Sunday, 3 April 2016

Following the Scots to Karonga

I've always wanted to visit the north of Malawi. Well 'always' that is as in, ever since I came across the poignant graves of the original missionaries from the Free Church of Scotland in a dusty neglected corner of southern Cape Maclear (the tiny peninsula north of Monkey Bay on the map below). It is a heroic story, whatever you may think about Christianity and missionary activity. In 1875, seven Europeans and four ex-slaves walked overland from the East African coast in order to continue and consolidate the pioneering work of David Livingstone and free this part of Africa from the slave trade. Their task was to set up the new mission settlement of Livingstonia, a replacement for the one at Cape Maclear.


It was only fifteen years after Livingstone had made his famous journey up the Zambezi and Shire rivers and northwards across the Lake to first Nhkotakota and then Nkhata Bay. The journey was so appalling and the number of dead bodies floating on the water so many, that every morning the paddles of the paddle boat had to be cleared of corpses. Who were the dead people? Victims of tribal raids by the marauding Ngoni and, of course, victims of the slave trade.

The slave trade in East Africa was different from the West African slave trade. It was not a product of of European trading policy, though Portuguese traders were at best complicit, and at worst active, in it. The East African slave trade had nothing to do with the provision of labour for Caribbean and American plantations. In the early nineteenth century, the area around Lake Nyasa (as Lake Malawi was known then) was being devastated by warring tribes, some moving in from what are now neighbouring countries, including victims of Zulu aggression in southern Africa. The slave trade was principally in the hands of Arab slavers who moved down the Rift Valley buying slaves from local chiefs The chiefs sold the people they defeated and even, sometimes, their own people. Local war lords, as we would call them now, engineered raids on hitherto peaceful communities.

Contemporary accounts by David Livingstone and John Kirk, among others, describe terrible scenes of families torn apart and communities destroyed. The slaves were marched down the shore of Lake Malawi from the north, or up from the Shire basin in the south, where the invading Yao cooperated with the Zanzibari Arab traders. One of the most famous hubs of the slave trade on Lake Malawi was the lake port of Nkhotakota, from which the captives were transported east, undergoing a three- or four-month march across what are now Tanzania and Mozambique to slave markets in sea ports such as Kilwa and eventually the island of Zanzibar. While most died en route, the survivors were usually transported even further, to Oman and other Arab countries.


The Scots who were trying to combat this ghastly trade did not find it easy, however. The deaths from malaria  of so many idealistic self-sacrificing young men in the Livingstonia Mission at Cape Maclear persuaded the missionaries to move north to what they thought would be a healthier place. The new Livingstonia was built on steep hillsides just south of Karonga, the furthermost settlement of any size on the Lake. Here the missionaries founded a medical centre and established one of Malawi's most famous educational institutions, one which fostered the cause of African nationalism and educated several of its most famous proponents. Ironically, we didn't make it to Livingstonia itself. After all, we were hardly tourists. However, we did make it to Karonga.


Not many tourists make it this far north, which is a pity for if they did they would love the long beaches with their golden sand and dugouts pulled up on the shore when the morning's fishing is done.

Karonga was one of the last places in Malawi to end the slave trade, long after John Kirk had persuaded the Sultan of Zanzibar to close the slave market on the island. That was despite the efforts of Harry Johnston the first Commissioner of the new British Central African Protectorate. I am no supporter of colonialism, and, let's face it, the British had several motives for moving into central Africa beyond simple humanitarianism. However, many of the men who worked in the colonial service and as missionaries were good men motivated by compassion rather than just greed. I believe we should not judge them by the standards of today but rather seek to understand and acknowledge what led them to undertake, and often give their lives for, what must have seemed at times insurmountable challenges.


The British had sensibly followed Livingstone's advice and introduced alternative commercial opportunities to take the place of slavery. Two Scottish brothers, John and Frederick Muir, had set up the African Lakes Corporation (ALC) in 1878 to transport goods up, down and across the lake. In 1883, the ALC founded an outpost at Karonga.  We may sneer at this mixing of Christianity and trade, but think how much more effective the fight against the heroin trade would be if poor Afghan farmers had other crops than poppies to take to market.


