The Ngoni arrived in our region in 1835, after crossing the Zambezi River near Zumbo. We know this because of an eclipse of the sun which happened at the time of the crossing, the story which had been passed down and could be dated exactly.
Their chief was Zwangendaba and it was he who had taken about 1,000 people away from Shaka Zulu’s war machine in the south. They had travelled steadily northwards for 15 years, raiding as they went, swelling their numbers. They were very similar in society to the Zulus, with boys being trained from an early age into regiments of the army. Raiding neighbouring villages to steal food, cattle and people was their way of life. Zwangendaba had met up with Mzilikazi’s Matabele at some point. They fought, Zwangendaba losing, which may have forced him to continue journeying northwards and to the Zambezi River.
After crossing the Zambezi they settled for four years in Nsengaland. We are told that Zwangendaba was particularly impressed by the skills of Nsenga witchdoctors and, on leaving Nsengaland, he took some with him. We do not know why Zwangendaba decided to move again, probably it was a case of finding food. One section of his community had already left, going eastwards and settling along Lake Malawi (Nyasa). Zwangendaba took his horde of people northwards, settling for a time in Tumbukaland. And then they moved northwards once more, reaching the east of Lake Tanganyika, in present-day Tanzania. It was here that Zwangendaba died in 1845, 10 years after crossing the Zambezi River.
Following his death there was confusion about who was to take on the leadership. We do not know how large the Ngoni community had become at this time, but it must have been huge. To feed such a large group required great organisation. They kept cattle but would often raid for other supplies to find food. They needed a strong leadership, as Zwangendaba had been. The confusion continued for several years because Zwangendaba’s sons were too young to take over.
Several groups left the Ngoni horde to try their luck elsewhere. Meanwhile the original group was left under the leadership of regents until Zwangendaba’s sons came of age.
Mpezeni was the eldest son and, as soon as he became adult, took part of the Ngoni horde back into our region, coming face to face with the Bemba. Another group under another son, Mwambera, went south east into present-day Malawi, but continued to impinge on the tribes in our east, notably the Tumbuka, Senga, Bisa and Kunda. Eventually, Mwambera’s group became part of Malawi/Nyasaland and Mwambera was known there as M’mbwelwa.
The date is now around 1860-70 and this was the time of the influx of Swahili traders coming from the east coast of present-day Tanzania. The Swahili had come more and more into our region as the supply of elephant tusks and slaves had been exhausted nearer the coast. They developed a relationship with the Bemba people who they supplied with guns and then traded for any slaves or elephant tusks which the Bemba could supply. Mpezeni and the Bemba fought several battles but the odds were stacked against the Ngoni as spears and axes were no match for the guns of the Bemba.
In order to get away from the competition with the Bemba, Mpezeni moved southwest into the land of the Bisa and Lala, around Lake Bangweulu. They stayed there for some years and then moved east to the Muchinga Escarpment. Here they met a tribe known as the Bapule who they fought and defeated. (The Bapule are mentioned in several old texts but now no longer exist. According to Lane-Poole, they were brought under the Ngoni umbrella after another defeat to the east of the Luangwa River.) Having raided all around the Muchinga Escarpment, the Ngoni continued eastward, over the Luangwa River to some hills where they came into contact with some Chewa people. Over the years from their stronghold of Mkoma Hill, the Ngoni raids continued on weaker tribes. A quote from Lane-Poole (1934):
A feature of these expeditions, which usually took place in the dry season, after the crops had been reaped, were the military roads, developed by the invaders. Cut wide through the forest, they are comparable in the directness towards their objective, surmounting all natural obstacles of terrain, with the Roman roads of England. Like them they survive today, and fine examples are still visible, extending for miles through virgin forest in the neighbourhood of the Rukuzi River in the north, and of the Kapoche River in the west.
The slave trading continued to escalate all around our region. From the east around Lake Nyasa (Malawi) the Swahili and Yao traders were formidable. From the south the Chikunda made incursions into the Luangwa Valley and all around. The Bemba in the north had become very strong and no area was out of bounds to them. And we must not forget the Yeke, based in Katanga to the west. The Ngoni did not get involved much in the trade. They wanted their people and they felt they had no use of any trade items including guns. They raided for food, wives and young boys for the army.
