The land we now call Zambia was inhabited by hunter-gatherers for over a million years. Once the Bantu people started to migrate into the land around 1300s they arrived in small family groups, spread out, farmed and kept themselves to themselves. This went of for about 300 years. We know little about these groups because their stories were not kept in oral tradition.
It wasn’t until more politically-organised groups arrived in the area with their central organisation and common religious beliefs that the stories of their ancestors were kept and carried into the next generations through story-telling.
Because the stories have been handed down through oral tradition, they have changed over time. I have taken this information mostly from Zambia before 1890 by H W Langworthy.
The Chewa Kingdom
The first ethnic group which have handed down their history is that of the Chewa people of the east. Their kingdom originated from Makewana, southwest of Lake Malawi although it is thought that they originally reached there from the Congo dynasties. The people were called the Maravi. While there, two brothers fell out in a succession dispute, and one of them, Undi, left the area and moved west in the 1500s. He moved his palace to an area in present-day Mozambique at a place called Mano when they became known as the Chewa. Through trade and the clever use of family members, the successive Undi rulers enlarged the kingdom to cover land in present-day Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. After 200 years the empire covered a vast area right up to the confluence of the Luangwa and Zambezi Rivers.
The administrative system was one commonly used by kings in Africa. The king appointed chiefs in the outlying villages; the chiefs ruled over several headmen. The chiefs would generally be family members or would be married to one of the king’s relatives. Through this arrangement loyalty was preserved. Tribute was collected from all the people via the chiefs; it could be cattle, grain, tools, salt, elephant tusks. In exchange for tribute the king distributed items including cloth and other imports. The king was also in charge of spiritual matters including the ancestral shrine and ensured the good will of the gods. In the case of Undi his spiritual centre remained in Makewana.
The main trade for the Chewa was through the Portuguese along the Zambezi River who initially came to collect elephant tusks. By the 1700s the trade also included gold and slaves. This increase in trade was to cause conflict and the almost destruction of the kingdom. The Portuguese had trained and armed a group of ex-slaves, called the Chikunda. The Chikunda infiltrated Undi’s kingdom finding mines and capturing slaves, even venturing into Undi’s land to shoot elephants for their tusks. Through them the Portuguese were given land for mining gold. By the end of the 1700s trade in gold and slaves had increased to such an extent that the chiefs under Undi had started to trade independently, thus undermining Undi’s power.
The beginning of the end for Undi came with the Ngoni people from Zululand. The Ngoni were a warrior clan, arriving in the west of Undi’s kingdom in 1835. They caused much disruption but did finally move further north after a few years. In 1870, with more trained warriors, the Ngoni chief, Mpezeni, returned and waged war against Undi. Had it not been for the British and Portuguese colonists who claimed bits of Undi’s kingdom in the 1880s, the kingdom would have totally collapsed.
Nowadays Paramount Chief Gawa Undi is based in Katete. He holds an annual ceremony called the Kalumba Ceremony every year in August. Many Chewa people from Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi join him in the celebrations.
The Lunda Kingdom
While Undi’s kingdom took years to grow and become powerful, the kingdom of Mwata Kazembe around Lake Mweru was rapid. Mwata Kazembe was the son of Mwata Yamvo from the established kingdom in the Congo basin; he had been sent to extend the realm of the Lunda people. They had been informed that the land around Lake Mweru was fertile and there were plenty of fish in the rivers and lakes. Mwata Kazembe took his Lunda people to the area with an already established political system and good trade links through his father around 1700.
The Lunda could easily take over the clans already in the area because they had a good army with guns which had been imported from the west; their neighbours had no guns. Mwata Kazembe’s way of dealing with conquered people was to allow them to continue their normal way of life as long as tribute was paid.
Because this Lunda kingdom was more isolated than the Chewa kingdom, they did not have direct links with the coastal trade and the Portuguese or Swahili slave traders. They used intermediary traders to transport their goods. Trade to the west went via Mwata Yamvo and trade to the east was transported by the Bisa people.
Successive Mwata Kazembes subdued the neighbouring clans, the kingdom being extended into parts of Zambia and DRC. By 1805 the kingdom had reached its largest size and power.
