The agriculturist Nkonde (or Nyakyusa) people have inhabited the fertile slopes of Karonga and Chitipa districts (as well as the neighbouring southern highlands of Tanzania) since the late 16th century. The first European visitors to Nkondeland were deeply impressed by its peaceful, hospitable and industrious character. Indeed, Consul Elton described it as the ‘finest tract of Africa [he] had yet seen’, comparing its climate and fertility favourably to Natal in South Africa, while the explorer Joseph Thomson, who passed through in 1878, described it as ‘an enchanted place’ and ‘a perfect Arcadia’.
Elton’s and Thomson’s elegiac early reports of Nkondeland reflect the fact that it was then one of the few parts of central Africa left unscarred by the coastal slave trade or the Ngoni incursion. All that was to change from 1880 onwards, when a Swahili trader called Mlozi arrived in the area from the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. In 1886, Mlozi set up base about 10km from the ALC trade outpost at Karonga, and his militant slave-raiding parties, known as the Ruga-Ruga, proceeded to raid the surrounding villages for human booty.
Monteith Fotheringham, manager of the ALC’s Karonga outpost at the time, described the devastation: ‘If you could picture the beautiful villages desolated, and see the cruelties of these Arab slave traders – women carried away captives, separated from husbands and children, children separated from their parents, husbands who would stand up for their homes and those near and dear to them murdered and their bodies mutilated.’ Fotheringham attempted to negotiate with Mlozi in order to stop the raids, but to no avail, and soon the Karonga area became the setting of a largely forgotten war between the ALC and the Ruga-Ruga.
This war was initiated on 27 October 1887, when Mlozi ordered the massacre of more than 1,000 defenceless Nkonde villagers that his spies had lured into the marshy Kambwe Lagoon at the mouth of the North Rukuru River. A distraught Fotheringham watched the massacre helplessly: ‘The war whoops of the Ruga Ruga smote the Nkonde heart with terror. The reeds were soon red with the blood of the dying, as the Ruga-Ruga speared those who stuck fast in the mud. They then fired the reeds, and as the flames rose, the yells of the poor creatures behind might be heard above the steady discharge of the guns. Those who did not perish by the rifle or the spear were either burnt to death or devoured by the innumerable crocodiles.’ A month later, Mlozi declared himself Sultan of Nkondeland and tried to capture the ALC fort in Karonga. In June 1888, a British raid on Mlozi’s stockade was repulsed and almost resulted in the death of its leader, Captain Lugard (who 30 months later was to be instrumental in Britain’s capture of Kampala in Uganda, for which effort he was made Lord Lugard).
In 1889, Harry Johnston restored temporary peace to the region by signing a treaty with Mlozi. But, over the next six years, even as Johnston managed to conquer or negotiate with every other slave trader in the land, Nkondeland remained in the terrible grip of its self-styled sultan, who became more prosperous and powerful than ever in the first half of the 1890s. In 1895, Johnston returned to Karonga, and on 3 December he led a successful attack on Mlozi’s fort. When Johnston’s troops entered the fort, it was littered with Nkonde bodies, victims of Mlozi’s most recent raid, while more than 500 captives were imprisoned in a stockade, awaiting shipment to the coast. The next day, Mlozi was tried by a group of Nkonde elders, and Johnston had him hanged from a tree in Karonga, effectively ending the era of organised slavery in Malawi.