The Maravi Confederacy: 16th - 18th century AD

The earliest known settled kingdom in the region of Lake Nyasa is that of the Maravi Confederacy. Established by Bantu-speaking peoples in about 1480, and continuing into the 18th century, the confederacy controls territory west from the great lake to the Luangwa River, south to the Zambezi and east to the coast.

This tribal empire of the Maravi people loses cohesion in the 18th century under the impact of Arab traders arriving from the coast. Local chieftains now make their own competitive arrangements in the rapidly developing trade in ivory and slaves. And the Yao people, living south and east of Lake Nyasa, begin to rival the Maravi as middlemen between the interior and the markets on the coast.

British involvement: from AD 1858

From the middle of the 19th century slavery is the issue which focuses European attention on these regions of Africa. Livingstone, who launches an anti-slavery crusade based on what he has witnessed along the Zambezi, reaches Lake Nyasa in 1858.

In 1876 Scottish missionaries establish Blantyre (named after Livingstone's birthplace and now the largest city in Malawi) as a centre from which to fight slavery. A central plank of Livingstone's policy is that legitimate trade must be provided to replace the local profit deriving from slaves. So the missionaries are soon followed by an African Lakes Company, financed in Scotland.

Both the missionaries and the company's employees find themselves in frequent conflict with the slave traders. Their difficulties prompt the appointment, in 1883, of a British consul to the area. He is accredited, grandiosely but vaguely, to 'the kings and chiefs of central Africa'.

Thus in 1890, when Cecil Rhodes is making his treaty with Lewanika further to the west, there is already a British presence in the region bordering Lake Nyasa. By contrast The settlers sent by Rhodes into present-day Zimbabwe and Zambia are the European pioneers in these regions. This distinction directly affects British policy.

In 1891 Rhodes's company is given charters to adminster Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). But in the same year the British government takes direct responsibility for the administration of present-day Malawi - to be known from 1893 as the British Central African Protectorate, and from 1907 as Nyasaland.

Over the next half century Nyasaland barely prospers. With work in short supply for the African population, many move to neighbouring countries in search of employment. The view develops in government circles that Nysasaland's economy can only thrive in some form of closer union with its two colonial neighbours.

By the 1950s the political future of these neighbouring African colonies is under intense discussion. The Europeans of Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia assume that sooner or later they will merge to form a single independent nation. From the British government's point of view, geography and economics alike suggest that Nyasaland should also be involved.

But any such policy is resisted by the Africans, particularly in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland with their small European populations. To Africans here the danger of union is obvious. They will be overshadowed by the strong European culture of Rhodesia, postponing perhaps indefinitely the ideal of independence under black majority rule.

Federation: AD 1953-1963

Confronted with conflicting demands, and aware of its responsibilities for Nyasaland as well as the two Rhodesias, the British government imposes in 1953 an awkward compromise in the form of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This is to be a self-governing colony, with its own assembly and prime minister (first Lord Malvern, and from 1956 Roy Welensky).

The intention is to derive the greatest economic benefit from the larger unit while minimizing political tension between the three parts of the federation, each of which retains its existing local government.

The federated colonies are at differing stages in their political development. All they have in common is an almost complete absence of any African voice in the political process.

Rhodesia has been a self-governing colony for three decades, but with no African suffrage (a tiny 'B roll' of African voters is added to the electorate in 1957). Northern Rhodesia has a legislative council with, since 1948, two seats reserved for African members. At the time of federation there are no Africans on Nyasaland's legislative council. Two years later, in 1955, places are found for five members.

The intended economic benefits materialize during the early years of the federation, helped by a world rise in copper prices, but this is not enough to stifle increasing political unrest - particularly as British colonies elsewhere in Africa win independence (beginning with Ghana in 1957).

In the early 1960s African politicians in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland win increasing power in their legislative councils. The pressure grows to break up the federation. In March 1963, by which time all three colonies are demanding independence, the British government finally concedes. The federation is formally dissolved on 31 December 1963.

Steps to independence: to AD 1964

The years immediately before federation have seen the first stirrings of African nationalism in Nyasaland. A group of politicians, among them a doctor, Hastings Banda, speak out against the proposed linking of the three colonies. When it nevertheless happens, in 1953, Banda goes abroad to practise medicine in Ghana. But there is pressure from his colleagues for him to return.

He does so in 1958, becoming president of the Nyasaland African Congress. In this position he leads an increasingly strident campaign against the federation. In 1959 the resulting disturbances are followed by a state of emergency and Banda's arrest.

Released in 1960, Banda takes part in government discussions on political reform. A compromise is achieved. Nyasaland will remain in the federation but Africans will have a majority of the seats in the colony's legislative assembly. Banda joins the government as a minister in 1961 and becomes prime minister when Nyasaland is granted internal self-government in February 1963, ten months before the federation is dissolved.

Nyasaland becomes independent in July 1964, taking the name Malawi. Banda retains his post as prime minister.

Independence: from AD 1964

From the start of what turns out to be a 30-year rule in Malawi, Banda follows policies which are at odds with other African leaders in the newly independent nations. He maintains cordial relations with the repressive white-supremacist regimes of the southern continent, South africa and the Portuguese administration in neighbouring Mozambique.

Within months of independence several members of his cabinet resign - partly on this issue, and partly in protest at the autocratic style of government which Banda adopts from the start. Little will change over the years in either respect.

In 1965 two of his ex-ministers lead a rebellion against him. It fails, and the following year Banda transforms Malawi into a republic with himself as president - a post which in 1971 he claims for life. He runs the country as a one-party state, with ferocious persecution of anyone showing signs of disagreement with his policies.

Members of the MCP (Malawi Congress Party) stand for parliament in periodic elections, but under a 1981 amendment to the constitution the president may nominate as many members of parliament as he wishes.

An exceptionally low turn-out for elections in 1992 coincides with pressure from international loan agencies for the introduction of multiparty democracy. The eventual result, after strong opposition from Banda and his MCP, is new elections in 1994.

In spite of reported violence and intimidation by the MCP, the main opposition presidential candidate, Bakili Muluzi, is elected. His party, the United Democratic Front, also has the largest number of seats in parliament. In 1995 Banda is arrested and is charged with the murder, ten years previously, of three former cabinet colleagues. He is acquitted and dies in retirement, in 1997, at the age of ninety-five.

In the second half of the 1990s President Muluzi makes considerable progress in improving Malawi's economy, particularly in terms of controlling inflation. This brings a much needed increase in foreign investment and aid.