Preserving Malawi's endangered historical District Notebooks, 1891-1964 (EAP797)

Aims and objectives

This pilot project seeks to survey district notebooks in 28 District Commissioners’ offices and registries in Malawi in order to determine the extent and storage conditions of these historic books. The project will also undertake a pilot digitisation of seriously endangered notebooks that will be identified.

Just as in all other British African Protectorates, District Officers, later District Commissioners (DCs), maintained District Notebooks or Political Notebooks among other records in their Bomas (district headquarters). The idea of district notebooks came about out of the realisation that the knowledge of European officials in Africa constituted a vast reservoir of detailed information regarding local institutions and changes, which they were undergoing. Since this knowledge had not been recorded before, it was deemed important to record it in order to serve the interests of governments, anthropologists and others. This being the case and as a matter of rule, all British officers who served as District Commissioners were required to maintain district notebooks, which were handed over to succeeding officers until 1964 when the country became independent. Over a period of seven decades of colonial rule in Malawi, several district notebooks were generated.

The system of district notebooks, termed as Registres de renseignements politiques, was also used in the Belgian Congo and the French territories. Common subjects dealt with in the district notebooks included tribal history, notes on population and vital statistics, succession and inheritance, native beliefs and customs, health and sanitation, economics, labour, natural history and metrology.

District notebooks are unique because they were an intermediary between orality and literacy during the formative years of the colonial administration where British officers documented tribal customs and histories as narrated by non-literate tribal leaders and historians. They contain rare information about specific districts in Malawi and arguably there are no single records that comprehensively portray developments in Malawi’s administrative districts during the colonial period than the district notebooks.

Because of the information which they contain, district notebooks are highly valuable to the nation. Tribal histories, cultural values, beliefs, practices and relationships, which are recorded in the notebooks, have helped and continue to help shape the Malawian society. In addition to providing valuable primary information on various aspects of Malawi’s socio-economic history during the colonial era, district notebooks assist in resolving conflicts bordering on inheritance, land and chieftaincy.

After independence, the meticulous system of generating and maintaining district notebooks was abandoned by Malawian district commissioners. Today, a bulk of the country’s pre-independence district notebooks is to be found in various districts at either district council or District Commissioners’ offices and registries. In 1939 the Colonial Office noted that district notebooks in the Belgian Congo were more systematically maintained than many of the British district notebooks. Later in 1960 Curtin’s survey of archives in tropical Africa revealed that nowhere had local government records, the majority of which were district records, survived completely (Curtin, 1960, pp. 129-147). Recent studies on records management in Malawi and the National Archives’ own country-wide records management survey of 2007 have shown that management of old records is generally very poor. Old records are often dumped haphazardly in storerooms alongside other non-serviceable goods like old tyres and broken furniture. It is not uncommon to find such old records being ravaged by rats and termites, soaked in rain water due to leaking roofs and covered in dust. It is scarcely easy to retrieve any documents from such record storerooms. What is more, before the hand-over of power to Malawian leaders in 1964, British officers were instructed to destroy certain categories of records held by District Commissioners to prevent any embarrassment on the part of the out-going colonial government emanating from any discoveries by the new leaders of intelligent reports against them as contained in the records held by the British District Commissioners.

It is against this background that the pilot project seeks to survey district notebooks generated and maintained during the colonial rule in 28 District Commissioners’ offices in Malawi. The project will ascertain the availability of the district notebooks and their extent as well as their physical and storage conditions. The most seriously endangered notebooks will be digitised as a way of safeguarding their long term preservation.


The team visited 20 districts and identified a total of 182 district books. Many of the books were found in bad shape and needed conservation and restoration work. A sample of 10 images from one of the 10 district books found in Nkhotakota which dates back to the year 1900 has been digitised. The captured images are significant in that they contain valuable information about the history of the Chiefs and headmen who ruled in Nkhotakota district at that time; it shows figures of the district census which took place every year from early 1900's; total amounts of money collected during the hut and tax exercises every year in the district together with remarks on why there was an over/under collection.

Survey report: PDF download (241 KB)