A new statue called Antelope was installed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London in September 2022. It was designed by Malawian artist Professor Samson Kambalu and depicts the Malawian pastor John Chilembwe standing next to a white pastor John Chorley. The scale of the two figures is distorted so that John Chilembwe towers above his white counterpart. The statue overturns the narrative told in history books. John Chilembwe confronted injustice and attempted to liberate his country from oppression, but his insurrection was crushed by colonial power. Yet he was indeed a giant. John Chilembwe’s blood continues to cry out from the ground today in the name of justice, freedom and equality.
Dubbed an “anticolonial hero” by the Guardian, John Chilembwe’s story is told in Shepperton and Price’s book Independent African. This article examines the connections between John Chilembwe and zambesi mission’s founder Joseph Booth and also describes what we know about John Chorley.
Joseph Booth was born in Derby in 1851 but emigrated to Australia in 1887. Through the influence of his first wife Mary he started attending church, but it was not until 1886 that he “started a new life” as a follower of Jesus Christ. He liked to participate in open air debates about faith. In 1891 Booth’s opponent mocked him saying: “Have you forgotten Christ’s message to men of possessions, “sell all thou hast and give to the poor”? When is the sale coming off? When shall you start to be a Christian?” A few weeks’ later Booth did indeed sell everything he had. Then, despite Mary’s tragic death later that year, he set off with his seven year old daughter and eventually arrived in what was then called Nyasaland. He called his venture the Zambesi Industrial Mission. Trustees were appointed in the UK and others soon came out to join Joseph Booth. Although he was not a popular figure within the expatriate community, Booth forged a friendship with John Chilembwe that would last many years. John Chilembwe’s character was self-evident from the outset, as he cared for Booth’s daughter Emily when she was critically ill with malaria. John Chilembwe came to faith in Christ in 1893 and was baptised on 17th July.
Booth first made his Africa for the African proposals in 1896, around the time that his connection with the Zambesi Industrial Mission ended. These criticised the European partition of Africa and the punitive colonial taxes that forced African people to work for European landowners. Booth argued for full political independence as soon as possible. In 1897 Booth travelled with John Chilembwe to America where John Chilembwe studied at Virginia State Theological Seminary and College at Lynchburg. He returned as an independent pastor to Mbombwe in Chiradzulu District in 1900 and established Ajawa Providence Industrial Mission. This soon became known as Providence Industrial Mission or PIM for short. Chilembwe was joined at PIM by two African American Christians, Reverend Landon Cheek and Miss Emma DeLany. For around five years they helped lay the foundations of PIM before leaving John Chilembwe to lead the work alone.
By 1912 PIM had reached an impressive size. Their mission church had 492 members. They ran seven schools with over 900 pupils. PIM also fostered a women’s movement which combined teaching from the Bible alongside practical skills such as sewing. Chilembwe wrote that women were “to take the place that God has ordained for them as man’s helpmeet – his equal, not his slave”. He and his wife Ida were also concerned that early marriage was robbing girls of the “joys of young womanhood”.
Despite the flourishing of PIM, storm clouds were gathering over Nyasaland and John Chilembwe. Before considering this, we need to look briefly at John Chorley, the mission worker shown standing alongside John Chilembwe in Antelope. Little is known of him because most of ZIM’s records were destroyed in the Blitz during the Second World War. We know that John Chorley was an Australian who arrived in Nyasaland in or before 1902. In 1913 he was based at Chipande (about 10 miles away from the PIM headquarters) and was known to be friendly with John Chilembwe.
In the years that followed Joseph Booth’s departure from ZIM, he continued his restless journey through life. He positioned himself as a pacifist at a time when war was looming. In 1914 he delivered a petition to King George V entitled “The Rhodesia-Nyasaland Appeal of May 1914”. It criticised the iniquitous way that colonial power was being exerted and demanded that government be shared with African leaders in a more equitable way.
