local native chief, likewise commenting on the issue, who said: ‘You English have come and seized our country. Well, we give it to you, only we wish to live at peace with you. If you burn our houses, we will build again; if you seize our property we will work and get more; but if your destroy our food we must die. You will only drive us away from the Europeans altogether.’[10]

The British were outsiders, and if a certain expectation existed that the natives should be eternally grateful for liberation from the slave trade, this was so, but only to a degree, and not at the expense of bondage of a more subtle and pervasive sort. It could also be said that internecine squabbles could be put aside against a common enemy, and if the petty pricks of racism, injustice and inequality did not draw blood quite like the kubash, they served to unite an otherwise disunited people. The language and culture barrier that separated the settlers from the blacks also quarantined them against exposure to the hatred that had taken root against them almost from the moment that the Protectorate was consummated.

While Joseph Booth may have imagined that his brand of patronage served the black man better, he was nonetheless a white man, and John Chilembwe a black man, so that what friendship each man sought to foster with the other was coloured by the dominant facts of the race dynamic that surrounded them. Booth’s approach to the blacks of the territory was initially influenced by his interpretation of the gospel, with a mild political underpinning that gave it its radical flavour. Very quickly, however, he began to develop a political philosophy that overshadowed his spiritual perspective, which was one of the main reasons that he began to run into trouble in the colony. Chilembwe, for his part, was an apprentice to Booth, and although he initially sought purely religious instruction, his association with the radical missionary helped to articulate the injustices of the native condition, and ignited, for the time being at least, a parallel vein of politicisation.

Part of Chilembwe’s apprenticeship was in the exposure at close quarters to European life, both on a domestic and social level. He attended funerals, weddings, baptisms and attended closely many of Booth’s journeys within the territory and beyond. He nursed Emily Booth through bouts of fever and accompanied Edward Booth, Joseph Booths teenage son, on an expedition down the Shiré and Zambezi Rivers to clear a customs blockage of goods and supplies for the Zambezi Industrial Mission held up in Quelimane. On their return Edward Booth contracted malaria and died on the banks of the river despite assiduous nursing by Chilembwe. Most importantly, though, Chilembwe observed from Booth the mechanics of starting a mission from the ground up, but even more importantly perhaps, and despite the message of love and unity espoused by the separate missions, how rancorous were their relations with each other. In later years all of this would have a profound bearing on Chilembwe’s own missionary activities.

This criticism of  Joseph Booth’s liberal policies was not confined to those outside of his immediate circle. As the Zambezi Industrial Mission grew, satellites were founded in various locations that attracted newcomers from England who also took issue with Booth’s vision of how the mission was to be run. There was perhaps as much an ideological rift here as there was a series of personal reactions against Booth’s trenchant and autocratic style. Whatever the reason, however, clear evidence of a rift between he and the home based trustees of the mission had begun to become apparent. It was also rumoured that Booth’s famous lack of economy had drained the resources of the mission, which also added to the frustrations against him of those who followed, and who often times were obliged to clean up the damage of his uninhibited, and at time misdirected trajectory.

In a search for new allies and fresh funding Booth temporarily left the territory in mid 1895 and travelled to the United States. His attention had been drawn to this region, customarily somewhat outside the Anglosphere, by the publication of his radical missionary vision by an American periodical, Missionary Review of the World, and it’s subsequent defence of him against accusations of fanaticism. The actual itinerary of Booth’s trip, or who he met and what contacts were made, remains vague, but what is certain is that he made his first contact with African American, and through that contact conceived a radical new direction for his particular liberation theology.

It is interesting to note here that while Booth was away one of the few direct contributions John Chilembwe made to his own biography was published in the small Zambezi Industrial Mission broadsheet after a brief meeting with the secretary of the mission Robert Caldwell whilst on a tour of inspection of the Nyasaland Protectorate. Chilembwe was assigned to Caldwell as an aid and interpreter during the six months or so that Caldwell was in the country, during which time Caldwell clearly had much to do with the 23 years old Chilembwe, and appeared to gain a very favourable impression. During the course of a subsequent correspondence Caldwell sent Chilembwe a poem that he had written and published in the same periodical, an incredibly thoughtless action under the circumstances, and one to which Chilembwe responded with characteristic restraint.

The poem was on the theme of the Curse of Ham, one that Chilembwe would obviously have known something about, and that sought to explain the order of things in the eyes of God, and why Ham, the dark brother among Noah’s sons, and he that populated Africa, was relegated eternally to the lowly status of servitude.