The kingdom was rich in many resources. Not only did they have plenty of food but they had copper, salt, elephants and slaves to trade.
During the time of the Lunda kingdom the Portuguese were making inroads into the interior. Two expeditions were sent by the Portuguese government to try to make trade links and treaties with Mwata Kazembe – Francisco de Lacerda came in 1798; Antonia Gamitto in 1831. Both were rebuffed.
David Livingstone visited in 1867 when he was already very weak and sick. Although he was in theory representing British interests, he was consumed with his exploration of finding the source of the Nile. He left Kazembe’s palace with a slave trader to make his way to Ujiji in present-day Tanzania to find new supplies … which, when he got there, had mostly been stolen …
The decline of the Lunda kingdom began with increased trade and internal conflict. A clan of people, the Yeke, under their Chief Msiri, managed to infiltrate the copper producing area to the west and cutting the link to the original Lunda kingdom; the Swahili continued their advances on the east. (The Swahili culture had spread all along the east coast for hundreds of years and was a mixture of Bantu and Arab influence with Islam as their religion.) By persuading tributary chiefs under Mwata Kazembe to trade independently, both the Yeke and Swahili were able to weaken the Lunda kingdom. By 1850 the state had been considerably reduced in size and power.
Nowadays, Senior Chief Kazembe holds and annual ceremony, the Mutomboko, in Kawambwa each year in July.
The Bemba Kingdom
The Bemba, under their Senior Chief Chitimukulu, lived in the middle of northern now-Zambia around Kasama. They migrated there from the Luba dynasty of the Congo basin around 1650. The land where they lived was not great. The soil was poor; there were no natural resources to exploit and they had no cattle, probably because of tsetse fly. Up until the early 1800s the Bemba had to rely on trade for tools and salt from their neighbours, but with little to trade, they had a serious problem. To the south of the Bemba were their cousins, the Bisa, who had better land and also became the go-betweens for the Lunda people and the Portuguese along the Zambezi River and the east coast. Neither the Bemba nor the Bisa had a central authority like the Lunda or the Chewa, each chief traded independently. Their Senior chief, Chitimukulu, was mainly responsible for religious affairs but did not demand tribute.
Over the years the Bemba became more militarily inclined and when their population increased to an extent which could not be supported by local resources, they decided to spread out.
They first moved north towards Lake Tanganyika and took control of the clans there; they moved to the west and took over parts of the Lunda kingdom. Expansion to the east was not possible as they came against the Zambezi Escarpment. Finally, they moved into the south and the Bisa area. They wanted access to the salt marshes and iron mines and also thought that they could take over the trade route the Bisa had built up between the Lunda and the east coast. Throughout this expansion, Chitimukulu’s power increased although his subordinate chiefs still operated independently. The main trading partners were the Swahili who came for elephant tusks and slaves in exchange for cloth and guns.
When Chitimukulu Chileshi Chepela came to rule in around 1835 he changed the succession rules; he insisted that it was only his family members who could become the next chief (previously any chief of any clan could vie for the position of Senior chief upon the death of the Chitimukulu). Chileshi Chepele ruled for 30 years and during his time, he brought the kingdom together by the clever use of placing his family members in the outlying districts.
The first threat to the Bemba kingdom came with the Ngoni, a warrior group in 1850. Wars began on the borders as the Ngoni tried to take control. After 15 years of hostility on the borders, the Ngoni left the area and Chitimukulu regained control of the kingdom and expanded it even more. When the British arrived in the 1890s the Bemba kingdom was the most powerful in the region.
Paramount Chief Chitimukulu lives now in Mungwi near Kasama. He holds his traditional ceremony, the Ukusefya Pa Ng’wena, each year in August.
The Lozi Kingdom
It is not known when or how the Luyi people arrived in the Barotse Floodplain along the Zambezi River. Although the people insisted that they were descended from God (Nyambe), it is thought that they came from the north in the early 1600s. The oral tradition of the clan is that they were brought there by a woman who was succeeded by her daughter. Mboo, was the first male king.
It is the environment which made the Luyi a successful kingdom. Not only did the river provide fish but when the floods subsided the river margins were fertile for crops and cattle grazing. Another big difference between the life of the Luyi and other kingdoms was that the river provided swift access to the further reaches of the kingdom by canoe.
