A parting of the ways

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

The day for Africa is yet to come. Possibly the freedmen may be an agency in elevating their fatherland. David Livingstone.

John Chilembwe’s impending visit to the United States generated enormous interest among his friends, family and congregation. Booth had so emphasised the redeeming potential of black America that expectations were very high. Why Joseph Booth went to the personal expense (the expense for Chilembwe was not inconsiderable either, for he made a contribution, although small, which would have consumed all the little money he possessed) of inviting Chilembwe on what was, after all, a purely speculative venture, is difficult to discern. It is likely that the reason was twofold. In the first instance, having learned somewhat the lesson regarding the inherent distrust the fact of his being white was likely to generate in black America he no doubt felt it would be of advantage to deploy a black man of like mind to he. Secondly, bearing in mind the almost uniquely authentic relationship that Booth enjoyed with Chilembwe, the missionary no doubt had plans for his protégé that would be advanced by his exposure to the relative sophistication of black society in the U.S.

There is some historical suggestion that this was not Chilembwe’s first foreign junket in the company of Booth. After the Natal fiasco Booth travelled back to Britain in the company of what he described as a young Yao, very likely to have been Chilembwe, but never specifically confirmed as such. On that journey Booth and his companion paused on St. Helena and had the opportunity to visit exiled Zulu leaders who could have done little but confirm to Booth’s companion that the white man’s philanthropic promises contained an inevitable sting of self interest. Thereafter the unnamed Yao travelled with Booth from Liverpool to Glasgow, York and Edinburgh, and possibly to London as well. If this unnamed Yao was indeed Chilembwe, his international experience would already have been significant, and no doubt he would have been extremely impressed with accomplishments of the metropolitan home of the Empire.

By April 1897 the pair were in Washington as Booth renewed acquaintances made on his previous visit and began quickly, alongside Chilembwe, to speak and proselytise his vision of Africa for the African. Booth had by then established many contacts across the race divide, but perhaps the most important initial introduction made form Chilembwe’s point of view was with the South African intellectual and activist John Langalibalele Dube, then precisely the same age as John Chilembwe, but significantly more advanced intellectually and along the road of  political activism.

While almost nothing is known about what transpired during the time that the two spent together, it is possible to surmise that John Chilembwe came very much under the influence of John Dube, and would have emerged from several weeks of close association with a great deal to think about. The three men, Chilembwe, Dube and Booth, were thrust together in Brooklyn as all three were energetically pursuing the same ideal – that of the commencement of independent blacks churches and missions in Africa – but it is not difficult to picture quite quickly that three became a crowd.

John Dube was a Zulu and a scion of the American Zulu Mission (AZM), an institution based in Inanda, north east of Durban, and funded as part of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Thi sbody had been founded in the early part of the century as the first American Missionary organisation. Dube was something of a disciple of the work of Booker T Washington, so although he was moderate in the context of emerging South African race politics, he was without doubt more of a radical then than he would be later, and would most certainly have echoed the warnings of his compatriots that no white man in any field of endeavour could be trusted. Having arrived in the U.S. on a study program at the age of 16 he already had some nine years of exposure to the higher consciousness of black American society. In addition he had a background of study at the highly exclusive Oberlin College in Ohio where he had enjoyed immersion in the college’s respected liberal arts program. He was by 1897 a highly articulate, confident and well connect young native of Africa in whose company John Chilembwe could not but have been overawed.

Dube, of course, would not have been the limit of Chilembwe’s exposure. Chilembwe was in fact abruptly plunged into a wide fraternity of erudite and expansive blacks who embraced him wholeheartedly and would without doubt have built on the theme of anti-white sentiment bearing in mind the slide into violence and distrust that by then the broad reconstruction sentiment had begun. If Booth was ever privy to this he would have had no choice but to nod in agreement, for basically this was his philosophy, and although there might have been some accommodation made for present company, there could never have been any doubt in his mind that this general aura of suspicion included him. The fact also that Booth’s overt determination to celebrate his close links with the black community was greeted often in public places by vituperation and abuse, although it might have vindicated Booth’s personal position, in general it would simply have served to confirm the message that Chilembwe was receiving regarding the mood and attitude of whites.

