Malawi: Invasions from all sides - the Swahili to the British (1800-1891)

Updated February 2010

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the Ngonde Kyungu rulers were able to consolidate and extend their power over the indigenous clans that they had conquered, partly by giving them a greater measure of administrative authority in the more centralized kingdom (Kalinga 1984, 95, 96). The kingdom became more integrated, the legitimacy of the Kyungus was strengthened and tribute flowed to the capital at Mbande (Kalinga 1984, 95, 96). The regional prestige of the polity was demonstrated in the early 1840s when Ngonde princes were able to assembly a coalition of regional polities to curb the expansion of the Bemba from the west (Kalinga 1984, 96). However, the economic prosperity of the kingdom led to the decline of royal power after the death of the able Kyungu Mwangonde in about 1839 as the Royal Council reasserted itself by electing weak men to the throne, while the regional princes, supported by the powerful cattle owning class, resisted the Council by withholding tribute and usurping control over trade (Kalinga 1984, 96).

The political fragmentation of the Maravi chiefdoms in the course of the 18th century created a power vacuum that was exploited by new migrants who established new polities in the region. The first of these new comers were the Swahili who followed the trading routes across Lake Malawi pioneered by ivory hunter and traders such as the lowoka, whom they displaced as middle-men in the expanding ivory trade with the coast (Langworthy 1971, 579, 580; Wright & Lary 1971, 562). The political power of the Swahili traders was based on their access to firearms and the recruitment of mercenaries who enabled them to establish indirect rule over the commercial territories they staked out for themselves (Wright & Lary 1971, 550). Of particular importance was the trading post founded near Nkhotakota in central Malawi among the Chewa descendants of the Maravi in about 1840 by Salim bin Abdullah that, through wealth accumulation and diplomacy, was transformed by him into the Sultanate of Marimba which dominated the local chiefdoms and became a centre for the diffusion of Islam until 1895 (Bone 1982, 126, 127; Wright & Lary 1971, 562).

As the 19th century progressed the trade in slaves became an increasingly important aspect of Swahili trade with the coast, with disastrous consequences for the communities subjected to slave raids, and it led to the transformation of relations of wealth and power within and between the various states and communities (Kalinga 1983, 56; Langworthy 1971, 580). The Swahili ignored the authorities and traded directly with their subjects, undermining their power in many regions, and kidnappings of fellow villagers and raids on neighbours to supply slaves to the traders for self-enrichment became common (Langworthy 1971, 581). Langworthy (1971, 582) observed that: "The decline in the authority of a chief because of the slave trade with the Swahili led to anarchy, chaos, fear, increased charges of sorcery, and increased alienation from the chief, who no longer was able or willing to perform services". On the other hand some polities, such as that on Mkanda, flourished as the result of large scale raiding and trading activities (Langworthy 1971, 582).

Matters were further complicated when in 1835 the Ngoni, made up of a core of Ndwande refugees fleeing the expanding Zulu kingdom in south eastern South Africa, crossed the Zambezi River and, using their superior military technology and organization, engaged in widespread raids on their neighbours such as the Chewa of southern Malawi (Rangeley 1966; Stuart 1979, 51). Succession disputes after the death of their leader Zwangendaba in 1848 led to their fragmentation into several small chiefdoms scattered across Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania (Rangeley 1966). They incorporated the conquered peoples into their structures and engaged in raids on their neighbours for cattle and for people to assimilate into their militaristic societies (Rangeley 1966). The Ngonde kingdoms alone were strong enough to defeat and repel the Ngoni in early 1840s, but even there they remained a constant threat (Kalinga 1984, 96). In the centre and south, however, as Langworthy (1971, 582) notes: "Between 1860 and 1885, almost all Chewa chiefs were defeated by the Ngoni and forced to flee to Mwase Kasungu, Jumbe, or to inaccessible refuge places on mountains or in swamps. Other Chewa chiefs joined the Ngoni". The Chewa in central Malawi particular were subjugated by them, but all parts of the country were subjected to their invasions and raids (Langworthy 1971, 582; Wright & Lary 1971, 563).

