Friday, May 30, 2014

The Lunda Empire of Central Africa

H. M. Stanley
In the 19th century, the travels of Henry Morton Stanley brought exploration of the region of Central Africa. Back in Europe, as the Industrial Revolution continued to gain momentum, more and more resources were needed to sustain the growth of various industries. Belgium, a growing industrial nation, was looking into establishing a colony somewhere. And when the words of Stanley’s travels was heard, the Belgian move in to the modern-day Congo to establish its biggest colony. However, as they began their conquest, they saw a civilization that occupy the whole region. An empire that belonged to the Lunda people existed at their front.

At the Valley of Nkalaany, close to the Upper Kassai River, the Lunda people occupied the area. In the 17th century, the Lunda people was not united. It was made of several chiefdoms. They were a scattered people with no central authority. To the Northeast of the core lands of the Lunda people, a more organize kingdom of Luba existed. They had a concept of a central government but had also the idea of autonomy to its conquered lands. During the early 1600, a prince from this kingdom arrived to one of the Lunda tribes. The prince name was Kibinga Ilunga. Kibinga Ilunga managed to court the female chief of the Lunda tribe. The female chief, Lueji, fell to Kibinda Ilunga and made him into his consort.

The relation of the prince and chief allowed the Luba ideas of government to be incorporated to the Lunda tribe. The Lusengi, the son of Kibinda Ilunga to another woman, was responsible for setting up the Luba system of government to the Lunda people. The ideas included a somewhat decentralized government. It meant that a conquered tribe’s chief, called Naweii Mwaant a Ngaand or the owner of the land, would be allowed to managed his tribe. However, he or she must be answer to the central government. Alongside the chief, a military provincial head, called the Kawaata, would also be present at the conquered lands. Another concept placed on the Lunda was the concept of inheritance of relation. Under the government set up, a successor of the ruler could also inherit a relation from his predecessor. Thus, as scholars suggest, a foreigner could easily be ruler as he could also inherit a relationship to his predecessor.

Lusengi might had begun the infusion of Luba government ideas to the Lunda people, but the creation of the Lunda Empire that would stand for a century was established by his son, Naweji. Naweji made the expansion throughout his life until his death in 1690. He unified the Lunda people and expanded its territories which later include the Zambezi and Kwango River. He and his successors continued the expansion of Lunda domains. By modern standards, the areas occupied by the Lunda included the Democratic Republic of Congo and some parts of Angola and Zambia.

By dawn of the 17th century, the Lunda was a powerful empire within the Central African region. The political ideas shared by the Lubus to the Lundas allowed it to grow into a vast empire. Besides its size and political system, the Lunda also had a vibrant economy. The Lunda empire profited from the trade of salt, copper, honey, ivory, and, most importantly, slaves. Transit taxes were charged to Arabs and European merchants dealing with the mentioned trade crossing over the empire. The Lunda Empire also benefited to the gold trade in the region of East Africa, especially the area nearby the Great Zimbabwe. The Lunda Empire also relied to its agriculture. They grew millets and sorghum. When the European arrived, they also began to cultivate millet and cassava, then later, sunflower (for their oil) and also tropical fruits like pineapple.

During this period as well, offshoot Lunda kingdoms also began to rise. Some of the brea aways were caused by the rise of Kibinga Ilunga and his sons in the Lunda society. They could not accept that a foreigner or an outsider rose to such a high position and so they decided to leave. There was also a simpler cause. An example was one of the most powerful was in the east of the Lunda Empire – the Kingdom of Kazembe.  The story of the Kazambe began in the early 17th century. Mwata Yamvo Muteba rewarded the Ngoda Bilonda the title of Mwata Kazembe and was placed in charge of the conquest of the east of the Lunda Empire. After Mwata Kazembe accomplished his task and died, his successor Kanyembo decided to establish a kingdom – the Kingdom of Kazembe.

The dominance of the Lunda Empire in the Central African region would last for another two hundred years until they were overshadowed. In the 1800’s, one of the defeated people of the Lunda, the Chokwe, rose and ceded from the Empire, they then took on the Empire. In 1887, they stroke the Lunda with a humiliating defeat when they managed to kill the Mwata Yamvo, Mulaji II. 

The final blow to the death of the Lunda Empire was an event that happened two years before the defeat of Mulaji II and it took place mile and miles away. In 1885, the European powers gathered in Berlin to discuss the issue of colonization of Africa and also, to discuss about the faith of the Congo. The Lunda Empire was part of the Congo which was the target of the Belgian King Leopold II. He intended to acquire it to level his Kingdoms to the other imperial powers of Germany, France, and Britain. By February 1885, King Leopold, got what he wanted. The Belgians took over Congo. Meanwhile, other parts of the Lunda Empire in Angola went to the Portuguese. While the British then took over the Zambia (known in the past as Northern Rhodesia) part of the Empire.

The Lunda Empire was another example of a flourishing African State devoured by imperialism. From a fragmented people into one of the remarkable sates in the Central African region. But it too could not stand the pressure of western imperialism. From chaos brought by its conquered people, and with the declaration of a western imperialist in Europe, the Lunda Empire fell. But its memory and its glory remained to this day in minds of the Lunda people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

See also:
Asante Empire
Ghana Empire
Great Zimbabwe
Songhai Empire

Kisagani, E. F. & F. S. Bobb. Historical Dictionary of Democratic Republic of Congo. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010. 

Shoup, J. Ethnic Groups of Africa and the Middle East: An Encyclopedia. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2011. 

Stokes, J. (ed.). Encyclopedia of the People of Africa and the Middle East. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2000.


  1. This was a good explanation on the Lunda Empire but what confuses me is that u don;t list anywhere when the Lunda Empire ended it ended in the end of the 19th century

  2. This was a good explanation on the Lunda Empire but what confuses me is that u don;t list anywhere when the Lunda Empire ended it ended in the end of the 19th century

    1. You're right, Ellen. The empire was almost completely destroied by the Chokwe, and the remaining lundas were saved by the colonialism.

  3. Actually the lunda mpire was destroied by the chokwe by 1880, as the post mentions. When european colonialism arrived there, the empire was desapearing (and so the lunda people), and it was the presence of the europeans, with a border created between Angola and the Congo in the the Kasai river, that saved the lunda and established the peace.