Trafalgar square fourth plinth: Who was John Chilembwe?

A sculpture of a Malawian preacher who fought against British colonial rule has been unveiled on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square.

Antelope, by Malawian-born Samson Kambalu, was unveiled on Wednesday morning (September 28). It is the 14th contemporary artwork to be commissioned in the historic central London square, and the first of an African.

The five-metre sculpture restages a famous 1914 photograph of John Chilembwe, a Baptist preacher and pan-Africanist, and John Chorley, a European missionary, taken at the opening of Chilembwe’s new church in Nyasaland, now Malawi.

In the picture, Chilembwe is wearing a wide-brimmed hat, breaching a colonial rule which forbade Africans to wear hats in front of white people.

Who was John Chilembwe?

Although his figure now takes centre stage in London, Chilembwe remains relatively unknown to many in the UK.

He is widely recognised as one of the first Africans to fight against colonial injustices in the 20th century, staging an uprising against the British in Nyasaland, now Malawi, in 1915.

Although the uprising was unsuccessful, Chilembwe is thought to have inspired many of the most iconic figures of black liberation, including Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey, and John Langalibalele Dube, the founding president of what went on to become the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa.

“Many people may not know who John Chilembwe is. And that is the whole point,” said Kambalu, an associate professor of fine art at the University of Oxford.

Born in the early 1870s, Chilembwe grew up in Chiradzulu District, in south Nyasaland (modern-day Malawi). He was one of four children, with his father originating from the Yao community, and his mother from the Mang’anja people.

In 1892, he became the house servant of Joseph Booth, a radical missionary who believed in “Africa for Africans”.

Booth and Chilembwe travelled to the US together, with Chilembwe studying theology and African American history in Virginia.

After witnessing first-hand the discrimination faced by African Americans, Chilembwe returned to his country, committed to fighting against the myriad colonial injustices the people of Nyasaland were experiencing.

He worked to establish a mission in Chiradzulu. With financial support from the US, he famously built a brick church and many schools.

How did Chilembwe resist colonial rule?

When Chilembwe returned home from the US, he found a burgeoning resistance movement to British colonial rule. Many Malawians were aggrieved about new laws which took away their land, as well as forced them to work in terrible conditions on white-owned plantations.

After World War One broke out, and 19,000 Malawians were forced to fight against the German army in modern-day Tanzania, Chilembwe was further outraged.

He began planning an uprising, which started in January 1915. The revolt was quickly foiled and suppressed by British soldiers, and only claimed a few casualties.

A few days later, at 43 years old, Chilembwe was shot dead by African soldiers while trying to cross into what is now Mozambique after the British army put out an award for his capture. His church, which had taken years to build, was destroyed by the colonial police.

Most of Chilembwe’s leading followers and some other participants in the rising were executed after summary trials under martial law shortly after it failed.

What is the significance of the statue?

In Kambalu’s sculpture, Chilembwe is almost twice the size of Chorley, as a way of elevating his story and highlighting the distortions in conventional narratives of the British empire.

“By increasing his scale, the artist elevates Chilembwe and his story, revealing the hidden narratives of under-represented peoples in the history of the British Empire in Africa, and beyond,” says the Mayor of London’s website.

Kambalu said: “Antelope on the fourth plinth was ever going to be a litmus test for how much I belong to British society as an African and a cosmopolitan.” The commission had filled him with “excitement and joy”, he added.

He had proposed the sculpture for the fourth plinth before the Black Lives Matter movement took off in the UK, he told the BBC last month.

“I thought I was just going to be like the underdog, because I had made up my mind that I was going to propose something meaningful to me as an African. But we have to start putting detail to the black experience, we have to start putting detail to the African experience, to the postcolonial experience.”

What is Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth?

Since 2003, the fourth plinth has displayed a different piece of artwork every two years.

Originally intended to display a statue of King William IV, it remained empty due to insufficient funds and now exhibits temporary art, selected through public consultation and the commissioning group.

The fourth plinth currently hosts THE END by Heather Phillipson, a sculpture of a giant swirl of whipped cream, with a cherry, a fly, and a drone transmitting a live feed. The programme is funded by the Mayor of London with support from the Arts Council England, and the commissions are chosen by a panel.

Earlier artworks have included Marc Quinn’s sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant, and Yinka Shonibare’s scaled-down replica of HMS Victory, contained in a glass bottle.