‘Cursed let Ham be, and Ham’s son,

Canaan to ages unending;

Servants of servants they shall be;

Servants to Shem and Japheth![11]

That the verses then went on to suggest that the gospel of Christ had arrived in Africa to redeem the sons of Ham did not divert Chilembwe, who was quick to alight on the suggestion of equality, and in his reply to Caldwell, published in the same periodical, and in colourful if imperfect English, he was quick to point out the if Jesus Christ shed his blood for the sins of mankind, the sins of Ham had equally been erased, lending no basis thereafter for the eternal blight of Canaan. And with a strong touch of the simple egalitarianism that he had no doubt absorbed from Booth, he went on:

Blessed are the white people who keeping pray for our darkness, and send some more out to tell the good news about JESUS, that my people may be saved. GOD be with them who are willing to send their sons and their daughters to die for us that we must be saved; and for that I thank to the Lord very much, and you big men who love us and pray for us and send some to help us. May LORD JESUS be to all Friend.[12]

For Booth himself the break with the Zambezi Industrial Mission came soon after his return to the territory from the United States at the end of 1895. The report that had followed Caldwell’s tour of inspection had not been positive, nor supportive of his leadership, and although the separation was on the surface amicable, Booth was left embittered and isolated, and stung by the satisfaction that was widely expressed in missionary circles that he had finally been removed from any position where he could cause trouble in the Protectorate.

Of course this was not so. Booth had returned home from the United States with much to think about, and even more convinced was he then that the key to native advancement lay in self help, and if help was required, let it be from the African Americans who had a moral and vested interest in the liberation from material and mental bondage of their brethren in Africa.

In 1897 Booth published a booklet in the United States that he entitled Africa for the African, and although the publication was pointedly dedicated to Queen Victoria in the first instance, and to British and American Christians in the second, it was the final dedication to the Afro/American people of the United States that most clearly illuminated his intended audience.

In calling upon the black people of the United States to mobilise their relatively advanced resources for the liberation of Africa, and in characteristic style, Booth weighed in with a maximum of momentum and a minimum of reflection. The African American people had themselves enjoyed a mere 30 years of emancipation, which was at best only partial, and indeed most were already beginning to sense the dispersal of the optimism of the Reconstruction Period. What resources there were available to them were largely claimed by their own desperate underdevelopment, and obviously there was very little surplus to be directed to the aid of a heritage that none could recall with any particular clarity, if at all. Doubtless the question of Africa loomed very large in the African American consciousness at this time, but this was not in the form of a consensus for return, and nor with any clear idea of what Africa actually meant in the aftermath of the devastating mass exportation of her people.

Booth asked the metaphorical question: Could it be that the high-minded Christian statesmen of the 19th century were intentionally guilty of the cowardly barbarism of claiming the resources of a great, yet poor people, simply because of poverty and ignorance? Indeed, it was obvious they were. Booth went on to extol Britain to atone for past wrongs.[13]

Let Britain, in a spirit of restitution for past, but unredeemed wrongs, use her present day of opportunity to restore or facilitate the restoration of the scattered Negro people of the West India Islands and America to their fatherland…

Without any real cost to herself Britain can confer upon the African race, by the restoration of the land to the people, and by free gifts of land to the returning Negro, a greater real benefit than any act of emancipation, which cost her twenty millions sterling, since that effected about one million of persons only, but left them destitute

Will Britain be thus magnanimous? And thus make

‘AFRICA FOR THE AFRICANS’

something more than a hope?[14]

It was a magnificent appeal, but constrained by much more than the simple unwillingness of the Old World powers to right the wrongs of history. There was but a small minority of emancipated blacks in the United States committed to repatriation, and these did not necessarily include the leading intellectual figures of the time, most of whom, for a variety of reason, rejected utterly the notion of blacks returning home to reclaim their heritage. Among these were perhaps the two greatest black statesmen of their times. Prior to emancipation Frederick Douglass rejected slave repatriation on the ground that it was designed solely to rid the northern of freedmen to ensure that they could influence the growing abolitionist movement, and Booker T Washington, after emancipation, and after lengthy discussions on the matter with Welsh/American explorer Henry Morton Stanley, concluded… ‘that there was no hope of the American Negro improving his condition by emigrating to Africa‘.[15]

At the grass roots, the great achievements of Africa in past ages – the civilisations of Egypt and the upper Nile, of Carthage and the sophisticated trading polities of Ghana, Mali and Songhai – were all used to combat the widespread suggestions that blacks were bred of inferior stock, but this did not necessarily translate into sentimentality. With no shared traditions, memories or languages to link them with kin across the Atlantic, Africa had no specific meaning. Most importantly, however, the struggle to survive the moment, to establish institutions of their own after hundred of years of being excluded from any kind of capital, ownership or economy, occupied and absorbed the energies of the majority to the extent that they could barely contemplate something as ephemeral as racial kinship across such a vast gulf of space and time.

