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Samson Kambalu

(Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, from September 2022)

Review by Billie McTernan


Let’s begin with the photograph. It’s an old analogue image of two men, one Black and one white, standing outside a brick walled building. Both men face forward; a door behind them is slightly ajar.

On 28 September 2022, the sculpture Antelope by Malawian-born artist and academic Samson Kambalu was unveiled on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – the unveiling having been postponed for two weeks due to the mourning period that followed the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. Other countries, including Malawi, also held a mourning period – an intimate reminder of the reach of the British monarchy in our modern times.

Some context. Kambalu’s sculpture is modelled on the aforementioned photograph taken in 1914 of Baptist preacher Reverend John Chilembwe from Nyasaland (modern-day Malawi) standing alongside John Chorley, an English missionary. In the photograph, both Chilembwe and Chorley wear wide-brimmed hats, a piece of attire that in colonial Nyasaland Africans were forbidden to wear in the presence of white people. By this time, however, Chilembwe had acquired land and set up his own church with a strong following, was known for his anti-colonial and anti-imperial stance and was vocal on Black equality. Chilembwe and Chorley – who were said to be friends and colleagues – look at ease. A year later, Chilembwe would be killed, following the so-called Chilembwe uprising and his galvanising sermon at which, it is said, the head of William Jervis Livingstone, a notorious and violent white plantation owner, was placed on a pole next to the pulpit. 

 At the very end of the 19th century, Chilembwe had travelled across the United States where in 1899 he was ordained as a pastor. During his time there he was said to have closely followed Black liberation movements. Though not widely known outside of Malawi, where he is considered a national hero, Chilembwe’s journey through the US towards what is today interpreted as pan-Africanism preceded those of Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, the Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey and Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. For each of them, connections to Black people across oceans as well as the African continent furthered their efforts towards global Black liberation.

Now, over 100 years after his death in the uprising against forced labour and violent racial discrimination, in Kambalu’s Antelope Chilembwe stands 5.5 metres tall in one of Britain’s grandest central squares. Beside him on the plinth, but only life-sized, stands Chorley. Unlike in the photograph, Chilembwe and Chorley do not face the same direction. This detail, and the exalted Chilembwe next to Chorley, poses an interesting twist for a contemporary understanding of the post-colonial Malawi narrative. While Christianity was largely spread across the continent through European imperialism, over time Africans have reimagined and repurposed it with traditional spiritual practices, local languages and cultural nuance, making it their own.

Antelope, which is an English translation of the name Chilembwe, is surrounded by cultural institutions and monuments representing various elements of British conquest and empire – the high commissions of South Africa, Uganda and Canada (all former British colonies) are in Trafalgar Square, as are the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, all clustered around the elevated pillar of Nelson’s Column. Chilembwe, too, now stands tall on his own beliefs.

In November 1914, a few months before his instigation of the uprising in January and his death in early February 1915, Chilembwe wrote a letter to a national newspaper, The Nyasaland Times, in opposition to the conscription of African soldiers in World War I. In his own words:

‘We have been invited to shed our innocent blood in this world war which is now in progress… In the past, it was said indirectly that Africa had nothing to do with the civilized world… But now we find that the poor African has already been plunged into the great war.

In time of peace everything was for Europeans only… But in time of war it has been found that we are needed to share hardships and shed our blood in equality… The poor Africans who have nothing to win in this present world are invited to die for a cause which is not theirs.’

Photo of John Chilembwe and John Chorley courtesy of Wikipedia