The Kingdom of Luba was a large powerful kingdom which held the major power in Central Africa from the 15th century to the late 19th century (1585-1889). It was established in the 15th century, though the region of Upemba depression had been inhabited for almost 1000 years prior by fishing villages on the lake and small towns built around working iron. The kingdom was built mainly on trade of minerals from the Central Africa. They had extensive trade routes from Europe to India. They also maintained extensive oral records through the Mbudye, the ‘memory men’, because of whom we know so much about Luba.
According to archaeological evidence, the Upemba depression had been inhabited since almost the 5th century by fishermen and fishing villages. Soon they started trading dried fish for access to metal working tools and started to gain expertise in metal working. By the 10th century their trade had expanded to include fishing, farming and metal-working. Metal-workers depended on traders to bring them the copper and charcoal, and in return supplied them with fish, farm products and metal articles. These traders had routes spanning from east Africa to the distant Indian Ocean.
Soon these individual villages and town started to trade as a whole, realising the profit and benefits in consolidating their trade prowess. These towns and villages soon grew to big cities.
Around the year 1585 King Kongolo Maniema combined the forces and founded the Kingdom of Luba. Him and his nephew, Kalala Ilunga, expanded the kingdom and its power, and took the kingdom to new heights.
The Luba Calendar
To guide human activities and promote effective agricultural production, the inhabitants of the kingdom followed a calendar system invented by the Luba based on twelve months starting in September. The Luba calendar was unique to the environment of the Upemba depression and helped farmers track when to plant and when to harvest.
Area, Administration and Population Estimates
The Luba kingdom was mainly in the Central Africa and at its peak covered all of the Upemba Depression and stretched to the upper left bank of the Lualaba River. Its capital city was Mwibele and it was the seat of power right up until the decline of the kingdom.
At the height of its power, the Kingdom of Luba had around a million people living in it and paying tribute to the king.
The administration of the kingdom was entirely up to the king, called the Mulopwe, with the assistance of the nobles, Bamfumus and the clan chiefs, Balopwe. These titles were believed to be sacred and the people holding them to be divine. There was almost a supernatural power associated with the holders of these titles, which led to a very strict code of loyalty and respect for the crown. These ruling class were almost exclusively merchants, who often held a monopoly in trade with items such as salt, copper, iron ore etc. and used them to consolidate their power throughout the Central Africa.
Almost equal to the ruling class were the ‘memory men’, the Mbudye. These were the keepers of the Luba tradition, who passed it along through oral means. There are many poems and epics detailing the lives of the kings and the common folk in the Luba tradition, all of which were the creation of the Mbudye. They were allowed passage everywhere in the kingdom, even the royal palace, and had a supernatural authority, only second to the Mulopwe.
The Luba Kingdom’s survival and expansion was in part due to this form of government which was durable enough to withstand the disruptions of succession disputes and flexible enough to incorporate foreign leaders and governments.
In fact, this form of government was so successful that it was adopted by the kingdom of Lunda and the Kazembe Kingdom as well.
Art and Culture
Art held a very high significance in the Luba Kingdom. Artists were often given very high social status, along with money and goods to help sustain them. Wood carving and stone sculpting were the two main art forms in Luba. Wood carvers often had an adze slung over their right shoulder as a show of status and respect, similarly stonemasons had a sharp conical chisel held in their belt.
Though art was very valued, it wasn’t common or stable throughout the kingdom, owing to the vast number of people living in it. There were many provinces in the kingdom, each with its own unique style of art and preferred material for making them. A large section of this art was created for the royalty and had a divine design to it.
The importance of women in the Luba Kingdom, both politically and mythically, led to a lot of the artwork being decorated with female divine figures and designs.
The Luba Kingdom developed a versatile form of government in the medieval era, with equal reliance on the king, the royal council and the clan chiefs. This form of government was so successful that it was adopted by the other kingdoms in Central Africa as well.
The entire economy of the Luba Kingdom was based solely on trade with the outside world. The Luba was an extensive trading kingdom, trading in ores like copper and iron, minerals like salt and diamonds, ivory and even metal works. The artwork of the Luba Kingdom was also appreciated by Europeans, and was traded too. The trade routes of the Luba extended all the way from eastern Africa to the distant shores of India.
The Cantino Planisphere
The Cantino Planisphere was a map of the then European discovered world, made by an anonymous Portuguese cartographer. It consisted of every land and territory that was known about, including British, Spanish, Dutch etc. territories as well. The Luba Kingdom was one of the very few African kingdoms to be mentioned in the Planisphere, and was illustrated to have been encompassing the entirety of Central Africa, from shore to shore, though this was not true. This shows the influence the trade relationship of Luba with Angola had on the Portuguese.
The Luba Kingdom was built entirely on trade, and that led to its downfall. Long range trade for slaves and ivory was initiated by the Eastern African traders around 1870. Both of them were providing very lucrative trading opportunities, and rather than going through the middle man of the Luba Kingdoms, they started raiding the territories of Luba on their own. Soon they were joined by European powers also looking for profits. On the forefront was the country of Belgium. Soon the territories of Luba were overrun enemies looking to reap the natural benefits of the lands.
Soon the people of the kingdom started to have discontent with the ruling class, and in 1889 there was a civil war between the rebels and the kingdom. It lasted for 6 years and tore the country apart. It ended in a peace treaty, but split the kingdom into two halves. That was the end of the kingdom as a unified state.
Soon both these halves were absorbed into the Belgian Congo Free State.
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