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The Maravi Confederation

The Maravi Confederacy was established by Bantu people immmigrating into the valley of the Shire River (flowing out of Lake Nyassa) around 1480 AD. It flourished into the 18th century, extending into stretches now belonging to Zambia and Mocambique. In the 19th century the neighbouring Yao raided on them, selling captive Maravi on the slave markets of Kilwa and Zanzibar. In the 1860es, Islam was introduced into the area through contact with Swahili slave traders. In 1859 the region was visited by David Livingstone; protestant missionaries established stations in 1873. A British consul was sent there in 1883.

Beginning perhaps as early as the thirteenth century, the first elements of a large-scale migration of related clans entered the region of Lake Malawi. Traditional accounts indicate that these people originated in the Congo Basin to the west of Lake Mweru, in an area that subsequently formed part of the Luba Kingdom. The movement continued during the succeeding two or three centuries, but it appears certain that by the sixteenth century the main body of these people, known collectively as the Maravi, were settled in the Shire River valley and over a wide area lying generally west and southwest of Lake Malawi, including parts of present-day Zambia and Mozambique.

Oral history must be relied on for details of the movement and its leaders and internal developments up to the early 1600s, when Portuguese records first mentioned the Maravi. The main trek was led by Mazizi, whose appellation, the Karonga, subsequently became the hereditary title of the Maravi paramount chief. Making up the principal body of those migrating were members of four clans—the Banda, Mwali, Nkhoma, and Phiri. The main body is said to have entered the north-central part of present-day Malawi, where it stopped for a while near Mount Choma. Mazizi died at this point, and leadership of the tribe devolved on a chief from the Phiri clan, who was accorded the title of Karonga.

Reconnaissance found attractive land to the southwest of the lake, and a new migration began. Two groups were encountered occupying the area through which the new trek took place. One consisted of descendants of the earlier Bantu groups that had arrived during and after the first millennium AD. This group, variously called the Katanga (Kalanga), Pule, or Lenda, apparently was absorbed without much friction. The second group, believed by some to be the descendants of the Late Stone Age inhabitants, were negroid pygmies (Twa), the Kafula. The Kafula, nomadic hunters and gatherers, had acquired the use of iron and employed it to tip arrows and spears, which were poisoned.

The southward movement and outward expansion of the Maravi were contested fiercely by the Kafula. Several major battles are recounted. One south of the Linthipe River resulted in the retreat of many Kafula down the Shire valley; eventually they were forced across the Zambezi River. The remaining Kafula were finally driven from the region in a heavy battle fought in the Chipata (formerly) Fort Jameson) district of eastern Zambia.

The main body of the Maravi settled in the region around the southwestern shore of the lake. From here groups branched out to occupy new lands. During the sixteenth century a group under Undi of the Phiri clan moved southwestward into the area of present-day Zambia and Mozambique that is drained by the headwaters of the Capoche River. Another group under Kapwhiti and Lundu, also of the Phiri clan, moved southward into the Shire River valley. Those with Kapwhiti settled in the upper part of the valley, where they formed the Nyanja tribe. The group under Lundu traveled farther south, settling in the area of the Mwanza tributary of the Shire, where they constituted the Manganja tribe. A third splinter group under Kanyenda occupied the area north of Nkhota Kota. At some time during these events the ruling Karonga divided the area occupied by Maravi west of the lake between two chiefs, Mkanda and Chulu; these Maravi were the Chewa.

The first historical account of the Maravi was by Gaspar Boccaro, a Portuguese who traveled through their territory in 1616. The picture presented in the 1660s by Father Manuel Barretto, a Jesuit priest, was of a strong, economically active confederation that covered or dominated an area from the coast of Mozambique between the Zambezi River and the port of Quelimane for several hundred miles inland. An account from the following century implied that the western limits of the confederation were near the Luangwa River and that it extended on the north to the Dwangwa River.

The confederation consisted originally of a number of tributary kingdoms, including those founded by Undi, Lundu, and Mkanda, which were subordinate to the Karonga. The early political bonds gradually weakened however, as increasing trade with the Portuguese and Arabs, and also with neighboring kingdoms, improved the position and power of particular kings. Distance from the central authority brought a lessening of control by the Karonga over appointments to higher positions in the kingdoms and assumption by each king of secular and religious duties in his own right. Deterioration of politicalunity appears to have taken place during the 1700s, and in the early 1800s a Portuguese explorer reported that the more powerful kings were completely independent of each other.

The decline of the Maravi Empire resulted from the entrance of two powerful groups into the region of Malawi. In the 19th century, the Angoni or Ngoni people and their chief Zwangendaba arrived from the Natal region of modern-day South Africa. The Angoni were part of a great migration, known as the mfecane, of people fleeing from the head of the Zulu Empire, Shaka Zulu. The second group to take power around this time were the Yao. The Yao are also known by a derogatory term Achawa, Machawa which is a word used by many people in southern Africa.

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Page last modified: 09-05-2017 16:34:57 ZULU