In the meanwhile, as funds ran low, and as the two men slipped into destitution, Chilembwe began to come under increasing pressure from the black churchmen and activists that he and Booth were in constant contact with to break with the missionary and throw in his lot in with them. The residual loyalty that John Chilembwe felt for Joseph Booth was, of course, very strong. The matter of his original employment, his elevation and work in the mission, his almost total identification with Booth’s cause, the upbringing of his children and the death of his son, would all have served to render the inevitable split as bitter as it could possibly be. However, inevitable it was. Recognising that he was at the limit of his resource it was perhaps Booth himself more than any other who urged Chilembwe to embrace the local black community wherein enormous potential existed for his personal advancement.

It was at a large evangelical gathering in Philadelphia that John Chilembwe broke the news to his mentor. He was now, he said, a man who could walk alone. God had brought him to good friends, and the time had come for the two men to part.

As much as Booth may have exulted at the emerging destiny of his true friend, it was without doubt with bitterness that a man like he, struck low by circumstance; and although filled with good intention and burdened by undue suspicion; would watch his protégé move away into the exclusive protection of a race he himself had sacrificed everything to elevate. This also would have been the case for those who then assumed responsibility for the young African, who all understood and respected Joseph Booth, but understood also that he was not black, he was not one of the sons of Ham, and as with the African Christian Union, it would be to defeat the very purpose of independence of mind and endeavour that any part in the process should be played by one of the enemy.

Chilembwe was thereafter plunged into a university of race radicalism of a kind he could scarce have imaged possible. The Nyasaland Protectorate of Harry Johnston, from the point of view of race tension, could hardly compare to conditions across the board in the United States. As Booth and Chilembwe were on the verge of their separation the Wilmington Insurrection of  November 1889 erupted. Here an elected liberal city government was forced to resign by white supremacists, and in the ensuing violence 22 blacks and white republicans were killed. This was little less than a coup d’etat, and one of the most potent points of focus for the introduction of sweeping Jim Crow laws. Concentrated violence against blacks in all of the southern states, and less concentrated, but equally debilitating violence in the northern states, were a daily reality for blacks. Although the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments outlawed racial discrimination of any sort, practically speaking the gains of the reconstruction period were rapidly being lost as the Union armies retreated from the south, and southern whites reclaimed much of the political exclusivity that had been lost to them by emancipation. Lynching was a constant threat. Segregation affected almost every aspect of life. Poll taxes, literacy tests and property laws, as well as naked intimidation and threat, conspired to disenfranchise whole populations of southern blacks, alongside which the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, with its use of high profile, ritualistic terror, remained a constant fear.

In the face of this, however black political activism was not cowed, but energised, and infused with a powerful sense of outrage and anger. The strategies employed by the black intelligentsia differed not much from the days of slavery when independence was asserted through separate worship. The use of the church and the radical Christian message of equality and redemption to inspire hope in the downtrodden had a familiar ring to Chilembwe. The two main bodies were the powerful African Methodist Episcopal Church and the National Baptist Convention, but alongside these were a host of smaller, less orthodox sects adhering to individual prophets or ‘messiahs’ that flourished all over the south. The raison d΄être for all of these, no matter how large or small, was the same: a reaction against scorn and discrimination in white churches; a means of articulating and disseminating ideas and information in the absence of orthodox political channels; and for the sake of an independent, exclusive social institution for the sake of fellowship and the advancement of status.

As had been the case in Africa, it was the church that was the leading founder of educational institutions, and in the nurturing of educators and as a nursery for future political and social leaders. It goes without saying that the doctrines and attitudes inculcated throughout the black school system contained a strong political elements in what conservative white observers would doubtless have viewed as seditious.

