The origins of the Luyi or Aluyana, as the Lozi people were originally called, are carefully concealed in myths designed to maintain the prestige and selectiveness of the ruling dynasty. “Luyi” or “Aluyana” means “people of the river.” According to myth, the Lozi came from Nyambe (the Lozi name for God). This myth of origin implies that they were indigenous, not immigrants, to the western province of Zambia. The Lozi myth is believed to have expressed an important truth because in the Lozi society, where the dynasty originated from mattered less than the nature of the land they colonized. However, historical evidence suggests that the Lozi came from the Lunda Empire. Consequently, the Lozi kingdom developed an imperial structure similar to other kingdoms that had a similar background. The kingdom was favored by a relatively prosperous valley environment that facilitated dense settlement of the people.
Once the kingdom had been founded, it had a special economic base that consisted of fertile plains of about hundred miles long which were flooded by the
Zambezi River every year. The kingdom, also generally known as Barotseland, accommodated peoples of clear distinct origin and history as opposed to the true Lozi who occupied the flood plain. These peoples lived in the surrounding woodland.
The Lozi kingdom was founded in seventh century by people believed to have come from the Lunda Empire to the north. It is also believed that the newcomers introduced intensive cultivation of the flood plain. By 1800 various peoples to the west were brought under Lozi rule while to those to the east and west paid tribute in form of labor. The flood plain was mainly administered by relatives of the king in the early days of the dynasty. Later some kind of royal bureaucracy— an unusual development anywhere in Africa— replaced the earlier system. This was possible because of the plain, which made demand for control a matter of political control as well. As guardian of the land, the king built up a following of loyal officials who he allocated states on the plain. The system enabled Lozi kings to make political appointments on the basis of personal merit instead of birth. As such any such appointees could lose both office and land allotted to them if they fell out of favor. Trade also developed between the various peoples in the region.
Trade in fish, grain, and basket work for the iron work, woodwork, and barkcloth made Barotseland fairly self-sufficient. The Lozi also raided the Tonga and the Ila for cattle and slaves. However, the Lozi did not participate in the slave trade because they needed to retain slaves themselves to perform manual labor in the kingdom. The control of trade made the Litunga more powerful in his kingdom. Through his Tndunas, the Litunga was able to have almost total control of the economy of the Lozi kingdom.
Following the Mfecane (a series of migrants set in motion by Shaka Zulu’s empire in South Africa), the Kololo were forced to move north to the Zambezi River. In 1845 the Kololo leader Sebitwane found the Lozi kingdom split by succession dispute following the death of the tenth Litunga Mulambwa in 1830. The succession dispute resulted into a civil that split the Lozi kingdom into three groups. Sebitwanes warriors quickly overrun the Lozi kingdom. The Kololo imposed their language on the Lozi, although their conquest was hardly disruptive. As a small group of nomad warriors who had turned into herders and not cultivators, they found the Lozi to have been well established. Their language became a unifying influence in the kingdom. Soon Kololo kingship became far more popular in style than that offered by the Lozi. Unlike his predecessor, the Kololo king was more of a war-captain and was freely accessible to his fellow warriors. This was unlike the Lozi Litunga who was surrounded by rituals and taboos, and hence kept secluded. Because of this, Kololo kings were liked and easily accepted by most Lozi subjects. Sebitwane won the loyalty of his subject people by giving them cattle, taking wives from various groups and even giving leaders conquered people important positions of responsibility. He treated both the Kololo and Lozi generously.
However, despite this apparent popularity, the Kololo kings failed to come to terms with the special circumstances of Barotseland. They therefore made their capitals to the south of the central plain, among marshes that they considered secure from their traditional adversaries, the Ndebele, to their south.
The kololo did not disrupt the economic system of the Lozi, which was based on mounds and canals of the flood plain. However, the political system of the Kololo was very different from that of the Lozi. In the Kololo political system, men who were of the same age as the king were made territorial governors. Initially, this ensured that the flow of tribute to the king’s court. The system did not, however, guarantee the continued operating system of the flood plain.
The Lozi kingdom was prone to malaria and had eventually developed an immunity to the disease. The Kololo, however, were not immune, and were often afflicted with the disease. This greatly undermined the Kololo ability to resist the Lozi when the latter rose against their conquerors. The various Lozi princes who had escaped and fled from Kololo invasion had taken refuge to the north. Among them was Sepopa.
Following the death of Sebitwane in 1851, he was succeeded by weak rulers. His son Sekeletu was not as able a ruler as his father. He died in 1863 after which Kololo rule declined completely. The Lozi and the Toka-Leya, who had also been under Kololo rule, rose against the Kololo and declared themselves independent. The Kololo did not put up any serious resistance because they were terribly divided.
In 1864 Sepopa raised a Lozi army that took advantage of malaria-afflicted Kololo and successfully defeated it. Sepopa revived the Lozi institutions, but the problem of royal succession resurfaced, and it remained a source of weakness for the revived Lozi kingdom. Consequently, Sepopa was overthrown in 1878. For two years instability reigned until 1878 when Lewanika became king of the Lozi as Litunga. He too continued to have difficulties retaining his position as king. He was constantly under threat of attack from the Ndebele in the south. This relationship with the Ndebele forced Lewanika to take a friendly attitude toward European visitors to his kingdom.
Bizeck J. Phiri
See also: Difaqane on the Highveld; Lewanika I, the Lozi and the BSA Company; Tonga, Ila, and Cattle.
Flint, E. “Trade and Politics in Barotseland During the Kololo Period.” Journal of African History. 2, no. 1 (1970): 72-86.
Langworthy, H. W. Zambia Before 1890: Aspects of Precolonial History. London: Longman, 1972.
Mainga, M. “The Lozi Kingdom.” In A Short History of Zambia, edited by B. M. Fagan. 2nd ed. Nairobi: Longman, 1968.
Muuka, L. S. “The colonisation of Barotseland in the 17th century.” In The Zambesian Past, edited by E. Stokes and R. Brown. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1966.
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