Ulendo magazine is Air Malawi’s official in-flight publication. My article on Fort Mangochi was published in Issue 19 (2011). Text and photos to follow:
The grand days of African exploration may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean the weekend adventurer can’t have a bit of fun exploring the rarely visited Fort Mangochi, key for its role in stopping the lucrative slave trade.
Growing up in the eastern coast of the United States as the child of a military officer, I was afforded many opportunities to visit historic sites; famous places where the British established the first settlements in present-day Virginia and Rhode Island. Love it or hate it, places like Plymouth Rock and Jamestown take on theme-park-like lives of their own. Actors, complete in period costume, dominate the day as the paying visitor can wander around what appears to be an authentic, centuries-old village. Tour busses packed with retired adults mix with fresh-faced children excitedly disembarking their yellow school busses to see what things were like during the nation’s infancy.
But here in Malawi, where no government agency is flush with cash, Fort Mangochi appears dilapidated and forgotten. The closest carnival-like atmosphere would be found on the highway in Majuni during market day. The only visitors I’ve come across in my five visits by foot from my previous residence near the town of Namwera in Mangochi District are locals looking for firewood and trying to avoid the feared chitopotopo (a troll-like, magical creature rumored to be living in these mountains). Well-used trails snake through this lush valley seemingly placed inside a bowl of mountain heights. Not once did I see any sign marking the significance of this historic place, or a marker along the Bakili Muluzi Highway indicating a turnoff.
But that doesn’t mean the government hasn’t tried to protect this antiquity. Metal posts, cut down by locals to fashion into hoes for gardening no doubt, could be found buried in areas around the outside of the high brick walls. Perhaps it was a Banda-era scheme to keep the area free of damage.
But with no follow-through, the fort sits overgrown with indigenous trees and crumbling walls. I found myself dodging fresh elephant dung, amazed at the amount of work that went into creating this outpost of British colonialism that made a final, unobliging statement to the predominate Yao chieftancy of Jalasi (often referred to then as Zarafi).
To many Malawians today, “Mangochi” brings to mind lazy days along the lakeshore. But back in 1895, the boma itself was called Fort Johnston and remained so until the mid 20th century.
By looking at P.A. Cole-King’s booklet, “Mangochi: the Mountain, the People and the Fort” (available from the Society of Malawi at Mandala House, Blantyre and a must-have for anyone interested in Fort Mangochi’s history), we learn what we can about what was going on over a century ago as the British tried to subdue the opposition: slave traders working in conjunction with those of Arab origin who had been trading in this region of Africa for a few hundred years already. During Livingstone’s time along the southern lakeshore in 1861, artillery shots could be heard presumably issuing out of the Mangochi mountain region from the Yawo chief Livingstone calls Nkata. For the next several decades, armed skirmishes would go on as the Yawo jockeyed for position in the lucrative trade of goods to the coast, and worked at subduing other tribes. It wasn’t until 1891 that a British Protectorate was established, and Jalasi joined Mponda and Makanjila as the traditional authorities of the area.
Cole-King describes Chief Jalasi’s town as “on the plateau, which is some three miles long and three quarters wide, varying in heigh between 4,500 and 4,200 feet above sea level (3000 feet above the lake), well watered and with fertile soil, and situated just below and to the north of the main peak of Mangochi mountain, 5,713 feet.” (p.7) Jalasi was confident that he was secure and continued to resist the British, the first Commissioner being Harry Johnston. An ill-conceived British-led attack on Jalasi was repulsed in 1891, and an unsteady calm remained for four more years. But in 1895, poor relations came to a head and a three-sided attack was planned against Jalasi’s mountain stronghold.
With the help of enlisted soldiers of Indian Sikh, Makua, Atonga and Yao men, the Protectorate succeeded and the villagers eventually fled. On October 28th, 1895, the area was void of villagers. As allegedly the first white men to step into Jalasi’s village, Major Edwards and his officers estimated that 25,000 people called this place home. It was full of food and impressive in many ways. A temporary fort was commissioned immediately under Captain Cavendish’ supervision. In short order, Liutenant E. G. Alston arrived to build the permanent fortress.
Today, there is no easily visible indication of permanent residence by the Yawo though the fort walls are still in good shape. Built of stone several feet thick, 2-3 meters tall, the area could encompass several football pitches. Numerous buildings still dot the area, the most impressive of which was the Commanding Officer’s residence, and a large open area acted as the parade grounds. Outside of the fort walls, soldier’s quarters, completed under Lieutenant Brogden’s oversight, lie in ruins to one side while further off, on a site I haven’t been able to locate again with a guide, I came across old bullet casings littering the ground, presumably the site of target practice.
Chief Jalasi himself stayed on the Portuguese side of the border where he fled during the battle and died there in 1906, but many of his village headmen moved back to Fort Mangochi and built many large villages around the site of the fort as the area acted as the main route from Fort Johnston to Mozambique. From 1907-1910, the site was used as a prison and, during World War I the King’s African Rifles used the fort as a training camp. Perhaps these are the origin of the shell casings I found?
(Unpublished directions: To find Fort Mangochi, follow the tarmaced M3 highway from Mangochi town up the escarpment to Chowe. From the Chowe signpost, count 13.6KM, heading through the village of Idrusi, to Majuni. A sign opposite the turnoff will read Balakasi Woodlot (from the Namwera side you will travel 6KM to the west). The dirt road heading to Skull Rock Estate is very close to the residence of present-day T. A. Jalasi, the prominent feature being a mosque in front with a borehole well to it’s side. Immediately past this site, a road branches off to the right, before reaching the market, school, or several larger mosques in the trading center. Several KM down that dirt road, sometimes difficult to pass, visitors should make their way to Skull Rock Estate. If you want a guide, organize with someone there and begin to the ascent towards Skull Rock itself. You can’t miss it and won’t be confused as to why it has the name it does. Be sure to pack in your own water and snacks as you will be gone several hours and the going, while not exactly a walk in the park, is well worth the effort. Treat the Fort with respect: stay off of the walls and don’t take any keepsakes that will lead to destroying the site further.)