There were many within these organisations whose views on the obligation of freed blacks of the United States to assist in the fight for freedom in Africa echoed Joseph Booth’s, and by extension John Chilembwe’s. By the turn the century black American missionaries were already at work in Sierra Leone, Liberia and South Africa, and of course Bishop Henry McNeal Turner was among a small powerful clique of ecumenical leaders committed to the uplifting of the fatherland. There were those among them, the Baptist Rev. Charles S. Morris being one example, who sought in some way to find meaning in slavery if it could be seen as God’s way to enlighten the few for the benefit of the many. ‘I believe,’ he said, ‘that God is going to put it into the hearts of these black boys and girls in the schools of the south to go with the message to South Africa and West Africa, and vindicate American slavery as far as it can be vindicated by taking across the ocean the stream of life.’[i] The same principal was espoused by Booker T Washington when he wrote:

…when we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face, we must acknowledge that that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of people in any other portion of the globe.[ii]

Washington furthermore sensed that another of the rare blessings of slavery was that it had created a black race divested of tribal affiliations and bonded together as a whole by nothing more or less than skin pigment, and the common experience of slavery. Indeed, of the personalities prominent on the African American stage at that time, Booker T. Washington was among the most illustrious, and it was the opposing polarity between he and William Edward Burghardt DuBois that defined the internal fault dividing opinion on the correct response to white hostility and repression.

Washington, the moderate, accommodationist educator, assumed the position that blacks must first prove themselves to be worthwhile members of s free society before they could reach forth for the higher gifts of society. Washington was born a slave, but freed after the civil war, after which by the force of his own determination he was educated to a high degree. He thereafter set himself the task of educating his people. By equipping the black man to perform the basic functions necessary to society he would by his own hard work and productivity rise by absorption through society. ‘No race,’ he said, ‘that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracised.’[iii]

This was a message of hope. Prove your worth, he said, and society will value you. He was scathing of blacks who sought education merely to liberate themselves from work with their hands, and in particular the many who chose preaching as a soft means of employment. He illustrated this with a story told of a black man labouring in a cotton field one hot Alabama day. The man suddenly stopped working, and looking up at the skies, wiped the sweat off his brow. ‘O Lawd,’ he said, ‘de cotton am so grassy, de work so hard, and de sun so hot dat I b’lieve dis darky am called to preach!’[iv]

The antithesis of Booker T Washington was William DuBois. What the two men had in common was an enduring hatred of racism, but in every other respect they differed. DuBois was a true intellectual ideologue with a breadth of education that Washington could only have dreamed of. In some ways DuBois was precisely the type of black that Washington believed caused great harm to balance of race relations in the United States: an ‘educated Negro, with a high hat, imitation gold eye-glasses, a showy walking-stick, kid gloves, fancy boots, and what-not – in a word, a man who was determined to live by his wits.’[v]

The fault line that divided the two men was principally founded on the famous address delivered to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition on 18 September 1895 by Booker T. Washington. Washington himself described the speech, the first and most important of its kind, as an effort to ‘…say something that would cement the friendship of the races and bring about hearty cooperation between them.’[vi] In doing so he articulated two clear warnings, one to blacks and one whites. The first, to the whites, warned that ignoring the need for development of the blacks in their midst, one third of their population, would necessitate the Negro constituting one third of the ignorance and crime of the south, as opposed to one third of its intelligence and progress. To his own people he warned: ‘The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather that of artificial forcing.’[vii] In other words, to the whites, ignore the aspirations of the black man at your peril, and to the blacks work to achieve those aspirations with fair and honest labour.

DuBois immediately slated the address as the ‘Atlanta Compromise’, seeing in it undue accommodation to an almost exclusively white audience, asserting himself that the southern black man, and indeed across the breadth of the country, had no moral obligation to consolidate his economic position, much less illustrate his economic worth, before demanding the full privileges of American citizenship. While Booker T. Washington was instrumental in the founding and development of such august institutions as the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a facility aimed principally at the provision of a practical, industrial education for black youth, DuBois directed his energies into such organisations as the 1896 National Association of Coloured Men, the 1897 American Negro Academy, and the 1899 Afro-American Council, all dedicated to the use of all available channels, political, social, cultural and economic, to achieve full integration of the black community into American life. DuBois was, in addition to a scholar of a high calibre, and author, poet, philosopher and publisher, but above all one of the first and most vocal pan-Africanists, a cause to which he dedicated almost the entirety of his long life.

