The Early Empires

The eastern coast of the continent of Africa has been the focal point of major international trade all the way back to the days of Phoenician traders at the time of Christ. But even before this time, as far back as BC 8000 pygmy descendants flourished in a number of sites in the area of present day Malawi. Evidence has been found of human skeletons, flint arrowheads, and imaginative paintings in their cave dwellings are still in evidence today.

Records indicate a thriving trade existed between the Shirazi Arabs of Persia and the east coast of the continent as far back as AD 1000. By AD 1300 the Swahili city-states from the region around present day Somalia, to as far south as today’s Mozambique coast, were involved in trade relations with the Arab world.

By the 10th and 11th centuries AD, coinciding with the Iron Age, the Bantu tribes began migrating into the area from the Congo. The consolidation of these tribes, into what would be known as the Marvai Empire, was reported during the 16th century by the arrival of Portuguese traders.


Portuguese Jesuits who came into the area to evangelize among the tribes quickly followed the Portuguese traders who had arrived in 1616, under the leadership of Gaspar Bocarro. The records of what was found during that time indicated the Chewa had formed the largest single group in the area south of the lake and north of the Zambezi. While the Portuguese were interested in slowing the spread of Islam they soon became involved in the gold trade, as the religious mission accepted the insistence of the government to bring trade and commerce as well. Gold was the underpinning of trade in the region and was centered on the small island of Kilwa, off of the coast of present day Tanzania. The gold trade had flourished until this new element was placed in the mix with the coming of the Portuguese. The region soon became a battlefield over trade and religion and the Portuguese soon gained control of the area called the Zambezi Valley. They installed a puppet king on the Shauna throne. Trade increased for a time, but so did trade conflicts. Portugal was effectively able to maintain control over the Zambezi Valley up until the nation of Mozambique gained independence in 1974. The result of this control was the breakdown of the ancient, centuries old trade networks in this region of Africa.


Through this period of time the tribes on the western side of the lake had lived in loosely formed local clans or tribal states. This started to change with the importance of the ivory trade coming out of the interior. The clans began to move to more centrally located kingdoms. Such a kingdom was the empire of Maravi that was formed around 1480. The kingdom spread across a landmass that included parts of present day Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. It was ruled by a kalonga or king and was centered on an agricultural, trade-based society. It reached its peak between the years 1600 and 1650 when Chief Masula ruled it. The kingdom maintained good relations with the Portuguese until its gradual collapse around 1700.

While many of the tribal groups in central Malawi moved toward centralization this was not true of one of the tribes in the northern area. This was the Tumbuka, and for them politics had little to do with their clan unity. They were united around their culture and their language.

Slave Trade

Change came to this part of Africa in the 19th century and it was intensively destructive. History marks this change with the capture of Mombassa in the year 1824 by Sultan Said of Muscat. This event effectively ended the Portuguese influence in the area north of present day Mozambique. While Europe and America were moving to abolish the slave trade Omani rule increased to horrific proportions. By 1839 over 40,000 slaves were being sold through the Zanzibar slave market. Some estimates conclude that as many as five times that number died in the brutal village raiding parties and in the long march to the sea.

The costal trading centers of Kronga, Nkhotakota, and Salima on Lake Malawi became infamous as slave trading centers. Thousands were said to have died in the night raids by the Omani raiders, while still countless multitudes died on the forced march that often took as long as three months to reach the sea. The tragic path finally reached the edge of the Indian Ocean and the hapless slaves were put aboard ships destined for Zanzibar. Here the conditions were so cruel that records show where a cargo of 300 could easily be reduced to only 20 or 30 reaching port.

Adding to the problem of the disastrous slave trade was the entrance of the Yao tribes into the southern part of present day Malawi. The Yao’s had been converted to Islam by the Arabs and were well-armed and able to offer a rich prize for the slaves they sought to capture. Settling in the region near the southern end of the lake the Yao were a dagger in the underbelly of the northern tribes. The marauding Yao’s moved north killing and capturing the local Chewa and Maganja by the hundreds. What had been a refuge from the killing, disease and conflict of the region of the Congo had now become a killing field again for the ill-fated Chewa.


Yet another plague on the hapless inhabitants of the region came with the entrance of the war like tribes from far deeper in the south. The once insignificant Zulu tribe, located in the eastern portion of present day South Africa, fell under the rule of the infamous ruler Shaka. He quickly changed warfare from throwing spears in battle to the use of smaller stabbing spears in close in combat. His troops would surround the enemy and then hack and club them to death. His armies conquered tribe after tribe as they marched north. In their wake they left vast areas where the entire population had been massacred. Some believe as many as two million died during the Mfecane, or “the crushing.”

