Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Macdonald, Duff

Church of Scotland

Duff Macdonald was the first ordained missionary of the Church of Scotland to central Africa. While his tenure on the mission field was brief and tumultuous, it laid the foundation of a Presbyterian mission that would significantly impact the development of Christianity in southern Malawi.

Born in 1850, Macdonald was educated at Aberdeen University, ordained in the Church of Scotland in 1877, and shortly thereafter convinced by the Foreign Mission Committee of the Church of Scotland to assume leadership of their new mission station in the Shire highlands. [1] Blantyre had been founded in 1877 to fulfill the vision of David Livingstone, but the original mission staff had been hastily assembled, and, as a result, the station was deeply troubled by the miscreant behavior of staff, by desertion, and by acrimonious relations with neighboring chiefs. Macdonald and his wife arrived in Blantyre in July 1878 and he plunged into evangelism and language study, as well as laying out the rudiments for a mission settlement that could “civilize” the surrounding peoples through education and industry. [2]

The foremost problem that Macdonald inherited has since come to be known as the “Blantyre scandal” or the “Blantyre atrocities.” Mission staff (as well as some members of the Foreign Mission Committee) considered Blantyre as an ecclesiastical colony in which the church possessed civil jurisdiction, including the right and responsibility to mete out punishment for crimes and offenses committed. Accordingly, several Africans had been flogged or imprisoned on the mission, and one suspected criminal was executed in 1879 under particularly gruesome circumstances. [3] When a description of the murder and allegations that the flogging “is an everyday occurrence” at Blantyre were publicized in Scotland, Macdonald was recalled by the Foreign Mission Committee and dismissed in 1881. [4] He served the rest of his life as a parish minister of the Church of Scotland and died in 1929.

Macdonald’s reputation has suffered from this scandal. He has been described as incompetent and “despotic,” a leader who “countenanced disciplinary measures in his mission that would have made Captain Bligh wince.” [5] It is nearer the truth to say that Macdonald was more the scapegoat than the perpetrator of the problem. After all, the belief that a European mission station possessed civil jurisdiction, including recourse to corporal punishment, was not unusual at this time, however unfortunate we may judge the idea today. Further, floggings and incarceration at the Blantyre mission were employed before Macdonald arrived, and he himself later claimed that he was personally uncomfortable with the idea promoted by some in the Foreign Mission Committee that the mission was a “colonial settlement.” [6] He also believed himself as a clergyman to be immune from civil matters at the mission—a naïve opinion that does suggest a deficiency in his leadership ability. In fact, Macdonald, who quickly mastered the Yao language, was a careful and respectful observer of the traditional culture and religion he encountered, and his two-volume Africana long held the field as the authoritative of study of the Yao people. He also professed respect for the intellectual aptitude and spiritual capacity of Africans, and expected them to make a great contribution to the church at large. [7]

In hindsight, Macdonald’s brief missionary career is less important in and of itself than it is, generally, for highlighting the tension inherent in the relationship between missions in Africa and empire in this period, and, more specifically, for hinting as to how Presbyterianism in Malawi would develop. Macdonald exemplified certain traits common to Scotch Presbyterian missions—traits which would themselves become significant in the subsequent growth of an indigenous Presbyterian church in Malawi: a priority to education, an ambiguity regarding secular authority, a Livingstone-inspired vision of “Christianity and commerce” as the essence of mission, and, finally, the necessity of indigenous church leadership. Joseph Bismark, one of the first Malawian converts and an early leader and lay evangelist at the Blantyre mission, recalled going out with Macdonald in 1878 and 1879 to the surrounding villages, where together they would preach and invite people to come to worship. [8]

Todd Statham


    • Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Vol. 3*, edited by Hew Scott (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1920), 250.
  1. The best account of Macdonald’s time at Blantyre is Andrew C. Ross, Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi (Blantyre: CLAIM, 1996), 39-62.

  2. An eyewitness account is given by James Stewart, From Nyassa to Tanganyika: The Journal of James Stewart CE in Central Africa, 1878-1879, edited by T. Jack Thompson (Blantyre: Central Africana, 1989), 49-50. A comprehensive study of this issue is Peter Hinchliff, "The Blantyre Scandal, Scottish Missions and Colonialism," Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 46 (1984): 29-38.

  3. Andrew Chirnside, The Blantyre Missionaries—Discreditable Disclosures (London: William Ridgeway, 1880), 22. Chirnside, a big-game hunter, claimed to have witnessed the execution, and upon his departure from Africa, reported it to the press and then wrote this incriminating booklet

  4. Chirnside, Discreditable Disclosures, 14, 18; Oliver Ransford, Livingstone’s Lake: The Drama of Nyasa (London: James Murry, 1966), 141.

  5. Duff Macdonald, *Africana; or, The Heart of Heathen Africa, Vol. 2 *(London: Pallmalls, 1969), 251.

  6. As reported in the "Foreign Mission Committee," Reports of the Schemes of the Church of Scotland for the Year 1879 (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1880), 115.

  7. Alexander Hetherwick, The Romance of Blantyre: How Livingstone’s Dream Came True (London: James Clark, 1929), 143-144.


Chirnside, Andrew. The Blantyre Missionaries—Discreditable Disclosures. London: William Ridgeway, 1880.

"Foreign Mission Committee." In Reports of the Schemes of the Church of Scotland for the Year 1879, 85-130. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1880.

Hetherwick, Alexander. The Romance of Blantyre: How Livingstone’s Dream Came True. London: James Clarke, 1932.

Hinchliff, Peter. "The Blantyre Scandal, Scottish Missions and Colonialism." Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 46 (1984): 29-38.

MacDonald, Duff. *Africana; or, The Heart of Heathen Africa. *2 Volumes. 1882; London: Pallmalls, 1969.

Ransford, Oliver. Livingstone’s Lake: The Drama of Nyasa. London: James Murray, 1966.

Ross, Andrew C. Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi. Blantyre: CLAIM, 1996.

Scott, Hew, ed. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Volume 3. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1920.

Thompson, T. Jack, ed. From Nyassa to Tanganyika: The Journal of James Stewart CE in Central Africa, 1878-1879. Blantyre: Central Africana, 1989.

This article, received in 2014, was written by Todd Statham, a missionary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, seconded to the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Blantyre Synod as lecturer at Zomba Theological College in Malawi (address: PO Box 130, Zomba, Malawi email: [email protected]).