1915: a middle-aged man in his mid-forties stands amongst a group of his loyal followers. They are about 200. Perhaps, it is a chilly rainy night with the silence of a graveyard surrounding the church.
“The white man has sat on us for so long,” declares the tall man with obviously a mild temper. “We need to do something, we need to act. We must send him packing from our land.”
Possibly, the men listening to him shake their heads in unison. Others are yet to comprehend what is driving the man of God in front of them for they have known him as a quiet man for a long time.
Thus, the story of John Chilembwe’s rebellion begins, in the January of 1915, years long before the wind of freedom and change begins to sweep in the 1960s. Many years before the bells of freedom begin to ring on the African continent.
John Chilembwe, writes Robert I. Rotberg in a 2005 Harvard Magazine article, was not a radical man such that nobody could expect him to stage a rebellion. He appeared, like most Africans then, satisfied and contented with the little he got from the white masters. After all, being a Christian minister meant he was better treated than the Africans working on the plantations.
However, prior to the 1915 uprising, Chilembwe had shown signs of a growing discontent with the treatment of Africans on the hands of white settlers. A lot of factors would later emerge as the causes of his anger and consequent hatred for the whites. Nevertheless, his acquaintance with Joseph Booth – a radical missionary who greatly opposed segregation and preached equality for all races – played a great role in shaping Chilembwe.
In 1897, Booth travelled with his servant who had showed a keen interest in learning reading and writing, Chilembwe, to America. In the same year, Chilembwe was enrolled at the Virginia Theological College in America where he finished off in 1900 and came back to Nyasaland (Now Malawi) and established his Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) at Mbombwe in Chiradzulu.
At Virginia Theological College, Chilembwe came into contact with the teachings, biographies and stories of slave trade abolitionists and other pan-Africanists such as Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and John Brown. Such stories appear to have silently and secretly inspired Chilembwe though he managed to conceal that inspiration.
For all intents, at his PIM church Chilembwe was not the radical preacher who – on every Sunday – was on the pulpit denouncing the white man or labeling names. Chilembwe was that Pastor who implored his flock to live a life of self-reliance. His teachings mainly focused on getting people away from such immoral practices as beer drinking, fornication among others and then develop a hardworking spirit. He wanted, in other words, his Christians to practice Christianity as it is and live a life that would astound the white man for it was a common belief that the African was not a capable individual.
True to this, Chilembwe’s attire modeled that of the Britons resident in Malawi then. He was usually spotted in a three-piece suit with a bow tie, a code of dressing that even intimidated the plantation owners in whose mind the African was no lesser no more than a half human being or worse than that.
Chilembwe’s moderate preaching, however, was not to live for long. In less than two decades, Chilembwe’s approach and perception to issues had changed and, in a way, greatly altered. Chilembwe, the revered peaceful figure amongst his followers, increasingly became angry and the message changed in his sermons – this was prior to the rebellion in 1915.
One of the reasons underlying Chilembwe’s change, it is said, was the conscription of African men to fight against the Germans in Tanganyika (modern day Tanzania) in the First World War. To this effect, Chilembwe wrote a letter that was published in the press denouncing the practice of taking African men ‘to fight in wars so that they die and leave behind poor widows and orphans’. He took the same message to the pulpit. Such a daring attempt brought him into a conflict with one of the plantation owners, William Jervis Livingstone who is believed to have been a cousin to Dr. David Livingstone.
Chilembwe’s resentment was not fomented by one factor only. A drought in 1913 in Mozambique had seen Africans flocking from the Portuguese colony then to Nyasaland where Chiradzulu, the place that had Chilembwe’s PIM, was one of the areas hard hit. The movement of the Mozambicans into Nyasaland meant that there was to be an increase in the pressure on land. However, there was a lot of land on the plantations and, wishfully then, Chilembwe thought the plantation owners would leave some land to the immigrants.
Quite to the dismay of Chilembwe, Livingstone did not allow the Mozambicans into his vast plantation. He let them scramble with Africans, especially members of Chilembwe church, for the little land they had. This kind of racism coupled with the exploitation that was being practiced on the plantations for all the laborers at the hands of Livingstone created a deep hatred in Chilembwe not only for Livingstone but all the whites in Nyasaland.
Thus, the genesis of his unnerving messages to the white man: denouncing him and making pronouncements on him that were anything but respectful. They were such sermons that moved Livingstone to act: under the guise of being a landlord, he saw to it that Chilembwe’s PIM churches and schools were burned down for they stood on ‘his’ land.
The burning down of his institutions coupled with his growing indignation for the white man and the sad events in his life that included the death of his only daughter, Emma, and his worsening health condition as he was asthmatic, left Chilembwe with a little choice outside fighting the white man. Somehow, still more, Chilembwe knew that his efforts were not going to achieve success then.
“Let us strike a blow and then die, for our blood will surely mean something at last,” record has it that Chilembwe said before executing his plans. The plans that after so many days of planning and agreeing with his followers – intensely in the wet month of January in 1915 – finally came into reality on January 23 the same year.
On the said date, Chilembwe’s followers are believed to have attacked in the cover of the night at white settlers living near. On top of the list was William Jervis Livingstone whom they stabbed to death and later beheaded before carrying the head with them to Chilembwe’s church. Three settlers were killed that night, all men. On Chilembwe’s instructions, all children and women were spared, done no any kind of physical harm.
In the course of that attack, houses were burned down as other Africans loyal to their white masters were either harmed or downright killed.
The following day, an attack at the armory store in the commercial city of Blantyre was well defeated by the whites where some of Chilembwe’s followers were apprehended and consequently, killed with their bodies left for public view to deter other Africans. Only three guns and a few rounds of ammunition were sourced from the store.
It is said that the uprising had initially been planned to spread to some other parts of Nyasaland but due to communication problems it had failed. In Ntcheu it is alleged that there also was a small dramatic uprising though it had no major effect.
After the uprising, it is believed, Chilembwe discovered that his mission had not been that successful and thus told his men to disperse from the mission premises before the white man attacked.
In a strange fashion, so writes Rotberg, an unarmed Chilembwe left for Mozambique wearing a dark blue coat, a stripped pajama jacket over a colored shirt, and gray flannel trousers. It is argued that he was pursued by British soldiers who cornered him and shot him dead on February 3, 1915 before he had crossed over into Mozambique. Skeptics, however, challenge that Chilembwe was never killed by the Britons otherwise they could have treated him the Jervis Livingstone way: behead him, carry his head as a trophy and place it at some visible place for all eyes to see – after all, it is said that there was a price placed on his head.
That then, ends the story of John Chilembwe, the son of a Yao father and a Nyanja mother. The man who was born in 1871 and lived through a certain kind of hatred preached by white settlers who later received another amount of hatred themselves from Chilembwe.