Remembering Landeg White, 1940-2017

Posted on April 18, 2018 in News

by Hugh Macmillan for the Journal of Southern African Studies

Landeg Ernest White, who died after a short illness at his home at Mafra, near Sintra, Portugal, on 3 December 2017, spent less than three years in Malawi between his arrival in August 1969 to teach at the new university and his deportation from the country in May 1972. It is safe to say, however, that this period was decisive for him, both personally and intellectually, and that he had an infinitely greater impact on the country than most short-term expatriates.

Landeg White was born at Taff’s Well, near Cardiff, Wales, on 20 June 1940, the day of the fall of France. He was the son of the Reverend Reginald White (1914-2003), known professionally as R.E.O. White, a Baptist minister who eventually became principal of the Scottish Baptist College. His father was a prolific author who is well known in the USA for his popular religious texts. Landeg’s mother, Gwyneth Landeg (1914-2016), was a Welsh-speaker from a coal-mining and trade union background whose father had won a gold medal for singing at the Eisteddfod. She had worked in a Dr Barnardo’s Home in London, helping to receive Jewish child refugees before the outbreak of the Second World War. Landeg’s unusual first name was his mother’s maiden name and his younger sister’s name, Glenda, was an anagram of it. The family moved around with his father’s work and Landeg attended schools on the Wirral in Cheshire, Rutherglen Academy in Scotland, and the Birkenhead Institute. He went on to do two degrees in English Literature at Liverpool University – writing a book-length MA dissertation on the hymns of Isaac Watts. He went on to take a post as a lecturer in English literature at the Trinidad campus of the University of the West Indies in 1964.

Before leaving for Trinidad, he had married Alison Hinton, whom he had met in London through a Baptist student society, and they had had one child, Louise. A second child, Graham, was born in Trinidad. At the university he shared the BA literature course with one other lecturer and they taught, as he recalled in one of his autobiographical poems, everything from Chaucer to T. S. Eliot. While in Trinidad, he became interested in the work of the then youthful, but already prolific, Trinidadian novelist, V.S. Naipaul, who was the subject of his first published book, V.S. Naipaul: A Critical introduction (1975) – not a biography, but a critical assessment of his novels and non-fiction work.

He also had time for extra-curricular activities, and became the musical director of a steelband – the Lever Brothers Canboulay Steelband. He identified a talented fourteen-year old boy, Jit Samaroo (1950-2016), in the band and paid for him to have music lessons. Jit went on to become, as Landeg recorded in verse, Trinidad’s most famous composer and a musician with the BP Renegades, and his family band, the Samaroo Jets – he received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies in 2003.

Jit Samaroo Playlist

Landeg’s first marriage ended in Trinidad and his wife chose to remain on the island with their two young children who grew up there. The break-up of his marriage, and his rejection of his Baptist upbringing, seems to have resulted in a long-lasting rupture with his parents, though they remained in touch with his first wife and children. Some of this background is cryptically documented in his autobiographical poem, ‘The Trick’ (Traveller’s Palm (2nd edition, 2017), 12-29).

He had experienced and come to love the tropics in Trinidad, but it is not clear whether he was fully prepared for Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s paranoid dictatorship, which he sometimes referred to in later verse as the Malawi ‘Banda-Stan’. He did, however, find kindred spirits among the students and staff in the English and History departments at Chancellor College, then in Blantyre. Soon after his arrival in Malawi, he also met the love of his life – Alice Costley-White. The mixed-race granddaughter of an Englishman who became a senior civil servant in the colonial government of Nyasaland, she had been brought up on the British-owned Sena Sugar Company’s plantations in Mozambique, where her father worked, and was one of a large extended family that flourished on both sides of the Malawi-Mozambique border. In 1970 he travelled with Alice by train via the Shire Highlands and Trans-Zambezia railways through still colonial Mozambique to Beira. They returned to Malawi by boat up the Zambezi and Shire rivers. This was his introduction to the Zambezian region, and to Luso-African culture, which was to be the subject of much of his future academic work.