How much all of this affected John Chilembwe’s outlook as he began to immerse himself in African American society is impossible to determine, other than to say it is doubtful that the effect was nil. Probably he took much from both, and much also from the protest underway at that time against the Spanish American War, which found DuBois and his militant camp, including writer and social commentator Mark Twain, at the forefront of the Anti-Imperialist League. This organisation was founded in 1898 and was aimed principally at highlighting objections to the United States annexation of the Philippines.

Chilembwe entered higher education thanks to the support and patronage of two prominent local black Baptists, Dr. William Garnett Jordan, secretary of the black National Baptist Convention, and more directly in terms of funds and support, of William W. Brown, local church pastor and influential activist and thinker. The former was introduced to Chilembwe by Joseph Booth, and the latter by Garnett Jordan in search of a means to provide the funding for Chilembwe’s education.

That education was conducted at the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in the unfortunately named town of Lynchburg Virginia, an institution recently founded by the Virginia Baptist State Convention, and offering a style of instruction more intensely academic than Chilembwe had hitherto been accustomed, and moreover underpinned by a degree of race zealotry that would not have served to dilute any of the influences that Chilembwe would lately have been subjected to.

The details of Chilembwe’s three year period at the Virginia College are very limited, he himself offering only the simplest of description in a published letter that more than anything illustrated the fact that Lynchburg and the United States in general did not do very much to advance his command of English. ‘In 1893 Chilembwe was converted to Christianity,’ he wrote, ‘…and after his confession he was inspired t visit civilised countrys (sic), then he took notion of crossing the deep deep mighty ocean. He had travelled through England and America considerably, and to the conclusion of his travelling he was burned with a great desire for Education though it was little deflecluty (sic) on his part having no money to pay for his instruction. Yet he trusted to God that He will help to get his erudition. Doubtless the merciful Creator had provided friends who sent him into Seminary, and after attended the College few years he was ordained to ministry of the Gospel. Last year he was emit under the auspices of the National Baptist Convention of America to labour amongst his benighted race.’[viii]

The only insights into the period other than those provided by himself were penned by fellow student Anne Spencer, later a poet and activist deeply involved in the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. She recalled a slight, neatly presented, clean, but somewhat earnest and pensive character, wholly devoted to his Christian observances. Chilembwe at that time, undoubtedly in response to a sense of inferiority inspired by the company of fellow blacks long imbued with white manners and customs, who tended to look down on him as provincial at best, and uncivilised at worst, used the Yao prefix of Che before his name. This meant little more than Mister, or Esquire, but which he himself explained as meaning Prince, suggesting his desire to emphasise his nobility of birth.

By 1900 Chilembwe was back in Nyasaland, and in 1901, apparently in absentia, he was awarded, according to the records of the seminary, A.B. and B.D. degrees, inspiring a certain strain of ire in Joseph Booth, who’s recollection of the return of his erstwhile protégé was recorded thus: ‘[Chilembwe] …was then for two years put in a Negro college in west Virginia; after which he returned as a full-blown, round-collared, long coated ‘Reverend’ of the regulation type[ix]

There was little love betrayed by this comment, as Booth it seems had not totally lost the inherent white abhorrence for black achievement, common throughout the colonies, and defined adroitly by Northern Rhodesian district administrator and colonial author Kenneth Bradley: ‘They [whites] quite sincerely thought,’ Bradley wrote, ‘that reading and writing would spread dangerous ideas, upset tribal and family disciplines, teach people about the rights of the individual, as we have since come to call them, and thus breed a nasty race of rebels. They would become bad Africans trying to be bogus Europeans, belonging to neither their own people nor to ours.’[x]

While the bedrock of native resistance was being formed by the persistent agitation of Joseph Booth and the political education of John Chilembwe  much was underway in the white settler community to consolidate and unify the occupation of the landscape. Following the examination of land ownership and distribution on the highlands most of the major landowners such as Eugene  Sharrer, John Buchanan and Alexander Low Bruce were confirmed in their ownership, but thanks to the prohibitive price that Harry Johnston had placed on land in the protectorate, they found themselves stuck with more land than they had capital or labour to utilise, leading most to employ managers to establish small estates leaving the bulk of the land unutilised.

