Historian and Africanist

born July 1st 1938

died October 23rd 2017

With the passing of Professor John McCracken Scotland has lost an outstanding Africanist while Malawi has lost its leading historian.

He has contributed substantially to our understanding of the colonial period in Africa, his work valued by scholars in a wide range of disciplines.

A past President of the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom, he received its prestigious award of Distinguished Africanist in 2008.

John grew up in Kelso and was educated at Sedbergh where his imagination was caught by history during his final year. 1959 saw him going up to St John’s College Cambridge where he fell under the spell of Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher and their new approach to imperial history that took seriously the experience of the colonised as well as of the coloniser.

This shaped his postgraduate research on the Blantyre and Livingstonia Missions in Malawi.

Following a year of intensive archival research he took up the offer of a teaching post at the fledgling University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This appointment not only allowed John to cut his teeth in University teaching but plunged him into African political realities.

The forces of African nationalism were rising in Rhodesia and being met by the implacable resistance of the white settler Government of Ian Smith. It was not a situation that easily allowed for neutrality.

John was arrested in Rhodesia in 1964, after taking part in a peaceful protest against the closure of the only newspaper sympathetic to African nationalism. He was detained for only a few hours but his colours were nailed to the mast. Though in his historical work he would always strive for objectivity and impartiality, his close understanding of the African nationalist cause opened up perspectives that had hitherto been closed to European imperial historians.

The same year John made a research visit to Malawi, picking his moment nicely so that he could join the crowd in the stadium on the day Malawi became an independent nation. The young newly-arrived Scotsman looking on so intently would later become the most authoritative interpreter of the 70 years of British rule in Malawi.

John’s next move took him to Tanzania where he joined a group of brilliant young historians who were pioneering a radical pro-African understanding of African colonial history. In this period, he was proud to maintain, the cutting edge in the study of African history was found not in any of the prestigious Universities of the UK or US but at the brand-new University of Dar-es-Salaam.

When John returned to Scotland in 1968 it was to another newly-founded University – Stirling, which would be a congenial academic base for the rest of his life. Malawi was never far from his thoughts, though, and when the opportunity came in 1980 to become Professor of History at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, John jumped at the chance. The next three years were both fulfilling and formative as he developed scholarly collaboration with Malawian colleagues that would be productive for many years to come.

When John returned to Stirling in 1983 he found himself at the height of the Thatcher era with cut-backs to University funding the order of the day and morale at an all-time low. Offering leadership in this context was extremely demanding but still there were creative initiatives such as the establishment of the Centre of Commonwealth Studies of which he was the founding Director.

Meanwhile, John was writing. His early work Politics and Christianity in Malawi 1875-1940 has become an essential textbook for history students in Malawi. His magnum opus - A History of Malawi 1859-1966 (2012), is not only the outstanding study of Malawi’s colonial history but regarded as among the best single-country histories ever to be written about any African nation. It demonstrates his remarkable capacity to put himself in the shoes of ordinary Malawians and to explicate what social, political and economic changes meant for them.

John was a highly principled scholar – infinitely conscientious in his supervision of students, external examining and his extensive refereeing and reviewing; meticulous to the point of perfectionism in the preparation of his own published work; not much interested in University politics from a careerist point of view but ready to fight tooth and nail when he believed that scholarly integrity was at stake. He was passionately committed to the academic development of younger colleagues, especially the Malawian historians with whom he worked across four decades.

As Scotland’s relations with Malawi have revitalised since the turn of the century, John stood out as an advocate of the need to be a “critical friend”, ready to speak out when there is injustice to be confronted.

He will be remembered as someone who combined wit, charm and deep humanity with sharp judgement and critical acumen. The leading Malawian historian Wapu Mulwafu has indicated his legacy in these terms: “His ideas will continue to inspire many for years to come. In my opinion, it would not be an exaggeration to describe John McCracken as the father of modern Malawian history.”

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

Kenneth R. Ross