The Tumbuka have their origins in present-day Malawi. They were one of the original clans to move into the region from the north around the Great Lakes. It is likely that they arrived in the 1300s.
According to their legend, they were part of a Snake Cult. The Tumbuka god was named Chiuta or Leza who contacted the people through a spirit named Chikang’ombe. Chikang’ombe had various homes which were guarded by a priest of the Mkandawire clan. The spirit, Chikang’ombe, could take on various living forms, one of which was a male snake.
The fortunes of the Tumbuka ebbed and flowed as more immigrants arrived in the region. When David Livingstone explored the region he does not mention the Tumbuka but it is likely that, at this time, the Tumbuka were a subject clan of the Senga.
This is part of a map produced in 1868 by Edward Weller, a famous English cartographer. I am assuming that Edward Weller used the diaries of David Livingstone to draw the map as it seems to cover much of David Livingstone’s journeys.
On the map we can see the Maravi, Chewa (Sheva), Nsenga (Basenga), and Yao (Jao). There is no mention of the Tumbuka.
We can only guess what happened to the Tumbuka people during the 500 years from 1300 to 1800 AD. Like all the other groups around them, there were good times and bad. We do know that at the end of the 1500s there was a serious drought which lasted for, some say, 20 or more years. As hunters and farmers, this would have had a huge effect. But, more than that, we know little.
According to the story of the Senga people, who possibly arrived in Tumbuka land in the mid-1700s, they found the Tumbuka timid and unaware of the value of elephant tusks. The Tumbuka hunted elephant for food and used the tusks to sit on or to prop up their cooking pots.
From the time of the arrival of the Senga, trade with the east coast Swahili and Portuguese began to increase. At first it was elephant tusks and then came the slave trade. We know that the Maravi and the Yao raided the Tumbuka for slaves. The Maravi, who gave their name to Malawi, were the clan which split, one group becoming Chewa. The Yao were a Muslim clan who were the intermediaries for the Swahili on the coast.
And then in the mid-1800s, the Ngoni arrived. The Ngoni, a warrior tribe who had fled from Shaka Zulu’s empire in the south, were looking for new lands, battling with any people they met. The Ngoni also terrorized the Tumbuka.
By 1900 and the end of the slave trade, it is surprising that the Tumbuka had any survivors. They had been raided continuously for over 100 years by various groups. But, they did survive, as shown on the 1934 map: