Famous Person

John Chilembwe

John Chilembwe

National Hero that fought against colonialism

Year of Birth  1871
Place of Birth Chiradzulu, Malawi
Year of Death 3 February 1915
Place of Death Blantyre, Malawi

About John Chilembwe

John Chilembwe is reverend and a national hero in Malawi who led the anti-colonial uprising in Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1915.

He was the first African with a sense of Malawi nationalism.

Though information about Chilembwe’s parentage and birth is limited, it is believed that he was born in the Chiradzulu, Nyasaland in June 1871 to a Yao father and a mother, Mang’anja slave.

Around 1880, Chilembwe became a pupil at the Church of Scotland mission in Blantyre, but he met a British Baptist missionary Joseph Booth in the autumn of 1892 and became his servant and helper until 1895.

In Booth’s household and mission, Chilembwe became acquainted with Booth’s radical religious ideas and egalitarian philosophy and was baptized on July 17, 1893.

In 1897, Booth and Chilembwe travelled to the United States, where Chilembwe attended Virginia Theological Seminary and College (now Virginia University of Lynchburg) and studied African-American history.

Once Chilembwe returned to Nyasaland in 1900, he founded the Province Industrial Mission (P.I.M.) in Chiradzulu and preached an orthodox Baptist faith along with a morality that opposed alcohol and emphasized the values of hard work, personal hygiene, and self-help.

By 1912, he had established several schools which had 1,000 pupils and 800 adult students, constructed a brick church and planted crops of cotton, tea, and coffee.

He initially avoided specific criticism of the government that might be thought subversive.

However, famine in 1913 brought great hardship and starvation to many peasant farmers.

Chilembwe became increasingly upset by the unjust employment practices by white plantation owners.

A more immediate cause was British use of natives against the Germans in Tanzania during World War I.

Chilembwe and 200 followers from P.I.M. congregations in Chiradzulu and Mlanje (now Mulanje) staged an uprising on January 23, 1915, with the theme of “Africa for the Africans”.

The rebels killed three British plantation managers, including William J. Livingston who was beheaded.

Three African men were also killed, a European-run mission was set on fire, a missionary was severely wounded, and an African girl died in the fire.

However, apart from the girl, the rebels scrupulously observed Chilembwe’s orders not to harm any women or children.

When the uprising failed to gain support from other districts, Chilembwe tried to escape into Mozambique, but he was captured and shot by African soldier on February 3, 1915.

Although his uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, Chilembwe’s death in its aftermath assured for him a martyr’s place in the subsequent history of African anti-colonial struggle.

Today, Malawi, which gained independence in 1964, celebrates Chilembwe as a hero of independence, and John Chilembwe Day is observed annually on 15 January.

Chilembwe’s likeness was seen on the obverse of all Malawian kwacha notes from 1997 to May 2012, when new notes were launched.

The notes of 500 Kwacha and newly introduced 2000 Kwacha in December 2016 still carry his portrait.