Christian separatist church leader: leader of a brief but violent rising in colonial Nyasaland.
His is a figure of near legendary proportions whose controversial career has inspired a considerable literature. The details of his birth and early background are obscure; by the early 1890s he was a student and catechumen at the Church of Scotland Mission at Blantyre in southern Malawi (then British Central Africa; later Nyasaland). In 1892 he attached himself to Joseph BOOTH’s new Baptist mission. Through the 1890s he became very close to Booth, acting as his steward, interpreter, and leading pupil. He was soon baptized by Booth, and absorbed many of the latter’s views on the equality of races.
In 1897 Chilembwe accompanied Booth to Britain and the United States. In America the two separated, with Chilembwe remaining in Virginia to attend a black Baptist seminary (1898-1900). The details of his education and his experiences in America are not known; however he was almost certainly influenced by contemporary black radical thought.
He returned to Nyasaland in 1900 as an ordained minister of the National Baptist Convention and established the Providence Industrial Mission. Over the next fourteen years his following grew steadily; he preached orthodox Baptist doctrines and stressed the value of Western morals and work ethic. In contrast to his contemporary, Elliott Kenan KAMWANA, he seems never to have preached a millenarian message.
By about 1911 Chilembwe was suffering from asthma and was experiencing personal and financial difficulties which helped to change his outlook on life. He resented the poor treatment of African labourers at the hands of the white settlers, a problem aggravated by a large influx of Africans into southern Malawi from Mozambique in 1913. In the following year when Africans began to be conscripted into British army for service in World War I, Chilembwe’s protests became more vocal.
During the two months preceding late January, 1915, Chilembwe organized a violent rising against local European settlers. His plans were carefully worked out, but his ultimate objectives remain a mystery. In late January several hundred of his followers attacked white farmers and killed a number. European retaliation was immediate and unmerciful. Chillembwe fled, but was soon killed. His missionary movement was largely exterminated by the colonial government.
Mark R. Lipschutz and R. Kent Rasmussen
Shepperson, George A. & Thomas Price. Independent African : John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Uprising of 1915. Edinburgh: University Press, 1958.
Mwase, George Simeon. Strike a Blow and Die : A Narrative of Race Relations in Colonial Africa, ed. R. Rotberg. Cambridge: Harvard Universitiy Press, 1967.
Shepperson, George A. “The Place of John Chilimbwe in Malawi Historiography.” In The Early History of Malawi, ed. B. Pachai, 405-28. London: Longmans, 1972.
Linden, Jane & Ian Linden. “John Chilimbwe and the New Jerusalem.” JAH 12 (4) (1971): 629-51.
Rotberg, Robert I. The Rising of Nationalism in Central Africa : The Making of Malawi and Zambia, 1873-1964. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Pachai, Bridglal (ed.). Livingstone, Man of Africa : Memorial Essays, 1873-1973. London: Longmans, 1973.
Pike, J. G. Malawi : A Political and Economic History. London: Pall Mall, 1968.
Phiri, D. D. John Chilembwe. Lilongwe: Longman, 1976.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Dictionary of African Historical Biography, 2nd edition, copyright © 1986, by Mark R. Lipschutz and R. Kent Rasmussen, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. All rights reserved.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): John Chilembwe