Extreme History

Four of us hoping the walls won't fall down

So ok, I didn’t cycle across Malawi for hours in the scorching heat, but last Saturday, I did have an extreme adventure of my own while Sandy was being phenomenal.  I was experiencing extreme history. 

I was touring Sabbatini’s Castle.  

So this fascinates me: In 1906, Alberto Sabbatini arrived in Malawi by way of Italy, Liverpool, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, and then various places in Mozambique.  After dallying in mule exportation and stone masonry, among other schemes, he found his way to Port Herald (now Nsanje) with six pence in his pocket. Several years later, he had made himself into one of the most successful tobacco farmers in all of Malawi (then Nyasaland). Needing a manor appropriate to his status, he began building a castle. 

Sketch of the castle pre-fire

And I mean a real castle.  Built with bricks made on the property, he constructed an enormous private home complete with turreted towers, in the middle of nowhere.

The castle today

He and his family lived there until Alberto’s luck changed and they lost their fortune.  He sold the castle and the estate, Mapanga, in 1939. 

Ironically, the castle was then used to intern enemy aliens during World War II.  Italians, Germans, and Austrians were rounded up and kept in the castle for several years.  There are conflicting reports as to whether members of the Sabbatini family were interned there as well.

After independence, the castle changed hands several times until it became home to a training ground for prison guards.  Today, you can’t visit the castle without express written permission from the military.

Luckily, someone in the Society of Malawi has some pull and got permission for the society (and the rest of us who tagged along) to visit the historic site.

So while Sandy was being uber-athletic, I dragged three friends with me to see the castle.  After a fire gutted the place years ago, it is now only a shell, but you can still glimpse evidence of its former glory – bits of intricate molding still lining the ceiling, fancy brickwork, glass in a few windows, fireplaces, etc.  You can see where there was a double terrace and the spectacular views.  You can tell where there was a sweeping staircase.  It’s easy to imagine how life must have been for the Sabbatini’s.

looking up into the tower

once grand entrance


glass still in the windows!

fireplaces on first and second floors


double arches

intricate molding above an arched window

Our visit was ‘extreme’ because we were strongly advised not to go inside the castle shell because the walls could fall down.  But, being the intrepid, phenomenal, history buffs that we were, we went inside anyway.

walls that could maybe fall down

No walls fell, but we still felt pretty brave.  And phenomenal.


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14 responses to “Extreme History

  1. Triple B

    Make sure you send plenty of pictures of the fam while they are visiting! Don’t let Johnny B. get too close to any monkeys. They might capture him thinking he is one of them!

  2. Nancy

    That was a wonderful way to spend your Saturday! Loved the history lesson! Amazing!
    Christmas hugs to both of you!!!!!

  3. Ginger

    Such a beauitful place Kate! I hear you have written a published article about it too! You are amazing and yes always quite phenominal!

  4. Anonymous

    Thanks, a fascinating history lesson. Glad the walls did not fall on you.
    Love you, Marnine

  5. Douglas

    Hi Kate

    Was in very hot in Nsanje?

    I had a look at the Society of Malawi website. The news section has not been updated for a while. But if they are organising trips then I assume that they are quite active. Was thinking of joining. Would you recommend it?

    We are very likely to come to Malawi in March. I am wondering whether to buy a vehicle in South Africa and drive it or just to come to Malawi. Do expats there have a view on whether that is a good way of doing it? They have guaranteed buy-back schemes I see in South Africa for the end of our trip.

    Douglas and Amelia.

  6. Barb

    Great photos and good history lesson……..we sort of figured you did NOT do the biking with Sandy!!!!!!

  7. Mary Sue Makin

    Kate, really fantastic blog. I have never been to Nsanje, and would like to go some time. How was your trip there? Did you see any of the new port?


  8. Ted Sabbatini

    Hi Guys,
    You really brought back some memories , I am Alberto’s grandson now living in Italy, I am really sorry to see the Castle in ruins.
    I have not been back to Malawi in many years.
    Any way thanks very much for posting these fotos and history.

  9. Paul Sabbatini

    My brother, Ted, told me about your blog. I am Alberto’s oldest living grandson, now in Powhatan, VA. Last time I saw the castle was in 2004 when it was being used as a prison, before the fire – sad to see it in such poor condition. I can certainly confirm that, ironically, members of the Sabbatini family were interned there – Francesca Sabbatini (Alberto’s wife) and her two sons and three daughters.
    Thanks for the all the information.
    Regards, Paul

    • Gordon Williamson

      Well, it’s such a shame to see this article. I lived in the house next to the castle in the mid 70’s as my father farmed the surrounding tobacco estate. At the time it was being used as a Govt. offices for general admin, and then became the Young Pioneers training base (for women). As kids, my sister and I used to go up in the towers and explore the building often, it was a beautiful building and to see the dereliction in these photos is like seeing an old friend die. Interestingly it was never referred to as Sabbatini’s Castle, it was always Macaroni Castle and to me it will always be that.

  10. Oliver Corlett

    Yes, when I lived in Nyasaland in the 1950s and early 60s it was known as Macaroni Castle. I also climbed Mt Mlanje in a group with two Sabbatini boys and their mother!

  11. Most interesting and informative. I have being studying the history of the Italians in Southern Africa for the past twenty years now, and this is the first time I have come across this story. Thank you very much.

  12. It has been very interesting to see the pictures of “Mapanga Castle” though deeply saddened by its dilapidated state. The various commentators have truly called the Castle by the various names it was known by. Myself and my partner, the late James Allan Sauze, were the last owners of Mapanga Castle before it was taken by the Banda regime. To get the full story about the Castle and my personal connection with it, read my book “Blantyre and Yawo Women”. You can get full details on my website.

  13. Lisa Hillary-Tee

    We have all the photos of my family’s history in the castle. My family, the Sabbatinis, were definitely interned there during the war, and my Grandfather, Mario, told me amazing stories about the Castle and his life in Africa.

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