History of the peoples of Zambia

This is a bit of a long story, so you should make a cup of coffee …  

Stone-Age People

The land area now known as Zambia was once occupied by hunter-gatherers known as the Batwa. They were of small stature and used bows and arrows and hand axes with stone heads.  They had no knowledge of iron or of domestic animals.  There are many caves and stone outcrops which have rock art from these early people, mostly in northern Zambia.

The arrival of the Bantu People

The history of the Bantu people, with their iron technology and domestic animals, who arrived over the centuries, is very difficult to pin down as their history relies on oral tradition.  Also, an ethnic group would rarely name themselves; they would be named by other groups who came into contact with them.  So sometimes the name of an ethnic group changed as years went by.

We have over 50 different ethnic groups now in Zambia, so some of their migration may seem rather confusing.  However, I have written a short piece on their arrival into now-Zambia from Nick Katanekwa’s book: Zambia’s Outstanding Natural, Cultural & Historic Sites.  (Some of the dates conflict with other texts, but I have left them as stated).

From 500 AD the first Bantu arrived via both sides of Lake Tanganyika and spread throughout now-Zambia.  These were the Lungu, Mambwe, Tumbuka and Subiya.

The next wave of Bantu immigrants is thought to have come in via the Kafue River from Central Africa around 500-700 AD.  These people included the Lenje, Soli, Tonga, Sala, Ila, Toka-Leya, Totela, Shanjo, Dombe, and Chewa.  Around the same time the Luyana and Nkoya arrived into the west from now-Angola.

Around 1100 AD the Mbwela and Kaonde arrived in the northwest from Central Africa.

Between 1600 and 1700 AD the Lamba, Swaka, Lala, Bisa, Kunda, Nsenga, Shila, Bwile, Tabwa, Chishinge, Ushi and Bemba arrived in the north and the northwest.  The Lunda arrived in the west.

Another wave of immigrants arrived from the north and the west from 1700 onwards – the Luvale and the Lunda.  They came to the northwest of our region.

Finally we have two groups which arrived in our area from the south between 1830 and 1840.  These two groups had fled from Shaka’s rule in south Africa (Shaka was the Zulu Chief).

One group, the Ngoni, crossed the Zambezi River into the east of the area.  They settled near present-day Chipata.  The other group, called the Kololo, settled in the west.

The first waves of Bantu arriving in now-Zambia either lived as loosely-connected families speaking the same language or they had a central organisation with a chief.  There was plenty of space for all of them and there was little conflict until the advent of the slave trade.

There is a section on the Kingdoms of Zambia – The Chewa, Bemba, Lunda, Lozi and Ngoni Kingdoms.

The Slave Trade

The slave trade did not affect the western part of now-Zambia as the dominant Kololo/Lozi tribe did not want to lose the people – they were needed to work on the farms.  There were plenty of attempts by slavers from the west coast but most were rebuffed.

In the east of now-Zambia, things were a lot different.  The slave trade had been ongoing for hundreds of years along the east coast as slaves were taken to work on farms.  The slavers moved more and more inland to find slaves, reaching our area in the late 1700s.  The slavers brought not only calico and beads for trade but also guns.  And these guns brought turmoil as ethnic groups vied for control of the trade in slaves and elephant tusks  (As a note here, elephant tusks were used, at the time, throughout the world for cutlery handles, religious icons, jewelry and other items).

David Livingstone

David Livingstone found now-Zambia in the grips of terrible suffering when he explored the region between 1855 and 1873.  There were rampaging people on the hunt, armed with guns, for slaves and elephants.  The peaceful farming communities had stockaded their villages and lived in fear.

It was through David Livingstone’s lectures on the trade in Britain that the government was urged to do more to end the trade in slaves.  Interestingly David Livingstone often found himself in the company of the slavers as it was through them that he could travel across a largely unknown area of central Africa.

In theory the slave trade had been ended by Britain by the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833 which did not allow any trade in people throughout the British colonies.  However, without ‘boots on the ground’ it was difficult to end the trade in practice.

It was not until the Scramble for Africa in the 1890s when European powers divided up Africa into spheres of influence, that the slave trade would finally be ended.  The British were in our area from around 1890.  Nyasaland (Malawi) became a Protectorate in 1891.

From Harry Johnston, Imperial Commissioner of Nyasaland, in a report in 1894:

The armed forces in British Central Africa … consist of 3 European officers, 200 Sikhs,  40 Zanzibaris, 40 Arabs, 69 Makua (from Mozambique) and a number of irregulars …

The End of the Slave Trade

To end the slave trade, posts were set up at strategic locations.  Abercorn (Mbala) and Fife (Nakonde) were on the Stevenson Road which ran from Lake Nyasa (Malawi) to Lake Tanganyika.  From these and other posts or forts around the land, the slave trade was ended.  This had largely been funded by Cecil Rhodes from Cape Town.

The British South African Company

The British South African Company (BSAC), with Cecil Rhodes at the helm, was given a charter by the British Government between 1899 and 1924 to run the affairs of the two countries – North-Eastern Rhodesia and North-Western Rhodesia.  There were rules on how and what the company could do in the country with British administrators in place to monitor the activities.

