The British Central Africa Protectorate was a protectorate west of Lake Nyasa proclaimed in 1889 and ratified under the name “Nyasaland Districts” on May 14, 1891. A handwritten note dated July 20, 1891, announcing the establishment of postal services described the area as “British Central Africa” and the name was officially changed in 1893. The protectorate occupied the same area as present-day Malawi and was renamed Nyasaland in 1907. Its capital was Zomba in the Shire Highlands, a plateau to the south of Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) and east of the Shire River.
After the Shire Highlands and the lands west of the lake were explored by David Livingstone between the 1858 and 1864 as part of his Zambezi expeditions, several Anglican and Presbyterian missions were established in the area in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1878, The African Lakes Company Limited, predecessor to the African Lakes Corporation Limited was established in Glasgow by a group of local businessmen with links to the Presbyterian missions. Their aim was to set up a trade and transport concern that would work in close cooperation with the missions to combat the slave trade by introducing legitimate trade, to make a profit, and to develop European influence in the area. A small mission and trading settlement was established at Blantyre in 1876 and a British consul took up residence there in 1883.
Letters are known from Livingstone and others from the Shire Highlands and from officials of the African Lakes Company. The mail went by runner to Lake Nyasa, across it by steam launch, by runner again to the Shire River, then by boat to Quelimane or Chinde on the Indian Ocean.
Concessionaires holding prazo estates from the Portuguese crown were active in the lower valley of the Shire River from the 1830s and the Portuguese government claimed suzerainty over much of Central Africa without effective occupation. In 1879, the Portuguese government formally claimed the area south and east of the Ruo River (which currently forms the southeastern border of Malawi), and in 1882 occupied the lower Shire River valley as far as the Ruo. The Portuguese then attempted to negotiate British acceptance of their territorial claims, but the convening of the Berlin Conference in 1884 ended these discussions. Meanwhile, the African Lakes Company was attempting to obtain the status of a Chartered company from the British government but had failed by 1886. From 1885-86 Alexandre de Serpa Pinto undertook an expedition which reached the Shire Highlands but which failed make any treaties of protection with the Yao chiefs in territories west of Lake Nyasa.
As late as 1888, the British Foreign Office declined to accept responsibility to protect the rudimentary British settlements in the Shire Highlands, despite claims by the African Lakes Company of Portuguese interference with their trading activities. It also declined to negotiate with the Portuguese government on their claim that the Shire Highlands should be considered part of Portuguese East Africa, as it was not under their effective occupation. In order to prevent Portuguese occupation, the British government sent Henry Hamilton Johnston as British consul to Mozambique and the Interior, with instructions to report on the extent of Portuguese rule in the Zambezi and Shire valleys and the vicinity, and to make conditional treaties with local rulers beyond Portuguese jurisdiction. These conditional treaties did not amount to the establishment of a British protectorate, but prevented those rulers from accepting protection from another state.
In 1888, the Portuguese government instructed its representatives in Portuguese East Africa to attempt to make treaties of protection with the Yao chiefs southeast of Lake Malawi and in the Shire Highlands. An expedition organized under Antonio Cardosa, a former governor of Quelimane, set off in November 1888 for the lake. In early 1889, a second expedition led by Serpa Pinto moved up the Shire valley. Between them, these two expedition made over 20 treaties with chiefs in what is now Malawi. Serpa Pinto met Johnston in August 1889 east of the Ruo, when Johnston advised him not to cross the river into the Shire Highlands.
Previously, Serpa Pinto had acted with caution, but he now crossed the Ruo to Chiromo. In September, following minor clashes after Serpa Pinto’s force had advanced, Johnston’s deputy declared a Shire Highlands Protectorate, despite the contrary instructions. Johnston’s proclamation of the Nyasaland Districts Protectorate, west of Lake Nyasa was contrary to his instructions, but was endorsed by the Foreign Office on May 14, 1891. These actions led to an Anglo-Portuguese Crisis in which a British refusal of arbitration was followed by the 1890 British Ultimatum. This demanded that the Portuguese gave up all claims to territories beyond the Ruo River and west of Lake Nyasa. The Portuguese government accepted under duress.
An 1891 Anglo-Portuguese treaty fixed the southern borders of what became the British Central Africa Protectorate. The northern border of the protectorate was agreed at the Songwe River as part of an Anglo-German Convention in 1890. Its western border with Northern Rhodesia was fixed in 1891 at the drainage divide between Lake Nyasa and the Luangwa River by agreement with the British South Africa Company, which governed what is today Zambia under Royal Charter until 1924.
Sir Henry Hamilton Johnston was the first Commissioner and Consul-General of the protectorate. In 1891, Johnston only controlled a fraction of the Shire Highlands, itself a small part of the whole protectorate and between then and 1895 he used a small force of Indian troops to fight several small wars to impose British rule. The troops, assisting the locally recruited police force, were then used until 1898 to suppress the slave trade. Although the first Consul appointed in 1883 had used Blantyre as his base, the second moved to Zomba because it was closer to the slave route running from Lake Nyasa to the coast. Johnston also preferred Zomba because of its relative isolation, healthiness and superb scenery, and it became the governor’s residence and administrative center; Blanyre remained the commercial center.
