Obituary: John McCracken, historian, lecturer, author, expert on the history of Scottish missions in Malawi

Historian of Central Africa, John McCracken
Historian of Central Africa, John McCracken
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When the historian John McCracken made his first trip to Central Africa in 1964, the continent was in the midst of momentous change. Mass nationalism had forced the pace of decolonisation to a remarkable degree

New flags were being hoisted and new national anthems sung. Nyasaland (now Malawi), which would come to be one of John’s intellectual and spiritual homes, achieved its independence in July 1964, under the leadership of Hastings Banda, a maverick authoritarian with strong connections to Scotland.

But in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where John first landed to take up a post as assistant lecturer, the tide appeared to be turning in an altogether different direction. Ian Smith was a leading a white supremacist movement towards a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, political repression and, eventually, a long and bloody war. John’s long career as an outstandingly perceptive historian of Central Africa would cover periods of optimism and pessimism, of dictatorship and democratic revolution.

Throughout he maintained a clear head, a refusal to jump to easy conclusions, and a deep sensitivity to and respect for his historical subjects. In return, he inspired huge respect and affection, in the Scottish and wider British Africanist community, and amongst his many friends and former colleagues in Malawi.

John was born in Edinburgh in 1938 and brought up in the Scottish Borders where both his parents were GPs. After National Service he went to St John’s College Cambridge to read history. Whilst Britain’s empire dissolved around it, most of the academic establishment was in a kind of denial, but John sought out those who were beginning to see that the history of what came to be known as the ‘Third World’ could not be understood solely from an imperial standpoint, but had to incorporate the views of colonised peoples themselves.

After graduation, John enrolled for a PhD in Cambridge under the supervision of Ronald Robinson and embarked on the study of a subject that would be a source of fascination to him for the rest of his life: the history of the Church of Scotland missions in Malawi. Research for his PhD was disrupted, but in a positive way, by his decision to take up a temporary teaching post at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in Salisbury in 1964. On the campus of this new multiracial university, in the midst of the turmoil created by Ian Smith’s rise to power, the politics of history were unavoidable.

In the meantime John’s fascination with Malawi deepened through the research visits he made there from Salisbury. Staying in white-dominated Southern Rhodesia, even within a multiracial university, was not an option. After some soul-searching, John declined a post at Edinburgh University and headed to a lectureship at the University College of Dar-es-Salaam. He spent four years there, enjoying both the intellectual ferment of this new university and also the company of a new generation of Tanzanian academics. Whilst in Dar-es-Salaam, John completed his PhD which would he would later publish in a revised and much extended version as Politics and Christianity in Malawi, 1875-1940. Over the course of his career (most recently in his 2016 Voices from the Chilembwe Rising) he would often return to this generation of Malawians, whose lives and politics fascinated him.

In 1968 John returned to Scotland to take up an appointment in the history department at Stirling University, where he would remain (with some intervals away) until his retirement in 2002. Before and after the publication of Politics and Christianity John published a string of influential articles on the social, economic and political history of Malawi. Some were the product of the enormously fruitful time John spent as Professor and Head of the Department of History at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, between 1980 and 1983.

Accompanied by his wife Juliet and their two children, John threw himself into teaching and into mentoring younger colleagues. He particularly encouraged women students to participate in the research culture that he nurtured. John’s diplomatic powers were considerable, but he was highly principled and also did not suffer fools gladly. He despised political cronyism and was appalled by the often explicit distortions of history promoted by Banda himself.

Though John’s default mode was one of enormous warmth and generosity, there were times (as in Banda’s Malawi) when his good humour could be tested. In these circumstances his impeccable politeness and mild manner enabled him to deliver piercing criticism with great effectiveness, often taking his hapless victims by surprise. He could also, in the process, be extremely funny.

Back in Stirling, John would continue to play a leadership role and to be an active member of the British Africanist community, organising conferences, editing papers and serving as President of the African Studies Association.

In retirement he spent another period at the University of Malawi, this time under the auspices of the Scotland-Malawi Partnership. He used this time to complete research for A History of Malawi, 1859-1966, which was published in 2008. This is an ambitious work of historical scholarship on Africa, deeply researched, multi-dimensional and written with an outstanding sensitivity to sources and historical subjects; it cemented John’s reputation as one of Britain’s leading historians of Africa as well as making a hugely appreciated contribution to Malawian scholarship.

John made good use of the freedom to research and write which was offered by retirement and his enjoyment in his subject shines through in much of his recent work, including his masterly Voices from the Chilembwe Rising, published last year. In this volume John pulled together and provided a contextual analysis of the verbatim witness statements given before the Commission of Enquiry into the anti-colonial revolt, led by the educated Christian, John Chilembwe, in 1915.

Returning to the period of Malawian history which perhaps fascinated him most, John used these valuable ‘voices’ to probe the subjectivities and political sensibilities of a group of Africans who had taken the Christian promises of freedom and equality before God literally, and whose sense of betrayal by the colonial state and its white settler allies ran very deep.

John’s first wife, Jane Purkis, died tragically in a car accident in Tanzania. In 1972 he married Juliet Clough, a journalist, with whom he had two children, Matthew and Caroline. John’s love of family life was always evident. Even after decades of marriage he still expressed some degree of surprise and “good fortune” that he and Juliet had met, that she had reciprocated his feelings and subsequently adapted her own career to support his passion for African history.

John was characteristically stoical in his acceptance of the diagnosis of terminal cancer in September, and spent the subsequent weeks with family and friends, reminiscing and generously expressing his appreciation of the full life that he led.

He is survived by Juliet, by their children Matthew and Caroline, and by grandchildren Amelia, Charlie, Alfie and Laurie.