Three distinct kingdoms came under the rule of Shaka as a result of the militarization of the Nguni culture. They were the Ngwane, Mdwandwe and the Mtethwa. In 1816 the Mtethwa Kingdom fell under the rule of Shaka, followed in 1818 by the Mdwandwe Kingdom. With the second came an exodus to the north that created what was later known as the Jere-Ngoni. The Ngoni raided every village along their route and killed vast numbers of people. They settled in the areas of Lake Malawi where they visited terror to the Yao who had settled near the lake and to the Tumbuka to the north.


Malawi had become a nightmare by the middle part of the 19th century, torn apart by the military conflict with the Ngoni and Yao raiding parties, combined with the Omani and Portuguese slave trade. Hope and change would come through a single European who entered the area in 1859, David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary. Livingstone reached present day Malawi after he had crossed the continent from west to east and witnessed the brutality of the slave trade. He was deeply committed to the three “C’s” that he believed to be the only hope for the Africans, Christianity, Commerce and Colonialization.

After crossing the continent from present day Angola to the mouth of the Zambezi during the years of 1853 to 1856, Livingstone formed a second expedition in 1858 that lasted for the next six years. His search for the river highway that would carry European commerce and travel to the African interior ended with the discovery of the Kebrabasa Rapids west of present day Tete, Mozambique. Livingstone then turned north and traveled up the Shire River. In 1859 his expedition was again blocked by rapids, by they continued north on foot and eventually reached the southern part of what is now the nation of Malawi.

Two years later he returned again to Malawi with his first mission to Central Africa and deposited them at a point near Chiradzulu Mountain between where Zomba and Blantyre exist today. Later that same year he sailed up Lake Malawi witnessing the slave trading at the costal trading center of Nkhotakota. Appalled by what he witnessed Livingstone sadly continued northward. From this point on the expedition hit failure after failure, with death after death taking place. By the end of the trip the river on which they came northward was literally described as “a river of death.”

Livingstone would eventually conclude that his mission to Africa was a dismal failure. Yet it was his vivid descriptions and dogged insistence that ultimately led to the abolition of the slave trade in eastern Africa. The slave trade came to an end 21 years later after the death of Livingstone in 1824.


The next few years saw the stampede by European nations to gobble up Africa. Germany laid claim to a large portion of East Africa, as did the French, the British, and to a lesser degree, the Portuguese. The area that would eventually become Malawi fell under the official rule of the British in 1907. The governing entity was called the British Central African Protectorate. The area of jurisdiction included parts of present day Malawi and Zambia. Through the entire time of colonial rule strong links existed between Nyasaland (Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Malawi was heavily populated and the least developed of the three countries. Only a few Europeans settled it, and at no time did they control more than 15% of the land.


In spite of the degree of freedom experienced by the people of Nyasaland in comparison to other parts of Africa the protest against colonial rule boiled to the surface shortly before World War I. Ironically a great deal of the early protest was fermented by the Scottish missionaries. The desire for freedom was fueled from within the Ethiopian churches in America and South Africa after the nation of Ethiopia was successful in its attempt to gain independence from Italy. Sparks of protest in Nyasaland sprang up out of the Laws Mission School in Blantyre, a school established by Scottish missionary Dr. Robert Laws. Edward Kamwana organized the first protests against forced taxation. He was promptly driven out of the country. The fire did not die however, and another figure rose above the clamor. His name was John Chilembwe, another student from the mission school. Chilembwe’s protest movement gained a following and on 23 January 1915 three armed raiding parties set out from the Provident Industry Mission that Chilembwe had established. A small number of Europeans were killed in the ensuing conflict and Chilembwe was hunted down near Mulanje and shot dead. The date was 3 February 1915. This action caused the fires of protest to simmer just below the surface for a number of decades.

During World War II Africans were conscripted into armies in order to fight for freedom in other parts of the world, only to return home to find themselves as restricted as ever. The results were a number of riots in 1948 on the gold coast of Africa in the city of Accra. The result was a degree of self-rule in 1953, then full independence for the nation of Ghana in 1957. The same year Ghana joined Ethiopia and Liberia as the only three nations in Africa with black rule. But the pendulum was swinging to opposite ends of the spectrum and in just 10 years there would only be three African nations still under white colonial rule. They were South Africa, Southwest Africa, and Rhodesia.


The idea of a federation compromised of Nyasaland, and Northern and Southern Rhodesia had been talked about as far back as the 1890’s, but nothing had come of it. However, after World War II the white settlers of Southern Rhodesia made a strong appeal to Britain for the formation of the Federation. This would give them more control over the other two colonies, and this fact was not lost on the Africans in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia. They strongly opposed the move. In 1943, with the formation of the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC), came a higher pitched voice of protest. In spite of this spirited opposition the British agreed to the formation of the Federation in 1953. This would place the future of Nyasaland under the control of the white settlers in Southern Rhodesia, and protests erupted in Thyolo, Chiradzulu, Mulanje and Nkhata Bay. A small group of men led by Henry Chipembere spearheaded a move to bring Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda back to his homeland to lead a protest. Banda agreed. When he returned in 1958 he took over the NAC Presidency and urged non-violent protests by its 60,000 members. The first official riot occurred in Zomba on the 20th of January 1959. During the ensuing conflict 48 Africans were killed by police gunfire, 20 of them occurring in Nkhota Bay. On the 3rd of March 1959 a state of emergency was declared and Banda and 1,000 of his supporters were arrested and placed in prison. In April 1960 Banda was released from prison and in August of the same year Britain ignored the protest from Southern Rhodesia and granted Nyasaland greater freedom at what would be called the Lancaster House conference. Elections in 1961 gave the NAC 94% of the national vote and 22 of the 26 seats in Parliament.


