Sunday, 26 May 2013

Loosing the chains of injustice in 1906

Many visitors to Zambia would be surprised to hear that slave raids (carried out mainly by Arabs and people of mixed African and Portuguese parentage) extended this far into the interior of Africa, that slavery was practiced locally, and to discover that it is a mere hundred years since slavery was more or less extinguished. The history of slavery is complex, with many heroes and villains, and with many systems prevailing in different areas, and it is therefore dangerous to generalise. Here is just one small piece of that story.

In western Zambia extending east to Batoka (at the Victoria Falls) was the territory known as Barotseland, the home of the Lozi people, famous today for the amazing and colourful ceremony of Kuomboka. The Lozi were a powerful tribe who held sway over the region and who therefore had to be reckoned with by the British South Africa Company as they made their forays into the territory. The paramount chief, known as the Litunga, or 'guardian of the earth', was responsible for the law governing his people. So it was to the Litunga at the time, Lewanika, that Cecil Rhodes went to sign the first treaty north of the Zambezi River. This brought the region under British influence in 1890. This influence, combined with that of missionaries such as Frederick Arnot and Coillard, persuaded Lewanika that the system of slavery practiced by his people was wrong. In the beginning the treatment of slaves, whose lives were completely in the hands of their owners, was improved, but in 1894 Lewanika declared that all who were of Barotse descent could not be slaves and a system of ransoming slaves was determined.

The Barotse people would not give up their slaves easily, however. According to Gelfand [1]

"No Barotse submitted himself to what he regarded as the indignity of manual labour. All his work was done by his slaves and the slaves could be forfeited for very little reason. A slave's wife and children were also the property of his master and could be sold. The slave could not participate in his master's pleasures and, if he killed an animal, the meat belonged to the master. He was not allowed to eat certain fishes and dared not touch honey."

The slaves, who were raided from Batoka and elswhere, and who were paid as tribute to the Lozi by vassal tribes, expected the British to liberate them, but the British governor Coryndon feared a revolution and so merely ruled (in 1897) that slave raiding and tribute should end. Raiding was much reduced through the introduction of a local police depot at Kalomo in 1899. When a hut tax was introduced in 1903, it was another blow against domestic slavery, as slaves were also liable to be taxed and this would have to be paid by their owners. Alongside this, the British administration paid Lewanika compensation for his lost tributes, 10% of the tax they collected, or about £1,200.

At this point, Lewanika himself recognised the evils of domestic slavery and when Worthington, the secretary for native affairs, visited in 1906, the hut tax was extended to the Barotse valley by agreement. Slave marriages were now recognised (a familiar story to anyone who has read the history of slavery in other regions) and slaves could buy their freedom for £2.

Here is a photo of a proclamation from 1906, I believe recording Lewanika's support for the abolition of slavery in Barotseland. This picture was taken in May 1970 by my father, Revd Pierre Dil, when we visited Mongu. (My father met the then Litunga and sisters at the convent to provide advice on setting up of a nutrition project in the region, along the lines of the then successful Lusaka Nutrition Group.) Unfortunately the old slides have not lasted well.)

This text, dated July 16, 1906 quotes Isaiah Chapter 58 (v 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14). Lewanika is at the bottom left and Edward the VII is on the right. One translation of the verses (KJV) reads

“Is not this the kind of fast I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.

Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;

And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.

Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it."

One could read into this quotation that Lewanika is also telling his people that they will not be destitute, that God will reward them for freeing their slaves.

The beginning of the proclamation refers to Lewanika as Morena, meaning 'ruler'.  I'm hoping someone will be able to explain the rest of the text.

Of course, the story does not end there. Gelfand reports that In 1913 there were twenty five convictions recorded amongst the Barotse for the buying and selling of slaves, but Lewanika's support for the aboliton of slavery meant that, at least for this part of the world, slavery had nearly been eradicated.

Barotseland was incorporated into the new nation of Zambia just prior to independence in 1964 by agreement of the Litunga and Kenneth Kaunda.

Here you can also see the royal barge, and the Litunga in 1970 (Mwanawina Lewanika III), outside his palace in Mongu.

 Here are my brother and I at the airport in Mongu in 1970.


[1] Gelfand "Northern Rhodesia in the days of the Charter", 1961