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British Central Africa Protectorate

British Central Africa Protectorate
Protectorate of British Empire

Flag of British Central Africa Protectorate Coat of arms
God Save the Queen
Capital Zomba
Languages English
Government Constitutional monarchy
 -  1893-1901 Queen Victoria
 -  1901-1907 Edward VII
 -  1893-1896 Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston
 -  1907 Francis Barrow Pearce
 -  Established 1893
 -  Changed to Nyasaland Protectorate 6 July 1907
 -  1904[1] 109,342 km² (42,217 sq mi)
Currency Pound

The British Central Africa Protectorate (BCA) was a protectorate proclaimed in 1889 and ratified in 1891 that occupied the same area as present-day Malawi: it was renamed Nyasaland in 1907. British interest in the area arose from visits by David Livingstone from 1858 onward during his exploration of the Zambezi area. This encouraged missionary activity starting in the 1860s, followed by a small number of settlers. The Portuguese government attempted to claim much of this area, but their claims were disputed by the British government. To forestall a Portuguese expedition claiming effective occupation, a protectorate was proclaimed, first over the south of this area, then over the whole of it in 1889. After negotiations with the Portuguese and German governments on its boundaries, the protectorate was formally ratified by the British government in May, 1891.


  • Origin of the Protectorate 1
  • Administration and the land issue 2
  • Population 3
  • Economy and transport 4
  • History of the evolution of the British Central Africa Protectorate 5
  • Postage stamps and postal history of British Central Africa 6
  • References 7

Origin of the Protectorate

After the Shire Highlands south of Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) and the lands west of the lake were explored by David Livingstone between the 1858 and 1864 as part of his Zambezi expeditions, several Anglican and Presbyterian missions were established in the area in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1878 The African Lakes Company Limited, predecessor to the African Lakes Corporation Limited was established in Glasgow by a group of local businessmen with links to the Presbyterian missions. Their aim was to set up a trade and transport concern that would work in close cooperation with the missions to combat the slave trade by introducing legitimate trade, to make a profit, and to develop European influence in the area. A small mission and trading settlement was established at Blantyre in 1876 and a British consul (representative) took up residence there in 1883.[2]

Concessionaires holding prazo estates from the Portuguese crown were active in the lower valley of the Shire River from the 1830s and the Portuguese government claimed suzerainty over much of Central Africa without effective occupation. In 1879 the Portuguese government formally claimed the area south and east of the Ruo River (which currently forms the southeastern border of Malawi), and in 1882 occupied the lower Shire River valley as far as the Ruo. The Portuguese then attempted to negotiate British acceptance of their territorial claims, but the convening of the Berlin Conference (1884) ended these discussions. Meanwhile, the African Lakes Company was attempting to obtain the status of a Chartered company from the British government but had failed by 1886.[3] In 1885-86 Alexandre de Serpa Pinto undertook an expedition which reached Shire Highlands but which failed make any treaties of protection with the Yao chiefs in territories west of Lake Malawi.[4]

As late as 1888, the British Foreign Office declined to accept responsibility to protect the rudimentary British settlements in the Shire Highlands, despite claims by the African Lakes Company of Portuguese interference with their trading activities. However, it also declined to negotiate with the Portuguese government on their claim that the Shire Highlands should be considered part of Portuguese East Africa, as it was not under their effective occupation.[5] In order to prevent Portuguese occupation, the British government sent Henry Hamilton Johnston as British consul to Mozambique and the Interior, with instructions to report on the extent of Portuguese rule in the Zambezi and Shire valleys and the vicinity, and to make conditional treaties with local rulers beyond Portuguese jurisdiction. These conditional treaties did not amount to the establishment of a British protectorate, but prevented those rulers from accepting protection from another state.[6]

