Kingdoms of Southern Africa

This is just a potted history, a history which is much more complicated.  However, it should give an idea of how Bantu societies developed.

Before the Bantu people migrated to southern Africa, the land was occupied by hunter-gatherers.  These people lived off the land and knew nothing about planting crops or having domestic animals.  The remnants of this form of society are the Kalahari San, mainly in Botswana.

Gradually the Bantu arrived from the north in small groups, setting up villages and farming.  This was probably from around 200 AD.  The people had domestic animals; they grew crops but they also hunted and gathered fruit and edible plants from the environment.   As the Bantu population increased the original occupants of the land either joined, through marriage, the Bantu or were pushed onto more marginal land.  Many too, it is thought, were killed. 

We know that the Arabs came down the east coast by boat, settling and trading around 1000 AD.  They brought with them cloth and beads which they exchanged for gold and elephant tusks.  The Arabs intermarried with Bantu they met along the coast forming a new type of society – half Arab, half Bantu.  These societies tended to take up the Islam religion which they altered to fit in with their way of life.  They also started to wear Islamic-style dress.  In addition to this, a language arose which was a mixture of many languages and became known as Swahili.

The Arabs did not venture far inland because of disease.  As the Arab influence became greater along the coast and the offspring of marriages between Arab and Bantu produced sons and grandsons, they could venture further inland to find trade.  This led to the first Bantu kingdom of which we know – Mapungubwe.

Up until this time, the Bantu villages would have traded with each other in a small way, but to trade with external societies like those coming from the coast, required organisation.  The trade items like gold and elephant tusks had to sourced by a communal effort.  The bartering had to be done by someone held in high esteem by all the villagers and finally, the exchange items like cloth and beads had to be distributed fairly.  This led to the emergence of a more advanced society with a ‘king’ as the head.  More than ever, men had to be assigned roles within the community, not just the jobs required to provide food for their family.   

The first kingdom, Mapungubwe, is around the Limpopo River. It existed between 1000 – 1200 AD.  Not much is known about the kingdom except that they traded with the Arabs from the coast.  And this is the first time we know that the people had learned to build in stone.  It is possible that the original skills were brought by the traders from the coast, as we know that the Arabs built in stone.  It is thought that the kingdom’s demise came when the environment could no longer support a large population.  At the time, and for many still today, Bantu societies needed firewood on which to cook; they needed clean water to drink; they needed land on which to plant their crops.  They were totally dependent on the environment around them.  It is thought that the climate changed around Mapungubwe at this time making it much drier; their ability to plant enough crops to feed the people reduced.  The area is now a World Heritage Site.

The next kingdom was that of Great Zimbabwe of the Karanga people which started around the same time.  It is thought possible that some of the people from Mapungubwe moved there because both of these towns used stone structures.  The community grew massively, one report stating that 18,000 people lived in and around the town.  The kingdom survived for 400 years but eventually its end came, again we can assume that the environment could not sustain such a large number of people.  Trade of gold and elephant tusks was with the Arabs along the coast.  The site is now World Heritage.

It was around 1200 AD that a trading centre arose at the confluence of the Zambezi and Kafue Rivers, known now as Ingombe Iledi but when Frederick Selous went there in 1877, he called it Nhaucoe.  An excavation found trade items, like cowry shells, which could only have come from the coast.  It is thought that these trade items would have been traded from one village to the next, eventually ending up in the interior of Africa. 

At some point in the 1400s, a group left Great Zimbabwe to form another society known as the Mutapa Empire.  Although originally Karanga, they became the ancestors of the Korekore and Zezuru. This is the first time we hear of a society which had a large trained army that raided all around and brought other tribes under their authority.  The empire became huge and successful through trade of gold and elephant tusks.  Its collapse started with the Portuguese and Rozvi influence in the mid-1700s.  It never recovered. 

At the same time As Great Zimbabwe, another empire came into being, that of the Kongo people living on the west coast.  The Kongo people lived along the Congo River and had products such as metalwork, carving, copper, pottery and raffia cloth and all these needed to be traded.  The Kongo Empire reached far inland, using the rivers as trade routes.  It lasted up until the 1800s when it came under the control of the Portuguese.

By 1500, the idea of a kingdom had become a ‘normal’ society.  Many of the Bantu had got used to the idea that they were led and controlled by an organised hierarchy.  However, many still continued their old practice of living in small communities, just taking care of their immediate family members. 

