The Maravi Confederacy

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Maravi was a kingdom, situated in the present-day outskirts of Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia, in the sixteenth century. The present-day name “Maláŵi” is said come from the Chichewa word “malaŵí”, which signifies “flames”. “Maravi”, thus, is a general name of the people groups of Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and the eastern Zimbabwe.

What did their unspoilt kingdom look like?

maravi - featured - benguerra island, mozambique
Benguerra Island
maravi - featured benguerra island mozambique
Mozambique marine life
maravi - Joseph-C-Lawrence-benguerra-island-beach
Mozambique beach. Picture by: Joseph C Lawrence.

The Maravi Kingdom was established by the Bantu individuals and other ethnolinguistic groups who migrated into the valley of the Shire River around 1480 AD. The kingdom was ruled by a karonga (king), whose power and authorities were transferred through the leaders of every group. The kingdom flourished through late eighteenth century, stretching out to the present-day Zambia and Mozambique. In the nineteenth century, Yao, the neighbours attacked them and sold the captured Maravi to the slave markets of Kilwa and Zanzibar. Later during the 1860s, Islam was brought into the district through contact with Swahili slave merchants.

maravi pic1 map


Remains and early tools of hominids and remains of the earliest dinosaurs were found the Karonga region within boundaries of the Maravi kingdom (Banda 2009). The hominids are believed to have lived 1 million to 3 million years ago (mya). While, the dinosaur remains date back between 100 million and 140 million years ago.


East African Lakes
africa Hydrological-map-showing-major-rivers-lakes-25-major-basins-and-55-countries-of-Africa
African basins and rivers

Starting during the thirteenth century, we have indications that families relating to the founders of the Maravi kingdom entered the locale of Lake Malawi. Conventional records show that these individuals migrated into the Congo Basin towards the west of Lake Mweru, a region within the defunct Luba Kingdom. The communities kept increasing and spreading out in the following few centuries. By the sixteenth century a body of these communities referred to as the Maravi had settled in the Shire River valley. These people also settled across a wide region lying west and southwest of Lake Malawi, including parts of present-day Zambia and Mozambique.

Gaspar Bocarro, a Portuguese trader, gave the primary chronicle of the Maravi when he travelled through the Maravi domain in 1616. Later, during the 1660s Father Manuel Barretto related the extent of kingdom to his knowledge, having it extend from the shore of Mozambique between the Zambezi River and the cove of Quelimane for a few hundred miles in-land. Another record a century later suggested that the western furthest reaches of the confederation were close to the Luangwa River and that it stretched out north to the Dwangwa River.


For the subtleties of the development of the Maravi Empire, its leaders and early internal developments up to the mid-1600s we have to discover these from oral sources. Mazizi, an early Karonga – which later turned into the innate title of the Maravi paramount chief – drove the principle migration. Making up the primary group of those migrating were individuals from four factions—the Banda, Mwali, Nkhoma, and Phiri. Mazizi belonged to the Phiri clan. The primary group is said to have entered the north-central part of present-day Malawi, where it settled for some time close to Mount Choma. Mazizi passed away at this time, and power fell to a chief from the Phiri faction, who took up the title of Karonga. (Karonga may also be written as Kalonga.)

Observations led to finding appealing land area towards the southwest of the lake, and another relocation started. The community intermarried with two groups after occupying the territory which sparked this later trek. One comprised of descendants of the prior Bantu groups that had arrived amid and after the first millennium AD. This group, differently called the Katanga (Kalanga), Pule, or Lenda, was assimilated without a clash. The second group were the Twa, specifically the Kafula. The Kafula were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They already had technical knowledge of iron and utilized it to tip arrows and spears, which were poisoned.

Political Organisation

The kingship of Maravi is accepted to have originated from the Luba. During the 1400s the Phiri tribe wedded into the Banda group of the Nyanja, south of Lake Malawi. These migrants came with certain talents that helped them establish a ruling class: a/ knowledge of how to run a centralised political system b/ knowledge of medicine and magic (the lay understanding of mysteries) and c/ trade acumen. This is the time when the kingship began. They were regarded as Karonga (ruler). Maravi lords built up their own rituals and ceremonies. The Maravi king was always represented by the never-ending perpetual fire, which was sustained with reed mats. The fire would go out only at the passing of the king. The fire was conjured amid the finish of the dry season.

