The Journal of African History

Research Article

The Nyassa Chartered Company: 1891–19291

Barry Neil-Tomlinsona1

a1 S.O.A.S., University of London

This article presents a picture of the changing character of the Nyassa Company at ground level, and it relates this to changes in the capital interests which controlled the company. In so doing it seeks to explain the undercapitalization which left the area economically undeveloped. During the first period of the company's existence, from 1894 to 1898, its publicly expressed aim was the economic development of Nyassa; but the directors were primarily concerned with financial speculation and the company's influence in Africa spread no further than isolated points on the coast. In the second period of its existence, from 1899 to 1914, the company became a conquering and occupying force; but the expense of overcoming the determined resistance of African political units, plus a more realistic appraisal of the area's economic potential, meant that by 1909 the aim of economic development had been abandoned and the company turned instead to expanding its role as a supplier of migrant labour. In 1913 migrant labour to South Africa ceased, the company changed hands, and shortly afterwards the European war found its way into the area. In the last period of the company's existence, from 1919 to 1929, with only ten years of the charter left since the Portuguese government refused to grant an extension, the principles of finance capital dictated that it was too late for profitable investment in realizing the early visions of extensive economic development. Instead, the company turned to raising the level of hut tax as a means of increasing revenue, and the administration was allowed to expand and intensify the abuses which it seems to have always practised.


1 This article is drawn from a dissertation originally submitted as part of an M.A. Area Studies (Africa) course at SOAS. It is based on a preliminary survey of some mainly English sources. The outline it presents is therefore extremely tentative, and there is a great deal which further research could fill in and modify. In the absence of any more convenient or suitable term ‘Nyassa’ is used throughout to refer to the area of the company's concession. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Dr David Birmingham, Peter Richardson, and my father for their help in the preparation of this article.