Alexander Low Bruce died in November 1893 soon after having appointed and despatched two men to Nyasaland to commence the development of his two principal landholdings. These were William Jervis Livingstone of the Isle of Lismore, a distant relation to the branch of the Livingstone family made famous by the missionary doctor, and a certain D.B. Ritchie. While Ritchie was charged with the management of the Likulezi Estate on Mount Mulanje, it was W.J. Livingstone whose duty it was to take control of the principal estate of Magomero in the Chiradzulu District.

In the meanwhile the heirs to the estate of Alexander Low Bruce, his two sons David Livingstone Bruce and Alexander Livingstone Bruce, assumed the ownership of the land, as stated in the Will & Testament of the late A.L. Bruce, ‘…in the hope and expectation that they will take an interest in the opening up of Africa to Christianity and Commerce on the lines laid down by their grandfather the late David Livingstone.’[xi]

W.J. Livingstone arrived with an equal burden of implied history and tradition on his shoulders. He carried instructions to name the new estate Magomero in specific reference to the labours and deaths of, not only his distant relative, but also the by then mythic men of the first Universities Mission to Central Africa who has sought in an early generation to bring commerce, Christianity, law order and civilisation to the Shire Highlands, and had been overwhelmed by the dark forces of nature and mankind. It is difficult to say how much of this burden Livingstone felt, for he was a practical man, and although not precisely a simple man, certainly not one gifted with a superior intellect, and certainly not one gifted with any particular feeling. He was not particularly impressive in stature, but had about him an unsmiling and resilient aspect, and a strength of purpose that did not suggest much in the way of spiritual inspiration. He was perhaps the more commercial of the two pillars of David Livingstone’s philosophy, the Christian having been tried already, and found to be wanting.

What Livingstone found on his arrival was a substantial block of uninhabited countryside measuring some 2000km² and still largely covered in woodland and forest. Its ostensible headquarters were situated overlooking the road from Blantyre to Zomba some 13km from the original site of Chibaba’s village.  There Livingstone began by building a modest brick bungalow before setting about the business of preparing the land. It had been John Buchanan some years earlier who had pioneered the planting of coffee, and for a time this seemed the obvious option for many of the novice planters beginning the thankless business of testing the productivity of unknown soil. With typical industry W.J. Livingstone had by 1895 planted out 70 000 seedlings along with accompanying Pride of India trees interspersed as future shade which by local standards was progressive, suggesting again Livingstone’s thoughtful approach to the matter of estate planning on the highlands. By the early 1898, as Booth and Chilembwe were preparing to embark for Liverpool and the United States, 260 acres of the Magomero Estate were under coffee, with 100 acres already producing.

All in all, however, coffee production on the Highlands, with the exception of the Mount Mulanje region where the crop succeeded only after much trial and error, did not prove to be a success. A large number of planters proceeded in an unschooled and thoughtless way, precipitating quite a few financial catastrophe, but even Livingstone’s considered approach on the Magomero estate eventually floundered, causing the resourceful manager to turn his mind in the direction of alternatives. Along with a hasty infusion of cash crops such as maize to fend of the closures affecting many of his neighbours, Livingstone revitalised the original Livingstonian belief that it was in cotton that future of the highlands lay. This, however, brought to the fore the matter that would soon become the principal and most divisive issue on the highlands, and indeed throughout Nyasaland: labour.

The strategy of Hut Tax had been successful to some degree in stimulating interest in the cash economy among natives of the protectorate, but it did not in any meaningful sense move large numbers of people in the direction of permanent labour. In the main it succeeded in generating one month’s work per man per year, which defeated any efforts to produce a skilled or semi-skilled labour force, and moreover there existed a surplus of labour during the dry season when labour demands were low, and a shortage of labour in the wet season, when demand was high, but when individuals usually were preoccupied in preparing and tending their own gardens and fields. Moreover there were options other than agricultural labour to raise the cash necessary to pay taxes. An increasing flow of Nyasa manpower was moving west to the Copperbelt where wages were higher, and south to Southern Rhodesia or South Africa where they were higher still. Also, as the two principal settlements of Blantyre and Zomba grew, they evolved into markets for a variety of home grown agricultural products, which also tended to free those settling on crown land from the obligation to engage in cash labour in order to satisfy their consumer needs and to pay taxes.

