The Nyasaland Protectorate was a British protectorate located in Africa, which was established in 1907 when the former British Central Africa Protectorate changed its name. Between 1953 and 1963, Nyasaland was part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. After the Federation was dissolved, Nyasaland became independent from Britain on July 6, 1964, and was renamed Malawi. I previously detailed much of the early history of Nyasaland in an article about British Central Africa.
Nyasaland’s history was marked by the massive loss of African communal lands in the early colonial period. In January 1915, the Reverend John Chilembwe staged an attempt at rebellion in protest at discrimination against Africans, which prompted some re-assessment of their policies by colonial authorities. A growing educated African elite became increasingly vocal and politically active from the 1930s, first through associations, and after 1944, through the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC).
There was a marked increase in civil agitation when Nyasaland was forced into a Federation with Southern and Northern Rhodesia in 1953. The failure of the NAC to prevent this caused its collapse. It was revived not long afterwards by a younger and more militant generation which, ultimately, invited Hastings Banda to return to the country and lead it to independence.
The 1911 census was the first after the protectorate was renamed Nyasaland. The population according to this census was: Africans, classed as “natives” 969,183, Europeans 766, Asians 481. In March 1920 Europeans numbered 1,015 and Asians 515. The number of Africans was estimated (1919) at 561,600 males and 664,400 females, a total of 1,226,000. Blantyre, the chief town, had some 300 European residents. The number of resident Europeans was always small, only 1,948 in 1945, but their numbers rose to about 9,500 in 1960 and declined thereafter. The number of Asian residents was also small.
From the time of Livingstone’s expedition in 1859, the Zambesi, Shire River, and Lake Nyasa waterways were seen as the most convenient method of transport for Nyasaland. However, the Zambesi-Lower Shire and Upper Shire-Lake Nyasa systems were separated by 50 miles of impassable falls and rapids in the Middle Shire which prevented continuous navigation. The main economic centers of the protectorate at Blantyre and in the Shire Highlands were 25 miles from the Shire, and transport of goods from that river was by inefficient and costly head porterage or ox-cart. Until 1914, small river steamers carrying 100 tons or less operated between the British concession of Chinde at the mouth of the Zambezi and the Lower Shire, about 180 miles. The British government had obtained a 99-year lease of a site for an ocean port at Chinde at which passengers transferred to river steamers from Union-Castle Line and German East Africa Line ships up to 1914, when the service was suspended. The Union-Castle service was resumed between 1918 and 1922, when the port at Chinde was damaged by a cyclone.
Until the opening of the railway in 1907, passengers and goods were transferred to smaller boats at Chiromo to go a further 50 miles upstream to Chikwawa, where porters carried goods up the escarpment and passengers continued on foot. Low water levels in Lake Nyasa reduced the Shire River’s flow from 1896 to 1934; this and the changing sandbanks made navigation difficult in the dry season. The main port moved downriver from Chiromo to Port Herald in 1908, but by 1912 it was difficult and often impossible to use Port Herald, so a Zambezi port was needed. The extension of the railway to the Zambezi in 1914 effectively ended significant water transport on the Lower Shire, and low water levels ended it on the Upper Shire, but it has continued on Lake Nyasa up to the present.
A number of lake steamers, at first based at Fort Johnston, served lakeside communities which had poor road connections. Their value was increased in 1935, when a northern extension of the railway from Blantyre reached Lake Nyasa, and a terminal for Lake Services was developed at Salima. However, harbor facilities at several lake ports were inadequate and there were few good roads to most ports: some in the north had no road connection.
Railways could supplement water transport and, as Nyasaland was nowhere nearer than 200 miles to a suitable Indian Ocean port, a short rail link to river ports that eliminated porterage was initially more practical than a line direct to the coast passing through areas of low population. The Shire Highlands Railway opened a line from Blantyre to Chiromo in 1907, and extended it to Port Herald, 113 miles from Blantyre in 1908. After Port Herald became unsatisfactory, the British South Africa Company built the Central African Railway, mainly in Mozambique, of 61 miles from Port Herald to Chindio on the north bank of the Zambezi in 1914. From here, goods went by river steamers to Chinde then by sea to Beira, involving three transhipments and delays. The Central African Railway was poorly built, and soon needed extensive repairs.
Chinde was severely damaged by a cyclone in 1922, and was unsuitable for larger ships. The alternative ports were Beira, which had developed as a major port in the early 20th century, and the small port of Quelimane. Beira was congested but significant improvements were being made to it in the 1920s: the route to Quelimane was shorter, but the port was underdeveloped. The Trans-Zambezia Railway, constructed between 1919 and 1922, ran 167 miles from the south bank of the Zambezi to join the main line from Beira to Rhodesia. Its promoters had interests in Beira port, and they ignored its high cost and limited benefit to Nyasaland of a shorter alternative route.
