by R. B. Boeder, history lecturer, University of Zambia.
The Yao and the Southern Ngoni under Chief Gomani resisted the imposition of colonial rule in Nyasaland with considerable violence while other groups such as the Lakeside Tonga and the Chewa accepted their new rulers with relative ease. But of all the peoples who were brought under British control in the country the Northern Ngoni of Mzimba District were unique in that they remained independent of formal administrative strictures until 1904 and thereafter retained considerable freedom of action until 1915. This was due to their own strength as an ethnic group and to careful preparation and close cooperation between the two most important Europeans in the country, Nyasaland’s senior missionary, Reverend Doctor Robert Laws of Livingstonia Mission, and the Protectorate’s first governor, Sir Alfred Shame. The life of Laws has been well documented by both his fellow missionaries and modern academic authors.1 But until now Alfred Sharpe has been ignored unjustly, overshadowed by his better known contemporaries, Sir Harry Johnston and Joseph Booth.2
The one constant element in the life of Sir Alfred Sharpe was a continuous vital efflux of energy translated into motion. From the day he was born in 1853 until the day he died in 1935 he was always moving and he animated the lives of thousands of other people as well. There was a restless vitality about the man, a spirited dynamism inherited from his father, the distinguished Victorian architect, Edmund Sharpe, which set him apart from the crowd.3 This characteristic he shared with many of the other men he encountered while building Britain’s second empire. These included individuals Sharpe joined swords with – Johnston and Frederick Lugard – and those such as Booth and the Afro-Arab slaver Mlozi with whom he crossed swords.
From childhood when his family moved from Lancaster to Wales then to Switzerland and France through his old age when he took solitary trips by rail and on foot through Southern and East Africa, Sharpe was an indefatigable wanderer. During these travels he walked, ran, bicycled, paddled a canoe, sailed, took steamships, was carried in a hammock, drove automobiles and motorcycles over thousands of miles.
Sharpe was educated at Haileybury College near Hertford, read law with a private firm, and at age twenty-three was admitted to the bar as a solicitor. In 1883, he and a cousin travelled to Fiji where they invested their money and that of the Union Bank of Australia in a sugar planting venture on Viti Levu Island. The partners lacked experience in tropical agriculture and sugar prices plummeted abruptly sending Sharpe Fletcher Company into bankruptcy barely a year after its founding.4 After a brief stint as a stipendiary magistrate in Fiji the romantic Sharpe left the South Seas for another far off place, Central Africa, where he occupied himself hunting elephants and selling their ivory to the African Lakes Company. He soon became one of the great “cast—iron constitution elephant hunters” of east and Central Africa rivaling such better known big game hunters as C. H. Stigand and F. C. Selous in hunting skills and bush acumen.5
During this initial period in British Central Africa he allied with Frederick Lugard and Monteith Fotheringham in their war against Mlozi. Lugard respected Sharpe’s character and judgment, his good relations with Africans who admired his courage, and later wrote of his lifelong friend: “Everyone had unlimited confidence in Sharpe. If he undertook a thing, it was immediately considered as tantamount to accomplishment.”6
In mid-1889, Sharpe met Johnston who quickly engaged him to make treaties with local chiefs under conditions established by the 1885-86 Congress of Berlin which required European nations to prove their interests in various African areas by coming to terms with local leaders. Sharpe’s journeys, some successful, some not, took him to Western Nyasaland, Mozambique, Northeastern Rhodesia and to Katanga where he narrowly escaped death at the hands of Msiri. Northern Rhodesia and especially the area between Lakes Tanganyika and Mweru became his favourite place and he returned there many times to hunt, explore and deal with various problems which cropped up in that remote region.
During Sharpe’s long tenure as a colonial administrator from 1891 to 1910, he helped defeat slave raiders and pacify the country, established rules governing land claims settlements, and generally laid the legal and administrative groundwork for the country’s entire colonial history. He also strove to build a viable cash crop agricultural economy for Africans and Europeans alike, although his efforts on behalf of the black population did not achieve notable success. He was never the hand maiden of commerce or industry and while fighting to avoid monopolies in Nyasaland’s business circles he battled local planters and foreign mining firms to better wages and improved treatment of African workers while encouraging development of African education.
Sharpe tended to become unhappy when sitting still, and he preferred having those around him busily engaged. Indeed, he helped put a continent in motion by making the King’s African Rifles of Nyasaland a mobile brigade ready for action anywhere and by facilitating the emigration of labourers from the land of the lake to the neighbouring Rhodesia and South Africa.
