Kingdom of Kazembe: History and Politics in North-Eastern Zambia and Katanga to 1950, The
Giacomo Macola. The Kingdom of Kazembe: History and Politics in North-Eastern Zambia and Katanga to 1950. Hamburg: Lit Verlag, Bd. 30, 2002. xxvi + 292 pp. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. euro20,90. Paper.
In the mid-eighteenth century, a Lunda royal, “Mwata Kazembe,” established a centralized state in the fertile lower Luapula Valley. Found at the crossroads of long-distance trade routes that stretched from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans, the kingdom was of interest to Portuguese traders who wanted to join their East and West African colonies and to Swahili traders in search of ivory and slaves. In a later period, the kingdom’s realms were divided between British and Belgian colonial administrations; Mwata Kazembe became one of the more influential chiefs in colonial Zambia. All of this has ensured a small but significant place for the kingdom in African history textbooks and a central role in the most renowned (but dated) synthesis of south-central African history, Jan Vansina’s Kingdoms of the Savanna (Wisconsin, 1966). It is thus remarkable that Giacomo Macola’s The Kingdom of Kazembe is the first full-length study of the kingdom. Macola’s empirical contribution is noteworthy; his meticulous interrogation of a variety of historical sources and ability to combine them into a single narrative reflect considerable skill.
Macola argues that precolonial history should be written alongside colonial history, since the “oral texts” upon which many precolonial histories rest emerged out of the mobilization of ethnic identities that were part of local colonial political imperatives. The oral tradition upon which our understanding of the kingdom of Kazembe has rested was written by a collection of elders and aristocrats under the direction of the “modernizing” king, Mwata Kazembe XIV, in the 1940s. It was further edited by a White Father missionary, Edouard Labreque, and finally published in Bemba as Ifikolwe Fyandi na Bantu Bandi (My Ancestors and My People). Labreque was versed in the records of European expeditions to the kingdom from the late eighteenth to nineteenth centuries and ensured that the published oral tradition conformed to the written eyewitness accounts. Thus, according to Macola, historians cannot cross-reference earlier European testimony with this published oral tradition, the “tribal bible” of the kingdom. Macola gets around this problem by relying on a rare manuscript by Labreque, “History of the WenaLunda,” which distinguishes between the oral tradition and Labreque’s editorial additions and erasures. In addition to this important document, Macola employs European eyewitness accounts to separate out aspects of the oral tradition that seem to be clichés and oft-repeated ideological constructs.
We are left with a thorough political history of the kingdom from its founding on the Mukelweji River to the conquest of the Luapula Valley around 1740, through European colonization, and ending with the death of the first “modernizing” Mwata Kazembe in 1950. Throughout, Macola’s aim is to explore the central problematic of south-central African political history: how polities without significant military or economic advantage can contain centrifugal forces, broadcast authority, and hold their states together. The founders of the Kazembe kingdom heralded from a southern Luba lineage but adopted Lunda political institutions and insignia (they are often referred to as the “eastern Lunda”). In doing so, they adopted both the Luba strategy of “lineage powerbrokering” and Lunda political insignia and institutions like perpetual kinship to spread their rule. Macola traces the success of these tactics in the western and eastern peripheries, where Kazembe’s rule rested more on strategic alliances and marriages than direct administration, and in the heartland of the Luapula Valley, where Kazembe appointed aristocrats as territorial governors. The system seems to have worked well in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries (no doubt helped by the agricultural and fishing opportunities of the heartland). It unraveled in the second half of the nineteenth century as the Nyamwezi trader, Msiri, allied with Swahili traders, intervened in succession disputes and undermined the integrity of the kingdom. In a sense, the arrival of the British South African Company, with which Mwata Kazembe X quickly learned to cooperate, rescued the kingdom from complete disintegration while leading to a number of internal changes, most notably the promotion of members of the royal family as colonial chiefs instead of the aristocrats.
The insistence on discarding ideological constructs has certain shortcomings, including an unintended Eurocentrism. In Macola’s account, politics in the kingdom takes on a “feudal” form, with the conflict revolving around aristocrats and royals. We get little feel for the inner workings of some of the distinctive political institutions of eastern Lunda rule, like positional succession and perpetual kinship. There is even less about the culture and ideology of rule, revealed in, for example, the numerous praises of the different kings and aristocrats (these are not included in the book). Moreover, despite the acknowledged importance of autochthonous matrilineal clans and the role of several important women, “mythic” or “real” (like Nachituti in the eighteenth and Nakafwaya in the nineteenth century), the emphasis remains on the more glorified realm of the male court and the Kazembe patrilineage.
These omissions leave opportunities for other scholars. The depth and density of the historical research that informs The Kingdom of Kazembe will ensure that it remains a foundation upon which future research into the history of the Luapula Valley and the polities of precolonial central Africa can build.
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Copyright African Studies Association Dec 2004
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