The BSAC developed the country for trade.  BSAC was a company and required to make profits for the shareholders.  The hope was that the copper found around Ndola and Kitwe would prove to be valuable, but the copper in Katanga, (now-Democratic Republic of Congo) under Belgium control was easier to mine, so attempts at mining in North-Western Rhodesia mostly failed.

The introduction of tax was a contentious issue.  The Bantu people were not used to money – they bartered.  They were used to paying ‘tribute’ which was an African tradition but this was paid in food or tools.  At first tax could be paid in a chicken or some grain but finally everyone was required to pay in money.  Waged work was not easy for most of the people.  There were a few jobs on the farms and for the government but mostly the men boarded trains to work in the mines in Southern Rhodesia or South Africa.  This meant that the men were often away when the farming had to be done.  It had a dramatic effect on traditional societies.

The End of the British South African Company

In 1911 North-Western and North-Eastern Rhodesia were amalgamated into one country – Northern Rhodesia – with the capital in Livingstone.  Only three years later, in 1914, the First World War broke out.  With Northern Rhodesia Police only a fledgling unit, they had to protect the northern border with Tanganyika (Tanzania) and the south-west border along the Caprivi Strip (Namibia) both under German control.

In 1924 the Charter between the BSAC and the British government ended.  The British government took control of the country as a Protectorate.  It was now found that mining was economical – the war had meant that there was more need for copper in the world.

British Administration and the Second World War

With the growth of the economy centred around the Copperbelt, there was a call for the capital of the country to be moved from Livingstone to a site closer to the main activity.  This happened in 1935 and the capital became Lusaka.

In 1939 the Second World War broke out.  By then the Northern Rhodesia Rifles had been formed.  They fought in the war in Somaliland, Madagascar, the Middle East and Burma.

After the war, the economy of Northern Rhodesia continued to improve.

By now, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was a self-governing British colony (from 1923) with many white settlers who farmed, mined and traded.  Only the white people were allowed to vote and there was segregation of the races.  Nyasaland (Malawi) was also under British rule as another Protectorate.  It was decided that the three countries should be formed into a Federation and this became a reality in 1953 with the capital at Salisbury (Harare).

The Federation

The Federation was doomed right from the start and this was mentioned by many.  Both Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were Protectorates which meant that, although the British government administered the countries, the internal affairs were generally run by the people.  To lump these two countries together with Southern Rhodesia with its large settler community and race segregation, was bound to be troublesome, to say the least.

During the Federation years Kariba Dam was built.  This was a massive project meant to supply power to the mines in Northern Rhodesia.  However, it was felt by many in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland that most of the income of the three countries, especially from mining in Northern Rhodesia, went to Southern Rhodesia to build that country.

It was not only the black people in Northern Rhodesia who wanted change, but also from the small white community who had settled there.  They called for the end of the Federation and Independence.  The Federation ended in 1963; in 1964 Northern Rhodesia became Zambia.

Our Neighbours in the 1960s

Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo) became independent from Belgium in 1960 and was renamed Zaire.

Nyasaland became Malawi in 1964

Tanganyika became Tanzania (from Britain) in 1964

In 1965 Southern Rhodesia proclaimed Independence from British rule.  From that time until 1979, Southern Rhodesia was in conflict.  It became Zimbabwe in 1981.

Bechuanaland became Botswana (from Britain) in 1966

In 1966 Southwest Africa (Namibia) started its civil war which would continue until 1990.  (Southwest Africa was being run by South Africa).  It became Namibia in 1991.

Angola became independent (from Portugal) in 1974.  In 1975 the Angola Civil War started and would continue until 2002.


Kenneth Kaunda (United National Independence Party) became President of Zambia and remained in the office until 1991 – 27 years.  These were difficult years for a young country; there was internal conflict in many of the neighbouring countries.  The Cold War too was controlling much of the world with conflicts being bolstered in Africa by outside influences.

Probably the worst effect on Zambia was the closing of its trade route through Southern Rhodesia and to South Africa.  It wasn’t until 1975 that a new trade route was opened to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania with a railway line.

Under Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia had become a one-party state and although there were elections, there was only one party to vote for.  Most large companies were nationalised.  Being land-locked trade was proving difficult and to compound the economic problems, Zambia became home for many refugees and continued to assist other countries in their calls for independence.

By the late 1980s, with Zambia’s economy in freefall, the people were calling for the end of the one-party state.

Multi-Party Democracy

In 1991 Kenneth Kaunda stepped down and a new party, Movement for Multiparty Democracy came into power with Frederick Chiluba as President.  Frederick Chiluba set about privatising many of the large and un-productive companies brought about by nationalisation.  It is also under Frederick Chiluba that Zambia opened its borders to the outside world and began to encourage tourism.  This, though, was a difficult concept for the people to understand as the country had been insular for so long.

Since Frederick Chiluba, Zambia has had several elections.  Levy Mwanawasa was president for 6 years but died while in office.  Rupiah Banda took over after Levy Mwanawasa’s death for 3 years.  A new party was voted in during the 2011 elections – Patriotic Front – under the presidency of Michael Sata.  Michael Sata also died in office after 3 years and his place has been taken by Edgar Lungu.

Zambia’s economy is still dependent on copper mining.  Agriculture and tourism are growing.