In 1888, the Portuguese government instructed its representatives in Portuguese East Africa to attempt to make treaties of protection with the Yao chiefs southeast of Lake Malawi and in the Shire Highlands and an expedition organised under Antonio Cardosa, a former governor of Quelimane set off in November 1888 for the lake. Rather later, in early 1889, a second expedition led by Serpa Pinto moved up the Shire valley. Between them, these two expedition made over 20 treaties with chiefs in what is now Malawi.[7] Serpa Pinto met Johnston in August 1889 east of the Ruo, when Johnston advised him not to cross the river into the Shire Highlands.[8] Previously, Serpa Pinto had acted with caution, but he now crossed the Ruo to Chiromo, now in Malawi.[9] In September, following minor clashes after Serpa Pinto's force had advanced, Johnston's deputy declared a Shire Highlands Protectorate, despite the contrary instructions.[10] Johnston’s proclamation of a further protectorate, the Nyasaland Districts Protectorate, west of Lake Malawi was contrary to his instructions, but was endorsed by the Foreign Office in May, 1891.[11] These actions led to an Anglo-Portuguese Crisis in which a British refusal of arbitration was followed by the 1890 British Ultimatum. This demanded that the Portuguese gave up all claims to territories beyond the Ruo River and west of Lake Malawi. The Portuguese government accepted under duress, and an 1891 Anglo-Portuguese treaty fixed the southern borders of what had been renamed British Central Africa Protectorate.[12][13] The northern border of the protectorate was agreed at the Songwe River as part of an Anglo-German Convention in 1890. Its western border with Northern Rhodesia was fixed in 1891 at the drainage divide between Lake Malawi and the Luangwa River by agreement with the British South Africa Company, which governed what is today Zambia under Royal Charter until 1924.[14]

Administration and the land issue

Sir Henry Hamilton Johnston was Commissioner and Consul-General from 1 February 1891 to 16 April 1896. Sir Alfred Sharpe, who had been Johnston's deputy from 1891, took over as Commissioner and Consul-General in 1896, serving until 1 April 1910 (as Governor of the Nyasaland Protectorate from 1907), with Francis Barrow Pearce and William Henry Manning as acting commissioner for a period in 1907 and 1908.

In 1891, Johnston only controlled a fraction of the Shire Highlands, itself a small part of the whole protectorate and between then and 1895 he used a small force of Indian troops to fight several small wars to impose British rule. The troops, assisting the locally-recruited police force, were then used until 1898 to suppress the slave trade.[15] Although the first Consul appointed in 1883 had used Blantyre as his base, the second moved to Zomba because it was closer to the slave route running from Lake Malawi to the coast. Johnston also preferred Zomba because of its relative isolation, healthiness and superb scenery, and it became the governor's residence and administrative centre; Blanyre remained the commercial centre. In 1896, Johnston set up a small government Secretariat (administrative office) there which, with a few technical advisors appointed soon after, formed the nucleus of his central administration.[16] In 1892, Johnston received powers to set up courts and divide the protectorate into districts, appointing Residents (whose title later became District Commissioner) to these. The power of existing chiefs were minimised in favour of direct rule by the Residents.[17]

One of the major legal problems facing Johnston was that of land claims. For up to 25 years before the protectorate was formed, a number of European traders, missionaries and others had claimed to have acquired often large areas of land through contracts signed with local chiefs, usually for derisory payment. Although Johnston had a duty look into the validity of these land deals, and although he accepted that the land belonged to its tribes, so their chiefs had no right to alienate it, he put forward the legal fiction that each chief’s people had tacitly accepted he could assume such a right. As a result, Johnston accepted those claims where the signatory was the chief of the tribe occupying the land if the terms of the contract were not inconsistent with British sovereignty. Where claims were accepted, Johnston issued Certificates of Claim (in effect the grant of freehold, or fee simple, title). Out of 61 claims made, only two were rejected outright and a handful reduced in size. These Certificate of Claim were issued at a time when no professional judges had been appointed to the protectorate, and the work of Johnston and his assistants was subsequently criticised by judges and later administrators.[18][19]

In total, 59 Certificates of Claim to land rights were registered, mostly between 1892 and 1894, covering an area of 3,705,255 acres,almost 1.5 million hectares or 15% of the total land area of the Protectorate. This included 2,702,379 acres, over 1 million hectares, in the North Nyasa District that the British South Africa Company acquired for its mineral potential and which was never turned into plantation estates. Except for the grant in the northern region, much of the remaining land, some 867,000 acres, or over 350,000 hectares of estates included much of the best arable lands in the Shire Highlands, the most densely populated part of the country.[20][21]