The first post offices were opened at Chiromo and Port Herald in early 1891. A British clearing office was opened in 1891 at Chinde (in Portuguese territory) which passed mail in sealed bags between Nyasaland and British or German mail steamers. The first postage stamps of the protectorate were issued on July 20, 1891, produced by overprinting the Rhodesian stamps of the British South Africa Company with B.C.A. (Scott #1-17). The overprint varies between thick and thin letters on the stamps up to the 10 shilling denomination. The 2 pence value was bisected to 1 penny and authorized for use in Blantyre, Chiromo and Zomba in July and October 1895. A number of new post offices opened during the second half of 1891, including Blantyre, Zomba, Fort Mlange, Fort Johnston at the southern end of the lake, and Karonga at the northern end of the lake.
In 1892, Johnston received powers to set up courts and divide the protectorate into districts, appointing Residents (whose title later became District Commissioner) to these. The power of existing chiefs were minimized in favor of direct rule by the Residents.
One of the major legal problems facing Johnston was that of land claims. For up to 25 years before the protectorate was formed, a number of European traders, missionaries and others had claimed to have acquired often large areas of land through contracts signed with local chiefs, usually for derisory payment. Although Johnston had a duty look into the validity of these land deals, and although he accepted that the land belonged to its tribes, so their chiefs had no right to alienate it, he put forward the legal fiction that each chief’s people had tacitly accepted he could assume such a right. As a result, Johnston accepted those claims where the signatory was the chief of the tribe occupying the land if the terms of the contract were not inconsistent with British sovereignty. Where claims were accepted, Johnston issued Certificates of Claim (in effect the grant of freehold, or fee simple, title). Out of 61 claims made, only two were rejected outright and a handful reduced in size. These Certificate of Claim were issued at a time when no professional judges had been appointed to the protectorate, and the work of Johnston and his assistants was subsequently criticized by judges and later administrators.
In the first years of the protectorate, very little of the alienated land was planted. Settlers wanted labor and encouraged existing Africans to stay on the undeveloped land, and new workers (often migrants from Mozambique) to move onto it, and grow their own crops. From the late 1890s, when the estates started to produce coffee, the owners started to charge these tenants rent, to be satisfied by two months’ labor a year. In order to raise revenue, and also to increase the supply of labor, a Hut Tax was imposed from 1895 in the Shire Highlands. This was gradually extended to the rest of the protectorate, becoming universal in 1906. It was nominally three shillings a year (15 pence), but could be satisfied by one month’s labor a year on a settler estate or working for the government.
There was only one, rather limited, official census in this period, in 1901, which returned a population of 736,724. However, the African population was estimated on the basis of hut tax records with a multiplier for average inhabitants per hut. As no taxes were collected in some areas in the north of the protectorate in 1901, their inhabitants were estimated on the basis of occasional official visits. It is believed that much of the country was reasonably well populated in the mid-ninteenth century, but by the 1880s large areas had become under-populated through devastating raids by the Ngoni people and the famines which they caused or slave raiding. There may well have been large areas in the Shire Highlands that were virtually depopulated.
Some of the shortfall in population may been made good by the inward migration of families groups of so-called “Anguru”, Lomwe language speaking migrants from the parts of Mozambique east of the Shire Highlands estates, who became estate tenants. They began to arrive from 1899, and a 1921 census counted 108,204 “Anguru”. Neither the 1901 nor the 1911 censuses recorded tribal affiliation, but the very substantial population increases in districts adjacent to Mozambique, especially Blantyre and Zomba districts, whose recorded populations more than doubled in this decade, suggest substantial immigration. In this period, relatively few Africans were leaving the protectorate as migrant workers, but this became more common later.
Throughout the period of the protectorate, most of its people were subsistence farmers growing maize, millet and other food crops for their own consumption. As it had no economic mineral resources, its colonial economy had to be based on agriculture, but before 1907 it had hardly started to develop. In pre-colonial times trade was limited to the export of ivory and forest products in exchange for cloth and metals and, for the first few years of the protectorate, ivory and rubber collected from indigenous vines were the principal elements of a tiny export trade. The first estate crop was coffee, grown commercially in quantity from around 1895, but competition from Brazil which flooded the world markets by 1905 and droughts led to its decline in favor of tobacco and cotton. Both these crops had previously been grown in small quantities, but the decline of coffee prompted planters to turn to tobacco in the Shire Highlands and cotton in the Shire Valley. Tea was also first planted commercially in 1905 in the Shire Highlands, but significant development of tobacco and tea growing only took place after the opening of the Shire Highlands Railway in 1908.
