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Tartan imperialism

This article is over 14 years, 5 months old
Scotland’s historical role in Malawi contradicts attempts to present itself as an ‘oppressed’ nation, writes Neil Davidson
Issue 2065
 (Pic:» Tim Sanders )
(Pic: » Tim Sanders)

It has the seventh lowest life expectancy, the fifth lowest GDP per head and the third lowest level of purchasing power in the world. But it also has the ninth highest level of consumer price inflation and the ninth highest prevalence of HIV/Aids.

Clearly this is a former British colony.

These statistics refer to Malawi, whose citizens are no doubt recovering from news that their future British high commissioner is to be Jack McConnell – the former Scottish first minister before the SNP victory in May.

McConnell’s interest in Malawi emerged, suddenly and suspiciously, in the run-up to the Make Poverty History demonstrations in 2005. Shortly after this he visited Malawi and set up a charity to “tackle poverty”.

In general this shows one of the ways in which the ideology of contemporary imperialism works in relation to former colonies. If Iraq epitomises the murderous violence directed at the disobedient, Malawi demonstrates the patronising charity displayed towards those considered helpless but unthreatening.

More specifically, however, it continues a specifically Scottish imperial role in the country.

This point cannot be made strongly enough in the face of the pervasive fantasy on the Scottish left that Scotland is an oppressed nation, rather than a leading component of the British oppressor.Certain place names of modern Malawi stand out – Livingstonia, named after the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, and Blantyre, named after his birthplace.

A centralised political state was formed in what is now central and southern Malawi by the late 15th century, ruling a mainly agricultural society based on the intensive cultivation of corn, cassava and rice.

But like many other African states, internal development was severely affected by external pressure – from the 1790s onwards by the slave trade and then by British occupation in the 1880s.

Scottish Christian missionaries and their Islamic rivals both started arriving in the 1850s, but the former were backed up by a state power which the latter lacked. By the 1880s the Scottish missionaries were increasingly squeezed between Arab slave traders and Portuguese imperialists based in Mozambique.

The British state might in any case have intervened on their behalf, but the decisive catalyst was the threat that Germany might occupy Nyasaland. A deal was done.

The British handed Heligoland to the Germans in return for agreement that they might grab Nyasaland (and three other “protectorates”) for themselves. Needless to say the inhabitants were not consulted.

There have been three great revolts by the oppressed of Malawi.

Following the British occupation, white settlers began to establish their own plantations by dispossessing the native population.

A rising in 1915 was the first in British Africa. One of the colonists targeted by the rebels was Livingstone’s grandson, Alexander Bruce, who owned a plantation of 169,000 acres that was the biggest in the colony.

The second revolt, and the triumph of the national liberation movement, came after the British merged Nyasaland with Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe) in 1953, against the wishes of the population.

They attempted to bring the white racist regime in Southern Rhodesia under tighter control, by diluting their authority within a broader area directly ruled by the colonial office.

Precisely because it seemed to extend the influence of the Rhodesians into new areas, the federation gave great impetus to the nationalist movement in Nyasaland, where a series of violent demonstrations led to the establishment of the independent state of Malawi in 1964 under Hastings Banda.

The role of religion and of church organisation are important and complex. The rising in 1915 was led by the Reverend John Chilembwe, originally educated by the Free Church of Scotland. At this stage the church itself was still profoundly racist.

By the 1950s, however, the Scottish churches tended to support African independence.

During the struggle for independence a state of emergency was declared by the British in 1959 which resulted in 1,500 arrests and 50 deaths, all of them black. Around 700 of those arrested were members of the Church of Central Africa – not just the leadership. Banda himself was a Christian doctor trained in Edinburgh.

In 1992 there was a third great revolt of the Malawi people, this time against the corruption and oppression of the post-colonial regime. Strikes, demonstrations and riots forced Banda to concede a referendum on the one party system, which ultimately led to multi-party elections and the end of Malawi Congress Party rule in 1994.

As the figures quoted at the beginning of this piece suggest, the people of Malawi still need revolutionary change in their conditions.

But their history of struggle shows that they themselves will be the agents of that change, not the condescending representatives of the imperial powers who they have had to free themselves from.

Neil Davidson is a visiting research fellow at the University of Strathclyde and the author of The Origins of Scottish Nationhood and Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746

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