The activities of the Swahili and the Ngoni were mutually exclusive and brought them into conflict with one another as they struggled for control over people and territory, resulting in the Ngini suppressing trade within the areas they controlled and the Swahili fermenting and supporting rebellion amongst Ngoni subjects through the supply of guns by trade (Langworthy 1971, 591, 592). Over the long run, however, the Ngoni proved too few in numbers and to alien in culture for them to be able to impose their culture on their subjects, and as they settled down from raiding and adopted agriculture they increasingly adopted the language and culture of their subjects (Stuart 1979, 51).

The weakness of the Chewa, as a result of the progressive disintegration of the Maravi polities, saw the infiltration of their territories by the Yao from their Rovuma homeland in Mozambique (Alpers 1969, 405; Bone 1982, 128). Middlemen in the ivory trade between the Maravis and the Swahili settlements on the Indian Ocean coast in the 18th century, they settled in small groups in the highlands of southern Malawi from about the 1830s onwards amongst the Chewa, to whom they were culturally related, pushed by Lolo/Makua raids from the south (Alpers 1969, 405, 406; Northrup 1985, 60, 67). In the early 1860s Yao began to move into the highlands in large numbers, driven to raiding their Chewa neighbours by a severe famine and attracted by Chewa political and military weakness, where they resumed their trade in ivory and, increasingly also, slaves (Northrup 1985, 65, 66, 68). The monopolisation of the ivory trade by Yao chiefs in the 18th century, and that of slaves in the 19th, led to the centralization of wealth and military power in their hands that facilitated the conquest of the Chewa (Alpers 1969, 410-13).

The rise of the trader-chiefs, and the insecurity in the countryside as a result of slave raids, stimulated the development of towns around their seats of activity (Alpers 1969, 417, 418). These in turn, under the influence of the settlements on the coast, facilitated the adoption of Swahili culture (such as dress), technology (such as dhow building) and literacy amongst the Yao (Alpers 1969, 419). The cultural similarities between the Yao and their Chewa subjects enabled their mutual assimilation to one another, especially the adoption of the Yao language by many Chewa and the cooption of Chewa chiefs into Yao political structures (Northrup 1985, 70; Stuart 1979, 51). The slow spread of Islam amongst the Yao, through the influence of Swahili scribes and traders at the courts of Yao chiefs, proceeded from the top with the conversion of the chiefs themselves in the 1870s and 1880s (Alpers 1969, 420; Bone 1982, 128).

On leaving the Shire Valley for the coast 1861 David Livingstone left behind a small group of retainers that he had recruited in Barotseland the previous year who elected to settle in the area (Northrup 1985, 71; McCracken 2008, 65). Armed with firearms and a knowledge of military tactics and strategy, and with the support of the local chief on whose land they settled, the small group of interlopers raided their neighbours and passing slave caravans and, combining ruthlessness against their opponents with giving shelter to the weak, they took advantages of the prevailing drought and the disarray caused by the Yao incursions to establish mastery over the middle parts of the valley (Northrup 1985, 60, 71-74). Access to guns also provided the means to hunt ivory for trade by which they could buy more ordinance and other goods (Northrup 1985, 73, 74; McCracken 2008, 65). By the middle of the 1860s they had eliminated their opponents and established the Kololo polity that was to endure until the establishment of British rule (Northrup 1985, 73, 74; McCracken 2008, 65). Chewa resistance to these invasions from all sides was rallied by the Mwase Kasungu chiefdom which established control over key trade routes and warded off Ngoni raids through diplomatic initiatives with the Swahili and the Portuguese (Page 1980, 171,172). The chiefdom provided refuge for those of the south and a focal point for the retention of cultural and religious forms elsewhere, particularly the nyau secret societies, which enabled the maintenance of Chewa identity in the 19th century and beyond despite all (Page 1980, 171,172).