The Zambezi crossing ferry using steamers to tow barges had limited capacity and was the weak point in the link to Beira. For part of the year the river was too shallow, at other times it flooded. In 1935, the ferry was replaced by the construction of the Zambezi Bridge, over two miles long, creating an uninterrupted rail link to the sea. In the same year, a northern extension from Blantyre to Lake Nyasa was completed.
The Zambezi Bridge and northern extension created less traffic than anticipated, and it was only in 1946 that traffic volumes predicted in 1937 were reached. The rail link was narrow gauge and single track, with sharp curves and steep gradients, so inadequate for heavy train loads. Maintenance costs were high and freight volumes were low, so transport rates were up to three times Rhodesian and East African levels. Although costly and inefficient, the rail link to Beira remained Nyasaland’s main bulk transport link up to and beyond independence. A second rail link to the Mozambique port of Nacala was first proposed in 1964, and is its principal route for imports and exports today.
Roads in the early protectorate were little more than tracks, barely passable in the wet season. Roads suitable for motor vehicles were developed in the southern half of the protectorate in the 1920s and replaced head porterage, but there were few all-weather roads in the northern half until quite late in the 1930s, so motor transport was concentrated in the south. Road was becoming an alternative to rail, but government regulations designed to promote the use of the railway hindered this. When the northern railway extension was completed, the proposals to build an interchange for road traffic at Salima and improve roads in the Central Province to help develop Central Nyasaland and Eastern Zambia were not carried out. Road transport remained underdeveloped and, at independence, there were few tarmac roads.
Air transport began in a small way in 1934 with a weekly Rhodesian and Nyasaland Airways service from an airstrip at Chileka to Salisbury, increased to twice weekly in 1937. Blantyre (Chileka) was also linked to Beira from 1935. All flights were discontinued in 1940 but in 1946 Central African Airways Corporation, backed by the governments of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland restarted services. Its Salisbury to Blantyre service was extended to Nairobi, a Blantyre-Lilongwe-Lusaka service was added and internal services ran to Salima and Karonga. The former Nyasaland arm of the corporation became Air Malawi in 1964.
European ownership of large areas of land was one of the main social and political issues for the protectorate. Between 1892 and 1894, 3,705,255 acres, almost 1.5 million hectares or 15% of the total land area of the Protectorate, was alienated as European-owned estates through the grant of Certificates of Claim. Of this, 2,702,379 million acres, over 1 million hectares, in the north of the protectorate had been acquired by the British South Africa Company for its mineral potential and was never turned into plantations. Much of the remaining land, some 867,000 acres, or over 350,000 hectares of estates included a large proportion of the best arable lands in the Shire Highlands, the most densely populated part of the country.
The first Commissioner of the Protectorate, Sir Harry Johnston had hoped that the Shire Highlands would become an area for large-scale European settlement; he later considered it was too unhealthy and had a large African population who required a sufficient land for their own use, although his successors did not share this view. Further land alienations were much smaller. Around 250,000 acres of former Crown Lands were sold as freehold land or leased, and almost 400,000 acres more originally in Certificates of Claim were sold or leased in holdings whose average size was around 1,000 acres, many representing smaller farms of Europeans coming to Nyasaland after the First World War to grow tobacco. As late as 1920, a Land Commission set up by the Nyasaland authorities proposed further land alienation to promote the development of small to medium size European plantations from the 700,000 acres of Crown Land which it said were available after the present and future needs of the African people were met. This plan was rejected by the Colonial Office.
Much of the best land in the Shire Highlands was alienated to Europeans at the end of the 19th century. Of over 860,000 acres over (350,000 hectares) of estates in the Shire Highlands, only a quarter was poor-quality land. The other 660,000 acres were in areas of more fertile soils, which had a total area of some 1.3 million acres in the Shire Highlands. However two large belts, one from Zomba town to Blantyre-Limbe the second from Limbe to Thyolo town were almost entirely estates. In these two significant areas, Trust land was rare and consequently overcrowded.
In the early years of the protectorate, little of the land on estates was planted. Settlers wanted labour and encouraged existing African residents to stay on the undeveloped land. It seems likely that, by the 1880s, large areas of the Shire Highlands had become under populated through fighting or slave raiding, and that it was these almost empty and indefensible areas that Europeans claimed in the 1880s and 1890s. Few Africans were resident on estate lands at that time. Many of those who were left when rents were introduced, and earlier residents who had fled to more defensible areas usually avoided returning to settle on estates.