This, nonetheless, lay at the root of Joseph Booth’s evolving strategy. In the meanwhile, however, he took himself south to the Natal colony of South Africa leaving Chilembwe behind in the Protectorate, but taking with him another Yao by the name of Gordon Mathaka. The year was 1896, and Booth, typically, attempted to contact and proselytise among the Zulu. At that time the Zulu as a nation were in the process of adjusting to the reality of having been utterly crushed as a military force, and reduced to either being herded into over-crowded and degraded native reserves, or living as a second class, landless, urban proletariat within predatory and exploitative white industries. This by the end of the century had been the fate of almost every indigenous political formations and language groups throughout South Africa, and Northern and Southern Rhodesia. While Booth may have felt that he of all white men was not part of this creed, behind his back Gordon Mathaka was warned about the true nature of the white man, and what could ultimately be expected from any member of that race.

Mathaka took fright and fled, bringing home to Nyasaland with him these sordid tales, and to any who would listen he repeated what he had heard and seen, deepening a latent distrust of the white man already abroad in those areas where white and black lives overlapped. Chilembwe, however, perhaps because of the deeper and egalitarian relationship he had enjoyed with Booth, refused to allow himself to be swayed by this sort of propaganda, and maintained a determined regard for the white man, and in particular the missionaries, who he regarded as being motivated fundamentally by the well-being of the black man.

Booth, meanwhile, and in typical style, persisted in his efforts to convince the depressed and suspicious Zulu that he could be trusted, and established on 10 September 1896 the prospectus for what he termed a ‘Christian Union’. Upon that his imagination once again soared with optimism calculated on unlimited capitalisation and wholesale and total support of 12 million African Christians. Mission stations seeded up the length of the continent combining catechism, evangelicalism, trade and development. To exploit what he imagined was a latent willingness on the part of European governments to restore African Americans to their Fatherland, and ‘…to pursue steadily and unswervingly the policy AFRICA FOR THE African and look for and hasten by prayer and united effort the forming of the AFRICAN CHRISTIAN NATION BY God’s power and in his own time and way.’[16]

This amounted to as clean a break from the tenets of white missionary outreach as it was possible within the times to achieve. The basis of this new venture was, and would remain, an appeal to Africans on either side of the Atlantic to unite in the great project of mutual advancement and emancipation, and political, economic and spiritual independence.

However Booth was white, and fundamentally for that reason he could not be trusted. He brought together 120 educated blacks, and after a 26 ½ hours of intense negotiation, the matter was put aside, not because it lacked vision, but because there was no white man in existence, not even one as determined to surmount the stereotypes as Booth, who was fit to be trusted with the work.

All was not wasted effort, however, for as he sadly turned his back on another failed mission, and set off on the return journey to the Shiré Highlands, his fledgling ideology of black spiritual, political and economic independence had not been lost, but had been fortified by ideas and activities that were underway in South Africa, and that in many ways echoed precisely the philosophy he espoused.

In the minds of many blacks within the Diaspora looking for some source identity in Africa, Ethiopia became the point of reference. This in part was thanks to the first Italo/Ethiopian War, fought between 1895 and 1896, the precise period of Joseph Booth perambulations, and in which the Ethiopian forces of  Menelik II were victorious against the Italians, marking Ethiopia as the first and only African country to frustrate an attempt at colonisation by force of arms. Ethiopia therefore, for this reason in particular, but also for reasons rooted far deeper in the history of the region, became a focus of Afrocentrism in the late 19th century. This would not only lead easily into a visceral plea for freedom from bondage, but would also be the point around which a native style of liberation theology, arguably the birth of African nationalism, would crystallise.

This sense of an African destiny seemed confirmed by liberal interpretations of Psalm 68:31: Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch of her hands unto God. The forging of this psalm into a spiritual/political ideology has its origins in South Africa in the 1870s, at a time of aggressive white expansion, and the iconic defeat of the Zulu military establishment that reverberated across the region like the fall of Jericho. The black races of Africa had fallen to their knees in that generation, but for the future, God had promised victory. It was also a time when the widespread Christianisation of blacks began to move forward under its own momentum, and when blacks began to set up their own churches rather than face racism in the churches of white worship.