Despite Livingstone's lack of success his books inspired High Church Anglicans to form the Universities' Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) that eventually, after an abortive attempt at Magomero in 1861, founded a mission station amongst the Nyanja on the eastern shore of Lake Malawi in 1885 (Stuart 1979, 51; McCracken 2008, 50, 53, 54). They were, however, beaten to the post by the Free Church of Scotland's mission established at Cape Maclear on southern Lake Malawi in 1875 but the mission was moved to Bandawe in the north in 1882 and finally relocated inland to Livingstonia in 1894 (Adam Matthew Publications Undated; Rotberg 1966, 6, 7). In 1875 the established Church of Scotland founded a mission of its own at Blantyre (Ross & Thompson 2009, 14; Rotberg 1966, 6, 7). A Dutch Reformed Church Mission (DRCM) from the Cape Colony was founded in 1889 in central Malawi amongst the Ngoni and their Chewa subjects and over the next few years missions were planted by a plethora of Protestant denominations (Lamba 1984, 375; Rotberg 1966, 8). Only in 1902 were the White Fathers able to establish the first successful Catholic mission at Mua after being forced to abandon their mission established at Mponda in 1891 as a result of jurisdictional conflict between the British and the Portuguese, but though late starters they were well funded and expanded rapidly across the country (Turnbull 2002, 12; Lamba 1984, 382).

Along with the conversion of the indigenous peoples to Christianity the priorities of the missionaries included the suppression of the slave trade and the extension of literacy and education, so that each church developed a network of schools as rapidly as resources permitted (Lamba 1984, 375, 377; Stuart 1979, 55, 56). Despite a common emphasis on extending "Christianity, commerce and civilisation" to the natives the missions differed in their approach: The UMCA and the Catholics focused on Christianising a peasant culture while the reformed churches attempted a higher degree of acculturation to late 19th century European norms and behaviour, the Catholics scandalized the Protestants with their tolerance for dancing and alcohol use and differences between the Presbyterians and the DRCM over the purpose of education (Stuart 1979, 52; Lamba 1984, 377, 379, 383). The DRCM wished to produce literate peasants and unskilled labourers subordinated to White society while the Presbyterians aimed at the assimilation of Black Christians to White society as equals (Stuart 1979, 52; Lamba 1984, 377, 379, 383).

On the heels of the first missionaries followed White traders and settlers who, from the 1870s onwards, began to acquire land from local chiefs (Fetter 1982, 82). By imposing forms of land ownership alien and incomprehensible to the chiefs Europeans were able to alienate large amounts of land and mining concessions in a very short period of time (Pachai 1973, 682). By 1891 Europeans claimed title to 15% of the land area of Malawi including the bulk of the most fertile, well watered and densely settled parts of the territory, the Shire Highlands in the south (Pachai 1973, 683). The willingness of the chiefs to allow European to utilize the land was predicated on two fundamental misunderstandings, namely that the usage rights did not imply ownership rights, which in customary law were inalienable, and that in exchange British protection from the endemic violence would be forthcoming (Kandawire 1977, 187). Since much of the land had its own inhabitants the settlers defined these as "tenants" who were required to pay "rent", not in cash or kind, but in the labour required to develop the incipient tobacco and cotton exporting enterprises; drawing on a word used of labour tribute traditionally given to chiefs in exchange for the religious, social economic and political services they rendered to their subjects, this new system of labour servitude was legitimated by the term thangata (Newbury 1980, 107; Page 1978, 87).