Booth’s outraged appeal came in response to the unjust conditions that formed the context for Chilembwe’s 1915 uprising. A series of regulations had recently been imposed by the British colonial authorities. The hut tax, a levy imposed on all people who could not demonstrate land ownership, was increased by 25%. Those who could not afford the hut tax were forced to work for the landowner for nothing. It was a form of slavery. Legislation was also changed that made it increasingly difficult for a landowner to prove their rights to property. This was tilted in favour of European settlers and against the indigenous people who had more informal traditional patterns of ownership. Furthermore, tension had been rising between John Chilembwe and the manager of the A.L. Bruce Estates at nearby Magomero. W.J. Livingstone, a distant relative of David Livingstone, had been tasked with increasing the estate’s profitability. He achieved this through maximising his supply of free labour and harshly evicting all who failed to comply. This ruthlessness extended to preventing the erection of churches on estate land. Livingstone burned down three PIM churches in 1912 and 1913. Chilembwe’s complaint to the government about this high-handed behaviour was received unsympathetically.
The authorities informed Chilembwe that the matter would be dealt with, but nothing was ever done. These and other tensions came to a head on the night of 23rd January 1915. As dusk settled, two parties set off from Mbombwe – the first went to the offices of the A.L. Bruce Estates. W.J. Livingstone was playing with his baby son whilst his wife was having a bath. Livingstone was caught and killed in front of his wife. Another plantation manager, Duncan MacCormick, came to investigate and was also killed. The raiding party then carefully escorted the captive women and children back to Mbombwe. The second party headed off to Blantyre where they planned to raid the armoury of the African Lakes Corporation. This operation failed and the group retreated on the following morning. Although the uprising caused great consternation, it was short-lived and by 3rd February it was over. The captured women and children had been released unharmed. John Chilembwe had been shot dead whilst attempting to flee. He was buried in the bush near Mulanje Boma. Many aspects of the uprising are still unclear and many questions remain unanswered.
The authorities pointed the finger of blame for the uprising directly at Joseph Booth. His teaching was considered to be at the “bottom of all this trouble”. Governor Smith of Nyasaland wrote in May 1915 that “Booth and his propaganda are a menace to any country in which there is an overpowering black population”. He concluded that Booth was “capable of much evil” regarding the “peaceful settlement of natives here”. He was duly deported from Basutoland and soon afterwards from South Africa. Booth’s radical views led to an unsettled and nomadic existence until his eventual death in 1932 in Weston-super-Mare. He was, in many ways, a remarkable man whose thoughts and values were many years ahead of his time.
John Chorley remained in Nyasaland for some time after the uprising. The mission’s records do not describe the date of his departure. He and his wife were there in 1922 but had left by 1939. ZIM became simply Zambesi Mission in the 1950s. Malawi became independent in 1964. At independence all the mission’s property in Malawi was transferred to the self-governing indigenous Zambezi Evangelical Church. All the ZIM churches became ZEC churches. Today ZEC is one of zambesi mission’s five partners.
It is important to avoid giving the perception that zambesi mission’s approach has always been exemplary. But there are three main areas where John Chilembwe and Joseph Booth’s legacy still influence the mission’s work today:
John Chilembwe had a vision of an independent Malawi, free from colonial injustice. A union of independent African churches, supported appropriately from outside, would play a vital role within it. zambesi mission works in this context today. We partner with Malawian churches and Christian organisations who are best placed to preach the good news and make disciples.
John Chilembwe envisaged a system of self-sustaining mission stations. These conducted agricultural or small-scale industrial operations which then funded and sustained Christian gospel work. Today sustainability is one of zambesi mission’s five ministry focus areas, as we help our African partners to become increasingly self-sustaining.
Joseph Booth’s vision was to see Christian men and women of every colour worshipping together as equals. Within the body of Christ described in 1 Corinthians 12, all parts are equal, all parts are needed and no one part is more important than the other. This is our aim for the relationship with our Malawian brothers and sisters in Christ. As we bring our gifts and talents and share them with our partners before God, so we too receive and learn from our African partners.
You can get a close up view of Antelope by watching the video below:
Langworthy, H. (1996) Africa for the African: The Life of Joseph Booth, Blantyre, Christian Literature Association of Malawi
Shepperson, H. and Price, T. (1958) Independent African – John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915, Edinburgh, The University Press