Blacks had agreed to accept the white man’s religion, but to reject his interpretation of it. From then it was a short step to the politicisation of indigenous black churches, which then naturally attracted the politically conscious local black intelligentsia, after which biblically steeped arguments and criticisms against white government became a common medium. By the 1890s several ‘Ethiopian’ churches had come into existence in South Africa, inevitably finding a union of purpose with the United States based African Methodist Episcopal Church, a specifically African American denomination with sociological rather than theological roots. Founded in 1816 in Pennsylvania, by the 1890s the AME had long history of protest against racism and slavery, and was then under the sway of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, radical black churchman and vocal if somewhat isolated proponent of the ‘manifest destiny’ of liberated blacks in the United States to redeem their bonded brethren in Africa.

By the time of Booth’s visit to Natal the link that he had attempted to found had already been forged, and although tenuous at that stage, it was, as he had rightly espoused, an obvious one. By the mid 1890s African Americans were to become a regular feature on the independent church landscape of South Africa, culminating in the triumphal 1898 tour of South Africa by Henry McNeal Turner himself, just as South Africa was sliding towards the war that would define the remaining 95 years of white dominance. With their attention distracted by this many whites did not notice the increased pace of black radicalisation as black schools and churches in the U.S. turned out a steady stream of educated and politicised agitators who assumed the role of catechists, preachers and pastors, and as a consequence were able to reach a wide audience across the breadth of South Africa.

Booth brought all this back with him to Nyasaland, and to the details John Chilembwe, among many other blacks, was extremely attentive. The emergence also of a movement towards migratory labour from Nyasaland to the growing centres of mining, industry and agriculture south of the Zambezi had opened a parallel artery on information. Although hardly informed, word if the independent black movements within the church had reach the Highlands, and with population less hostile to white intervention, Booth sensed a more fruitful potential in Nyasaland than he had found in Natal. As an indication of how far Chilembwe had risen in Booth’s estimation, and how far he had come as an active catechist and missionary in his own right, Chilembwe’s signature sits below that of Booth as a trustee of yet another African Christian Union with a manifesto almost identical to that proposed in Natal.

The manifesto contained all the by then familiar elements of Booth’s vision: the active interface of American Negroes in the development of black Africa; equal rights between blacks and whites; the development of native education along technical lines; independent African economic activity; the just and equitable dispensation of land; the encouragement of an Afrocentric press and literature; and the propagation of independent African Christianity.

Ironically, and not to the benefit of Joseph Booth’s battered psyche, the scheme attracted criticism from a number of progressive black landowners and farmers in the protectorate, with allusions made to Liberia, and the tendency there of resettled black freedmen to ape colonial practise and establish for themselves exclusive institutions, to dominate government and trade, and to monopolise leadership positions in the military, government and the civil service. John Chilembwe, however, was not among those critical of Booth’s conviction, and early 1897 was to find he and his mentor on board ship steaming towards the U.S. capital to test both the theory and enthusiasm of American blacks in the great work that both men deemed nothing less than manifest destiny.


[1] Shepperson, George & Price, Thomas. Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting, and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915. (University Press, Edinburgh, 1958), p37.

[2] Phiri, Desmond D. Let Us Die for Africa. (Central Africana, Blantyre, 1999), p1

[3] Mwase, George Simeon, Strike a Blow and Die. A Narrative of Race Relations in Colonial Africa, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MS. 1967) p12

[4] White, Landeg. Magomero: Portrait of an African Village, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987), p77/78

[5] Ibid.

[6] Shepperson, George & Price, Thomas. Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting, and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915. (University Press, Edinburgh, 1958), p37

[7] Ibid. p38

[8] Ibid. p41

[9] Duff, Hector L. Nyasaland Under the Foreign Office, (George Bell & Sons, London, 1903) p19

[10] Shepperson, George & Price, Thomas. Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting, and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915. (University Press, Edinburgh, 1958), p41

[11] Ibid. p67

[12] Ibid.

[13] Booth, Joseph. Africa for the African, (Christian Literature Association in Malawi, Blantyre 1996), p19/20

[14] Ibid. 21/22

[15] Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery, (A.L. Burt, new York, 1901) p 285 & Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life, His Escape from Bondage, and his Complete History. (Collier Books, New York, 1962,) p299

[16] Shepperson, George & Price, Thomas. Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting, and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915. (University Press, Edinburgh, 1958), p75

Series Navigation

,