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Reverend John Chilembwe (1871 – February 3, 1915) was an orthodox Baptist educator and an early figure in resistance to colonialism in Nyasaland, now Malawi. Today John Chilembwe is celebrated as a hero for independence, and John Chilembwe Day is observed annually on January 15 in Malawi.

Chilembwe attended the Church of Scotland mission from around 1890. In 1892 he entered the domestic staff of Joseph Booth, a Baptist missionary. Booth was critical of the Scottish Presbyterian missions in Nyasaland, where Chilembwe had been educated, and he established the Zambezi Industrial Mission. Importantly Booth's teaching focused on equality, a radical idea in colonial Africa.

In 1897 Chilembwe traveled with Booth to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he attended Virginia Theological College, a small African-American seminary. Here Chilembwe was exposed to the works of John Brown, Booker T. Washington and other abolitionists. In 1900 he returned to Nyasaland as an ordained Baptist minister. Working with the American National Baptist Convention, he founded the Providence Industrial Mission, which developed into seven schools, which by 1912 had 1000 pupils and 800 adult students. He tried to instill the values of hard-work, self-respect and self-help in his community.

In 1913 a famine caused hardship, and people from Mozambique moved to Nyasaland. Chilembwe was upset by the way his parishioners and the refugees were exploited by plantation owners. Workers were denied wages, and beaten. William Jervis Livingstone, a plantation owner, burned down rural churches and schools established by Chilembwe. Chilembwe also was affected by the conscription of local men to fight for Britain in Tanzania against the Germans in World War I, for no immediately foreseeable benefit to Africans. He complained of racism and exploitation.

On January 23, 1915 Chilembwe staged an uprising: he and 200 followers attacked local plantations that they considered to be oppressing African workers. Chilembwe's plan involved the killing of all male Europeans. They killed three white plantation staff, including Livingstone, whom they beheaded in front of his wife and small daughter. Several African workers were also killed, but they did not harm any women or children on orders of Chilembwe. When the uprising failed to gain local support, Chilembwe tried to flee to Mozambique; however he was killed by officials on February 3, 1915. Although Chilembwe had sent letters to neighboring Zomba and Ncheu encouraging them to organize uprisings at the same time his word did not arrive in time. When his letters did finally arrive on Monday, January 25 the authorities already knew of the plot and the hastily coordinated uprisings failed to accomplish much. The colonial officials also killed a number of his followers. Chief among the victims of these reprisals were the 175 Africans listed on the uprising's "War Roll" and the 1,160 names on the list of Baptised Believers.

Malawi gained independence in 1964. Today Chilembwe's likeness may be seen on the obverse of all Malawian kwacha notes.


Who is John Chilembwe Chilembwe, John. , 1996

  • Shepperson, George and Price, Thomas. Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Uprising of 1915. Edinburgh University Press, 1967.

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