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Latin and the Creation of a Usable Past in Colonial Nyasaland

Emily Greenwood

Yale University

In 1931-1932, while imprisoned in Zomba Central prison in colonial Nyasaland, George Simeon Mwase (c.1880-1962) composed an account of the anti-colonial uprising led by John Chilembwe in January 1915 (published posthumously as Mwase 1967). Mwase’s account defies easy characterization: part biography of John Chilembwe, part self-reflexive memoir, part statement of Nyasa nationhood, and part commentary on the history of race relations between white and black in the Nyasaland Protectorate. Written in English, Mwase’s second or third language, the “Dialogue” (Mwase’s term for the work) also contains several prominent Latin phrases, offering an indigenous use of a classical education that bears suggestive contrast with the western-oriented classicism expounded by Malawi’s first President, Hastings Kamuzu Banda (c.1898-1997). Mwase’s use of Latin is multi-layered and reflects the diffuse circulation of Latin in different cultures and institutions, but there is also a coherent logic to the citation of Latin in the Dialogue. As with other writers who espouse national counter-narratives to British colonial rule in this period, Mwase has a clear sense of the cultural politics of language and the role that Latin can play in writing back to English (see Greenwood 2010 for examples from the Anglophone Caribbean).

This paper will consider the evidence for Mwase’s classical education and analyze the dynamics of Mwase’s use of Latin to write back to colonial power. It will also draw out some intriguing parallels with the proem of Herodotus’ Histories. The approach will engage with existing work on classical receptions in different regions of Africa (including Goff 2013; Lambert 2011; Parker ed. 2017), and will develop a reading of Mwase’s account as part of a network of transnational black classicisms in the first half of the twentieth century. Mwase presents a powerful example of how indigenous voices from different cultural contexts have turned to Classics to bolster their self-expression.

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Indigenous Voices and Classical Literature

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