Some evidence of Stone Age and later Iron Age settlements has been found around Lake Nyasa. Bantu peoples moved into the territory in the 1st millennium ad. By the 16th century a Malawi kingdom, from which the present name of the country is derived, had a prospering trade with the coastal areas of Mozambique.
Jesuit missionaries from Portugal visited the territory near Lake Nyasa as early as the 17th century, but the lake probably was not known to Europeans until Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone reached its shores in 1859. European involvement began in 1875 and 1876, when Scottish church missions were established; a British consul was stationed in the country in 1883. Subsequent warfare with Arab slave traders and fear of Portuguese expansion from Mozambique led to a mission by British explorer and colonial official Harry Johnston, who negotiated treaties with the indigenous rulers. In 1891 the treaties resulted in a formal declaration of a British protectorate, called the Nyasaland Districts Protectorate. Beginning in 1893, it was known as the British Central Africa Protectorate, and in 1907 the area was officially designated the Nyasaland Protectorate. In 1915 John Chilembwe, an African preacher, staged a short, bloody uprising in response to the treatment of Africans by British colonists. The uprising is considered a forerunner of later nationalist movements.
After World War II (1939-1945), nationalist movements gained strength. From 1953 the protectorate was joined for ten years in a federation with Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), called the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. However, this federation was heavily opposed by nationalists who advocated political freedom from British rule. Following the federation’s dissolution in 1963, Nyasaland achieved internal self-government, with Hastings Kamuzu Banda, leader of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), as the first prime minister. The protectorate gained independence on July 6, 1964, under its new name, Malawi. It was declared a republic on July 6, 1966, and Prime Minister Banda was elected president by the National Assembly.
Under the Banda regime Malawi embarked on a vigorous program of economic development. In international affairs Banda held to a firm policy of neutrality in the dispute between the United Kingdom and the government of Rhodesia (known as Southern Rhodesia before 1964), maintaining extensive trade relations with Rhodesia’s rebellious white minority government. He also continued friendly relations with Mozambique (until 1975 governed by Portugal) and in 1967 signed a trade pact with South Africa.
In November 1970 the constitution of Malawi was amended to make Banda president for life, effective the following year. Maintaining good relations with then white-dominated South Africa, he became the first black African head of state to visit that country. His policy of cordiality toward South Africa brought serious criticism from the leaders of other black African countries, and the influence Banda could exert on continental affairs was minimal.
The first parliamentary elections since independence were held in 1978. Although only the MCP participated, a majority of the incumbent members were defeated; participation in the 1983, 1987, and 1992 elections was also restricted to the MCP. Malawi’s economy performed sluggishly in the early 1990s, burdened by foreign debt and by an influx of Mozambican refugees. Meanwhile, Banda faced rising domestic discontent and international criticism of his human rights record.
Change swept through the government in May 1994, as a new constitution was approved, followed by Malawi’s first multiparty elections. Bakili Muluzi, the leader of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and a former federal cabinet member, defeated Banda for the presidency and formed a UDF-dominated government. In keeping with the new constitution, which established a human rights commission, Muluzi freed political prisoners and closed three prisons where tortures were reputed to have taken place. In June 1999 presidential and legislative elections, Muluzi was reelected but the UDF failed to secure a majority in the National Assembly, winning just less than half the total seats.