Lower Zambezi – Some History

The Zambezi River has been a trade route for hundreds of years. African people often paddled along the Zambezi by canoe, and if the canoe was unable to pass through rapids, it was carried to a navigable stretch further up or down stream. The confluence of the Luangwa River and the Zambezi River became a major trading area, with the Zambezi flowing down to the Indian Ocean. So too was the confluence of the Kafue River with the Zambezi River.
The Arabs had been trading up and down the east coast of Africa for centuries, trading in gold and ivory. They rarely travelled far inland, using the local people to bring the trade goods to the coast. When the Portuguese arrived on the east coast, they penetrated further inland, using the same route up the Zambezi as the Africans had always used. The town of Zumbo, just south of the confluence of the Zambezi and the Luangwa, was established in 1546. The date of the town of Feira (now Luangwa) is not known but was probably around this date. The Portuguese at that time traded mainly for gold and elephant tusks.

The Portuguese met with the local people at Feira and they were identified in journals as the Nsenga. The Nsenga people still live there today and must have traded up and down the Zambezi River between Feira, the coast and Lower Zambezi.

We know also that the Nsenga people were not a people to be taken lightly. Here is a quote from a journal of 1754: Portuguese driven out of Zumbo by local people, taking refuge in Feira where Jose Pedro Diner was appointed commandant. He fortified the perimeter of the settlement with a massive stone wall, traces of which still exist. However, he did not fortify the river frontage thinking that no attack would be launched from the water. In this he was mistaken; the local Nsenga tribe did indeed attack from the river and destroyed the town. …

In 1836 the Nsenga people is again chronicled as attacking Feira. So, when David Livingstone came to Feira in 1856, he noted that the town was deserted and in ruins.

The Soli had inhabited the Zambezi-Kafue confluence. At one time there was a period of five years of starvation for the Soli people – locusts destroyed their crops. This forced them to move north and live on the plateau above the Zambezi Escarpment.

The Goba people also lived near the confluence of the Kafue River and Zambezi River. These people were originally from south of the Zambezi but had fled from continued fighting – this was after the influx of the Matabeles around 1840 who raided weaker groups. Because the Lower Zambezi was in a tsetse fly belt the Goba could not keep cattle so they grew crops.
It was during their time that Kanyemba Island got its name. The name came from a chief of the Achikunda people from near Zumbo.

The Achikunda have their origins in Mozambique. The Portuguese had vast estates and they used slaves and ex-slaves as security guards. They trained the men in military tactics and gave them guns. These men became expert elephant hunters and were known as the Achikunda. At the beginning of the 1800s the Portuguese estates began to crumble and many of the workers were sold as slaves. Seeing the writing on the wall groups of Achikunda fled up the Zambezi River.

One of the groups under Chikwasha made landfall around the Luangwa confluence. Here, he and his men became very useful to the chiefs of the Nsenga as protection and the provider of food and ivory.

Another group under Kanyemba traded slaves up and down the Zambezi River. They eventually made a base camp, at the confluence of the Kafue River with the Zambezi, on an island which became known as Kanyemba Island. The Achikunda used Kanyemba Island as their base for slave trading, the slaves en route to Angola.

Order came to Feira in 1857 in the name of John Harrison Clark or ‘Changa Changa’ as he was known to the local people. He was 27 years old when he arrived. Harrison Clark had fled South Africa after shooting a man and settled in Feira, developing his own empire. He raised and trained an army from the Nsenga people and together they ended the slave trade there. Changa Changa’s empire extended throughout the Lower Zambezi, and along the Kafue River, even north to Mkushi. His ‘reign’ ended with the next wave of European settlers under the flag of the British South African Company (BSAC). His powers and spheres of influence were not recognised by the BSAC but he was given three farms in compensation. He died a poor man at the age of 67 in Broken Hill (Kabwe) where he owned and ran a beer hall.

BSAC had been given a charter by the British Government under Queen Victoria to run the affairs of land north of the Zambezi in 1889. Together with the local people the BSAC rooted out the remaining slave traders and by 1893 the trade had gone from Zambia. Feira (Luangwa) became an administrative post for BSAC.

Peace continued under the BSAC until the British Government took over control of the area in 1924. Feira remained an important station for the administration, but it was not considered a good posting for any District Officer. In fact it is said that only officials who were out of favour were sent there as a punishment so that they could reflect on the error of their ways. In the 1950s, it is recorded, one of the District Commissioners conducted business in his office sitting in a bath of water in order to keep cool.

Not many people lived in the Lower Zambezi at this time. The soil is generally not good for crop farming but the wildlife provided food, as did the river. Tsetse flies were also a problem so when, between 1945 and 1952, there were several outbreaks of sleeping sickness the British Administration moved the villagers out of the area.

This uninhabited status remained for Lower Zambezi until after Independence in 1964 when Northern Rhodesia became Zambia. It had only been used as a hunting block. Under a USAID Programme in 1973, Wildlife Conservation International came to Lower Zambezi to set up an International Park. This programme failed because of the civil war south of the river in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The Americans left in 1974 even though they had leased the land for 25 years. From that time until 1983 the Lower Zambezi became a private hunting ground for members of the government including the President, Kenneth Kaunda (KK). The ruins of a camp are to be found near Old Mondoro and Anabezi and are known as KK Ruins.
The Lower Zambezi was declared a National Park in 1983 and in 1989 G&G Safaris, the Cumings family, arrived in the Lower Zambezi to set up a tourist camp. There were few roads and no infrastructure. Another company, Zambezi River Safaris, came in 1990 and between them they cut roads and developed the area for tourism. It took years to do, of course, but eventually the government realised that there was room for more tourist development and the other sites were given out.

Since then the Lower Zambezi has gone from strength to strength to reach world renown as one of Africa’s best parks. The Cumings family still operate in the park – Chiawa Camp and Old Mondoro.