Sending legions of workers abroad and armies of soldiers overseas required transportation and here railroads formed a link between Sharpe’s childhood, his adult years and senescence. His father built railways in his native Lancashire and France and tramways in Switzerland while Alfred guided construction of the first line from Port Herald to Blantyre—Limbe and promoted the railroad which eventually joined Lake Malawi with the Indian Ocean. He was also responsible for building Nyasaland’s central north—south highway. One of his most notable domestic achievements was bringing the Northern Ngoni under governmental control without resorting to the force which characterized Harry Johnston’s methods.
In the early 1850s the northern Ngoni settled in the region around modern Mzimba and proceeded to bring under their control the local Tumbuka and Tonga peoples. Ngoni society was warlike, patrilineal, and its main source of wealth was cattle. Mzimba District was remote from the main area of European settlement in the Shire Highlands, but from the late 1870’s Africans there had contact with whites in the form of Free Church of Scotland missionaries.
In 1881, Robert Laws established Livingstonia Mission at Bandawe on the northwestern shore of Lake Nyasa. Two years previously he had met Chief M’mbelwa (referred to as Mombera in early writings). A mutual regard developed between the two men and over a period of years Laws persuaded the Ngoni leader to cease raiding the Tonga. Gradually, the missionaries, who were helped immensely by William Koyi, a Zulu—speaking teacher, ingratiated themselves with the local people as educators and arbitrators in legal disputes thereby taking some of the traditional chiefly powers onto themselves. In 1885, Reverend W. A. Elmslie set up a school at Ekwendeni in the heart of Ngoniland furthering mission influence over the tribesmen.
The Johnston administration, occupied with defeating Yaos in the south and unable to muster the estimated £20,000 for a military expedition against the Ngoni, adopted a hands off policy as long as the northerners remained peaceful. This is described in the following April 1896 letter from Johnston to Elmslie:
You will observe that in the new Regulations extending Hut Tax to all parts of the Protectorate, I have exempted only one district, viz., that portion of the West Nyasa District which is occupied by the northern Ngoni. My reasons for doing so are these:— Hither to the Ngont chiefs have shown themselves capable of managing the affairs of their own country without compelling the interference of the Administration of the Protectorate. They have maintained a friendly attitude towards the English and have allowed us to travel and settle unhindered in and through their country. As long, therefore, as the Northern Ngoni continue this line of conduct and give us no cause for interference in their internal affairs, so long, I trust, they may remain exempt from taxation as they will put us to no expense.7
By 1899, Livingstonia missionaries were baptising Ngoni and their subject people, the Tonga, together. In that year the Ziehl case showed that government control could mean protection from imposition and injury. Ziehl was typical of a number of undesirable Rhodesian whites who were attracted to the western lake districts by rumours of gold and cattle for sale. Passing himself off as an administration official, Ziehl gave uniforms to his African companions making them look like Protectorate police. While abusing people and stealing cattle at Ekwendeni he got into a fracas and suffered a fractured skull. During the melee two Africans were killed and two Ngoni women raped. C. A Cardew, Resident Collector at Nkhata Bay, put Ziehl on a three day trial attended by thousands of local people. He was found guilty of stealing cattle, fined £50, and ordered to pay £9-10-0 compensation to each of the dead men’s families.8
Despite this and other favourable signs that the Ngoni were ready to come under administrative control, Dr. Laws advised the then Commissioner Sharpe to be cautious in dealing with them. The veteran missionary felt his efforts had broken the tribe’s militancy, but he wanted the transfer of power to be accomplished with tact and dignity. He wrote Sharpe that:
The Ngoni will not be hurried, and to attempt to force the pace will be to invite failure. There are still some of the old fellows left yet, but their power for evil is waning, and the younger men from schools are making their influence felt on the side of righteousness and progress.9
Sharpe appreciated the advice. Thinking perhaps of the Blantyre missionaries whom he and Johnston had battled bitterly he wrote in return:
This is a great comfort and help to me. It is so seldom that those engaged in mission work really believe and understand that the civil authorities have nothing but the best intentions in what they do.10
Sharpe left the timing of the move to administrative control to Laws. “Write and tell me when you are satisfied and I will act at once.”11
In 1904, the time seemed right. During the latter part of the nineteenth century Ngoni prosperity and social cohesion were breaking down due to a number of factors. There was a political vacuum for seven years between the death of Chief M’mbelwa and the taking of power by his son Chimtunga in 1898. During this time tribal restraints on the estimated 250,000 Ngoni and Tumbuku deteriorated. The ecological balance of the region was also being destroyed because of overgrazing, overpopulation, and a falling watertable.12 In 1896-97, the great rinderpest epidemic nearly wiped out the Ngoni’s cattle and labour emigration was draining off the youth and vigour of the nation. Law cases were being taken to missionaries and administration officials instead of to traditional leaders. And in 1903, famine forced many Ngoni out of their Kasitu Valley heartland into the surrounding countryside where quarrels with their new neighbours led to raids and murders. This meant they had broken Johnston’s groundrule and would have to accept outside control. So in April 1904, Laws communicated these developments to Sharpe, but warned that the government’s success depended on the attitude of the district officer left in charge and his willingness to respect the old authority figures.
