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Review of A History of Malawi, 1859-1966


By Shane Doyle

A History of Malawi, 1859–1966. John McCracken. Woodbridge: James Currey and Rochester NY: Boydell and Brewer, 2012. Pp. 485. ISBN 978 184701 050 6 (hb). £85.

John McCracken first visited Malawi fifty years ago and in the years that followed established a reputation as one of the leading scholars of that country’s history. This book is the culmination of a distinguished career, a lengthy, richly detailed analysis of a period stretching from the arrival of the first British missionaries in 1859 through to independence in 1964. It is modelled on John Iliffe’s Modern History of Tanganyika (CUP, 1979), the most famous country-focused study in African history. In its scope and approach McCracken’s book probably comes closer to Iliffe’s Modern History than any previous scholar. Like Iliffe, McCracken is deeply interested in how the pre-colonial as well as the colonial periods shaped the post-colonial. Again, like Iliffe, McCracken views demographic change and human relations with the national environment as the absolutely fundamental context of modern African history. This viewpoint is certainly understandable given Malawi’s exceptional ecological riches, deep poverty, recurring famine, and exceptionally dense population.

McCracken’s is a distinctly Malawi-centric depiction of African history. Nyasaland, as colonial Malawi was known, may have been a territory of marginal value to the British Empire, but it was not insignificant. As McCracken insightfully shows, in several ways its marginality created distinctive problems which proved particularly revealing of the character of colonial rule. The limitations on the size of the expatriate community, for example, guaranteed that Nyasaland would continue to have a unique Scottishness, a reminder of how the imperial relationship was perhaps most real when it was most local. Nyasaland’s struggle to achieve economic self-sufficiency inspired severe doubts in London about the possibility of broadly simultaneous decolonisation across Africa. The inability of the Nyasa economy to provide adequate employment for its indigenous population, and particularly for those who had benefited from the early missionary investment in education, made labour migration inevitable throughout the colonial period. Colonial officials valued the remittances but worried about the negative influences of migration on the homeland. However, the solution to the very different problems posed by nationalism and decolonisation in Nyasaland and Southern Rhodesia was an attempt to formalise regional integration through the ill-fated multi-racial Central African Federation in which the former two territories were united with Northern Rhodesia. Indigenous opposition to this unwelcome innovation, determined more by concerns about South Africa and white Rhodesians than by the interests of Nyasaland itself, illuminated perfectly the brutality that was a symptom of the weakness and insecurity of colonial administrations. The Devlin Commission’s condemnation of Nyasaland as a police state in 1959 indicated that not only federation, but Empire as a whole, was doomed.

This is a book which should be read by anyone interested in the history of Africa. However, its particular attraction will be to Malawi-specialists. These will not be disappointed for McCracken has produced a text which will shape research on Malawi for years to come. It is encyclopaedic in scale, providing a framework which comprehensibly structures the past, and provides new leads on issues which have fascinated scholars for years – the relationship between missionary and colonialist, the Christianity-inspired Chilembwe Rising of 1915, regional inequalities, and local labour relations. Perhaps its greatest contribution is provided by the later chapters which deal with the rise of nationalism and the attempt to create a new kind of state after independence. Here the excitement of competing ideas of the nation, the high stakes of political disagreement, and the tensions between localism and centralization, leave the reader wishing that the analysis would be pushed on through the Banda era at least. Other readers might wish that brief but fascinating discussions of topics such as football, dance and the 1949 famine could be expanded. However, these minor dissatisfactions do not detract from the magnificent achievement that this book represents.

Reviewed by: Shane Doyle, University of Leeds

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 76 (Winter 2014/15), pp. 97-98]

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