The Revd John Chilembwe – whose statue will adorn Trafalgar Square from next Wednesday – is notorious for the church service he conducted beneath the severed head of William Jervis Livingstone, a Scottish plantation manager with a reputation for mistreating his workers. The night before, Chilembwe’s followers had broken into his house and chased him from room to room as he tried to fend them off with an unloaded rifle. Eventually, they pinned him down and decapitated him in front of his wife and children. It was the most significant action in the 1915 Chilembwe rebellion, a small, short-lived affair in an obscure corner of the British Empire today known as Malawi.

It says a lot about our times that a figure with Chilembwe’s record should be vaunted with a public statue. The Fourth Plinth Commission announced the decision in July last year, when dispute about statues was intense. The summer before, Black Lives Matter riots had erupted in Britain. Edward Colston was torn down, Gandhi and Churchill were daubed with graffiti. The Chilembwe statue was chosen to shine ‘a spotlight on important issues that our society continues to face’, said Sadiq Khan. In other words, it was a deliberate salvo in the already heated culture wars. But Chilembwe’s real story is an ambiguous one, and I wonder if the Fourth Plinth Commission has got more than it bargained for with this particular contribution to the vexed 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. An iconic photograph exists of the two men standing together, and it is on this that the statues are based. The artist, Samson Kambalu – a Malawian professor of fine art at Oxford – has cast Chorley much smaller, to diminish him and exalt Chilembwe. Nevertheless, what is astonishing is that Chorley should be there at all: a white missionary to Africa is hardly a common subject for public statuary in the age of identity politics.

‘We have to start putting detail to the black experience… to the African experience, to the post-colonial experience,’ Kambalu has rightly said. And to that end, the story of Malawi is especially useful because it encapsulates so much of Britain’s imperial record in Africa. But it comes with a trigger warning: this is not a straightforward tale of black and white, good and evil. The detail is complicated, and sometimes uncomfortable.

Why is Chorley on the plinth with Chilembwe? Ultimately because British missionaries were essential in the formation of 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 indigenous, Islamised accomplices had been capturing and trading slaves in incalculable numbers. David Livingstone called it ‘the open sore of the world’. The issue obsessed him and, in response, he stirred up one of the greatest moral crusades of modern times.

From the 1850s onwards, thousands of young men answered Livingstone’s call, and volunteered for missionary service in Central Africa. In the early years, they died in droves, mostly of disease, their graves scattered throughout the region, and still venerated today. But their sacrifice was matched by their achievement. The societies they encountered were near disintegration thanks to slave raids, war and the ensuing disorder and famine. When the missionaries proposed peace and goodwill to all men, their message was widely welcomed.

Of course the slavers resisted, and an early attempt at armed confrontation ended in disaster. Thereafter, the missionaries operated mainly just through a heroic appeal to better nature. Only a handful of slaver strongholds were subdued by force after the British government had reluctantly established a protectorate in 1891. Otherwise, it is striking how peacefully slavery was extirpated from Malawi. The missionaries then established schools and colleges of towering academic ambition, which quickly produced the first crop of campaigners for independence.

The flip side to missionary endeavour was the colonisation that quickly followed. White settlers and entrepreneurs never came in large numbers as in Kenya or Rhodesia, but the society they created was nonetheless like those that existed throughout the Empire: capable of cruel exploitation, and always permeated with racial injustice. It was against this that Chilembwe reacted with violence.

Born in the 1870s, his mother seems to have been a slave, his father her 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 of his life. Booth was a born-again Christian, a socialist, and a fervent critic of colonialism. He was also an enthusiast of an evangelical American cult that believed 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 on a fund-raising tour. The pair were fêted by black American churches, and Chilembwe was sponsored to enrol at 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 from America – put him at odds with colonial society, which regarded him with suspicion and disdain. He quarrelled with his white neighbours and denounced them and the government in his sermons. This was grudgingly tolerated until the Germans invaded the colony in 1914, and Chilembwe wrote to a local newspaper objecting to Africans fighting in a war that did not concern them. In response, the authorities decided to deport him. His health and business ventures had been deteriorating for some time. It was also 1915: the year appointed for apocalypse. In what seems to have been a knowingly reckless decision, Chilembwe incited his congregation to rebellion.

Besides the infamous decapitation, the rebels attacked another plantation manager and a business in the town of Blantyre. But far from rising in support, the local population responded with bewilderment and, later, even hostility. A further attack was attempted on a nearby mission station, with whose leaders Chilembwe had long feuded. But the rebels found the place already evacuated, apart from one sick child too unwell to leave, and a missionary who had stayed behind to look after her. The rebels tried to stab him to death, though 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 hunted down and shot dead by askaris. His final act had been to write to the Germans seeking alliance. Though the message failed to reach them in time, it was an unedifying gesture. Just a few years before, Germany had suppressed a rebellion in its immense colony to the north by massacring up to 300,000 people.

So why should Chilembwe be celebrated at all? It would, from one angle, be easy to condemn him as a murderous lunatic of little real consequence. And yet there is a poignancy to his example. ‘We will all die by the heavy blow of the whiteman’s army,’ he is reported to have said on the eve of the uprising. ‘The whitemen will think, after we are dead, that the treatment they are treating our people is bad, and they might change to the better for our people.’ In these words, there is dignity of purpose as well as real foresight by which it is difficult not to be moved. Chilembwe bequeathed an example of defiance, courage and sacrifice. The next generation took inspiration from this, though they chose mostly peaceful means in their pursuit of independence. When this was granted in 1964, one of Chilembwe’s own children was still alive to see it.

When you examine the detail, you can ignore neither the injustice nor the beneficence of Empire: both are essential to the story of Malawi. If we celebrate Chilembwe as a hero, there are many others we should also acknowledge, especially the British missionaries: ‘Men good and brave who, to advance knowledge, set free the slave, and hasten Christ’s kingdom in Africa, loved not their lives even unto death’ – to quote the plaque that commemorates them in Zanzibar’s Anglican cathedral.

It is these contradictions that Kambalu captures so admirably, and without rancour, in his pair of statues. Our sententious age needs urgently to be reminded that history is complicated, and the figures who have shaped it are seldom unproblematic. In atonement for his faults, perhaps Chilembwe can now teach us to learn from statues, rather than topple them. Let the Fourth Plinth be his cenotaph, and a place for us all to make peace with our past.

Samson Kambalu’s Fourth Plinth commission, ‘Antelope’, will be unveiled on 14 September. Alexander Chula’s book, Goodbye, Dr Banda, on Malawi and the West, will be published by Polygon in March 2023.


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