"The extreme penalty of the law": mercy and the death penalty as aspects of state power in colonial Nyasaland, c. 1903-47
Journal of Eastern African Studies
Capital punishment was the pinnacle of the colonial judicial system and its use of state violence, but has previously been neglected as a topic of historical research in Africa. This article is based on the case files and legal records of over 800 capital trials – predominantly for murder – dating between 1900 and 1947. It outlines the functioning of the legal system in Nyasaland and the tensions between “violence” and “humanitarianism” in the use and reform of the death penalty. Capital punishment was a political penalty as much as a judicial punishment, with both didactic and deterrent functions: it operated through mercy and the sparing of condemned lives as well as through executions. Mercy in Nyasaland was consistent with colonial political objectives and cultural values: it was decided not only on the facts of cases, but according to British conceptions of “justice”, “order”, “criminality”, and “African” behaviour. This article analyses the use of mercy in Nyasaland to provide a lens on the nature of colonial governance, and the tensions between African and colonial understandings of violence.
Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) and the Beit Fund, University of Oxford
Open access article.
Vol. 4, Issue 3, pp. 542 - 559