A powerful statute of an African freedom fighter has been short-listed for Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. The artwork Antelope by Malawi-born artist, author and academic Professor Samson Kambalu features John Chilembwe, who lead a rebellion in 1915 against colonialists, and is recognised today as one of Malawi’s most important historical figures.
“On the evening of Saturday 23 January 1915, John Chilembwe fought his way into Malawi folklore. The US-educated Baptist preacher led a ferocious attack on one of the large farming estates run by the country’s British colonial masters, an act of reckless and violent rebellion by a man now regarded by many as one of the first heroes of African nationalism. Speaking in advance of the rebellion, he urged his supporters to ‘strike a blow and die, for our blood will surely mean something at last.’ This was the only way, he declared, ‘to show the white man that the treatment they are treating our men and women was most bad and we have determined to strike a first and a last blow, and then all die by the heavy storm of the white men’s army.’
Magomero estate, like all the large, white-owned plantations that had sprung up in southern Malawi since the 1880s, was dependent on local labour, including thousands of Lomwe refugees who had fled neighbouring Mozambique, where the Portuguese had imposed a harsh forced labour regime.
Malawians were forced to live and work on the European plantations, paying rent – thangata – on their modest huts, not with money, but with their labour. The families had no security of tenure, and if any man dared to look for work elsewhere, they faced eviction. The thangata system, as it became known, was regarded by many Africans as nothing more than slavery.
Magomero estate was run by Alexander Livingstone Bruce, the grandson of David Livingstone, who only a few decades previously had done much to open up Malawi to the outside world, largely in a spirit of friendship. But it was another Livingstone – William Jervis, thought to be a distant relative of the missionary explorer – who was brutally murdered by Chilembwe and his small band of men on that fateful evening, which also saw an assault on the headquarters of the African Lakes Company in Blantyre.
During the Magomero attack, William Livingstone was decapitated, and the following morning John Chilembwe preached a sermon with his victim’s head on a pole as a backdrop to his homily. The rebellion was short-lived. Within a fortnight, 36 rebels had been captured, convicted and executed, with many more, including Chilembwe, killed by security forces while on the run. Three Europeans died, including Livingstone, but the legacy of the Chilembwe Rising lives on.
‘Chilembwe’s was the first Central African resistance to European control which looked to the future, not to the past,’ wrote George Shepperson and Thomas Price, authors of the major work on the rising, Independent African. It was aimed at ‘founding a nation rather… than restoring the fortunes of the tribes,’ was their conclusion.
Today, 15 January is a public holiday in Malawi, in honour of John Chilembwe. His face is on the country’s largest banknote (MK 2,000), and he is revered as one of the country’s few national heroes.
Shocking though the uprising was, the British colonial government studiously ignored Malawian demands for liberation, and it was to be a further 49 years before Malawi finally gained its independence in 1964. The road to freedom was a rocky one, particularly when, in 1953, the British unilaterally created the Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland, which united Malawi – against its people’s will – with Zimbabwe and Zambia. The establishment of the hated Federation unleashed a mass political movement, strengthening the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) which had been established in 1943.”