British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R E N Smith
In 1950, when I arrived in Nyasaland, it was trying to live down its unhappy nickname of the period - the Cinderella of Central Africa. At this time it was undoubtedly rather down at heel, for during the war districts had been amalgamated as the younger and fitter officers left to serve in the armed forces, the professional services suffered similarly and the general infrastructure was pared to the bone. The first sign of returning life was the result of the burgeoning Colonial Development and Welfare grants that an optimistic British government had started in a modest way in the depths of the war, and now, in the late forties and early fifties, the previously all but moribund administration was slowly moving to a more productive existence.

From the start there was a major problem in the lack of experience of the officers available to do the work. By 1950 the Department of Agriculture was reasonably well staffed. Excluding specialist and support staff there were about sixty professional officers, but only the three top men (who were inevitably office bound) and three others had been in the country long - all the rest were quite new. In the Provincial and District Administration the same pattern pertained; of about 85 officers, only twenty had been in the country for five years or more, and a number of these were in Secretariat or other posts outside district work. While we all did our best, there was a general dearth of relevant experience.

Agricultural Enforcement in Nyasaland
Khasu (Hoe)
However, with a forceful governor and a persuasive and energetic Director of Agriculture, the economy of the country was to be galvanised into action and expansion. Unhappily the country was not endowed with much in the way of mineral wealth - no gold, no diamonds, no coal, no iron; there was plenty of bauxite at Mlanje, but one of the hard rules of economics was that a base mineral more than three hundred miles from the sea was just not a viable prospect for exploitation. All Nyasaland had to offer the world was great beauty, plenty of water and a large, friendly and hard-working population. The technical advance on which all development had to be based was the humble khasu - the hoe. Wielded by the African farmer, this simple tool was an efficient cultivator; it consisted of a sharp spade-shaped blade (about 12 in by 10 in - though there were different sizes) with a long spike, which latter appendage fitted through a hole in a three-foot long club-like handle, and with it the whole country's gardens were dug over, stones prised out and the whole kept clear of weeds. Swung towards the user, it was necessary to avoid chopping off one's toes, but during a sojourn of a dozen years in the country I do not remember any such accident. Hoes wore out fairly regularly, but even the remains had their value as boot scrapers and other exotic uses; to this day I have on my wall two pairs of wicked looking weapons, a pair of battle axes and a pair of stabbing spears, which had started their existence as common or garden hoes.

Early in 1950 the close collaboration of Governor and Director of Agriculture was marked by the issue of a personal and signed directive from His Excellency to all officers concerned with the field. This letter was a four page document in exceedingly small print and was most comprehensive in its direction; it was a remarkable summation of Government agricultural policy, and I have kept my "Dear Smith" copy to this day.

Much of it was sensible, even if it still held traces of ancient prejudices - "I am told that the Nyasaland African is lazy ... (but) the low output cannot be entirely attributed to laziness...". He contrasted this poor production with the high reputation for industry enjoyed by Nyasa workers outside the country, and attributed this largely to a deficient diet. He was rather closer to the mark when he commented on the fact that in earlier days the African could feed himself adequately on about thee months' work a year; well, what man of any sense in the tropics would want to work harder than he must - the Protestant work ethic has seldom held any charms for the inhabitants of a hot and humid country, be it Africa or Burma. Having said that compulsion would not work, he then went on to detail the agricultural planning involved - with compulsion - for all types of farming, starting with soil conservation - which section ended with the minatory words "Destructive methods of cultivation must be proscribed and offenders punished" - and in this phrase lurked the early success and ultimate utter failure of the scheme of action. Each district had to plan for increased production along the lines set out, and submit these plans to the Provincial Commissioner, who in consultation with the provincial departmental officers and the Natural Resources Board, would approve or amend. Guidelines for each province were then set out.

Agricultural Enforcement in Nyasaland
Sir Geoffrey Colby
The Governor, Sir Geoffrey Colby, had come to Nyasaland in that office after 23 years in Nigeria, so at the date of this letter had had not quite two years in the country. The Director of Agriculture, Dick Kettlewell, however, had been in Nyasaland since 1934 and knew it intimately in all seasons and conditions. The Governor's letter bore all the hall marks of having been composed as a policy paper by a senior and deeply experienced agricultural field officer, and it was indeed the brain child of this highly able officer that went out over His Excellency's signature.