New workers (often the so-called “Anguru” migrants from Mozambique) were encouraged to move onto estates and grow their own crops, but were required to pay rent, usually satisfied by two months’ labor a year in the early years under the system known as thangata, although later, many owners required a longer period. In 1911 it was estimated that about 9% of the protectorate’s Africans lived on estates: in 1945, it was about 10%. These estates comprised 5% of the country by area, but about 15% of the total cultivable land. This suggests estates had rather low populations relative to the quality of their land.
Three major estate companies retained landholdings in the Shire Highlands. The British Central Africa Company once owned 350,000 acres, but before 1928 it had sold or leased 50,000 acres. It retained two large blocks of land, each around 100,000 acres, in the Shire Highlands; the rest of its properties were in or near to the Shire valley. From the late 1920s, it obtained cash rents from African tenants on crowded and unsupervised estates. A L Bruce Estates Ltd owned 160,000 acres, mostly in the single Magomero estate in Zomba, and Chiradzulu districts. Before the 1940s, it had sold little of its land and preferred to farm it directly; by 1948 the estate was largely let to tenants, who produced all its crops. Blantyre and East Africa Ltd had once owned 157,000 acres in Blantyre and Zomba districts but sales to small planters reduced this to 91,500 acres by 1925. Until around 1930, it marketed its tenants’ crops, but after this sought cash rents.
The 1920 Land Commission also considered the situation of Africans living on private estates, and proposed to give all tenants some security of tenure. Apart from the elderly or widows, all tenants would pay rents in cash by labor or by selling crops to the owner, but rent levels would be regulated. These proposals were enacted in 1928, after a 1926 census had shown that over 115,000 Africans (10% of the population) lived on estates.
Before 1928, the prevailing annual rent was 6 shillings (30 pence). After 1928 maximum cash rents were fixed at £1 for a plot of 8 acres, although some estates charged less. The “equivalent” rents in kind required delivering crops worth between 30 and 50 shillings instead of £1 cash, to discourage this option. Estate owners could expel up to 10% of their tenants every five years without showing any cause, and could expel male children of residents at 16 and refuse to allow settlement to husbands of residents’ daughters. The aim was to prevent overcrowding, but there was little land available to resettle those expelled and from 1943, evictions were resisted
Throughout the period 1907 to 1953, Nyasaland was subject to direct superintendence and control by the Colonial Office and the United Kingdom parliament. Its administration was headed by a Governor, appointed by the British Government and responsible to the Colonial Office. As Nyasaland needed financial support through grants and loans, Governors also reported to HM Treasury on financial matters. From 1953 to the end of 1963, Nyasaland was part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which was not a fully independent state as it was constitutionally subordinate to the British government. Nyasaland remained a protectorate and its Governors retained responsibilities for local administration, labor and trade unions, African primary and secondary education, African agriculture and forestry, and internal policing.
The greater part of the Governors’ former powers were transferred to the Federal government. This had sole responsibility for external affairs, defense, immigration, higher education, transport, posts and major aspects of economic policy, and the predominant role in health, industrial development and electricity. The Colonial Office retained ultimate power over African affairs and the African ownership of land. The Federation was formally dissolved on December 31, 1963; at the same time Nyasaland’s independence was fixed for July 6, 1964.
Most governors spent the bulk of their career in other territories, but were assisted by heads of departments who spent their working life in Nyasaland. Some of these senior officials also sat on the two councils that advised governors. The Legislative Council was formed solely of officials in 1907 to advise governors on legislation; from 1909 a minority of nominated “non-official” members was added. Until 1961, the Governor had power to veto any ordinance passed by the Legislative Council. The Executive Council was a smaller body advising on policy. It was formed solely of officials until 1949, when two nominated white “non-official” members were added to eight officials.
The composition of the Legislative Council gradually became more representative. In 1930, its six “non-official” members were no longer nominated by the governor but selected by as association representing white planters and businessmen. African interests were represented by one white missionary until 1949, when three Africans nominated by the governor and an Asian joined six white “non-official” and 10 official members. From 1955, its six white “non-official” members were elected and five Africans (but no Asians) were nominated. Only in 1961 was there an election for all Legislative Council seats, and the Malawi Congress Party won 22 out of 28 seats. The party was also nominated to seven of the 10 Executive Council seats.
The Nyasaland Protectorate’s first stamps were issued on July 22, 1908, ten definitives bearing the portrait of King Edward VII (Scott #1-11). Stamps were inscribed NYASALAND PROTECTORATE until 1934 when the inscription was changed to just NYASALAND. After independence, the stamps were marked MALAWI.
Scott #55A was issued in 1942, a one-penny green stamp portraying Nyasaland’s national symbol of a leopard against the sunrise. It was engraved and perforated 12½.