Around 1500 we have several Bantu kingdoms emerging.  South of Lake Malawi a tribe known as the Maravi split when two brothers disagreed.  (Maravi is the origin of the name Malawi.)  One brother took his supporters away from the region to form a new kingdom which became known as the Chewa Kingdom with their headquarters at a place called Mano, now in present-day Mozambique.  This kingdom survived until the 1800s when they were harassed by the Portuguese and Ngoni.  The kingdom was reduced in size but the Chewa are still part of Zambian society today. 

In the interior of Africa along the Kasai River, the Luba Empire arose.  These must certainly have been people coming from the Kongo Kingdom who needed new lands on which to farm as they brought with them the skills of metalwork, carving and basket making.  Their skills continued to develop and many of their carvings – masks, chairs, tables – are to be found now in museums all over the world.  It has to be noted here that, in general, the Bantu people were very superstitious.  Any calamity which befell them, like disease or drought, was thought to have come from either their ancestors or from a living witch or sorcerer.   Many of the items produced by the carvers were thought to ward off these unforeseen events and gave religious power to the chiefs.  The Luba Kingdom lasted up until the end of the 1800s when it finally collapsed because of the slave trade. 

Still in the 1500s another stone town was being built by the Kalanga people, not far from present-day Bulawayo and became known as the Tolva Dynasty.  The Kalanga people had come from Great Zimbabwe, where they had been known as Karanga.  The place was known as Khami.  It was a big trading centre, the people becoming rich.  They were eventually invaded and defeated in battle by the Rozvi people in the late 1600s.  Khami is a World Heritage Site.

The Rozvi Empire emerged out of the Mutapa Empire in the mid-1600s, led by a man named Changamire.  He took his supporters west to Danangombe, near present-day Gweru.  There, his people continued to build in stone and several structures are still in existence today.  Changamire trained a large army of warriors who raided all over the central plateau, bringing them under his authority.  It was his army which invaded Khami and also helped in the demise of Mutapa.  In the mid-1800s a band of Ngoni, fleeing from Shaka Zulu’s wars in the south, met up with the Rozvi army and defeated them.  This signaled the end of the Rozvi Empire.

I think now is the time to look at the effect of the arrival of the Portuguese who came along both the west and east coasts of Africa.  Portugal was among the first European nations to build strong boats, armed with guns and cannons.  Their naval development was in advance of most other nations, except that of Spain, so they were first on the African scene.  Both the Spanish and Portuguese ships were exploring the world, claiming lands for their kings.  The Dutch, French and British ships would follow shortly afterwards. 

The Portuguese arrived on our shores in the early 1500s.  On the west coast they found the Kongo Empire and made a port at Luanda, trading with the Kongo.  On the east coast, they found the Arabs in their unarmed boats (dhows) trading all along its length.  At first the Portuguese tried to work alongside the Arabs but eventually, they displaced them, forcing the Arab traders to move to their posts further north.  The first major trading port for the Portuguese was at Sofala. 

At first the trade items were cloth, beads and ceramics from the Portuguese in exchange for elephant tusks and gold from the Bantu.  But this harmless trade did not last long.  The Portuguese and Spanish had settled in their new lands in South America and developed vast plantations of sugar; they needed labour.  The transatlantic slave trade began. 

The European nations were constantly at war with each other and these wars continued around the world as ports and trading centres were often changing hands through conflict between one European country and another.  Although many of the ships were the property of the ruling elites of the European nations, a number of men became wealthy enough to acquire their own ships and were involved in whatever trade was available. 

Slavery had been a way of life for the Bantu where people captured in war would be forced to live as slaves for the rest of their lives.  But they were fed and looked after in the villages, being treated no different from the rest of the people.  The Europeans exploited this trade to capture people to be transported to South America and the trade continued with thousands of slaves being taken every year. 

The biggest slave trade was in West Africa, which started in the early 1500s, but eventually the trade moved southwards and, by the end of the 1500s, most of the slaves were coming from Angola.  It caused chaos on the African continent, first near coastal towns but gradually the slave traders moved further and further inland.  The trade was to continue until the end of the 1800s, even though some countries had legislated to end the trade in the 1830s.   

Getting back to our kingdoms in southern Africa, we have to keep in mind that the largest external trade from 1600s was the trade in slaves.  Having said that, the trade did not come into the interior until the 1700s, becoming serious during the mid-1800s in Zambia.  In order to increase the supply of slaves the Portuguese were now bringing guns for trade.

