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Rulers and Ruled

Unlike the societies of the rain-forest zone, where power was diffused among a group of elders or else centered upon a clan head or a village chief, the kingdoms of the southern savannas developed elaborate political structures, buttressed by the symbolic force of monarchy as well as by military force. Despite significant variations in the extent to which kings could be said to exercise an effective monopoly of power, relations between rulers and ruled were structured along hierarchical lines. Typically, power emanated from the central seat of authority to the outer provinces through the intermediation of appointed chiefs or local clan heads. Relations between center and periphery, however, were by no means free of ambiguity. Ensuring the loyalty of subordinate chiefs was the critical problem faced by African rulers throughout the southern savanna zone.

Although the origins of these kingdoms are shrouded in myths, their capacity to expand and conquer was directly related to their internal political structure. Thus, the expansion of the Lunda Kingdom, which probably began in the late sixteenth century and resulted in the so-called Lunda Empire that flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was critically related to what historian Jan Vansina calls "the twin mechanisms of perpetual succession and positional kinship." That is, each succeeding officeholder, monarch or otherwise, assumed the name, title, and personal identity of the original occupant (founder) of the office (perpetual succession). At the same time, the new officeholder adopted all kin relationships of the founder of the office as his own (positional kinship).

In this manner, the personalized identity and kin ties of each founding official were perpetuated over time. These mechanisms were extremely useful in that they divorced the political structure from the actual descent structure. In so doing, they freed the processes of political recruitment from the constraints of kinship and facilitated the recruitment of new officials from within Lunda society and from the ranks of recently conquered peoples.

By the same token, the Lunda governed through a hierarchy of subordinate chiefs, a form of indirect rule, in newly occupied lands, a practice that facilitated the adaptation of the political kingdom beyond its original homeland. This custom shows how the Lunda Kingdom differed in some fundamental ways from the Luba kingdoms (fifteenth to nineteenth centuries) from which it split off, probably in the fifteenth century.

Although both evolved out of preexisting chiefdoms and shared many of the same political symbols, including the notion of divine kingship, only the Lunda were able to expand substantially beyond their core area. During the seventeenth century, the Lunda expanded toward the west and northwest into present-day Angola, initially to escape Luba domination, and to the south and east, initially in search of copper and salt and control of the trade associated with these desirable commodities, and later in pursuit of ivory. In the course of that expansion, the Lunda established a number of subsidiary states, including an eastern branch known as the Kazembe Kingdom of the Luapula Valley in the mid-eighteenth century. That kingdom successfully controlled the ivory trade in the area and set up a tributary organization of subordinate chiefs.

The absence among the Luba of anything like positional succession or perpetual kinship proved a major handicap. The rise and fall of at least three different Luba dynasties in the seventeenth century testifies to the relative weakness of the Luba monarchy. Competition for control of the throne led to incessant civil wars, and by the late nineteenth century, the kingdom had become easy prey for the Chokwe (often spelled Cokwe) people.

The Chokwe were originally a seminomadic, Bantu-speaking people living near the headwaters of the Kwango and Kasai rivers. They were primarily hunters, although their movements permitted them to trade successfully in such commodities as wax. By the start of the nineteenth century, the Chokwe were still largely unknown. They expanded dramatically in the second half of the century, however, largely at the expense of the Lunda, whose territories they invaded and occupied. Chokwe warriors, armed with rifles, wreaked havoc among the Lunda, looting and burning villages and either absorbing the local population or selling captives into slavery. After about 1885, the Chokwe began to attack the Luba as well, but by the end of the century, the Lunda had managed to defeat the Chokwe and to drive them back southward.

Chokwe political structure was similar to that of the Lunda, under whose chiefs they had originally lived. This structure enabled the Chokwe to absorb people organized into small lineages over a wide area and to gain military superiority over the indigenous population of the lands into which they moved. Once they conquered a people, the Chokwe rapidly assimilated them into their own social structure. The reason for their expansion seems to have been the rich trade in wax, ivory, slaves and, later, rubber; the avenues of Chokwe expansion were along the lines of preexisting trade routes.

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Page last modified: 22-06-2015 21:02:00 ZULU