The size of the kingdom varied from one king to another, depending upon the skill of the leader to control outlying districts. Their peaceful existence came to an end with the arrival of the Kololo clan from the south. The Kololo, a Sotho-speaking clan, had fled from the Zulu wars, arriving our area, around present-day Kalomo in about 1830. (Sotho is the language of Lesotho). They stayed there for a while but were threatened by the Matabele, another clan who had fled the Zulu wars, and had set themselves up in present-day Bulawayo. The Kololo moved further west and came to the Barotse Floodplain and the Luyi. At the time the Luyi were undergoing a succession dispute and were weakened by this internal conflict. It did, though take 4 years of fighting to bring in the Kololo as victors and the new leaders of the kingdom.
The Kololo, under Sebitwane, consolidated the gains made by the Luyi. The kingdom become large and secure. Their only threat was from the Matabele in the south. It is thought that Sebitwane moved his palace from Lealui to Linyati in present-day Botswana in order to keep his southern border well-guarded.
It was at Linyati that David Livingstone met Sebitwane in 1851. David Livingstone was very impressed with Sebitwane and was determined to bring more missionaries to the kingdom to teach the people. Sebitwane died shortly after David Livingstone’s visit and was succeeded by his son, Sekeletu. So, when David Livingstone returned in 1855 it was Sekeletu who escorted him to see the waterfall which they called the Mosi-oa-Tunya.
Sekeletu proved to be an unworthy king. He suffered from leprosy and hid himself away but was always suspicious of people around him thinking that they had bewitched him. His reign came to an end after 12 years when the Luyi rose up against him and retook their kingdom with a new name of Lozi. Interestingly, although the Kololo only ruled the kingdom for around 30 years, the Lozi had adopted their language. This made communication easy when missionaries arrived from the south where they had worked with the Sotho people already.
When the British arrived in the 1890s they met with the Lozi king, the Litunga, and it was because of his administration that peace was preserved during the process of coming under the British realm of influence.
The Litunga holds his annual ceremony in March each year at Lealui when the people move from the floodplain onto higher ground. It is called the Kuomboka Ceremony.
The Ngoni Kingdom
Chief Zwengendaba with his clan fled from the Zulu wars in 1818. They first moved into now-Mozambique and then now-Zimbabwe. As they moved they captured more people who were brought into the ‘Zulu’ way of doing things. The most important aspect of the society was that young boys were trained in the military. Every few years the young boys (from around 12 years) were brought together to make a regiment. Their weapons were a short stabbing spear and a large cowhide shield. This regiment stayed together while training and then as a fighting force.
After 17 years of leaving Zululand, the clan, now called the Ngoni, crossed the Zambezi River east of the confluence with the Luangwa River. They stayed along the river for 5 years, coming into contact with the Chewa. They then moved on again, this time to the east, followed by another trek to the side of Lake Tanganyika. By now the Ngoni were a horde of people, some stating thousands strong. But things were to change when Zwengendaba died after 30 years of leading his people on migration after migration.
There followed a succession dispute and the people split into six factions.
One group, under Chief Mpezeni, led his followers back into now-Zambia settling around present-day Chinsali. The Ngoni way of doing things was to subdue any people around them, so they often came up against the Bemba. For the 15 years they stayed in the area there was sporadic fighting between the Ngoni and the Bemba. Finally, the Ngoni decided to move again, this time back towards the Zambezi River and the Chewa people.
They arrived there in the early 1870s, first staying by the confluence of the Luangwa and Zambezi and then moving to present-day Chipata. For the next 20 years the Ngoni took on the neighbouring people, finally subduing them all. This should have been excellent news for Mpezeni but it did mean that he had a well-trained military with little to do. Occasionally they would attack the traders coming along the Zambezi River and across country to the Bemba. But they had no use for the guns which the traders tried to offer in exchange for elephant tusks or slaves – they preferred their spears.
This was the state when the British arrived on the scene. There was a short time of hostility between the British military and the Ngoni but eventually there was peace.
Nowadays Paramount Chief Mpezeni holds his ceremony, Nc’wala, in February each year.