The Maravi Confederacy and the Ngulube kingdoms (1550-1800)

Updated February 2010

The fragmentation of the Kalonga chiefdom in the first half of the 16th century and migration of chiefs of the Phiri clan and their followers resulted in the territorial expansion of the Moravi chiefdoms (Klien-Arendt 2004a, 944). Alongside the Kalonga emerged the Undi chiefdom in eastern Zambia, followed later in the century by that of the Lundu in the south of Malawi around the lower Shire River valley (Klien-Arendt 2004a, 944, 945; Schofeleers 1972, 75). The Lundu chiefdom had been subject to the Kaphwiti who in turn were subordinated to the Undi, but in the second half of the century the Lundu broke away and established their own polity (Klien-Arendt 2004a, 945; Schofeleers 1972, 75). The power of the Lundus was founded on the strategic position they occupied in relation to trade between the Portuguese and the interior and on the agricultural production of the Shire River valley that was critical to the survival of the Portuguese settlements in times of drought and also provided cotton to trade (Schoffeleers 1987, 344; Klien-Arendt 2004a, 945). They also extracted heavy tribute on ivory traded from their territory (Schoffeleers 1987, 344).

The arrival of the Ngulube from the north east in the late 16th centrury (from about 1570 onwards) was to lead to the emergence of new states in the north of Malawi (Kalinga 1983, 52). The heads of several Ngulube chiefdoms crossed the Songwe River with their followers in this period and established four new polities (Kalinga 1983, 52). The first of these migrants, under Mwaulambya, established themselves in the north east and incorporated the existing hitherto stateless Nyiha clans relatively peacefully by according clan heads high positions of governance in the kingdom (Kalinga 1983, 52; 1978). In a similar fashion the Msukwa established themselves in the Misuku hills through the incorporation of Nyiha and other clans in the same way, while Kameme and his followers established a state to the west of the Mwaulambya (Kalinga 1983, 52). Kyungu, the brother of Kameme, led his more numerous group onto the Karongo plain where he was able to exploit the grievances of the subjects of the trading state ruled by the Simbowe clan to capture their capital at Mbande Hill and expel the Simbowe (Robinson 1966; Kalinga 1983, 53; 1979, 24). The Tumbuka/Mkandawire state remained unconquered (and continued their trade with the Swahili city of Kilwa on the coast) as did the Mwaphoka Mbale and other smaller polities (Kalinga 1983, 52-54).

To consolidate and legitimize their rule the Kyungus established a cult centre focused on the worship of their ancestors that in time lent them a divine status and established themselves as the focus of key religious rituals (Kalinga 1983, 52, 53; 1979, 30, 38). Unlike the other Ngulube kings, the Kyungus drew their officials and advisors from the Ngulube they brought with them, but both they and their aristocracy married into prominent native families (Kalinga 1983, 52, 53; 1979, 38). While the Mwaulambyas, Msukwas and Kamemes maintained similar legitimising ancestoral cults unlike the Kyungus they tended to assimilate to their Nyiha subjects (Kalinga 1983, 54).

At the time of the migration of the Ngulube in the north the far south was thrown into turmoil by renegade slave soldiers once owned by Portuguese settlers called the Zimba (Kalinga 1983, 52-54). In 1592 Portuguese forces dispatched to punish the Zimba, who had pillaged the territory of a chief allied to the Portuguese, were destroyed by the Zimba and around 130 men killed (Schoffeleers 1987, 342, 343). A larger contingent of around 1700 men sent out in 1593 was also defeated and the Zimba proceeded to overrun the territory between the Zambezi and the coast (Schoffeleers 1987, 343; 344). The Zimba seemed to have been subordinated to or allied with the Lundu and the latter took advantage of the situation to occupy the territory once held by the Zimba who continued their maurading up the coast (Schoffeleers 1987, 353; Klien-Arendt 2004b, 946). At the same the reigning Lundu consolidated his religious power and a highly centralized kingdom emerged in the early 17th century (Schoffeleers 1987, 353; Klien-Arendt 2004b, 946).

In Kyungu kingdom the development of divine kingship led to the secludion and isolation of the Kyungu, but around 1750 Kasyombe ascended the throne and, not content to rule in name only, he abolished practices and taboos that restricted the efficacy of the Kyungu's rule (Kalinga 1983, 54). During Kasyombe's activist reign the administration of the kingdom was reformed and under his successors the kingdom expanded, especially to the north where its boundary reached the Songwe River, and it became a major political actor in the region until the 20th century (Kalinga 1983, 54). The kingdom was feudal in character, dependent on the extraction of labour and tribute from subordinate clans heads, there was no standing army to enforce the Kyungu's writ or rights and his power was founded rather on his central position in national religious cults (Kalinga 1984, 88-90; 1979, 39). Population growth and the influx of migrants into the kingdom led to economic changes such as more extensive cattle holdings in the sparsely populated highlands and the adoption of more intensive agricultural crops such as cassava and bananas in the place of sorghum on the plains (Kalinga 1984, 92). The increase in cattle holdings led to greater social stratification and the emergence of a new cattle holding class in competition with the aristocracy as well as a class of client-herdsmen (Kalinga 1984, 93, 94). Towards the end of the 18th century regional trade in the hands of individuals was surpassed in importance by long distance trade in which the Kyungu participated (Kalinga 1984, 93).

While the Kyungu kingdom was flourishing in the north, the polities of the Maravi confederacy in the centre and the south went into decline, partially as a result of succession disputes which weakened the already loose bonds that held the Kalonga and the Undi together and partly as a result of the decline of the chiefs' power to control trade in ivory and other hunting goods (Klien-Arendt 2004c, 948; Northrup 1985, 64, 65). As a result they were unable to offer effective resistance to intruders and migrants in the 18th and 19th centuries (Klien-Arendt 2004c, 948; Northrup 1985, 64, 65). In the 1720s ivory hunter-traders crossed Lake Malawi, into territory dominated by the Kalonga, where they accumulated sufficient wealth that they were able to usurb political power and establish their own state within a generation (Kalinga 1983, 55; 1979, 34, 35). Their decentralized commercial empire dominate the entire area by the end of the century (Kalinga 1983, 55; 1979, 34, 35). Similarly, as a result of prolonged droughts at the end of the 16th century the Tumbuka/Mkandawire trader state went into decline and was not able to resist the intrusion of new comers from across Lake Malawi, the lowoka ("those who crossed"), in the 18th century (Kalinga 1983, 55). Three lowoka families, possibly of Yao origin, established ivory hunting and trading states on Mkandawire territory, from the 1780s onwards, that came to dominate the area economically and politically (Kalinga 1983, 55-56; Wright & Lary 1971, 561).


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