Silences in Malawi’s archives

Paul Lihoma

Introduction

This chapter demonstrates that ever since literacy was introduced in the 1860s, different sections of the Malawian society have generated valuable archives. Owing to varied circumstances, however, the majority of the archives have been rendered inaccessible to a larger audience. While some archives have been hidden from public view, others have been lost, altogether.

For instance, the fire that occurred at the Secretariat building in 1919 in Zomba, completely destroyed all the archives that were generated by government departments from 1891 to 1919. Before the transfer of power during the independence period, a consignment of sensitive records was exported to London where they remain to date. Records that were generated by District Commissioners, mostly Police Special Branch records, which were generated during the state of emergency in 1959, were ordered to be destroyed in all the DCs’offices prior to independence.

After independence, the autocratic regime that emerged imposed strict access controls to the archives, so much that only a few individuals were granted access to the archives for Dr Bandas entire 30-year-rule.1 Although public records become open for research 30 years after their falling non-current, due to institutional challenges, the National Archives has such a huge backlog of un-appraised and uncatalogued records that only records that go as far back as the early 1950s are open for research, leaving out all the 1950—1990 records.

The African Lakes Corporation

As the first commercial company to be established in Malawi in 1878, the African Lakes Corporation (ALC) found itself operating in an environment where trade was based on barter before the introduction of coinage. Winspear recalls that the principal items used for the barter trade were cloth (grey calico - from England), salt and soap and that‘the standard measurement was the fathom (2 yards), which was reckoned as being worth 8d’.The ALC opened stores in many centres throughout the territory and sold the barter items and many others to the natives and this intercourse of necessity generated written records. While the barter trade among the natives generated no records, the ALC, a Western commercial company, one of whose characteristics was reliance on business records, issued purchase receipts to the people, who bought various items from the company’s stores even if they could not read them. Whereas such purchase receipts may not have meant much to the natives, the counterpart documents were valuable to the store keepers/managers and the ALC company as a whole for accounting and accountability purposes.

As the first trading company, the ALC will be remembered for introducing commercial and financial record keeping in Malawi. From 1878 to 2004, when the ALC ceased trading and went into liquidation, the company’s transactions had been captured and reflected in the different forms of records that it generated over the 125 or so years it existed. Although the company’s main offices were in Glasgow and two others in Edinburgh and London its field offices were thousands of miles away in Malawi, where a considerable volume of records was generated. An examination of part of the ALC’s records, which were gifted to the University of Glasgow’s Archives Services in 2008 by Donald Mackenzie, indicates that the ALC maintained a good record-keeping system.2

In Malawi, where the company had operated for more than a century, only 1 metre of a shelf of the company’s records is available in the National Archives of Malawi. There are also some records at Mandala House, which were taken over by CFAO, while the rest of the records were transferred to the company’s head offices. It is paradoxical that local researchers from Malawi, where the ALC had operated for over a hundred years, who might be interested to research the company, would have to travel to Scotland where the company was founded in order to consult the company’s primary records.

Records destroyed by termites and fire

When the colonial administration was established after Nyasaland (now Malawi) was declared a British Protectorate in 1891, record keeping was a core part of the administration, a marked departure from tribal administrations that were predominantly oral and existed before the colonial rule. Occasionally, memoranda on record keeping were issued in London to all the colonies. Such memoranda gave the colonial governments, through the Secretariat offices, the impetus to design and promote good record-keeping systems. One such memorandum was issued by the Colonial Secretary, Sir W. Ormsby Gore in a 1936 colonial despatch to all colonies that emphasised that:

The preservation of its records in a satisfactory state must be regarded as one of the first duties of a colonial government; a duty which derives greater urgency for the delay in the institution of suitable protective measures may and does lead to the inevitable loss of documents of value.3

Apart from the memoranda on records management issued from London to all the colonies, British Civil Service filing systems were also exported to the colonies. Moss mentions that the filing system that was adopted at the beginning of the twentieth century across the whole Civil Service in the United Kingdom was imposed on imperial and colonial governments.4

In addition, locally the Nyasaland government regulated the creation, use, maintenance and disposition and preservation of public records through regulations on records management, which were first issued in 1920."’The regulations, which were revised in 1922, were incorporated as part of the provisions of the Nyasaland Protectorate General Orders, which were revised from time to time and issued to all heads of departments. Among other important aspects, the General Orders required every head of department to be responsible for all aspects of records management in his department (Nyasaland Orders, 1951).

It is clear that from 1919, the Secretariat instituted systematic disposal of ephemeral records and preservation of vital non-current ones, and a record of such disposal and preservation was maintained. Also maintained was a record of all files (totalling 401) from different departments that were destroyed completely by white termites and those (several cubic feet of records) that had been destroyed by fire prior to 1919.

Before the establishment of the National Archives in 1947, the Secretariat preserved all the vital non-current records in the ‘massive brickwork of the basement of the main [Secretariat] block’, which had been designated as an area for the preservation of government records.6

On the night of 17 February 1919, another fire incident occurred at the Secretariat offices.This happened when work to clear bees out of the roofby smoking them caused a fire. The extent of that fire was so ferocious that‘the whole of the central double storeyed [Secretariat] block, and both the single storey wings [had] been completely gutted, every piece of timber having burnt out’. The ‘heaviest loss’ caused by the fire was that ‘all archives and records [had] been burnt’.7 Apart from housing the Secretariat and government archives, the building that caught fire also housed the Executive Council Chamber, the Treasury, Audit, Post and Public Works, offices of the Attorney-General and auxiliary audit and Treasury offices. The only block that was saved housed the offices of the Attorney-General, auxiliary audit and Treasury offices.

As well as losing most of the government archives from 1891 to 1919, the Secretariat and other government departments also lost records needed for the transaction of current government business. In order to reconstruct communication with the Colonial Office, the Acting Governor of Nyasaland requested duplicates of all dispatches that had been transmitted between the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Governor of Nyasaland between 1918 and February 1919.8

The lasting effect of the 1919 calamity is that virtually none of the records [in the National Archives of Malawi] date back earlier than 1920 and those of the 1920s are very thin and there are virtually no DCs’ reports and education papers earlier than 1930. Because District Note Books remained in the districts and are earlier than 1919 (the earliest being 1897), they were spared from this fire accident are therefore available in the National Archives.

The full picture of the operations of the DCs for the period 1891-1919 will forever remain patchy in the official records. This is because reports that were submitted periodically to the Chief Secretary by the DCs during this period were destroyed by the fire. Never to be replaced also, are the Executive Council minutes that recorded policy decisions of the government up to 1919.

 
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