History & Politics

Recorded history

The recorded history of Malawi begins with a wave of Bantu-speaking people arriving from the north around AD1200–1500.


Dr David Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Scotland. (Malawi’s commercial centre and oldest city, founded in 1896, was named after Livingstone’s birthplace.)

David Livingstone, by Frederick Havill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His history was a tale of ‘rags to riches’, because he came from a very poor family.

At ten years of age, Livingstone was sent to work in a Scottish cotton mill and had to do his school lessons in the evenings. The intensive and monotonous work gave him a life-long sympathy for all those who laboured under harsh circumstances. It no doubt helped to inform his strong anti-slavery stance.

These peoples brought centralised systems of governance and established the Maravi Empire around 1480. This was a confederacy of different groups ruled by a karonga (king), who had allegiance from the leaders of each clan.

However, by 1720 the confederacy fractured as different groups broke away from the authority of the karonga. This decline was partly caused by the influence of the Portuguese and Arabs who came to trade in iron, ivory and slaves.

Dr Livingstone’s influence

The Victorian explorer, Dr David Livingstone, arrived in the country in the late 1850s. At that time, Lake Malawi would have been dotted with dhow sails, as boats ferried slaves and ivory across to the eastern shore and the long journey to the coast.

Many lakeside towns (such as Nkhotakota and Salima) were Arab trade centres for slaves. Livingstone was an important crusader against slavery, publicising its horrors back in Britain.

Livingstone’s association with the area was a key factor in drawing British trading companies to Malawi and for its colonisation as part of the ‘British Central Africa Protectorate’ in 1893.

The Protectorate included Southern and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe). With conflicting demands in the different regions, Malawi was made a separate colony by the British in 1907, known as Nyasaland.

‘Wind of change’

A multi-party democracy

The Republic of Malawi is headed by a president who serves five-year terms. The current leader is Joyce Banda. She is the first female head of state in southern Africa and took over in 2012 after the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika.

In the late 1950s, a ‘wind of change’ blew through colonial Africa and Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda led the country to independence. Malawi became independent on July 6 1964 and a republic two years later. Dr Banda ruled for 30 years under a one-party system.

Full democracy was established in 1994, when the first multi-party elections were held. A more open style of government was established, with a judicial system based on English law.

National flag

Malawi flag

The national flag of Malawi has three horizontal stripes and a sun in the centre. These represent:

Red: the blood of those who fought for African freedom

Black: the people of the African continent

Green: the land and its natural resources

The white sun: the friendliness, peace and prosperity of Malawians.