The Bisa people are a well-established clan in Zambia. They are one of the first to be mentioned in Lacerda’s journals.
He passed the night of the seventeenth on the bank of the Ruanga (Northern Arangoa) River, which is also passed by boats. During these days his only food was raw millet and beans of sorts. At the Ruanga River ends the nation of the Vaviza (Muizas) and begins that of the Marave.
This quote is from 1798 by Dionizio Rebello Curvo, when describing Lacerda’s journey. The Vaviza (Muizas) are the Bisa. The Marave are the Chewa. The Ruaga or Arangoa is the Luangwa River.
It is estimated that the Bisa left the Luba Empire about the same time as the Bemba, around 1650. They travelled east and found new lands around Lake Bangweulu and beyond. They had no paramount chief so were a loosely-connected tribe through language and customs.
We do not know which other people were living in this region at the time, except for the Batwa. The Batwa were of the Stone Age and lived as hunters and gatherers around Lake Bangweulu. There are several caves with rock paintings in the area and stories of their existence up until the late 1800s in research texts.
The Bisa land was fertile; they had salt and they had iron for making hoes. Life was good for the Bisa people for many years with each Bisa chief operating independently. At some point in their history, some of the Bisa became intrepid traders. The land was wild, distances great, but the Bisa explored and found other peoples with whom to trade.
To the northwest the Kazembe Lunda had arrived around Lake Mweru in around 1700. These Lunda had good trade routes through the original Lunda Empire in the Congo basin under Mwato Yamvo, so trade was easily organised. The Bisa then became the intermediaries between the Kazembe Lunda and the Portuguese along the Zambezi River.
Pedro Joao Baptista, from Angola and of Portuguese descent, visited Kazembe’s Lunda kingdom around 1810. Here is a quote from Baptista: The trade of Cazembe’s country consists of ivory, slaves, green-stones, and copper bars, which they sell to the travellers from Tete and Senna, and to the blacks of the Huiza (Bisa) nation, who are established on the road to Tete … Colonist travellers from Tete and Senna give for each slave they buy in Cazembe’s land at the present time five Indian sheetings, and for ivory six of seven sheetings and other extra articles for every large tusk, as Cazembe’s people understand that ivory is more valued in Tete than slaves.
While trade from Kazembe’s Lunda was continuing with the Portuguese to the south, the Swahili were also increasing their trade with Kazembe’s Lunda to the north. The Swahili used the Bemba as intermediaries. The Bisa traders, being an enterprising people, had also decided to trade with the Yao from present-day Malawi. The Yao were another Muslim tribe, having been converted by the Arabs along the coast.
The Bemba became organised under their king, Chitimukulu, but the Bisa did not. The Bisa continued under their old system of a loosely-connected clan, linked through language and traditions, but never came together under one paramount chief. Because of this, the Bemba easily infiltrated and took command of Bisa areas. As trade from the coast increased, so did the power of the Bemba to the detriment of the Bisa trade. Some of the trade routes that the Bisa had built up over the years became unsafe to travel because of the Bemba raiding.
Eventually the British came in around 1890 and, 10 years later, the trading in slaves had ended. The Bisa people, being mostly fishermen, farmers, salt-makers and iron-makers continued in their daily routine, and the traders of that nation returned to their village ways.