The map shows the kingdoms in Southern Africa. The Chewa Kingdom covered a large area which is shown below, but was gradually reduced by the Portuguese and then by the Ngoni.
The first ethnic group which have handed down their history is that of the Chewa people of the east. Their kingdom originated from Makewana, southwest of Lake Malawi. The people were called the Maravi. While there, two brothers fell out in a succession dispute, and one of them, Undi, left the area and moved west in the 1500s. He moved his palace to an area in present-day Mozambique at a place called Mano when they became known as the Chewa. Through trade and the clever use of family members, the successive Undi rulers enlarged the kingdom to cover land in present-day Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. After 200 years the empire covered a vast area right up to the confluence of the Luangwa and Zambezi Rivers.
The administrative system was one commonly used by kings in Africa. The king appointed chiefs in the outlying villages; the chiefs ruled over several headmen. The chiefs would generally be family members or would be married to one of the king’s relatives. Through this arrangement loyalty was preserved. Tribute was collected from all the people via the chiefs; it could be cattle, grain, tools, salt, elephant tusks. In exchange for tribute the king distributed items including cloth and other imports. The king was also in charge of spiritual matters including the ancestral shrine and ensured the good will of the gods. In the case of Undi his spiritual centre remained in Makewana.
The main trade for the Chewa was through the Portuguese along the Zambezi River who initially came to collect elephant tusks. By the 1700s the trade also included gold and slaves. This increase in trade was to cause conflict and the almost destruction of the kingdom. The Portuguese had trained and armed a group of ex-slaves, called the Chikunda. The Chikunda infiltrated Undi’s kingdom finding mines and capturing slaves, even venturing into Undi’s land to shoot elephants for their tusks. Through them the Portuguese were given land for mining gold. By the end of the 1700s trade in gold and slaves had increased to such an extent that the chiefs under Undi had started to trade independently, thus undermining Undi’s power.
The beginning of the end for Undi came with the Ngoni people from Zululand. The Ngoni were a warrior clan, arriving in the west of Undi’s kingdom in 1835. They caused much disruption but did finally move further north after a few years. In 1870, with more trained warriors, the Ngoni chief, Mpezeni, returned and waged war against Undi. Had it not been for the British and Portuguese colonists who claimed bits of Undi’s kingdom in the 1880s, the kingdom would have totally collapsed.
Nowadays Paramount Chief Gawa Undi is based in Katete. He holds an annual ceremony called the Kalumba Ceremony every year in August. Many Chewa people from Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi join him in the celebrations.