Nyasaland was made famous to the British public through the exploits and explorations of David Livingstone in the 1850s. This strong willed Christian was adamantly opposed to the horrors of the slave trade and he found plenty of evidence for it around the lake. His pioneering efforts would prove a magnet for British missionaries keen to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, Scottish missionaries were even more keen to make their mark in this colony.
Missionary activity in the area was actually to be fortuitous for the plans of the British Government and of a certain Cecil Rhodes. The Portugese had claimed that their lands in Mozambique ran across the continent to their lands in Angola. If this had been the case, then British plans for uniting their southern colonies with her eastern colonies would have been dead in the water. Instead, the existence of British missionary activity and the absence of any Portugese settlements of any kind was a convenient diplomatic excuse for the British to lay claim to the intervening land. Additionally, the British owned African Lakes Company had also been acquiring its own treaties over the area. This combination of commercial and missionary activity was enough to allow the British government to declare the area around Lake Nyasa a British protectorate in 1889. This claim became particularly acute when a force of armed Arabs under Portugese leadership invaded the area. These Arabs were armed with machine guns and shot any native Africans who refused to submit to their rule. After long and trying negotiations, a treaty was signed in June 1891 in which the Portugese finally relinquished their control over the area, although a guerilla warfare continued on and off for many more years to come.
These negotiations had been taking place concurrently with events in Matabeleland where Rhodes and his British South Africa Company was trying to negotiate mineral prospects (see Rhodesia). The extent of Lobengula's Matabele empire was left deliberately vague to maximise their prospecting potential. In 1893, the BSAC would find an excuse to fight a war against the Matabele and claim their lands. The BSAC would combine the vague treaty limits with buying out the African Lakes Company to take control of the Nyasaland protectorate in 1893. However, it needed to continue to expend serious resources and manpower to subdue the slavers in the area. It was not until 1897 that they could fully claim to have pacified the region.
The authorities would encourage white settlement at the expense of black Africans. The settlers found that the area was suitable for growing coffee. They began to plant coffee plantations with extensive use of African labour. Although the Africans did find that Christianity could provide some defence against the racist policies of the settlers and the BSAC government. It was much harder for the BSAC to discriminate against or dispossess Christians. It also helped that the churches back in Britain could provide effective lobbies. In fact, it was partly as a result of this lobbying that Nyasaland was withdrawn from BSAC control in 1907 and returned to direct British rule.
Black ordained ministers would provide one of the first effective forms of opposition to colonial rule. This would be demonstrated in 1915 when John Chilembwe, a black minister, led a revolt against British rule whilst Britain was distracted by the First World War. The revolt was put down with relative ease but it did see the deaths of a number of white settlers and would provide inspiration for later acts of rebellion.
World War One would also provide a strategic threat to the colony as the German Tanganyika commander Paul von Lettow Vorbeck fought a highly effective guerilla campaign throughout Eastern and Central Africa for the entire duration of the war. Many settlers and Africans would be called up to help fight this German force. It was a serious drain on resources.
The 1920s and 30s saw substantial infrastructural improvements; railways, roads and port facilities were all improved. There was also to be a subtle shift back towards African rights in the colony. The 1923 Devonshire Paper and the 1930 Passfield Memo both argued the wisdom of giving black Africans more rights in the colony. The white settlers were vehemently opposed to these developments. However, as the crown appointed the majority on the Legislative Council it could afford to ignore the sentiments of these settlers. In fact, this ignoring of the settlers would make these same whites far more sympathetic to the idea of a union between the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland. Although World War two would delay any federation until after it had finished.
Federation was attempted from 1954 to 1963. It was really an experiment to create larger, viable colonies that were supposed to be more able to handle independence. In reality, the Africans thought of the experiment as a way of delaying independence. Meanwhile, the white settler run colony of Southern Rhodesia was reluctant to fund the investment required in the other two colonies. Events in South Africa would act as a spur to the destruction of the Federation. Its introduction of racist policies and its withdrawal from the Commonwealth made all black nationalist leaders wary of being ruled by white settlers. The British Government felt compelled to encourage black majority participation in its legislative councils. Southern Rhodesia was the exception as it had already been granted its own white dominated self government back in 1923/4 and it was just about to announce its own Unitary Declaration of Independence. In contrast, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia were about to use their newly enhanced black representation in their legislative councils to declare the dissolution of the Federation, enhanced democracy and declarations of independence. Nyasaland was to declare itself independent as Malawi in 1964.