In late August, the Commissioner took his wife, lady Rosamond, on board the steamer “Guendolen” and they had a pleasant trip up the lake from Fort Johnston to Florence Bay. The winds were southerly, but the dreaded mwela, a strong southeasterly gale capable of raising enormous seas and swamping even the largest lake steamers, was absent. After climbing 2,500 feet from the lakeshore village of Khondowe up the escarpment to the mission proper located on a spur of the Nyika Plateau, the visitors spent two days with Dr. Laws and his wife as the first guests in their new stone house, Zinyumba. Sharpe remarked that, “If only I could have got trained workers I would have built Zomba of stone.”13 Impressed with the extent and variety of mission work, he and Laws talked far into the night about the Ngoni situation and the future role of the mission in local African affairs. The next day messengers were sent to call the Ngoni to an indaba and, because Elmslie, still chief missionary at Ekwendeni, was on leave, the Reverends Stuart and Fraser were asked to be present so the people could see that the new administration had the mission’s blessing.
On September 2, thousands of Ngoni — chiefs, indunas, warriors with spears and shields, women and children — gathered at Ekwendeni for the dramatic confrontation.The few soldiers Sharpe had brought along mingled unarmed with the throng. The two missionaries, Lady Rosamond, and Mrs. Stuart looked on as the Commissioner spoke to a circle of chiefs with a mission teacher, David Zinyoka, acting as interpreter.
Sharpe told the tribesmen they had broken their agreement with Johnston. This meant they would have to start paying taxes, but the government would not interfere with the tribal constitution; local police would be Ngoni; and all past cases would be forgotten. Chiefs’ questions filled the long afternoon, but by sunset the agreement was signed. Sharpe assented to the chiefs’ request that taxation be held off for a year until January 1906, to enable the people to settle into their new homes. Their cattle would not be confiscated for offences committed by their owners; no sudden scattering of subjects beyond their chiefs’ control would be allowed; they would be free to hunt along the bend of the Rukuru River; and land would be found beyond the existing limits of their domain for those who wanted it. It was agreed further that annual payments of £105 would be made to the leading chiefs as long as they assisted government collectors in their work. The six chiefs receiving these stipends were Paramount Chimtunga (£30), Mpherembe, Yohani, Ammon, Mzukuzuku, and Chinde (£15 each). With Laws’ approval, an experienced man, Hector MacDonald, was appointed Resident Collector with W. Pickford as his assistant. MacDonald was told to spend the first year travelling around his new district meeting headmen and learning the needs of the people.
Sharpe graciously gave credit for the peaceful transition to Dr. Laws and his aides. He wrote:
I was surprised to find the chiefs already quite prepared and ready — if not even glad to accept the new condition of affairs; this undoubtedly largely due to the influence exercised by your people. The real early work we have to thank you for, and the difficulties to be experienced these days are not, after all, great compared with those which you had. New comers know little of those days and those troubles, but the ones who know our “ancient” history are fully aware of the very great work carried out by you and your helpers.14
Giving credit to others was typical of Sharpe’s self—deprecating style. But it was he who had responsibility of maintaining peace in the Protectorate and the wisdom to follow good advice when it was offered.
The actual imposition of administrative control differed a good deal from the apparent ease with which Sharpe secured the inital agreement. In June 1906, when he paid McDonald a return visit, the Commissioner found that at first his subordinate’s work had been extremely arduous. The Ngoni valued their independence and since the paramount chief refused to cooperate the collector could obtain labourers, carriers, police and food only with difficulty. MacDonald lived in a tent for the first year and survived only with the help of two old Ngoni servants. The tribesmen were so suspicious they sent their cattle out of the district so the European could not rustle them. But tact and perseverence paid off. In the first five months of 1906, £2,000 in hut tax was collected and the chiefs were actually doing much of the minor administrative work. A court sat at Mzimba the first of every month with two chiefs and the collector as jury; they applied African law and custom wherever possible.15
In October 1909, when Sharpe paid a farewell visit to the north he found that MacDonald had formed a council of seven chiefs. This had been Laws’ suggestion in 1907 when he pointed out that since Africans were supporting the Protectorate financially and were in the majority their opinion should be sought on matters of public policy. He noted that although they would have only limited powers, this would bring the “responsible class” to the side of constitutional government.16 The group met occasionally to discuss important matters and was a forerunner of the provincial and Protectorate—wide African Councils formed after World War II.