For  a time the vacuum was filled by individuals from the undeveloped north drifting south seeking employment, but their attendance was also erratic, and their migrant status created a need for a housing infrastructure that the planters were unwilling to provide. The migrants also drove up the demand for produce which in turn discouraged local natives from presenting themselves for work. It was an altogether unsatisfactory situation.

The authorities attempted to thwart the growing financial independence of the natives, and to force them into commercial labour by introducing a Labour Certificate that had to be signed by a white employer, and would attract the penalty of double taxation if an individual chose not to work for a European. In the meanwhile the growing industrialisation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia, as well as the perennial attraction of the gold mines of the Witwatersrand, was driving labour south by the thousand, rending the situation hopeless for Nyasaland planters no matter what ingenious device of coercion was applied.

It was the hapless Portuguese with their own labour problems who inadvertently provided relief. If the British in Nyasaland, and indeed throughout most of British Africa, applied Hut Tax as a coercive means of generating labour, it was benign system compared to the chibalo practice of forced labour growing increasing common in Moçambique. The end of the 19th century, and the drive by Moçambique to prove in fact its effective occupation of awakened a belated period of investment in the country that in turn excited an accelerated demand for labour. An 1899 government commission tasked with analysing the prospects for development in the colony concluded rather succinctly that: ‘Our tropical Africa will not grow without Africans. The capital needed to exploit it, and it so needs to be exploited, lies in the procurement of labour for exploitation…and this labour, given the circumstances, will never be supplied by European immigrants.’[xii]

Therefore the usual strategy of tax laws were put in place, but the Moçambiquean natives proved resourceful in avoiding taxes, while likewise flooding west and south to the lucrative labour markets of South Africa and Rhodesia, and by the production and sale of agricultural produce by their own efforts. The colonial state responded to this by strangling the producer prices of native agricultural commodities and by restricting the activities of the Indian merchants who had traditionally supplied the market. When this still did not wholly satisfy growing local commercial labour requirements, the Moçambiquean authorities resorted to simple and undisguised coercion. The system was locally known as Chibalo, and was rationalise in the 1899 native labour code as Article One, which read thus:

All native inhabitants of the Portuguese overseas are subject to the moral and legal obligations to seek to acquire through work those things which they lack to subsist and to improve their own social conditions. They have full liberty to choose the means through which to comply with this obligation, but if they do not comply in some way, the public authorities may force them to comply.[xiii]

Local administrators were allowed complete discretion to decide who was idle, which effectively brought into being a system of forced labour that was subject to wholesale abuse and moreover the subject of widespread corruption on the part of local chefes de posto who, in collusion with local estate owners, had the power to bond individuals, men and women, to long period of unpaid labour under any conditions, and virtually to any application. The theoretical limit for chibalo was six months, but this meant nothing, and terms of labour could extent beyond a year, with villagers so bonded entitled to neither food nor lodging, protected by no viable law, and subject to repeated abuse.

Needless to say, and in particular after the liberation of the Shiré Highlands from the slave trade, the Nyasaland protectorate became a haven for natives of Moçambique fleeing the many abuses they were subject to in their home regions. These the Nyasaland authorities initially termed  ‘Anguru’, although most where of the Lomwe language group. They were greeted by the Resident at Mulanje as they crossed the border, who handed each a one year tax exemption certificate, and directed them to present themselves to one or other of the white landowners for employment. Without land, and with no invitation or right to settle on crown land, and in a region of the interior with a bourgeoning population, most of the incoming Moçambiqueans did precisely that.

The great advantage to the white employers of this state of affairs was that they had a significant surplus of land at their disposal, and in offering this land to vulnerable immigrants they were ensuring for themselves a captive labour force. The term used to describe the arrangement by which the incoming immigrants agreed to work for their white landlords was thangata. On the surface this had similar implication to chibalo, but was different in one key way. The term thangata originated in a communal context as the practice of individuals and communities providing free labour in expectation of later reciprocation or for the greater good of the community. It was initially in the Belgian Congo that the term was manipulated to imply a labour obligation to the state or administration in the form of public works, and in Nyasaland it evolved to imply the labour obligation owed to a landowner by landless tenants occupying delimited villages.

