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5— Tribalism in the Political History of Malawi1
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Chiefs, Planters, and Immigrants in the South

Conceivably, events in Nyasaland's Southern Province might well have followed a similar course. As in the north, the south had experienced, well before the British arrival, the invasion of other African peoples and the overthrow of established political systems. During the 1860s, Yao-speaking people from Mozambique had conquered the Shire Highlands, ruling as a group of competing warlords over the Mang'anja-speaking autochthones. The Shire valley was taken over by the Makololo porters of David Livingstone, who ruled from stockades along the riverbanks. The indigenous Mang'anja chiefs, including the Paramount Chief, Lundu, were killed and their people incorporated into the new Makololo chiefdoms.

When Scottish missionaries established the Blantyre Mission in 1876, they attracted their first converts from the defeated and enslaved Mang'anja. Mang'anja became the language of preaching and education, the language used in Biblical translation, and the first language of the country to have a scholarly dictionary. It is possible, then, to sketch out a hypothetical history in terms of which the Blantyre Mission might have become a focus of a resuscitated anti-Yao, anti-Makololo, pro-Mang'anja consciousness, campaigning for the restoration of Chief Lundu's Paramountcy, drawing into its service the administrative and political talents of such educated converts to Christianity as John Grey Kufa and John Chilembwe, and obtaining critical support from the local Scottish missionaries.

Yet events followed quite a different course. Local African leaders who opposed colonialism, perhaps influenced by the distinctly non-particularist, universalist message of such foreign missionaries as Joseph Booth and James Cheek, made no attempt to mobilize African cultural symbols or to formulate a view of the African past in their opposition to British colonialism. It was not, in fact, until after Malawi's independence in 1964 that political leaders appreciated the possibilities of the use of a crafted past as a mobilizer of political support, when President Banda added an historical dimension to the Chewa/Mang'anja ethnic political coalition he had built by reviving the defunct Lundu Paramountcy and crowning the new chief with a ceremonial pith helmet.

The political economy of the Southern Province was crucial in shaping its history in the twentieth century, and pivotal in shaping that political economy was the fact that land alienation to Europeans occurred in the nineteenth century, before the establishment of a British administration. Vast estates comprising almost one million acres were obtained by a handful of settlers and companies during the 1880s as part of their strategy to induce the British government to annex the Shire Highlands and adjacent riverine areas before the Portuguese could do so. One reason such land alienation was possible was that the bulk of the land 'purchased' from the chiefs was relatively unoccupied. In 1861, missionaries had found the Shire Highlands thickly populated with Mang'anja villages. Disruptions from Yao invasions, the expansion of the slave trade, and a disastrous famine in 1862 soon resulted, however, in an entirely different pattern of


settlement wherein the major chiefs ruled from heavily fortified stockades on mountain tops. The plains reverted to secondary forest and were by the 1880s thick with game. With minor exceptions, it was this largely unoccupied and uncultivated land which was alienated to Europeans in the 1880s. The planters were thus in a strong position to defend their interests against both government and missions after the British annexed the area in 1890, successfully insisting upon the de facto right to run their estates pretty much as they wanted, without governmental interference and without an unwanted mission presence. Most planters barred mission work on their estates, and, therefore, in the south no networks of mission schools located in the villages developed as they did in the north. In the Southern Province education remained a relatively rare phenomenon.

From the 1890s onwards, the issue that dominated the politics of southern Nyasaland centred on the nature of the terms on which Africans would be permitted access to the mostly empty lands held by the European planters or the Crown Land that still remained under Yao chiefs.[100] That this could become a central issue was because of the entry into Nyasaland from Mozambique of groups of 'Nguru' peoples seeking land. This immigration began in 1895 and continued for several decades. Some were slaves freed from the chiefs' stockades, while others were fleeing Portuguese tax and labour policies. They spoke various languages, including Lomwe, Mpotola, and Mihavani, but nothing called 'Nguru'.

When these migrations began, the area's European planters were struggling to find a suitable product for export, and their main problem was finding an adequate labour supply. Though a hut tax had been devised to solve this problem, it had proved inefficient. Even when local people could be induced to pay their tax in labour rather than in cash or kind, it generated only one month's work per man per year, allowing no time for the development of skills and producing a labour surplus in the dry season but virtually none during the rains, when the bulk of the agricultural work had to be done. Moreover, when people needed to earn money, they found it more advantageous to leave the country altogether to seek the higher pay available elsewhere in southern Africa. In the planters' view, Nyasaland's people had too many alternatives.

What made the new Nguru immigrants so valuable was their vulnerability. As immigrants, they lacked land. By accepting land in return for their labour, they could be turned into a captive workforce. Two groups took advantage of their vulnerability: the European planters and the established Yao chiefs and headmen dwelling on Crown Land. As the Nguru migrants crossed the border, the planters had vast tracts of empty land available for settlement which they offered to the newcomers under terms by which they exchanged land for labour—a system known as thangata . According to the legislation of 1904 which defined thangata, workers were to be provided with eight acres of land for settlement and cultivation, the 'rent' on this land being one month's labour per year in lieu of hut tax, plus one month's thangata labour paid at the current rate of tax. The real attractions of the system for the planters lay in its hidden advantages. A month's hut tax labour could be stretched to six or eight weeks simply by withholding a signature from the tax certificate. Thangata agreements were informal and verbal and not subject to government review. Most planters had little difficulty in extending the actual labour service to four or five months. And unlike hut tax or tax certificate labour, it could be demanded in the rainy season.[101] The Nguru were in no position to bargain. If they refused to work or if they attempted, as others did, to find work in South Africa or Southern Rhodesia, they lost their right to land in Nyasaland. The planters therefore encouraged the Nguru to settle. As


the governor commented a few years later, Nguru immigration had come 'most opportunely. It populated vacant spaces, it enhanced the Protectorate's revenue and most important of all it has provided a ready and permanent labour supply for the extension of European enterprise.'[102] This situation continued well into the 1920s.

The planters were not the sole beneficiaries of the migrations. Some Nguru also settled under the protection of chiefs and headmen on Crown Land. These chiefs and headmen were Yao-speakers established in the area since the 1860s. Once the British established an administration, people began to move down from Zomba, Chiradzulu and Mulanje mountains and reoccupied the abandoned plains, growing crops. Over the next fifteen years the whole of the Shire Highlands was repopulated.[103] To clear the land required labour, and it was the Nguru immigrants who supplied it. The chiefs and headmen gave them food in exchange for their clearing fresh land and growing cotton, the area's major cash crop. Their labour was also used to produce maize and vegetables for sale. On the whole, the British approved. Although there were accusations of slave-holding and slave-trading, the chiefs were successful in getting cotton and food production under way and were useful in supplying public works labour to the administration. The consensus was that although the Nguru were 'kept in a certain degree of mild subjection and occasionally perform a little menial labour for the protection of the chiefs under whom they serve, there is no serious interference with their rights and duties'. The chiefs who were to come into prominence in the colonial period were precisely those who attracted the largest numbers of settlers.[104]

The result of the welcoming of the Nguru by planters and chiefs so as to gain access to their labour was the establishment in the Southern Province of a population of great ethnic complexity, a mélange of diverse peoples and cultures. The Mang'anja and Nyanja peoples had been overlain with—and ultimately outnumbered by—Muslim Yao people in the mid-ninteenth century and by the Nguru immigrants from Mozambique in the early twentieth century. All these groups retained their own cultural practices, and the pattern of scattered settlement throughout the area undermined all possibility of defining geographically discrete ethnic areas.

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