Meanwhile at the university he became, with fellow lecturer David Kerr, a promoter of the weekly meetings of the Writers Group, whose members included the Malawian student poets, Jack Mapanje, Frank Chipasula, and Lupenga Mphande, as well as the outstanding South Sudanese poet, Scopas Gorinwa. The two lecturers and these students, with others, contributed to Mau: 39 Poems from Malawi, which was published by the CCAP’s Hetherwick Press, Blantyre, in July 1971, and well reviewed by Chinua Achebe. Landeg, who had won a British award for young poets in 1969, contributed two poems: ‘In the village’ and ‘At Tete, Mocambique’. Jack Mapanje feels that it was Landeg’s work with the Writers Group that inspired his interest in African poetry and song and underlay much of his later academic work, as well as an anthology of African oral poetry that he co-edited with Jack and published in 1983. The discussions at the Writers Group were not overtly political, but they were opaquely so, and attracted the attention of Banda’s ubiquitous spies and informers. There was, of course, no reason given when Landeg was served with a forty-eight hour deportation order in May 1972. In dictatorial regimes such as Banda’s, excellence as a teacher, closeness to, and influence with, students, were in themselves grounds for dismissal and deportation.

In his essay ‘Working with Leroy’ (Social Dynamics, 26:2 (2000), 3-7), an account of his productive intellectual relationship with the American historian and linguist Leroy Vail, who worked on the language and history of the Tumbuka of northern Malawi, Landeg acknowledges that he served on the university staff in Malawi with him for three years without getting to know him at all well. It was only on the day that he was served with his deportation order that he had a conversation with Leroy about his own work on Naipaul. Vail was not a part of the group, including Martin Chanock and Ian and Jane Linden, who drank regularly at the International Hotel – Landeg believed that Leroy dined in some style at home with his wife, Patricia. He must, however, have been part, with Landeg, Robin Palmer, Chanock and the Lindens, and the young historians, Gadi Mngomezulu, Elias Mandala, Owen Kalinga and Kings Phiri, of the History seminar, which Landeg saw as the intellectual hub of the college. Through participation in this seminar he identified history as what he called ‘the discipline with a brain’.

After his enforced departure from Malawi, Alice joined him in Liverpool where they married on 27 October 1972. They moved soon afterwards to Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone where they stayed for about eighteen months. They went on from there via London to Lusaka where Landeg took up a post at the University of Zambia in October 1974. In the following year he was able to get funding to do research in Mozambique’s Zambezia province on ‘Forced labour in oral tradition’. With the help of Alice’s knowledge of Portuguese and Sena – she acted as interviewer and interpreter – they collected 120 work songs. This research was carried out in the months following Mozambique’s independence in June 1975 in what turned out to be a window of opportunity between the end of the Mozambican liberation war against the Portuguese and the destabilisation of the independent country by Rhodesian, and later South African-backed, RENAMO forces.

After completing the writing-up of his University of Wisconsin dissertation on the Tumbuka verb in London in 1972, Leroy Vail had also moved to the University of Zambia where he carried on work on Nyasaland’s railways and Mozambique’s chartered companies. At a dinner party at Robin and Judy Palmer’s house in Lusaka in December 1975, Landeg proposed that they collaborate on the historical contextualisation of the work songs. On a joint research visit to Mozambique in the following year they were surprised to be given unrestricted access to the archives of the Sena Sugar Company, which transformed the project. After five years hard work, mainly in Zambia, they produced a major academic monograph, Colonialism and Capitalism in Mozambique (1981), a study of the plantation economy of Quelimane district from the mid nineteenth century until the 1970s. This widely acclaimed book drew on company and national archives in Mozambique and the United Kingdom and made innovative use of work songs. Landeg noted that there were not a dozen pages in a massive book that were written without prior discussion. They concluded on what was thought by some to be a pessimistic note – a fear, borne out in fact, that the new FRELIMO government of Mozambique would continue to deny the peasants of Zambezia, as its predecessors had done, the freedom to cultivate the land on their own terms.