In the first years of the protectorate, very little of the alienated land was planted. Settlers wanted labour and encouraged existing Africans to stay on the undeveloped land, and new workers (often migrants from Mozambique) to move onto it, and grow their own crops. From the late 1890s, when the estates started to produce coffee, the owners started to charge these tenants a rent, to be satisfied by two months’ labour a year.[22]

In order to raise revenue, and also to increase the supply of labour, a Hut Tax was imposed from 1895 in the Shire Highlands. This was gradually extended to the rest of the protectorate, becoming universal in 1906. It was nominally three shillings a year (15 pence), but could be satisfied by one month’s labour a year on an settler estate or working for the government.[23][24]

The name of the protectorate was changed to the Nyasaland Protectorate on 6 July 1907.


There was only one, rather limited, official census in this period, in 1901, which returned a population of 736,724. However, the African population was estimated on the basis of hut tax records with a multiplier for average inhabitants per hut. As no taxes were collected in some areas in the north of the protectorate in 1901, their inhabitants were estimated on the basis of occasional official visits.[25] It is believed that much of the country was reasonably well populated in the mid-19th century, but by the 1880s large areas had become under-populated through devastating raids by the Ngoni people and the famines which they caused or slave raiding. There may well have been large areas in the Shire Highlands that were virtually depopulated. Some of the shortfall in population may been made good by the inward migration of families groups of so-called “Anguru”, Lomwe language speaking migrants from the parts of Mozambique east of the Shire Highlands estates, who became estate tenants.[26] They began to arrive from 1899, and the 1921 census counted 108,204 “Anguru”. Neither the 1901 nor the 1911 censuses recorded tribal affiliation, but the very substantial population increases in districts adjacent to Mozambique, especially Blantyre and Zomba districts, whose recorded populations more than doubled in this decade, suggest substantial immigration. In this period, relatively few Africans were leaving the protectorate as migrant workers, but this became more common later.[27]

Economy and transport

Throughout the period of the protectorate, most of its people were subsistence farmers growing maize, millet and other food crops for their own consumption. As it had no economic mineral resources, its colonial economy had to be based on agriculture, but before 1907 it had hardly started to develop. In pre-colonial times trade was limited to the export of ivory and forest products in exchange for cloth and metals and, for the first few years of the protectorate, ivory and rubber collected from indigenous vines were the principal elements of a tiny export trade. The first estate crop was coffee, grown commercially in quantity from around 1895, but competition from Brazil which flooded the world markets by 1905 and droughts led to its decline in favour of tobacco and cotton. Both these crops had previously been grown in small quantities, but the decline of coffee prompted planters to turn to tobacco in the Shire Highlands and cotton in the Shire Valley. Tea was also first planted commercially in 1905 in the Shire Highlands, but significant development of tobacco and tea growing only took place after the opening of the Shire Highlands Railway in 1908.[28]

Before the railway, water was the most efficient means of transport. From the time of Livingstone’s 1859 expedition, small steamers navigated the Zambezi-Lower Shire river system, and they were later introduced on the Upper Shire and Lake Malawi. The Upper and Lower Shire were separated by about 60 miles of the Middle Shire, where rapids and shallows made navigation impractical, and were both often too shallow for larger vessels. In addition, the main areas of economic activity in the early protectorate were in the Shire Highlands, particularly near Blantyre, which was 25 miles from Chikwawa, a small Shire River port. Transport of goods to river ports was by inefficient and costly head porterage, as the Shire valley was unsuitable for draught animals.[29][30]

Shallow draught steamers carrying 100 tons or less had to negotiate Lower Shire marshes and low-water hazards in the Zambezi and its delta to reach the small, poorly equipped coastal port of Chinde in Mozambique. Low water levels in Lake Nyasa reduced the Shire River’s flow from 1896 to 1934, so the main river ports became Chiromo, further from the main settlements below a steep escarpment and later Port Herald (now Nsanje).[31]

History of the evolution of the British Central Africa Protectorate[32]

Evolution of the British Central Africa Protectorate

Postage stamps and postal history of British Central Africa[33]

Stamp displaying the BCA coat of arms

Main article at Postage stamps and postal history of British Central Africa.


