History of Malawi

50 years ago there was no such place as Malawi on the map. An old school atlas shows a long thin country called Nyasaland (the lake land). In the Middle Ages the region had been the subject of significant inward migration of Bantu tribes. From those people came the Chewa who are Malawi’s most numerous group today providing the national language Chichewa. For several centuries the area saw slow but steady growth in population, cultivation and iron production.   flag

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It was the nineteenth century that saw the arrival of the slave trade. Arab traders established city-states along Africa’s east coast, dealing in ivory and slaves. There gradually developed an Arab influenced African culture called Swahili.


The Swahili Arabs developed slave trade routes to the interior, crossing Lake Malawi. It is estimated that up to 100,000 people a year were being killed or sold as slaves at this time. Although the Portuguese reached the area in the 16th century, the first significant Western contact was the arrival of David Livingstone along the north shore of Lake Malawi in 1859. He was sent by the British Government to open up explorative trade routes to the African interior. Under the sponsorship of Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, he set out to spread Christianity and commerce as counter measures to the slave trade.

The main period of missionary activity came after Livingstone’s expeditions. The Scottish Presbyterian churches established missions in Malawi in 1875. During the twentieth century, the Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland and Dutch Reformed Church, co-operated to form the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP). This new denomination became so influential in Malawi that by the late 1960s it was considered the unofficial state church. Dr Hastings Banda, was an elder in the CCAP.