Under Sharpe the Ngoni enjoyed a measure of self—government unequalled anywhere else in Nyasaland. This continued for several years after his departure. Of special note is the exemption of the Northern Ngoni from the District Administration (Native) Ordinance of 1912 which limited the powers of chiefs by reducing them to the status of “Principal Headmen”. Only the Ngoni retained a paramount chief whose power, in the eyes of his people, equalled that of the resident collector. But inevitably poor soils and the threat of famine, the annual hut tax and labour emigration put strains on Ngoni society which welled up in mutual recrimination between chiefs and administration.
In a July 1914 meeting the Governor, Sir George Smith, charged the chiefs with encouraging their people to evade paying but tax, of deceiving their resident collector, and of doing little to earn their subsidies. The chiefs, in their turn, complained to Smith about the lack of markets in their district and the unfair obligation to pay taxes in a poverty—stricken area.17 The good relations recommended by Laws and begun by Sharpe and MacDonald broke down completely the next year when Paramount Chimtunga, supported by his fellow chiefs, opposed recruitment of his men for service as tenga—tengas in the Carrier Corps and refused to allow the administration to collect food in his area for the World War I military effort. The era of Ngoni self—government ended when Chimtunga was rusticated in Southern Nyasaland and the 1912 ordinance was imposed making the once proud chiefs little more than messengers for the resident administrator.
After his retirement in 1910, Sir alfred took a series of trips through Central and Eastern Africa which he wrote about in his book, Backbone of Africa.18 Besides recounting his adventures which included a near drowning when his Nile steamer capsized, Sharpe devoted a chapter to his ideas about streamlining the administration of East and Central Africa. He recognized the region’s agricultural potential and urged that European settlers be brought into the area. In 1918-19, he made a trip to Liberia to assess that country’s economic potential which he found to be limited. And in the 1920’s and ’30’s when he was in his 70’s and early 80’s he continued to travel and lecture to geographical societies on his favourite topics: the relation between big game and tsetse flies; the need for railways to open up Africa’s interior to economic development; the rich possibilities for African agriculture (one son, Reginald, became a tobacco grower at Luchenza while another, Edmund, was a colonial administrator in Northern Rhodesia); and the variability of Lake Nyasa and Shire River water levels.
Pluck and hard work characterized the career of Sir Alfred Sharpe. Although proud of his achievements in life he remained an unpretentious man. He was interested mainly in promoting trade, peace and security for Africans and Europeans alike and his successful imposition of colonial rule over the Northern Ngoni without resorting to force shows him to have been a man of considerable understanding and sympathy for African sensibilities.
1) See, for example, James W. Jack, Daybreak in Livingstonia (Edinburgh, 1901); Reminiscences of Livingstonia (London, 1934); and John McCracken, Politics and Christianity in Malawi, 1875-1940. The Impact of the Livingstonia Mission in the Northern Province (London, 1977).
2) See Roland A. Oliver, Sir Harry Johnston and the Scramble for Africa (London, 1957); and George Shepperson and Thomas Price, Independent Africa (Edinburgh, 1958) for details on Joseph Booth.
3) For information on the life or Edmund Sharpe see Robert Jolly, Edmund Sharpe, 1809-1877, A Lancaster Architect (Lancaster, 1977).
4) Colonial Office Correspondence with Fiji, 1884-86, C.O (83/36-43, Public Record Office, London.
5) David Enderby Blunt, Elephant (London, 1912), p. 87.
6) Captain F. D. Lugard, The Rise of Our East African Empire. Early Efforts in Nyasaland and Uganda (London, 1893), P. 84.
7) W. A. Elmslie, Among the Wild Ngoni (Edinburgh, 1899), p. 294-95.
8) Sharpe to Foregin Office, February 24,1899, F.O. 2/208.
9) W. P. Livingstone, op, cit., p. 295.
10) Ibid., p. 248.
11) Ibid., p. 314.
12) Johnston to F.O. March 17,1890, F.O. 84/2051.
13) W. P. Livingstone, op. cit., p. 314.
14) Ibid., p. 320.
15) Sharpe to C.O., June 22, 1906, C.O. 525/13: and British Central Africa Protectorate Annual Report for 1905-06.
16) W. P. Livingstone, op. cit., p. 328.
17) Smith to Bonar Law, January 17,1916, C.O. 525/66.
18) Sir Alfred Sharpe. Backbone of Africa (London, 1921)