Before the railway, water was the most efficient means of transport. From the time of Livingstone’s 1859 expedition, small steamers navigated the Zambezi-Lower Shire river system, and they were later introduced on the Upper Shire and Lake Malawi. The Upper and Lower Shire were separated by about 60 miles of the Middle Shire, where rapids and shallows made navigation impractical, and were both often too shallow for larger vessels. In addition, the main areas of economic activity in the early protectorate were in the Shire Highlands, particularly near Blantyre, which was 25 miles from Chikwawa, a small Shire River port. Transport of goods to river ports was by inefficient and costly head porterage, as the Shire valley was unsuitable for draught animals.
Shallow draught steamers carrying 100 tons or less had to negotiate Lower Shire marshes and low-water hazards in the Zambezi and its delta to reach the small, poorly equipped coastal port of Chinde in Mozambique. Low water levels in Lake Nyasa reduced the Shire River’s flow from 1896 to 1934, so the main river ports became Chiromo, further from the main settlements below a steep escarpment and later Port Herald (now Nsanje).
Surcharged BSAC stamps were necessary in 1892, 1893, and 1895. 1895 also saw the introduction of stamps printed especially for the protectorate, featuring the protectorate’s coat of arms and inscribed BRITISH CENTRAL AFRICA. The 1895 issue was printed by Thomas De La Rue & Company on unwatermarked paper (Scott #21-31), but from February 1896 on the paper had either the Crown over CC or Crown over CA watermarks (Scott #32-39). Cancellations on these stamps inscribed BRITISH CENTRAL AFRICA within a double-circle and with the name of a town across the center or at the foot were intended for use on stamps presented for payment of the Hut Tax. Such marks can be found in black, violet or blue and are without date. Stamps with such fiscal obliterations are of little value and catalogues quote prices for genuine postally-used items.
In August 1897 a new design was introduced, still using the coat of arms, but with a clear instead of a lined background (Scott #43//56). Late that year, the supply of one penny stamps ran out. On December 31, 1897, the 3 shilling postage stamp was surcharged in red (Scott #57), but on March 11, 1898, the government began to use embossed revenue stamps overprinted with INTERNAL / POSTAGE (Scott #58-59, with several minor numbers for varieties).
In 1901, the 1 penny, 4 pence and 6 pence denominations of the 1897 stamps were printed in different colors (Scott #44, 47 and 49). In 1903 a new series of stamps was issued, featuring the profile of King Edward VII and inscribed BRITISH CENTRAL AFRICA / PROTECTORATE, with denominations from one penny to ten pounds (Scott #60-69). In 1907, the 1 penny and 6 penny denominations from the 1903 series were reissued on chalk-surfaced paper (Scott #70 and 73); two additional values — 2 pence and 4 penny — were prepared but not issued due to the name of the protectorate being changed to the Nyasaland Protectorate on July 6. 1907. It is estimated that no more than a dozen examples of each of these final stamps remain in collectors’ hands (Scott #71-72, valued at USD $15,750 each in the 2009 Scott catalogue).
In addition to having issued less than 80 different postage stamps — many of which are extremely expensive — the British Central Africa Protectorate also issued a number of postal stationery items, the first of which were registration envelopes in 1892. Between 1892 and 1895 a total of 14 different registration envelopes have been identified as having been produced by overprinting British South Africa Company registration envelopes with BRITISH CENTRAL AFRICA ADMINISTRATION. During 1895 and 1896, three registration envelopes were designed and printed for the protectorate.
In 1893, two different postal cards were issued using British South Africa Company postcards overprinted BRITISH CENTRAL AFRICA in an ornamental frame. New postal cards designed for the protectorate were issued in 1896 (3 postal cards), 1898 (2 postal cards) and 1904 (2 postal cards). A newspaper wrapper was made available for use in 1899. When the protectorate’s name was changed to Nyasaland Protectorate all items of postal stationery continued to be valid.
The first stamps issued by the Nyasaland Protectorate were released on July 22, 1908.
Scott #50 is the 10 shilling value of the coat of arms issue released by the protectorate in 1897. It was printed by De La Rue using typography in grey and lilac on paper watermarked with the Crown over CA. perforated 14. My copy is postmarked in Blantyre on November 12, 1899. Founded in 1876 through the missionary work of the Church of Scotland, it became a British consular in 1883 and attained municipality status by 1895. This makes it one of the oldest urban centers in east, central and southern Africa, predating Nairobi, Harare and Johannesburg.
Blantyre was named after the town in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, where the explorer David Livingstone was born. Livingstone’s missionary endeavors saw the establishment of the St. Michael and All Angels Church. The church dates from 1891 and was famously built by a team of local workmen with no knowledge of European architecture or building techniques. The town was originally a center for the colonial trade in ivory. Urban development was further stimulated by the construction of the railway. In 1956 it was merged with its sister city, Limbe, to form one city. It is currently Malawi’s center of finance and commerce and its second largest city, with an estimated 1,068,681 inhabitants as of 2015.