However, it would take time for slavery to die out completely, and in Karonga the trade was even starting up as other slaving hubs closed down. The area around Karonga was inhabited by the Nkonde people, successful farmers in a fertile part of the country. Until 1880, they had been living peacefully until a slave trader called Mlozi arrived from what is now Zambia and devastated the local area. His raiding parties, the Ruga-Ruga, burned down villages and murdered those men who tried to protect their families.


In 1887, the officials of the ALC watched helplessly while Mlozi's men massacred and burnt alive over 1,000 Nkonde villagers. Mlozi set himself up in a base just outside Karonga and started calling himself Sultan of Nkondeland.


Harry Johnston, the Commissioner, tried to make deals with Mlozi, but the treaties were always broken. This was despite Johnston's success in overcoming all the other local slave traders. Eventually in 1895, after years of fighting Sultan Mlozi, Johnston attacked his fort. His men found it littered with bodies and with slaves crowded into the stockade, ready to be taken off to market. Johnston captured Mlozi, put him on trial before a council of Nkonde elders, and, when he had been sentenced to death, had him hanged from a tree in Karonga. In so doing, the British Commissioner brought a final end to the slave trade in Malawi.


It would be nice to think that thereafter the people of Karonga led a quiet and peaceful life. Sadly not. Soon they began to see the more negative side of colonialism. They were to be brought into an imperial conflict between Britain and Germany which was none of their making: the First World War.


German East Africa (under the British later called Tanganyika and under independence, Tanzania) was right next door to Karonga. When the British Commissioner at the then capital, Zomba, in the south of Nyasaland, heard of the declaration of war, he decided to sink the only German boat on the lake. An old Scottish naval sailor called Captain Rhoades took it on himself to fire the shell which sank the ship. Sadly, no one had informed his German counterpart and drinking companion, Captain Berndt, that war had broken out. He was, understandably, somewhat miffed and had to be pacified with some good Scotch whisky before being marched off to the prisoner- of-war camp.


Captain Rhoades was now charged with repelling the German forces on the Nkonde Plain during the 8-9 September 1914. The Battle of Karonga did not go too well at first. First Rhoades managed to march his troops straight past the enemy. The next day, the two forces ended up facing in the wrong direction. Eventually the British came across the Germans by mistake and slaughtered them - not just almost all the German officers but also almost all the hapless African conscripts forced to fight a battle which wasn't theirs.


Karonga is now peaceful once again. Indeed, it is very very quiet. Looking towards the Tanzanian hills, you can see people using the lake as they have done for centuries. The fishermen empty their dugouts of fish and spread their nets across the sand to dry. Children are washed, clothes are laundered, push bikes are scrubbed. The birds screech overhead, looking for scraps.

However, Karonga is beginning to change once again. We stayed in a brand new lodge (the Golden Sand Beach Lodge) right next to the lake. We must have been its first visitors. The buildings were still being finished but are clearly designed for conferences, not just tourists, though there are few enough of even them this far north.











The food was nicely cooked, including delicious freshly caught chambo. Below left is the open-air dining room where we ate it, a matter of yards from where it was pulled from the lake. On the right is the open-air banda where we delivered the training.











Efforts are clearly being made to make the place attractive to a wide range of potential visitors, including these beautifully executed wall paintings, even on the wall of the toilets (right). The fish eagle on the left is a symbol of lakeside life.











Yes, Karonga is a lovely place, one I was very glad to visit, despite all the difficulties of getting here - and, indeed (though it is not a topic for this post), of returning. I think the British Commissioner Harry Johnston and the missionaries down the road in Livingstonia would be pleased at how it has turned out. Yes, it was worth going to Karonga after all.






You may also find the following posts on our Uganda blog of interest.

Making connections, changing lives: Stonetown Zanzibar (about the East African slave trade)

Following the Scots to Cape Maclear

The Last Slave Market by Alastair Hazell is a fascinating account of the slave trade across East Africa, its hub in Zanzibar and the way its tentacles spread right across Arabia. The book follows the work of Dr John Kirk,a son of the manse from the small Scottish town of Barry in Angus, in recording and bringing an end to the slave market in Zanzibar itself.

Much of the detail for this post came from the Bradt guide to Malawi (2013 edition)

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