The Bemba were members of the Luba empire in the Congo basin and were part of the Ng’andu (Crocodile) clan. It is thought that they left there in or before 1650, migrating east to an area around present-day Kasama. This was before the Kazembe Lunda migration. There they settled as subsistence farmers.
Around 1700 the Kazembe Lunda migrated into the region around Lake Mweru. With their organised kingdom they became the most powerful tribe in the region which continued for many years.
Up until the early 1800s, the Bemba were poor and disorganised. The land was not very fertile and they had little resources with which to barter. Tsetse fly was also present so they did not keep cattle. Farming implements like hoes were brought in from the Lungu in the north; salt was acquired from the Bisa in the south or the Tabwa in the north.
The Bemba had inherited the idea of a central authority from their origins in the Luba kingdom, and did have a king, known as Chitimukulu, under whom were several chiefs in outlying areas. Chitimukulu was in charge of religious affairs but he did not demand tribute. When a Chitimukulu died, there were no strict rules as to who would take over. Hence, there was always a dispute between the other chiefs as to who would become Chitimukulu. Fighting often ensued until the strongest chief managed to take control. It is thought that this constant infighting increased their military prowess.
It was not until 1800s that a strong Chitimukulu came on the scene and was to change their fortunes. By this time the Bemba numbers had become large and it was difficult for the land to sustain them. Chitimukulu exerted his authority and brought the people together to raid on neighbouring tribes like the Lungu and Mambwe to the north, the Bisa to the south and even the Lunda to the west. He also changed the rules of inheritance of king, making his family members only able to succeed.
It was during the early 1800s that the Bemba became involved in the slave trade, working with the Swahili. Through this trade they were able to acquire wealth and, more importantly, guns which made them much stronger.
From 1850 the Ngoni had arrived to the west of the Bemba kingdom and, for 20 years the Bemba and Ngoni battled for supremacy. Finally, the Ngoni left the area with neither the Bemba nor the Ngoni being victors. The Bemba, however, always claimed to be the winners because of the Ngoni retreat.
The Bemba also wanted to take over the long-distant trade which the Bisa had established taking elephant tusks and slaves in exchange for imported goods between the Kazembe Lunda and the Portuguese to the south. However, this plan never worked as it caused chaos in the region, thereby ending much of the trade.
In the 1870s and 1880s, through the trade in elephant tusks and slaves with the Swahili whose trade routes were to the north, the Bemba enlarged their area and became one of the strongest tribes in the region. The brown dots on the Langworthy map show the Swahili ‘trading centres’. And, so it was when the British arrived on the scene in 1890.
O mighty Chiti, son of the Crocodile, thy flame is fierce in the land. Thou art above all, and ever present, and encircles thy people like the river Chosi. Awake, O mighty Chiti Mukulu! This was the chant of the blind court singer waking the chief of the Bemba people in the early 1900s.
The British did not take on the Bemba immediately but, through the use of missionaries, missionary stations and bomas around the Bemba region, the neighbouring tribes were given security. Tribes like the Mambwe and Lungu to the north had retreated into stockaded villages during the Bemba rise to power and their continual raids for slaves. The British also closed all the trade routes, thereby cutting off the Bemba’s access to guns and wealth.
Most of us today think of the Bemba as being from the Copperbelt. That region is not their ancestral home. The Bemba, once the British had arrived, became integral to the administration. They were fearless and entered the police force or became postmen who could walk through the bush for 25 miles per day delivering letters. When the mines needed miners, the Bemba were the first to take up the jobs, hence their existence in the Copperbelt.