  1. ^ "Census of the British empire. 1901". 1906. p. 178. Retrieved 26 December 2013. 
  2. ^ John G Pike, (1969). Malawi: A Political and Economic History, London, Pall Mall Press pp.77-9
  3. ^ J McCracken, (2012). A History of Malawi, 1859-1966, Woodbridge, James Currey, p. 51. ISBN 978-1-84701-050-6.
  4. ^ M Newitt, (1995). A History of Mozambique, London, Hurst & Co, pp 276-7, 325-6. ISBN 1-85065-172-8
  5. ^ F Axelson, (1967). Portugal and the Scramble for Africa, pp. 182-3, 198-200. Johannesburg, Witwatersrand University Press.
  6. ^ J G Pike, (1969). Malawi: A Political and Economic History, pp. 83-4.
  7. ^ J McCracken, (2012). A History of Malawi, 1859-1966, pp. 52-3 .
  8. ^ J G Pike, (1969). Malawi: A Political and Economic History, pp. 85-6.
  9. ^ J McCracken, (2012). A History of Malawi, 1859-1966, pp. 53, 55 .
  10. ^ M Newitt, (1995). A History of Mozambique, London, Hurst & Co, p 346.
  11. ^ R I Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa: The Making of Malawi and Zambia, 1873-1964, Cambridge (Mass), Harvard University Press, p.15
  12. ^ F Axelson, (1967). Portugal and the Scramble for Africa, pp. 223-6.
  13. ^ M Newitt, (1995). A History of Mozambique, London, Hurst & Co, p 355.
  14. ^ J G Pike, (1969). Malawi: A Political and Economic History, pp. 86-7.
  15. ^ J G Pike, (1969). Malawi: A Political and Economic History, pp. 90-2.
  16. ^ B. Pachai, (1971). The Story of Malawi's Capitals: Old and New: 1891-1969, The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 35-36.
  17. ^ R I Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, pp. 22-3.
  18. ^ B. Pachai, (1973). Land Policies in Malawi: An Examination of the Colonial Legacy, The Journal of African History, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 682-3, 685.
  19. ^ R. I Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, pp. 29-31.
  20. ^ B. Pachai, (1978). Land and Politics in Malawi 1875-1975, Kingston (Ontario), The Limestone Press, pp. 36-7.
  21. ^ B. Pachai, (1973). Land Policies in Malawi: An Examination of the Colonial Legacy, p. 683
  22. ^ R I Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, pp. 32-4.
  23. ^ R I Rotberg, (1965). The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, pp. 24, 43.
  24. ^ J G Pike, (1969). Malawi: A Political and Economic History, pp. 94-5
  25. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (2000).The African Population of Malawi: An Analysis of the Censuses between 1901 and 1966 by G Coleman, The Society of Malawi Journal Volume 53, Nos. 1/2, p.109.
  26. ^ L White, (1987). “Magomero: Portrait of an African Village”, Cambridge University Press pp. 79-81, 86-9.
  27. ^ R. I. Rotberg, (2000).The African Population of Malawi, pp.111-13.
  28. ^ . J G Pike, (1969). Malawi: A Political and Economic History, pp. 173, 176-8, 183.
  29. ^ B. Pachai, (1967). In The Wake of Livingstone and The British Administration: Some Considerations of Commerce and Christianity in Malawi, The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 42-3.
  30. ^ E. Mandala, (2006). Feeding and Fleecing the Native: How the Nyasaland Transport System Distorted a New Food Market, 1890s-1920s, The Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 32, No 3, pp.508-12
  31. ^ G. L. Gamlen, (1935). Transport on the River Shire, Nyasaland, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 86, No. 5, p.451
  32. ^ De Robeck, A Pictorial Essay of the 1898 Provisional of British Central Africa - Nyasaland
  33. ^ Fred J. Melville, British Central Africa

See also: Henry Hamilton Johnston, British Central Africa: An Attempt to Give Some Account of a Portion of the Territories Under British Influence North of the Zambesi (1898)

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