In 1904 legislation was passed to regulated the system that stated that each tenant was entitled to eight acres of land in exchange for one months labour per annum, with another month in lieu of hut tax. This was in effect eight acres of land for two months labour, but since the signature of a planter or his overseer were required on an individual’s tax certificate to prove the settlement of tax, this could be manipulated to a considerable degree, at times to the extent of squeezing six month worth of labour a year out of constrained individuals. Furthermore labour could be levied during the rainy season, and individuals who chose to migrate south to sell their labour on the mines and farms of Nyasalands neighbours would not only automatically loose their claim to any land, but would loose their right to reside in Nyasaland.

J.W. Livingstone was not slow to respond to the opportunities presented by this and set about establishing new villages to which he made a point of appointing Yao headmen who were veterans of the Kings African Rifles who he paid to actively seek out settlers among the ‘Anguru’ immigrants. From a total in the early 1890s of 40 huts on the entire 169 000 acres, Livingstone built the total up by outbreak of WWI to nearly 5 000 huts providing for on average a labour force of over 3 000 individuals per month working for eight months a year.

For Livingstone and the Bruce Trust this was a cheap and altogether satisfactory arrangement, and indeed for the tenant it was too. Initially, with such limited development on the land, the demands made on them were minimal. So little cash was being generated that for some time the hut tax was collected in millet and handed over to the collectors in lieu of cash. All that could be said to be of general inconvenience was the British assumption of a patrilineal system by affording tenancy to men when it was in fact women who traditionally ‘owned’ the villages. It was also a fact the hut tax inhibited the usual village system of a compound wherein several round huts were build, each occupied by an individual adult, and encircled by a fence that defined a household. Bigger guts were build, often of a square construction, in which many people lived. There was also no scope for specific skills, which tended to reduce all men to the level of labourers.

Livingstone, however, was pioneering the potential of the Shiré Highlands to produce cotton. By 1903 he had produced acceptable samples of Egyptian cotton grown on Magomero that he sent to the African Lakes Corporation for an indication of the marketability of the crop. It was valued at 6d per lb., indicating potential for profit, news that was greeted with enthusiasm from a body of planters searching for an alternative to the failed coffee crop and tobacco that could not at that stage compete on the world market with the United States.

The impetus for a rapid re-evaluation of cotton as the panacea for the economic stagnation of the highlands came with this and the receipt of a letter from South Africa by Alfred Sharpe, who had by then succeeded Johnston as Commissioner, proposing the export of 10 000 workers to the gold mines in exchange for £120 000 which was money sorely needed, but which would also effectively seal the fate of the planter community on the Shiré Highlands. W.J. Livingstone was at the forefront of the movement, and by 1905, through a process of hybridisation and experimentation, had developed a variety he named  Nyasaland upland. Three years later he had put 1 000 acres of Magomero under cotton. For the first time the estate was profitably producing a cash crop for export, and in the period leading up to WWI Livingstone’s seed was in wide use on commercial estates across the highlands and was being distributed to native growers by the British Cotton Growers Association for cultivation as a cash crop. It was on Likulezi estate under the management of D.B. Ritchie that cotton was brought in from outside native growers and processed on a ginnery.

Magomero quickly grew to the extent that several European assistants were employed and Alexander L. Bruce himself arrived to handle the financial affairs of the estate. Among those who joined the company was Duncan MacCormick, like Livingstone a native of the Western Isles, and who assisted his compatriot in the day to day running of the estate. The rush to expand, however, brought to bear the full weight of Thangata on the backs of the native tenants.


[i] 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), p99

[ii] 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,) p16

[iii] Ibid. p223

[iv] Ibid. p128

[v] Ibid. p119

[vi] Ibid. p217

[vii] Ibid. p223

[viii] 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), 115/116

[ix] Ibid. p93

[x] Bradley, Kenneth. Once a District Officer, (Macmillan, London, 1966), p40

[xi] White, Landeg. Magomero: Portrait of an African Village, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987), p 82

[xii] Isaacman, Allen & Barbara. Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900-1982 (Westview Press, Boulder Co., 1983), p 32

[xiii] Ibid. 34

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