Nyasaland (now Malawi) became a British Protectorate in 1893. Administrative control passed to the Colonial Office in 1904, after which it was governed as a Crown Colony. At the outbreak of war, over a million Africans and less than a thousand Europeans lived in the colony. Nyasaland had a short land boundary with German East Africa to the north, and faced it across Lake Nyasa to the east.

East Africa campaign

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King's African Rifles Signallers, Nyasaland,1918. CO 1069/107

Given its geographic location and large African population, Nyasaland played an important role in the East Africa campaign. The Governor, Sir George Smith, ordered a general mobilisation at the end of July 1914. At that time, the military forces consisted of the 500-strong first battalion of the King’s African Rifles and the Nyasaland Volunteer Reserve, of 200 Europeans. A second battalion was raised at the beginning of 1916. By the end of the war, some 19,000 Africans from Nyasaland had been recruited into the King’s African Rifles.

There was action on Lake Nyasa in August 1914, where the German navy operated a gunboat, the Hermann von Weissman. The British gunboat Gwendolen damaged the Hermann von Weissman, while it was laid up for repairs at the lake port of Sphinxhaven. The disabling of the gunboat was completed in May 1915, during a raid led by Lieutenant Commander G Dennistoun and Captain Collins of the King’s African Rifles (ADM 137/1135).

In August 1914 German forces moved across the border into Nyasaland. Lieutenant-Colonel Barton (DSO) took charge of the modest Nyasaland forces, and established a base at Karonga. Both sides suffered heavy casualties during September, which resulted in the clearing of German forces from the borders of Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia.

In early 1916, the British Cabinet decided to invade German East Africa.  General Northey took command of the forces available in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, including South African reinforcements.  Northey began an advance into German East Africa in May 1916 along the length of the border between Lake Nyasa and Lake Tanganyika.

Northey’s forces made rapid progress, occupying Iringa in the southern central part of the territory by the end of August, and continuing to pursue the Germans. Late in 1917, after many skirmishes, the German forces were still not decisively defeated but they retreated into Portuguese East Africa (CAB 45/22, WO 95/5331).

Military labour

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Native Red Cross with wounded, Nyasaland, 1918. CO 1069/107

Northey’s troops covered very large distances over the course of the campaign. They depended upon African porters for supplies of food and equipment. In December 1914, the Nyasaland government enacted the Nyasaland Defence Ordinance, which enabled the Governor to force any person to carry out work necessary for the defence of the Protectorate (CO 541/4).

Throughout the war, the authorities drew heavily on African societies to supply their labour needs. It has been estimated that approximately 180,000 Nyasalanders served as military labourers, suggesting that nearly two thirds of the adult male population served.

Conditions were tough and dangerous. The terrain ranged from the freezing cold of the Livingstone Mountains, to tropical lowlands infected with malaria and sleeping sickness. The numbers that died are not accurately known. Officials recorded 4,440 deaths among military labourers, but in reality many more died in the course of the campaign (CAB 45/29).

Chilembwe rebellion

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General Northey lectures South African Officers and men, Kenya, 1916. CO 1069/133

In January 1915, the Baptist minister John Chilembwe led an uprising against the colonial government. Chilembwe had studied to be a Baptist minister in America and worked as missionary on his return to Nyasaland. He became concerned about the treatment of African workers on cotton estates established by European colonists in the Shire highlands.

The rising was based on longstanding grievances, which had been made worse by wartime demands for labour. Chilembwe’s men attacked some of the European estates and several employees were killed. This failed to produce a more general rising as Chilembwe had hoped, and the rebellion was defeated by the army. He tried to escape into Portuguese East Africa but was killed by police on 3 February 1915 (CO 525/61 paper 12753, CO 525/62 paper 35337, CO 525/67 paper 21430)

Key figures

Sir George Smith

Sir George Smith

Governor of Nyasaland (1913-1923)

Brigadier-General Edward Northey

Brigadier-General Edward Northey

British Army Officer (1888-1926)

Detail of NPG x65191 , Sir Edward Northey, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

John Chilembwe

John Chilembwe

Baptist minister (1899-1915)

Key documents

CO 1069/133

General Northey and staff leaving Ssongra to go South to Nyasaland, 1916-1918. CO 1069/133

  • East Africa and Lakes, July-December 1915 ADM 137/1135
  • General progress report on the 3rd/1st Kings African Rifles, January-June 1917 CAB 45/22
  • War Diaries Norforce WO 95/5331
  • Nyasaland Government Gazettes 1912-1914 CO 541/4
  • The organisation of labour in a campaign in Tropical Africa, by Major General Giffard CAB 45/29

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