Records destroyed by cyclone

Apart from accidental destruction by fire, other government records were destroyed by a cyclone on Chinde. Chinde was a concession territory at the mouth of the Zambezi River where passengers and goods were transferred from ocean-going vessels to river steamers for onward travel to Nyasaland. Following the signing of a treaty between Great Britain and Portugal on 11 July 1891, Portugal leased the land at Chinde to Britain for an initial period of 99 years and, subsequently, a Vice-Consul to take charge of the Chinde consulate was appointed.

Due to a cyclone, which damaged property and interests at Chinde in February 1921, and displacement of Nyasaland transport through Chinde by the opening of the Trans-Zambesi Railway and the purchase of river steamers by the railway company, the Chinde Concession was formerly cancelled on 19 May 1925 and the offices were closed. Although most of the records were destroyed by the cyclone in 1921, the lastVice-Consul managed to ship three boxes of records that he managed to salvage belonging to the Nyasaland government.9

Loss of records at district offices

Colin Baker, Noel Harvey and Ian Strachan, Assistant District Commissioners and later District Commissioners (DCs) in the mid-1950s in Nyasaland, provide a picture of record keeping at the district level between 1950 and I960.10 The three appear to agree that the situation in urban districts such as Blantyre and Zomba was much better than in remotest districts such as Karonga. In remote districts, formal records were in the form of letters, reports, statistics and tax returns, and office administration was somewhat primitive. As Harvey confesses, ‘the spoken word probably counted for more at that time’.There is agreement among the three former DCs that during the 1950-1960 period there were no formal instructions about retaining files for archival purposes, and as such, proper preservation of past records in the districts was left to the discretion and initiative of the administrator in charge. For instance,Jones mentions that in 1954 in Mzimba District, there was one confidential file into which everything was put. In remote districts, past files, some going back many years could be found in dusty cupboards (with bats overhead) but not much attention was paid to them apart from historical documents that the administrator deemed worth careful preservation."

Past files were not transferred from the district offices to an official archival repository, and according to Harvey (2010), ‘certainly in the D.C.’s Boma [they] would burn out-of-date old files when they no longer had any value, simply to make space for the more recent ones’. As far as record keeping at the district level was concerned, Harvey’s experience was that it was reduced to essential official communications, pointing out that funding, staffing and even the sense of longer-term history did not allow for developing archives in district work. However, Baker, Harvey and Strachan agree that at higher official levels - the Secretariat, the Registrar, Provincial and Legislative Councils and the Law Courts - better recordkeeping systems were maintained.

Loss of records at Native Authority level

After the taxation system was introduced throughout the country, collection of the tax by the tax collectors was a big challenge, owing to the inability of too few British officers to penetrate African society.12 Another governance problem that the Administration faced was the disintegration of the tribal societies into family groups throughout the Protectorate. This challenge, coupled with the understanding that ‘the best means of governing the people is through their own chiefs’ led to the enactment of the Native Village Regulation Ordinance in 191O.l3The primary objective of the Ordinance was to ‘revive among the natives something of a fastdecaying powers of local government [by appointing Native Headmen to act] as media of communication between the mass of native populace on the one hand and the District Administration on the other’.14 Among other duties, the headmen were to assist in the collection of tax from their villagers. For this service, the chiefs were given a subsidy of 10 per cent of the hut tax collected from their areas.15 In 1912 the Legislative Council enacted the District Administration (Native) Ordinance, which provided for the establishment of Sectional Councils of principal village headmen in order to assist the government in local administration.16 The Provincial Commissioners’ conference of July 1928 proposed the establishment of principal headmen’s courts to have jurisdiction over the civil matters throughout the Protectorate.17

Although the government had officially recognised that the local chiefs should play an important role in local administration, this recognition did not mean full indirect rule. From 1910 to about 1930, the government did not enforce record keeping measures at the local administrative level, nor did it expect any records to be maintained at this level. The 1928 Provincial Commissioners’ conference,18 for instance, had recommended that no records should be called for from village courts. However, the situation changed in the early 1930s when the principal headmen were required to maintain records.The 1930 District Administration (Native) Ordinance had stipulated that, among other duties, principal headmen should

‘record and report all births, marriages by native law and custom, and deaths and other statistical data which [might] occur in or refer to his section’.19

In his annual report for 1932, the Provincial Commissioner (South) observed that in several districts in his province, a start was made with the keeping by principal headmen of records of cases dealt with by them during that particular year. On the basis of the quality of such records, which was described as only fair, the Provincial Commissioner was of the view that with more experience and the assistance of native court scribes, principal headmen’s records would be satisfactory.20

It is worth noting that although the government had recognised the position of principal headmen in local administration, and since the headmen were appointed by the administration rather than from the chiefly families, and therefore not generally accepted by the people, lack of discipline developed into a norm, and villages continued to disintegrate into small ungovernable family groups. The 1929 Nyasaland government annual report had cited ‘the decay of the power of native chiefs and the tendency all over the Protectorate to the splitting up of villages into small family groups’ as one of that year’s challenges.21