Economics and Trade

Ivory Exchange was a major economic activity in Maravi. People, there, transported ivory to Swahili brokers and later Portuguese merchants on the coast. The Portuguese endeavoured to take monopoly over the gold and ivory exchange around the 1590s. This attempt was met with outrageous countering by the Maravi of Lundu. They released their wa-Zimba armed force. They sacked the Portuguese trade towns of Tete, Sena and various other towns.

Iron was also manufactured by the Maravis. It was also a noteworthy source of income and was also exported to the Swahili and Portuguese brokers. Trade in Maravi increased after they came in contact with the Portuguese. It included items like the beads of the Khami type and Chinese porcelain imported by means of Portuguese mediators.


In the nineteenth century, the state declined. The Maravi were often assaulted and intruded by their neighbours the Yao who sold on captives as slaves.

The Kafula challenged the southward development and outward extension of the Maravi savagely. A few noteworthy fights were recounted. One in the south of the Linthipe River brought about the withdrawal of numerous Kafula down the Shire valley. In the long run they were constrained over the Zambezi River. The fate of remaining Kafula was finally determined in a major battle in the Chipata region of eastern Zambia.


The confederation comprised initially of various tributary kingdoms, including those established by Undi, Lundu, and Mkanda, which were subordinate to the Karonga. The countries of the Maravi kingdom in the centre and the south went into decay, because of the succession disputes which debilitated the already loose bonds that held the Karonga and the Undi together and somewhat because of the decrease of the chief’s capacity to control the trade of ivory and other chasing products.

They were not able offer powerful protection against interlopers and vagrants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During the 1720s ivory hunter-traders crossed Lake Malawi, into region ruled by the Karonga, where they diverted adequate riches away from the royal purse to also usurp political influence and set up their very own state within their generation. Their decentralized business realm dominated the whole region before the century was over.

The problems faced by the Karonga also included draught towards the end of the sixteenth century. This contributed to the decay of the Tumbuka/Mkandawire broker state and its weakness in opposing the interruption of new comers from across Lake Malawi, called the lowoka (“the individuals who crossed”), in the eighteenth century. Three lowoka families, conceivably of Yao origin, set up ivory hunting and trading states on Mkandawire soil, from the 1780s onwards, and came to rule the region monetarily, then politically.

The decline of the Maravi Empire came about because of the entry of two powerful groups into Malawi society. In the nineteenth century, the Angoni or Ngoni individuals and their boss Zwangendaba entered from the Natal area of the now South Africa. The Angoni were a piece of an extraordinary migration, known as the Mfecane, of individuals escaping from the leader of the Zulu Empire, Shaka Zulu. The second wave to take control around this time were the Yao.


Banda, Mabvuto (23 October 2009). “Malawi could be the cradle of humankind”. Science. Reuters. Retrieved 31 August 2014.

The Editors of encyclopaedia Britannica, Maravi Kingdom, Historical Empire, Africa

WRIGHT, M & LARY, P 1971 “Swahili Settlements in Northern Zambia and Malawi”, African Historical Studies, 4(3), 547-573, [opens new window] (accessed 27 Oct 2009).

KLIEN-ARENDT, R 2004a “Maravi: Phiri Clan, Lunda and Undi Dynasties, ” IN Shillington, K (ed) 2004 Encyclopaedia of African history, Volume 1, New York, Routledge.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1999). Africana: The Encyclopaedia of African and African American Experience. Basic Civitas Books, p. 1229. ISBN 0-465-00071-1

Newit, M. D. D. The Early History of the Maravi. Journal of African History, 23(1982, pp. 145-162.

Shillington, Kevin (2005). History of Africa. Revised 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 201-202. ISBN 0-333-59957-8

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The Maravi Confederacy

by Editorial Team time to read: 6 min