In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Malawi

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Malawian Writers of the Colonial Era
  • Early Cultures, 1st–13th Centuries
  • Precolonial History

African Studies Malawi
Owen Kalinga
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0039


Malawi is, like most countries in Africa, a creation of European imperialism in the sense that no such political configuration existed before 1891 when the British government declared the area west and south of Lake Malawi a protectorate, naming it British Central Africa and, in 1904, changing its name to Nyasaland. Prior to becoming a British possession, the area consisted of the territories of peoples speaking different, and sometimes, related languages. They included the Mang’anja in the Shire Highlands and the Lower Shire region, the Chewa in the center, and numerous groups in northern region, such as the Tonga, Tumbuka, Ngonde, Nyiha-Lambya, and Sukwa. All these peoples also lived across the borders of the new imperial territories in Mozambique, Northern Rhodesia, and Tanganyika, and all of them were organized in polities of various sizes. The Maravi Empire had at one time dominated the Chewa and part of the Man’ganja areas but, by the mid-19th century, it had broken into smaller units. From about that time too waves of Yao from the country farther east of the lake arrived in the region, settling just south of it, in the Salima area, and in the Shire Highlands, where some assumed dominance over the Mang’anja. The Ngoni, who were part of the southern African Mfecane, also migrated into the Lake Malawi area in the 19th century, and they made their homes in the northern and central parts of the country. In the first two decades of the 20th century, thousands of Lomwe families from Mozambique moved into the Shire Highlands, mostly in areas such as Mulanje, Thyolo, and Chiradzulu, where available land was sparse because of the European tobacco and tea estates that had been established beginning in the 1880s. Colonial rule ended in July 1964. Nyasaland changed its name to Malawi after the old Chewa Empire, and it became a republic within the British Commonwealth of Nations. The first decades of independence were marked by the dominant rule of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda and his Malawi Congress Party. Since 1994, Malawi has been fully democratic, and the country has had constitutionally mandated free presidential and general elections.

General Overviews

The best books that present an overview of Malawi’s past are McCracken 2012, Ross 2009, and Power 2010, which cover basically the same period and concentrate on political history. Phiri, et al. 1999 remains the best summary of precolonial Malawi, especially now that Pachai 1972 is outdated.

  • McCracken, John. A History of Malawi, 1859–1966. Woodbridge, UK: James Currey, 2012.

    This is the most up-to-date general history of Malawi covering mainly the colonial period and, unlike previous syntheses, pays particular attention to the interaction among political, socioeconomic, and cultural factors in developmental change in Malawi.

  • Pachai, Bridgral, ed. The Early History of Malawi. London: Longman, 1972.

    This is a collection of papers from the first major academic conference on the history of Malawi, and many of the issues discussed have been updated by research in the intervening years.

  • Phiri, K. M., O. J. M. Kalinga, and H. H. Bhila. “The Northern Zambezia–Lake Malawi Region.” In Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Bethwell A. Ogot, 608–639. General History of Africa 5. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

    This is the most comprehensive summary of the precolonial history of Malawi.

  • Power, Joey. Political Culture and Nationalism in Malawi: Building Kwacha. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2010.

    A detailed and authoritative account of African politics leading to independence in 1964.

  • Ross, Andrew C. Colonialism to Cabinet Crisis: A Political History of Malawi. Zomba, Malawi: Kachere Series, 2009.

    Though this work is based on less extensive research than Power 2010, it benefits from the author’s personal knowledge of many indigenous Malawian nationals serving at all levels whom he met during his time as a Church of Scotland minister in late colonial Malawi and after he left the country soon after independence in 1964.

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