In the Ngonde Kyungu kingdom of the north the decentralizing tendencies described above led to a situation where the regional princes were virtually autonomous, paying little more than lip service to the monarchy by the mid 1880s, their power being founded on control of northern trade routes (Kalinga 1984, 98). The Ngonde were threatened from the west by the expansion of the Nyakyusa and the south by the Ngoni that had settled in the Kasito valley and who made periodic raids to extract cattle tribute from them (Kalinga 1980, 211). In around 1879 the Ngonde princes took advantage of the rebellion of the warlike Henga-Kamanga, Ngoni subjects, to settle the Henga-Kamanga on the northwest border as a buffer between themselves and the Nyakyusa (Kalinga 1980, 211; Wright & Lary 1971, 563). New Swahili settlements emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century. A post was established in the Luangwa valley among the Senga in the late 1870s taht engaged in trade in slaves and ivory with the expanding Bemba chiefdoms of north eastern Zambia (Wright & Lary 1971, 550, 562, 563).

In 1880 the Luangwa traders posted an agent named Mlozi on the Karango Plain to take advantage of the steamer operations of the Scottish run African Lakes Company (Kalinga 1984, 97; Kalinga 1980, 209). The new Swahili arrivals under Mlozi were welcomed by the Kyungu and his counsellors, the latter in reality controlling the former, since they opened new trade routes to rival those of the regional princes and brought weapons and military organization that could potentially be used to reduce the princes to tributaries once more and to repel potential raids by the Ngoni (Kalinga 1984, 97; (Kalinga 1980, 211). The regional princes worked to counter the power of the Kyungu's court by wooing both Mlozi in the south and the African Lakes Company representatives in the north (Kalinga 1984, 97). The African Lakes Company included as part of its raison d'être the facilitation of Christian mission work at Bandawe, adding a new complicating element to the situation (Wright & Lary 1971, 564; Kalinga 1980, 209).

Mlozi was able to consolidate his power rapidly through alliance with the Henga-Kamanga, creating a network of trading stockades, and in 1887 proclaimed himself Sultan of the Ngonde (Kalinga 1980, 213; Bone 1982, 127; Wright & Lary 1971, 564, 568). The expansion of Swahili power, the predatory activities of Swahili caravans and the increasingly independent raiding activities of the Henga-Kamanga were viewed with misgiving by the Ngonde princes, the traders of the African Lakes Company and the missionaries of Bandawe, the latter being especially concerned with the slave trading activities that continued illicitly across Lake Malawi (Wright & Lary 1971, 565, 571; Kalinga 1980, 217). Moreover, relations between the Ngondi and the Nyakyusa had improved as a result of trade and the Ngoni military threat had subsided so that the Swahili and Henga-Kamanga had become military liabilities rather than assets, while direct trade with the Europeans, with whom the princes had formed warm relations, further reduced the value of the Swahili traders (Kalinga 1980, 215, 217; Wright & Lary 1971, 565). Attempts by one of the Ngondi princes to eliminate the Henga-Kamanga through a general massacre in 1887 failed when the Swahili who were to execute the plan betrayed it instead and the conflict escalated into a war that drew the African Lakes Company in on the side of the Ngondi against the Swahili and the Henga-Kamanga, which culminated in the defeat of the latter by mid 1889 (Kalinga 1980, 209, 216; Wright & Lary 1971, 565, 569).

The increasing presence of Presbyterian missionaries throughout the territory, their conflict with the Muslim Swahili as conductors of slave raids and as religious competitors and the intrusion from the south by their accomplices in the slave trade, (Catholic) Portugal, led to an orchestrated campaign in Scotland to pressure the British government to intervene in the territory (Ross & Thompson 2009, 14, 15). The reluctant British government was swayed by an offer by Cecil John Rhodes in 1889 that his British South African Company would undertake the cost of the administration of the territory for three years in exchange for a Royal Charter providing it rights to occupy and exploit what is now Zimbabwe and Zambia (Ross & Thompson 2009, 16). Thus reassured, the British government pressured the Portuguese to withdraw their troops from the Shire Valley, where they were in any case experiencing fierce resistance from the Kololo, and to negotiate a settlement with the British that permitted the latter to annex the territory in May 1891 as the British Central African Protectorate (Ross & Thompson 2009, 16; Rotberg 1966, 15, 16).


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