1870 to 1915
Baptist / Independent
Malawian clergyman, politician and anti-colonialist hero whose life was a source of inspiration for many of his compatriots. Largely a self-taught man, he embraced a philosophy in which he called for "Africa for the Africans."
A Yao, he was born at Sangano on 1870. He was a student at the Church of Scotland mission at Blantyre. In 1892 he came into contact with Joseph Booth's Baptist mission and acted as Booth's assistant, interpreter and pupil. In 1897 Chilembwe accompanied Booth to Britain and the U.S.A. Under the auspices of a black Baptist church, Chilembwe enrolled at a seminary in Virginia. While in America he came into contact with contemporary Afro-American ideas.
He returned to Chiradzulu in Nyasaland (now Malawi) as an ordained minister in 1900 and founded the Ajana Providence Industrial Mission at Mbombwe, near Blantyre, with the help of the Afro-American Baptists. His followers grew. One school enrolled 1,000 pupils and the adult education section had 600 people by 1912.
Chilembwe's aims were to improve the standard of living and quality of life of his people. He also attempted to modernize the social and economic institutions in rural Malawi. His teachings concentrated on improved methods of growing crops and personal and environmental health while at the same time he encouraged people to work hard and discouraged the drinking of alcoholic beverages.
Chilembwe's idea of operating within the framework of the colonial system was shattered by 1914. The situation was aggravated by the famine of 1913 and the outbreak of the First World War. Chilembwe vociferously protested, both on public platforms and in the local press, against the forced participation of Africans in the war.
White plantation farmers accused Chilembwe of fomenting nationalism among the people. Some farmers went to the extent of burning down the buildings and schools that Chilembwe had erected for the education of the people. Such was the ill-treatment of Africans by the European settlers in the neighbourhood that Chilembwe decided to mobilize armed opposition against the planters and against conscription into the British colonial army. In doing so, Chilembwe became one of the first western-educated Africans to attempt a mass resistance movement against colonial domination. It was said that Chilembwe's objective was not to overthrow the government but only to highlight the grievances of his people in the most dramatic fashion.
In the uprisings, which followed in January 1915, with limited attacks in a few places, three Europeans died. But the response of the colonial administration was swift and savage; many people were killed by the troops deployed to contain the uprising. On 3 February 1915, the police found Chilembwe and his nephew Morris Chilembwe and shot them dead as they allegedly resisted arrest.
Chilembwe's name is legend in independent Malawi where he is regarded as a hero of anti-colonialism.
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