Starting with the Portuguese in the 1600s, both Europeans and Africans from Shaka Zulu to David Livingstone have left their mark on the country formerly known as Nyasaland. The British administered the region from the 1880s until independence in the mid-1960s, when Hastings Banda began his 30-year stint as the first of Malawi's controversial presidents. Malawian political life has never wanted for drama, from the 1993 referendum to the 'cashgate' scandal under previous president Joyce Banda.

The Difaqane ('The Crushing')

Also known as the Mfecane, meaning the 'crushing' or 'scattering', the period between 1815 and about 1840 saw indigenous tribes in Southern Africa involved in internecine, bloody struggles. Much of this can be attributed to one man, Shaka, king of the Zulu tribe. In the early 19th century there were three centralised kingdoms: the Ngwane, Mdwandwe and Mthethwe. In 1869 Shaka, ruler of the Mthethwe, revolutionised military warfare by replacing the throwing spear with a stabbing spear and surrounding his enemy in a tight horseshoe then closing in on them. Very soon widespread massacres spread across Southern Africa, depopulating countries and killing some two million people.

Among those that fled were the Mdwandwe clan, who headed for Mozambique, coercing the local Tonga people to form a cooperative army with them – the Jere-Ngoni. By 1825, blazing their own trail of carnage, the Jere-Ngoni entered Malawi, terrorising the Yao people near the lake and the Tumbuka people to the north, raiding villages, butchering old men and forcibly enlisting young men. The army settled on Lake Malawi and were to remain there until their Mdwandwe chief's death in 1845. This bloody period is remembered as 'The Killing'.

The Dark Days of Slavery

Slavery, and a slave trade, had existed in Africa for many centuries, but in the early 19th century demand from outside Africa increased considerably. Swahili-Arabs, who dominated the trade on the east coast of Africa, pushed into the interior, using powerful local tribes such as the Yao to raid and capture their unfortunate neighbours. Several trading centres were established in Malawi, including Karonga and Nkhotakota – towns that still have a Swahili-Arab influence today.

Livingstone & the First Missionaries

The first Europeans to arrive in Malawi were Portuguese explorers who reached the interior from Mozambique in the early 1600s. Its most famous explorer, though, was David Livingstone from Scotland, whose exploration heralded the arrival of Europeans in a way that was to change Malawi forever.

In 1858, when Livingstone found his route up the Zambezi blocked, he followed a major tributary called the Shire into southern Malawi, reaching Lake Malawi in September 1859 – and providing fodder for thousands of tourist brochures to come by reportedly dubbing it the ‘lake of stars’.

Livingstone died in Zambia in 1873. In 1875 a group from the Free Church of Scotland built a new mission at Cape Maclear, which they named Livingstonia, and in 1876 the Established Church of Scotland built a mission in the Shire Highlands, which they called Blantyre. Cape Maclear proved to be malarial, so the mission moved to Bandawe, then finally in 1894 to the high ground of the eastern escarpment. This site was successful; the Livingstonia mission flourished and is still there today.

The Colonial Period

By the 1880s competition among European powers in the area was fierce. In 1889 Britain allowed Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company to administer the Shire Highlands, and in 1891 the British Central Africa (BCA) Protectorate was extended to include land along the western side of the lake. In 1907 the BCA Protectorate became the colony of Nyasaland.

Colonial rule brought an end to slave traders and intertribal conflicts, but also introduced a whole new set of problems. As the European settlers' demand for land grew, the hapless local inhabitants found themselves labelled ‘squatters’ or tenants of a new landlord, and were forced to seek work on the white-settler plantations or to become migrant workers in Northern and Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe) and South Africa. By the turn of the 19th century some 6000 Africans were leaving the country every year; this had escalated to 150,000 by the 1950s.

Transition & Independence

After WWI the British began allowing the African population a part in administering the country, although it wasn’t until the 1950s that Africans were actually allowed to enter the government.

In 1953, in an attempt to boost its sluggish development, Nyasaland was linked with Northern and Southern Rhodesia in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. But the federation was opposed by the pro-independence Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) party, led by Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The colonial authorities declared a state of emergency and Banda was jailed.

By mid-1960 Britain was losing interest in its colonies. Banda was released, and he returned to head the now renamed Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which won elections held in 1962. The federation was dissolved, and Nyasaland became the independent country of Malawi in 1964. Two years later, Malawi became a republic and Banda was made president.

Banda: Hero to Villain

Banda swiftly forced members of the opposition into exile, banning political parties, declaring himself ‘president for life’ and outlawing the foreign press. Miniskirts, women in trousers, long hair for men and other such signs of Western cultural influence were also banned.

Alongside this move towards dictatorship, Banda remained politically conservative, giving political support to apartheid-era South Africa, which, in turn, rewarded Malawi with aid and trade.

With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, South Africa and the West no longer needed to support Banda, and within the country opposition was swelling. In 1992 the Catholic bishops of Malawi condemned the regime and called for change, and demonstrations, both peaceful and violent, added their weight to the bishops’ move. As a final blow, donor countries restricted aid until Banda agreed to relinquish total control.

In June 1993 a referendum was held for the people to choose between a multiparty political system and Banda’s autocratic rule. Over 80% of eligible voters took part; those voting for a new system won easily, and Banda accepted the result.

The 1990s: Fresh Hope

At Malawi’s first full multiparty election in May 1994, the victor was the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by Bakili Muluzi. He quickly closed political prisons, encouraged freedom of speech and print, and initiated free primary-school education; he also undertook several economic reforms with the help of the World Bank and the IMF.

In November 1997 Dr Banda died. His age was unknown, but he was thought to be 99.

In 2002, after failing to pass a bill that would have given him life presidency, Muluzi chose Bingu wa Mutharika as his successor, and in 2004 Mutharika duly won the election. The new leader resigned from the UDF and set up his own party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). A massive famine in 2005 saw Malawi bear the brunt of crop failure and drought in the region. In 2006, under the Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative, Malawi qualified for debt relief.

Mutharika: Malawi's New Dictator

In 2010 Mutharika expelled his deputy, Joyce Banda, from the party, but he had no choice but to retain her as vice-president as she was elected in 2009 as his running mate. Then in 2011 a diplomatic spat erupted between Mutharika and the UK after a leaked British document accused him of being autocratic. Mutharika hit back, expelling the British High Commissioner; immediately, Malawi's biggest donor froze millions of dollars of aid.

By the end of 2011, Malawi was crippled by soaring fuel prices of up to 150% and terrible shortages that ground the country's already ailing industry to a halt. Foreign exchange was also banned as Mutharika took the inflammatory measure of inflating Malawi's currency on the international markets.

On 5 April 2012 Mutharika suffered a heart attack. In the following days, the army placed a cordon around Joyce Banda's house to assist her constitutional succession to power (lest Mutharika's supporters enact a coup). She was sworn in as Malawi's first female president on 7 April.

Joyce Banda: Unfulfilled Promise

In 2012 Banda took some very brave steps to get her house in order: first, she devalued the kwacha by 40%; next, she sold the US$15 million presidential jet, saving the poor country US$300,000 a year in maintenance and insurance. Meanwhile, she proved herself a shrewd international diplomat; foreign funding to Malawi swiftly resumed, with the IMF agreeing to a donation of US$157 million.

Banda's presidency lasted until 2014, when her predecessor's brother, Peter Mutharika, was voted in. Her two-year term was rocked by the 'cashgate' scandal, which saw international aid temporarily frozen when up to US$100 million disappeared from government coffers. She is reportedly planning to run in the 2019 election.