Two men stand out as towering pinnacles of influence that helped to shape the history of Malawi. The first was David Livingstone, born in Blantyre, Scotland in 181, and trained as a medial doctor at Glasgow University, then as a missionary. The second was Doctor Hastings Kamuzu Banda, born in Mphonongo/Chamba near Kasungu in 1898 (Some reports gave his birth date as 1906, but records uncovered after his death indicated the earlier date). Banda was educated in mission schools and studied in America. After receiving his Doctorate of Medicine in 1937 he moved to Edinburgh, Scotland where he prepared for a license to practice in the British Empire. After obtaining his credentials he applied for work in his home country. His requests were rejected when the nurses refused to work under a black doctor. The colonial administration offered him a job but with the condition that he not have any social interaction with white doctors. He declined the offer and set up what would become quite a successful medical practice in Liverpool. In 1945 he moved to London and the success of his practice made it possible for him to finance the education of 40 Africans in just seven years. His residence served as a meeting place for discussions and debate concerning the state of African nationalism. Some of the high profile figures that sat with Doctor Banda, and discussed Africa’s future were Kwame Nkhruma (later to become President of Ghana), Sylvanus Olypmia (later to become President of Togo), and Kenyetta Jumo (later to be President of Kenya). In 1953 Doctor Banda closed his practice and moved to Kumasi. Banda and the formation of the hated Federation were both moving toward Nyasaland and the sparks were about to fly. The forest fire of freedom was spreading across the continent and the British would soon feel the heat in tiny Nyasaland.


A snowball rolling down a long hill can eventually gain so much momentum that nothing can stop it. The same thing was true of independence and Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Kamuzu means a “tiny root or herb”, and much of the medicine in Africa comes from the tiny roots or herbs. Banda proved to be just the medicine that Nyasaland needed, and in January 1962 he became Minister of Natural Resources and Local Government in the national government that was headed by colonial Governor Glynn Jones. In November of that same year the British agreed to a plan for self-government and on the 19th of December the House of Commons agreed for Nyasaland to withdraw from the Federation. Banda became the Prime Minister of Nyasaland on the 1st of February 1963, and the last day of the year marked the formal end to the Federation. Nyasaland was granted full independence on the 6th of July 1964 and the nation of Malawi was born.


Independence came with almost immediate difficulties for the fledging government. In his leadership style some saw Banda’s words and actions as inflexible, and in some foreign policy his statements about working with white ruled Mozambique and South Africa prompted a crisis among his cabinet members who wanted withdrawal from relations with the white communities. Banda offered to resign, but members of the cabinet persuaded him to remain in office. He dismissed the dissenters and placed some of their leaders in prison. He then moved forward with his domestic and foreign policies and surrounded himself with those who would carry out his mission. Beginning in 1966, and for the next four years the Malawi Congress Party tried to persuade him to accept the title of Life President. He refused. In the fifth year they were even more insistent and he reluctantly agreed. On the 6th of July 1971 President Hastings Kamuzu Banda became “President for Life.”

During his time in office the President maintained a peaceful state while a number of other African states went up in flames. He brought previously warring tribes into a “one nation” relationship, and improved the medical situation in the nation. He connected north and south with a tarmac paved roadway, and moved the capital from Zomba in the south to the more centrally located city of Lilongwe. Economic growth occurred and while many of the emerging nations were experiencing mass exodus to the urban areas Banda offered incentives to keep the village community located in the rural areas. This resulted in a much slower growth in the cities and helped maintain low crime rates. The educational system was upgraded and improvements were evident in the infrastructure. However, by the end of the Banda administration the country was still near the bottom of the world’s economic ladder.

On the 17th of March 1994 elections took place all over Malawi, and the vote ran roughly along regional lines. The Malawi Congress Party, the Party of Dr. Banda, won an overwhelming majority in the predominately Chewa central region, the Alford Party carried the north, and the United Democratic Front candidate Bakili Muluzi carried the highly populated southern region by a wide margin. Muluzi served two consecutive terms of 5 years each.

In May 2004 Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika was elected President, running on the same United Democratic Front party as Muluzi. After the election Mutharika formed another party, the Democratic Progressive Party in March 2005, and a large number of the members of Parliament shifted over to the new party of the President.