They were to collaborate twice more – once on a chapter on ‘tribalism’ in Malawi, which drew together Leroy’s northern and Landeg’s southern perspectives, and was published in Leroy’s edited collection, The Creation of Tribalism (1989), the product of his 1983 conference on ethnicity, which was held at the University of Virginia; and then on their co-authored book, Power and the Praise Poem (1991). The nature of the collaboration was now different with Landeg doing more of the detailed analysis of songs and praise poems, and Leroy providing more of the general synthesis in distinct chapters. As someone who claimed to know something about the history of the Swazi, after working in Swaziland for six years, I was amazed by Landeg’s ability to analyse the praises of the Swazi kings and to demonstrate that much of the praise poetry collected in the twentieth century from named performers was in no sense ‘traditional’, but was ‘present discourse’ (my phrase), reflecting contemporary political pre-occupations. When I asked him how he did it, he replied, nonchalantly, that it was just a matter of applying the techniques of ‘practical criticism’.

After leaving Zambia in 1979, Landeg and Alice, with their two young sons, Martin, born in 1974, and John, born in 1980 – their first names reflected their parents’ friendships with Martin Chanock and Jack Mapanje – settled in England where Landeg worked briefly at the University of Kent, Canterbury, before transferring to the University of York where he became a senior lecturer, and later reader, in English literature, and also, from 1984-94, director of the Centre of Southern African Studies. While in York, he wrote and published his major work on the history of Malawi, Magomero: Portrait of an African village (Cambridge University Press, 1987), for which he received two years research funding from the Leverhulme Trust in 1981. In this remarkable book, described by Malyn Newitt in the American Historical Review as a ‘minor masterpiece’, Landeg once again used the analysis of songs to recreate the lived experience of Malawian men and women. It is not, strictly speaking, the portrait of a village, but the story of two groups of villages on the Namadzi river: the Mang’anja villages and the coming of the Universities Mission to Central Africa in the 1860s, and the successor Lomwe villages, and their experience of colonial land alienation, and the new slavery of the tangatha system, leading up to the Chilembwe Uprising in 1915. Two further episodes carried the story up to the mid 1980s.

His final contribution to the academic history of the region was Bridging the Zambesi: A Colonial Folly (Palgrave: 1993), in which he used the papers of Libert Oury to document the damaging impact of the building of the Zambesi railway bridge (1935) on the economy and finances of colonial Nyasaland. He returned to the history of this region as a creative writer with two historical novels, Livingstone’s Funeral (2010) and Ultimatum, a novel set around the Anglo-Portuguese crisis on the Zambesi in 1890, which was launched in October 2017 – only weeks before his death.

While at York, Landeg organised a number of important conferences: on literature and society in Southern Africa (1981); and on the South African economy after apartheid (1986), which drew ANC participation; and on the Malawi Cabinet Crisis of 1964 (1993), which attracted the participation of surviving witnesses. The first two of these resulted in the publication of edited collections. Under his leadership, York became a major academic centre for Southern African studies and drew in many students from the region in the last days of apartheid.

From York, Landeg orchestrated the ultimately successful campaign for the release of Jack Mapanje from prison in Malawi. News of Jack’s detention on 25 September 1987 had reached him in York on the same day as a result of Jack’s colleague, Father Pat O’Malley’s, phone call in Gaelic from Malawi to a fellow priest in Ireland. (1) Landeg ensured that the news was almost immediately broadcast on the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme. He launched a major campaign involving PEN International, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Africa Watch, Index on Censorship, and other organisations. A highlight was the reading of poems from Mapanje’s Of Chameleons and Gods by the playwrights Harold Pinter and Ronald Harwood, on behalf of PEN International, outside the Malawi High Commission in London in December 1987. Before Mapanje was finally released in May 1991, Banda’s head of security and intelligence asked him who he was that his detention had caused such a fuss. He said that they had detained thousands of people ‘but we’ve never had the amount of trouble we’ve had in your case’ (Jack Mapanje, And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night, 364).

After taking early retirement from York in 1994, and moving to Portugal, where he lived happily with Alice on a smallholding, and taught at the Open University, for what were to be the last twenty-three years of his life, Landeg returned to what he described as his first love – poetry. He had published his first volume of poems, For Captain Stedman, in 1983. Nine or ten more volumes followed, including The View from the Stockade (1991), Where the Angolans are Playing Football (2003) and Singing Bass (2009), Letters from Portugal (2014), and Living in the Delta: New and collected poems (2015). His final collection, ‘a pruned and re-invigorated’ version of Traveller’s Palm (first edition 2002), published in May 2017, is the nearest he ever came to an autobiography. The final poem, ‘A Long Sentence’ (79-87) includes reflections on retirement, on old age – and, almost, a last testament:

The days of bartering your time on matters
that no longer matter are quickly forgotten.
You’re your own boss; it’s in your own head
whether you are bored to death or busier than ever.