Some Bisa were facing raids from both Mwambera’s Ngoni from the east and the Bemba from the north. At one point, a Bisa chief appealed to the Ngoni to help them against the Bemba.
The growing power of the Babemba, who were closely allied with the Arab slave-traders, encouraged them to poach on the Angoni raiding grounds in the Luangwa Valley. Aggrieved at being raided from two sides at once, the Biza chief, Chifundo, appealed to Umbelwa (Mwambera) for help in 1877 the latter dispatched an army under Ngonomo and Chidumayi to deal with the nuisance. The Babemba were commanded by Chandalelea, brother of the Chitimukulu, and forces met near the present Mpika Boma. After a battle lasting three days, the Babemba were totally defeated. The victorious army returned to find Dr Laws on his first visit to their chief, a visit pregnant with future change.
David Livingstone had pleaded for missionaries to come in to Central Africa. And they came, first to Lake Nyasa where they tried several places for missions, moving often, mainly because of malaria but sometimes because of the slave traders. Behind the missionaries came British South Africa Company with Cecil Rhodes at the helm. David Livingstone died in 1873, but he had already assisted the first group of missionaries up the Zambezi and Shire Rivers to Lake Nyasa in 1861. Although this first mission failed more and more followed and spread out.
An interesting fact about the villages of the people at this time is that most of the weaker tribes built stockades around the villages, often complemented by a large ditch. The Ngoni never did this but found a secure vantage point on hilltops as their defence against any enemy.
Mpezeni’s final move was back into Nsengaland, south of present-day Chipata. Here the Ngoni and Nsenga became assimilated and the Ngoni language was lost, all using the Nsenga language. Normally the loss of a language is because the mothers would pass on their own language to their children, so it is likely to be the case here. The Ngoni men married Nsenga women who brought about the demise of the Ngoni language.
By 1891, the area to the west of Lake Nyasa became a British Protectorate under the name of British Central Africa. Already, Cecil Rhodes had sent out emissaries to chiefs in present-day Zambia to secure treaties and to obtain mineral rights over the land. And it wasn’t only the British who arrived, Germans, Portuguese, and Dutch arrived too. South of the Zambezi River, Cecil Rhodes had taken control of Southern Rhodesia, defeating the Matabele in 1894, and, although there were several uprisings over the coming few years, the white people were arriving en masse.
Finally, the scramble for Africa was over by the end of the 1800s and the European powers had allocated themselves large tracts of Africa to add to their portfolios.
Mpezeni and his Ngoni could see the writing on the wall. Their massive army with spears, axes and shields were no match for the guns of the British. By this time the British not only used Sikhs from India in their army but had trained local tribesmen too, mainly from their homes along Lake Malawi/Nyasa which had become a British sphere of influence. The slave trade had ended, the Swahili had largely left the region or had been made to live peaceably; the same could be said of the Chikunda, the Bemba and the tribes around Lake Malawi/Nyasa. The Yeke of Katanga had been defeated by the Belgiums in 1892.
In 1895, the British had built a fort, Fort Partridge, only 100 km north of Mpezeni’s palace. Mpezeni was now an old man in his 70s. He had led his people all around the region and finally come to his last home on the Lutembwe River. He spent most of his time in his palace listening to his people and offering advice. However, his son, Nsingu, was young and ambitious. He was waiting in the wings to become the Paramount Chief and probably wanted to show his bravery. He continued raids all around and, in 1898, eventually threatened the British at Fort Partridge, which had now become Fort Jameson. Forces were sent by the British from British Central Africa (Nyasaland-Malawi). They marched day and night, arriving at the fort just in time to protect the people there. Nsingu was defeated, tried and shot. Mpezeni was forced into exile but was allowed to return one year later. He died in 1900 and was buried in his cattle kraal.
Mpezeni was replaced by his grandson, son of Nsingu, and became Mpezeni II.
The Ngoni did not make any more trouble. They settled down to farming, loving their cattle. Many of the young men took jobs in the mines of Southern Rhodesia; some became part of the British South Africa Police Force and were sent to police parts of Southern Rhodesia. It has to be noted here that, when men were trained in the police, it was rare that they would be allowed to police their own people; they would be moved far away, hence the Ngoni being sent to Southern Rhodesia.