The Reverend John Chilembwe – whose statue will grace Trafalgar Square from next Wednesday – is known for the church service he conducted under the severed head of William Jervis Livingstone, a Scottish plantation manager notorious for mistreating his workers. The previous night, Chilembwe’s supporters had broken into his house and chased him from room to room as he tried to fend them off with an unloaded rifle. Finally, they pinned him to the ground and beheaded him in front of his wife and children. It was the most significant action of the Chilembwe Rebellion in 1915, a small, short-lived affair in an obscure corner of the British Empire now known as Malawi.
It says a lot about our times that a character with Chilembwe’s record should be boasted with a public statue. The Fourth Plinth Commission announced the decision in July last year, when the dispute over the statues was intense. The previous summer, Black Lives Matter riots had broken out in Britain. Edward Colston was demolished, Gandhi and Churchill were smeared with graffiti. The Chilembwe statue was chosen to shine “a spotlight on important issues that our society continues to face”, Sadiq Khan said. In other words, it was a deliberate salvo in the already heated culture wars. But Chilembwe’s true story is ambiguous, and I wonder if the Fourth Pillar Commission got more than it bargained for with this particular contribution to the contentious debate about our past.
The installation is actually a pair of statues: the second figure is John Chorley, an otherwise unremarkable English missionary who was Chilembwe’s friend. There is an iconic photograph of the two men standing together, and this is what the statues are based on. The artist, Samson Kambalu – a Malawian professor of fine arts at Oxford – cast Chorley much smaller, to diminish him and exalt Chilembwe. Nevertheless, what is amazing is that Chorley is there: a white missionary in Africa is hardly a common subject for public statuary in an age of identity politics.
“We have to start detailing the black experience… the African experience, the post-colonial experience,” Kambalu rightly said. And to that end, the history of Malawi is particularly useful as it encapsulates much of Britain’s imperial record in Africa. But that comes with a triggering caveat: This isn’t a simple black-and-white, good-and-bad tale. The detail is complicated, and sometimes uncomfortable.
Why is Chorley on the pedestal with Chilembwe? Ultimately because British missionaries played a vital role in shaping modern Malawi. Before their arrival, it was the land that fed the vast Indian Ocean slave trade, whose largest market was in Zanzibar. For centuries, the Arabs and their native Islamized accomplices had captured and traded slaves in countless numbers. David Livingstone called it “the open wound of the world”. The question obsessed him, and in response he sparked one of the greatest moral crusades of modern times.
Beginning in the 1850s, thousands of young men answered Livingstone’s call and volunteered for missionary service in Central Africa. In the early years they died en masse, mostly of disease, their graves scattered throughout the region and still revered today. But their sacrifice was matched by their success. The societies they encountered were on the brink of disintegration from slave raids, warfare, and the resulting disorder and famine. When the missionaries offered peace and goodwill to all men, their message was widely welcomed.
Of course, the slavers resisted and a first attempt at armed confrontation ended in disaster. Thereafter, the missionaries mainly operated only through a heroic appeal to a better nature. Only a handful of slave strongholds were forcibly subdued after the British government reluctantly established a protectorate in 1891. Otherwise, it is striking how peacefully slavery was eradicated from Malawi. The missionaries then established schools and colleges with high academic ambitions, which soon produced the first wave of independence activists.
The flip side of the missionary effort was the colonization that soon followed. White settlers and entrepreneurs never came in large numbers like in Kenya or Rhodesia, but the society they created was nonetheless like those that existed throughout the Empire: capable of cruel exploitation, and always steeped in racial injustice. It is against this that Chilembwe reacted violently.
Born in the 1870s, his mother seems to have been a slave, his father his captor. As a young man, Chilembwe became the servant of an unsuccessful itinerant English missionary called Joseph Booth, who was to prove the major influence in his life. Booth was a born-again Christian, socialist, and staunch critic of colonialism. He was also a devotee of an American evangelical cult that believed that Christ had returned to Earth a few years earlier and was biding his time until the Battle of Armageddon, scheduled for 1915.
In 1897 Booth took Chilembwe to the United States for a fund-raising tour. The couple were feted by black American churches and Chilembwe was sponsored to enroll in a Baptist seminary in Virginia. Two years later, he returned to Malawi as a pastor and founded his own mission. At first he prospered, but his radicalism – acquired from Booth and America – placed him at odds with colonial society, which viewed him with suspicion and disdain. He argued with his white neighbors and denounced them and the government in his sermons. This was reluctantly tolerated until the Germans invaded the colony in 1914, and Chilembwe wrote to a local newspaper opposing Africans fighting in a war that did not concern them. In response, the authorities decided to deport him. His health and business had been deteriorating for some time. It was also 1915: the year designated for the apocalypse. In what appears to have been a knowingly reckless move, Chilembwe incited his congregation to rebel.
Besides the infamous beheading, the rebels attacked another plantation manager and a business in the town of Blantyre. But far from increasing their support, the local population responded with bewilderment and, later, even hostility. Another attack was attempted on a nearby mission station, with whose leaders Chilembwe had long argued. But the rebels found the place already vacated, except for a sick child too sick to leave, and a missionary who had stayed behind to care for her. The rebels attempted to stab him to death, although he later recovered from his wounds.
Everything then petered out as government forces ruthlessly took control of the situation. In the aftermath, 36 of the rebels were sentenced to death, 300 imprisoned. Chilembwe fled into the forest where he was chased and shot by askaris. His last act had been to write to the Germans in search of an alliance. Although the message did not reach them in time, it was an unedifying gesture. A few years earlier, Germany had suppressed a rebellion in its huge northern colony by massacring up to 300,000 people.
So why should Chilembwe be celebrated at all? It would be, from a certain angle, easy to condemn him as a mad murderer without any real consequence. And yet his example is poignant. “We will all die under the heavy blow of the white army,” he reportedly declared on the eve of the uprising. “White people will think, after we die, that their treatment of our people is wrong, and they might change for the better for our people.” In these words, there is a dignity of intention as well as a real foresight which is difficult not to be moved. Chilembwe bequeathed an example of defiance, courage and sacrifice. The next generation was inspired by it, although they chose mainly peaceful means in their quest for independence. When this was granted in 1964, one of Chilembwe’s own children was still alive to see it.
When one examines the detail, one cannot ignore either the injustice or the beneficence of Empire: both are central to the history of Malawi. While we celebrate Chilembwe as a hero, there are many others we should also recognize, especially the British missionaries: “Good and courageous men who, to advance knowledge, freed the slave and hastened the kingdom of Christ in Africa, did not even love their lives. until death” – to quote the plaque which commemorates them in the Anglican cathedral of Zanzibar.
It is these contradictions that Kambalu captures so admirably, and without resentment, in his pair of statues. There is an urgent need to remind our genteel age that history is complicated, and the characters who shaped it are seldom trouble-free. As compensation for his faults, perhaps Chilembwe can now teach us to learn from statues, rather than knocking them down. May the fourth plinth be his cenotaph and a place where we can all make peace with our past.
Samson Kambalu’s Fourth Plinth commission, “Antelope,” will be unveiled on September 14. Alexander Chula’s book Goodbye, Dr. Banda on Malawi and the West will be published by Polygon in March 2023.