Agricultural Enforcement in Nyasaland
Nyasaland Tea Factory
So the future of the country had to lie in agriculture in all its manifestations. The early mainstay of tea was not susceptible of much government influence, as it was entirely privately owned. The only temporary exception had been the wide Conforzi estates, sequestered to Government during its owner's internment as an enemy alien, but returned to him with the reappearance of Italy in the allied fold. Tobacco was both plantation (European) and African produced, and was overseen and largely operated by a Tobacco Board (a quasi-Government affair), though the tobacco auctions were entirely commercial. There was considerable opportunity for expansion and assistance, while in those primitive days tobacco was considered a social boon and not a menace. With China being thoroughly inscrutable at this time, there was a fair opportunity for the cultivation of tung nuts, but this was firmly in the hands of the East Asiatic Company - in spite of its name a Danish concern. However tung required a major capital input and a long lead time before the nuts could be harvested. The first crop ever tried in Nyasaland was coffee, and by 1900 two million pounds were exported, but crop failures and a poor price had led to its abandonment. Rice was a possibility, but did not come into its own until many years later, under a Malawi Congress government.

Agricultural Enforcement in Nyasaland
Tobacco Empire Marketing Poster
Another promising prospect, not yet fully tapped, was cotton, which grew well in the hotter and lower districts of the country, i.e. the Lake Shore and Shire Valley. Historically, this had been an early considerable success, production in 1916/17 reaching 3.5 million pounds, but this had been in decline for many years. There was a body already in existence, the British Cotton Growers' Association, with a large plant near Balaka, but it was moribund; Government proposed to move in with all the forces at its command, and vastly increase the production of cotton.

Agricultural Enforcement in Nyasaland
Balaka Station
But by far the most widespread agriculture was on a subsistence level. With some minor exceptions the population was rural, each villager producing what he and his family needed, and, in good times, some over for sale and barter. I have said "he", but in fact while gardens tended to be opened and broken in by male labour, much of the actual grind of cultivation was done by the women. The need for money and adventure and a natural dislike for the dullness of manual toil in the gardens induced many young men to travel abroad to seek work. Many were recruited on contract by the two labour organisations - the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (Winela) and the Rhodesian ditto - (Mtandizi = "assistance"). Neither of these bodies was a slaver recruiter, and both were strictly regulated by law. They had to ascertain a man's physical fitness to work, see that he went to an approved employer, and that he sent regular remittances home to his family, and that he returned at the end of his contract. This was fine as far as it went, but neither recruiting body could know whether or not the man's family at home would suffer without his labour, while many Africans went off on their own initiative. At the time of which I speak there were scores of thousands of Nyasaland men abroad, and many were known as machona - the lost ones - for they never came home, nor sent money. There was another social factor that may have encouraged this movement of men, that I have never seen taken into account in learned treatises - the practise of uxorilocal settlement. Put simply, the custom demanded that a man go and live in his wife's village - and what man of any colour or creed would really relish living away from his own home and surrounded by all his wife's female relations?

Now the Government, through the Department of Agriculture, set about improving the general standard of agricultural practices. Unlike that pertaining among the more sophisticated peasantry of Asia, African "garden" agriculture was fairly simple. You cleared the bush, burned off the resultant rubbish, and there was your garden. The growing pressure of population increase meant that the gardens could no longer be rotated, and were used for ever and a day. Since no regard was paid to the contour, the annual heavy rains sent vast amounts of topsoil coursing down the Shire River; it was said that Nyasaland was rapidly becoming a mudbank at the mouth of Zambesi, of which the Shire was a tributary.

To eradicate this abuse of the land, agricultural rules almost draconian in their severity were brought it, and the peasantry forced to follow them. The technique behind the rules was sensible enough, and was based on "ridging and boxing". First of all an Agriculture Department capitao (foreman, from the Portuguese for "captain") would come along, and mark the contour lines in the gardens. The owner then had to hoe up ridges a foot or more high, and three feet apart from each other, along the contour and over the full extent of his garden. As if that was not hard enough, he or she had to put in transverse closure ridges every six feet, so that from above the garden would resemble a brick wall in pattern. The outcome would be that the regular rains would be retained in the hollows thus created and preserve both moisture and soil.