Our next kingdom which had a big effect on the people in the interior was the development of the Lunda Kingdom southwest of the Luba Kingdom in the mid-1600s.  The Lunda came from the Luba Empire when a splinter group moved to found a new kingdom.  Their chief was Mwata Yamvo.  The Lunda Kingdom became powerful, eventually trading in slaves and elephant tusks.  During the time of the Lunda Empire, relatives of the Mwata Yamvo were sent to find new land and new resources.  (Note here that Mwata Yamvo was not just one man, he was many, as every chief took that name.)  From the central Lunda Empire we get several satellite Lunda chiefdoms in Zambia and DRC.  These chiefly villages paid tribute to the central Lunda Empire but had access to the trade routes and political connections built up by Mwata Yamvo. 

The end of the central Lunda Empire started in the mid-1800s when a group of Nyamwezi people from the east of Lake Tanganyika invaded the area.  They became known as the Yeke and had long been working with the Swahili slave traders.  The Yeke, under their chief Msiri, were to take control of the slave trade in the region, thus weakening the Lunda Empire.  The final end of the Lunda Empire came when they were invaded by the Chokwe towards the end of the 1800s.  The Chokwe ruled the Lunda for some years, but finally left, leaving the remaining Lunda weak, never to recover. 

Our next kingdom is that of the Luyi.  It is thought that the Luyi people gradually moved south from the Luba Empire in the mid-1600s, ending their journey on the Zambezi River, by the Barotse Floodplain.  They brought with them the idea of a chief or king; subdued any other tribes around them, becoming, at the time, a small but successful kingdom.  They had a great advantage along the river as it provided them with an easy means of access by canoe to many outlying districts.  The river had fish, the floodplain had fertile soils for crops and cattle had plenty to eat.  The kingdom continued to expand, all along the Zambezi, Chobe and Kwando Rivers, not, it is thought, through battles, but as a matter of economic sense.  In the mid-1800s they were invaded by another tribe coming from the south and Shaka’s war-mongering there.  They were known as the Kololo and spoke Sotho.  The Kololo were to reign the Luyi Empire for about 30 years and, during that time, the Empire was consolidated by the use of the Kololo army; the Luyi language was overtaken by Kololo.  The Kololo people had their political problems towards the end of their reign and also they had little resistance to malaria.  When a group of exiled Luyi returned to take control, the Kololo were easily defeated.  It was then that the Luyi became known as the Lozi.  The Lozi Empire was to take a prominent place in Rhodesian/Zambian history and is still important today. 

Our next kingdom which is linked to the Kololo, is the Matabele Empire.  This was another group of refugees from Shaka Zulu’s reign in the south.  The Matabele were warriors with all boy children from the age of about 12 being trained in the army.  They moved northwards, raiding as they went, ending their migration in present-day Zimbabwe at Bulawayo in the mid-1800s.  From this base the warriors raided throughout the region capturing cattle for food, boys for the army and women and girls as wives or servants; the men were killed. They laid waste vast regions of the land, leaving it devoid of human habitation.  Neither the Kololo nor the Matabele were involved to any large extent in the slave trade, or, for that matter, any trade.  The end of the Matabele Empire came in 1894 after the ‘Matabele War’ between them and the Europeans. 

Our final kingdom is the Ngoni, yet another horde of refugees from Shaka Zulu.  The Ngonis, again with a trained army, trekked northwards and, in order to keep out of the way of the Matabele, crossed the Zambezi River in 1835.  They continued, off and on, to move around, raiding as they went, ending up on the east side of Lake Tanganyika where their chief Zwangendaba died.  Following his death, potential successors split the horde into sections which moved in several directions.  One group, under their Chief Mpezeni, moved back southwards, finally settling north of the Zambezi River, near present-day Chipata.  Again, the Ngoni did not involve themselves too much in the slave trade, mainly, I think because, like the Matabele and Kololo, they had little use for guns.  They were well-trained in the art of warfare using their stabbing spears and ox-hide shields, rarely were they defeated.  Guns were only useful for hunting wildlife.   Their kingdom, based near Chipata, did not last long and they came up against the British in battle, and were defeated in 1899.  The Ngoni are still an important tribe in Zambia today. 

From 1899 to the 1960s we were part of European Empires.  British Central Africa or Nyasaland, Northwestern and Northeastern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, South Africa and Bechuanaland, became part of the British Empire; Portuguese East Africa or Mozambique and Angola became part of the Portuguese Empire; the Congo became part of the Belgium Empire; Tanganyika and German West Africa became part of the German Empire.  A lot has happened since then but that is not part of my story.