What hurt was my ignorance! After professing
four disciplines in eight universities
in six countries on three continents,
I reckoned I knew my way around.

Too long immunised by an expertise
already outdated, I found I knew nothing
about almost everything – arts, sciences,
life, myself, the whole caboodle.

Strong on rhythm and metre, irony and humour, Landeg’s body of poetic work must be almost unique among British/Welsh poets for its range of global and historical reference from the West Indies and South America to Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Swaziland, South Africa, the Pacific, and Portugal. An on-line blurb for Living in the Delta, which he must have approved, described his poetry in these terms:

The experience of reading his writing make you want to read more-it is warm, humane, intelligent and immensely readable. Commentators on his work are apt to use politically incorrect words and phrases such as ‘masterpiece’ and ‘major poet’. He is a brilliant comic writer, for instance, and can move in an instant from sly wit to laugh-out-loud funny. Yet suddenly with a poem like ‘African Incident’ you are in the midst of tragedy. He is a moving celebrant of love and family and community; a passionate, meticulous observer of the natural world-it is difficult to think of a living writer who is a more complete poet.

His poems appeared in a great variety of publications and his collections were well reviewed in prestigious places such as the Observer and the Times Literary Supplement. He was, however, to achieve real fame as the accomplished translator of the work of the sixteenth century Portuguese poet, Luís Vaz de Camôes. His translation of Os Lusíadas was published in the Oxford World Classics Series in 1997 and won the Times Literary Supplement translation prize in the following year. The translation was funded by a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and he began work on it on the evening of the day of Nelson Mandela’s election as president of South Africa – 27 April 1994 (‘Breakfasting with the Bees’, Traveller’s Palm, 72). His Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camôes, which was published by Princeton University Press in 2008, was also well received. He concluded the introduction to his last book, Camôes: Made in Goa, which was published in India shortly before his death, with these reflections on the poet’s life and work:

Camões was the first great European poet to cross the equator, and The Lusíads is the first truly global poem. It is no accident that his vision of the significance of Portugal’s pioneer voyages should have come to him in India… The intuition that guided my translation of The Lusíads is as follows, that during his years in India, Camões ‘discovered’ two things.

First, he learned what it was to be Portuguese…. Secondly, he learned to celebrate what the Portuguese had given to the world with the pioneer voyages of the fifteenth century, culminating in the voyage to India…It was the former of these ideas which was prophetic, taking wing after the restoration of Portugal’s independence from Spain in 1640. The latter, Camões’s celebration of the newness of the world, was a theme that required, and requires, constant rediscovery.

As a global poet himself, it is hardly surprising that Landeg should have identified with Camôes as the first global poet. It is, perhaps, more surprising that, after attending a conference in Goa in 2016, he should have ended his life as a minor cult figure in that place. Soon after his death, his first obituary appeared in The Times of India and included a tribute from a reader in Singapore. His work to promote the international reputation of Camôes was also acknowledged in Portugal. Within two weeks of his death, the Portuguese Socialist Party paid a tribute to him in parliament in the presence of Alice and Martin White. Earlier, in 2011, copies of his translation of The Lusíads had been presented to the members of the European Union’s Troika, which negotiated an economic rescue package for the country.

How can I sum up such an active, varied, and productive life? Landeg White was an inspiring teacher, an exacting scholar, a frank critic, a gifted poet, and a loyal friend. He made a substantial contribution in an astonishing variety of fields. But I should, perhaps, end this tribute with the last lines of his own ‘Self-Praises (for my African age-mates)’ (Living in the Delta, 74):

As a scholar, I set the paradigm: as a poet I found my niche,
Let these praises float from my window, setting fires where
they will.


  1. For Landeg’s moving poetic response to Jack Mapanje’s detention, see ‘Immortal Diamond’, Living in the Delta, 50-1.