In 1933, two important Ordinances, the Native Authority Ordinance and the Native Courts Ordinance, were enacted, which marked the introduction of indirect rule in Nyasaland. Through these ordinances, the administration established Native Authorities which consisted of small tribes or sections of a tribe that were grouped together to form a single administrative unit.22 Under the Native Authority Ordinance, the chiefs were no longer appointed by the administration but only those who held positions according to the laws of the tribe and the wishes of the people were recognised by government as Native Authorities, either as individuals or as chiefs-in-council23 comprised a chief as the superior Native Authority, and the chief’s advisors and sub-chiefs.The sub-chiefs were appointed by the chief and were responsible for ruling over a certain well-defined area within the Native Authority.24

The advent of indirect rule had interesting consequences for record keeping. Through the Native Courts Ordinance, each NA, with the assistance of his advisors, presided over the NA court. As a requirement, the NA courts were supposed to maintain court records of the case judgements passed, and for this reason, native authorities employed scribes or clerks for the maintenance of court records. Hall observes that as a minimum, native court records indicated the names of parties, a brief statement of the subject matter and a short judgement, signed by the holder of the court, who was usually the NA himself.2'’ Judgements from the NA court could be appealed to the District Magistrate. A District Magistrate and District Commissioner occasionally inspected the NA court records.

Before the promulgation of the Native Courts Ordinance in 1933, principal headmen conducted their court sessions orally without any requirement to document their judgements. The Native Authority Ordinance empowered the NAs to maintain their own treasuries, from which they could finance a number of social economic projects such as building bridges and roads and paying social workers from the revenue collected by the NA from a number of sources. The predominantly oral people, who used different modes of oral text to transact social and official business, were now offered a platform to transact official business where the modus operandi was non-traditional. This naturally introduced the basics of official record keeping to the Africans who participated in Native Authority (NA) affairs, and oral tradition now lived in partnership with the written culture, both of which were to influence each other.

As noted above, Native Authority records consisted of tax records, court records, ledgers, registers (marriage, birth, death, etc.), some correspondence and simple financial reports. These may not have mattered much to local people who were not concerned with keeping track of what their Native Authority had collected, how the revenue had been used and who had authorised the payment, but they mattered a great deal to the District Commissioners, whose primary functions included revenue collection. Eventually, information contained in the NA books was used in compiling District Officers’ reports, which finally reached the Governor.

The quality and management of Native Authority records varied from one Native Authority to another. Two years after the establishment of the Native Authorities, the Provincial Commissioners’ conference held on 22-24 July 1935 observed that there were some differences between districts in the manner in which Native Authorities kept their records. The differences were deemed inevitable ‘owing to geographical conditions and to the varying degrees of intelligence of individual Native Authorities’. While this Provincial Commissioners’conference had decided that the Native Administration Court Books and Cash Books were proving quite satisfactory, the District Commissioners’ meeting of August 1935 had decided against the form of the Court Book as it did not ‘suit certain of the advanced Native Authorities in the Northern Areas’. Such ‘advanced’ NAs were accustomed to recording their cases in great detail, and instances were quoted where the record covered as many as eight pages.26 Comparatively, the return of cases tried by Native Authorities from the Northern Province was less satisfactory than in the Southern Province, where considerable success had been achieved.27 District Commissioners who acted as auditors for the Native Authority treasuries were instrumental in assisting the NAs to maintain their records. One particular DC for Mzimba merits mentioning because he circulated to all the Native Authorities in his district guidelines for best correspondence and filing systems and he would reprimand any NA who did not follow the guidelines.

The NA records, which were mostly in the vernacular, were kept at the NA head offices, which in most cases were either the chief’s residence or court. Those that were kept in the chief’s residence tended to be regarded as the chiefs’ property, and for this reason the records have been inherited by successive chiefs. Most of these records if any have survived, still remain under the custody of the chiefs.28 Harvey explains why the Native Authority records may not have survived:

Past records would be kept for a few years but there would not be space for a proper archive, and even the best courts ... and clerks ... would have too much on their plate to devote much thought to archives. Files were not transferred to official archives elsewhere.29

It would appear that apart from the requirement to keep records for current administrative and judicial purposes, no policy guidelines were given to the Native Authorities for the retention and disposition of records, and therefore retention and disposition of the records entirely depended on local factors. Where Native Authority records still exist, they are valuable archival sources for research into many aspects of local self-government during the colonial administration. Hall has underscored the value of Native Authority records to the ethnographer and the administrator. He holds that:

a study of [Native Authority court] records will show, at the least, the types of social maladjustment which bring people to court, with the relative frequency of different kinds of a case: the manner in which different types of a case are viewed by the court, whether as offences against society or as affecting only families or individuals: and probably some general indication of the tone of the society.30

 
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