Now these rules, if accompanied and introduced by a persuasive propaganda campaign, might have been acceptable. However, there were three problems; the first was that the contours depended on the skill and accuracy of the capitaos who marked them, and the care with which they were followed - otherwise they were worse than useless, merely creating more runnels for rainwater run-off. The second was the limited amount of physical endurance available to the garden owners, who were only too often women or old men. The final problem was much worse. We did not attempt much in the way of persuasion - it was all done by compulsion and punishment. Still worse was the fact that the District Officers, to whom the people looked for (and usually got) fair and sympathetic treatment, were themselves among the persecutors. As I have said, we had a forceful Governor and an enthusiastic and driving Director of Agriculture, and the result of their otherwise praiseworthy close co-operation was to turn the District Administration into the handmaid of the Agricultural Department. We were obliged to travel round and round the district, harassing the unfortunate peasantry into these exhausting labours. The African farmer is no more appreciative of being bullied into virtue than any other farmer - or for that matter any other human being - and from the outset the ridging and boxing rules were hated; the first major act of the Malawi Congress Government on assuming power was to abolish these laws - and the unhappy country is still being washed down to the sea. We, the district staff, were allowed no discretion in the enforcement of the laws, and on one occasion I found myself preaching the virtues and detailing the penalties of the agricultural rules to a village in the heart of the Elephant Marsh near Chiromo - a spot completely on the flat, in a swamp, and liable to be under water anyway in the rains. The inspection of gardens, by the way, meant just that; it was not a matter of airily casting an eye over the landscape, but a careful and detailed inspection of each garden sod by crumbling sod - I must have stumbled over many miles of furrows on these visitations.

Agricultural Enforcement in Nyasaland
Nyasaland Cotton
Having thus ground the faces of the poor we then set about improving their lot by encouraging the planting and propagation of cotton. Even then we did not seem to be able to do it without coercion. The gardens had to be cleared and ready to be planted by a certain date, thorough weeding carried out, the cotton picked by another fixed date, and the old bushes uprooted and burned to eliminate the risk of the spread of the cotton boll weevil by yet another deadline. It was all well meant and the correct practice needed to be followed carefully, but bullying, however genteel or gentle, was not the way to do it.

Once the cotton was growing well, the gardens had to be kept weeded and here again the capitaos. District Officers, Agricultural Officers and Assistants spent much effort in chivvying the garden owners. I earlier mentioned our inexperience; to illustrate this I must cite a certain large and genial Agricultural Officer, once a bomber pilot and still in possession of a fine RAF moustache. He was a man of great energy and devotion to duty and later of considerable distinction, but in his early stint in the Lower River District he was still thinking in terms of the UK working day. He would rise about seven, have a leisurely breakfast and at about 9 am set out on his bicycle for the gardens, returning exhausted and covered in sweat several hours later, complaining loudly that the locals were a lazy lot - they were all lying about in their villages and there were none working in the gardens. It took him a little time to realise that the Lower River African was a sensible man (and woman), and, living in a climate of blighting midday heat, would leave home well before dawn, and finish by nine, returning for a well earned rest, after completing a hard day's work.

I do not wish to give the impression that all of this was an unrewarded burden on the grower, for at the height of the cotton buying season large amounts of money were disbursed by Government's Agricultural Production and Marketing Board, and the various cotton markets, sited at convenient centres, presented a lively sight as cheerful men and women queued up with their produce tightly packed in wicker bales, contentedly anticipating being paid. The amount of cash held by these centres was startling; the "strong room" at Chiromo had wooden shelves round its walls with bundles of bank notes and bags of silver stacked high. I sometimes wondered at the sanctity of the place from robbery, for the only "strong" part of the strong room was its door - the walls were brick, but the mortar mere mud, while the nearest police were at Port Herald, thirty miles away on the wrong side of the Shire. In about half an hour's easy work any Johannesburg trained thug could have coshed the night watchman, smashed his way through the wall and be over the shallow Ruo river into Mozambique, many thousands of pounds richer.

Colonial Map
Central African Federation Map, 1960
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 97: April 2009