Documenting slave trade in Zambia

THE slave tree in Ndola.

IN DECEMBER last year, a video of men appearing to be auctioned in Libya alarmed the world when it brought to the fore the exploitation of migrants and refuges in the North African country. The world thought slave trade had died, but thanks to CNN, who broke the story, the world now knows that it is still alive.
In Zambia, slave trade is generally believed to have happened between the 16th and 19th centuries but historians and experts are of the view that available documentation on the vice is not conclusive.
Existing documentation has gaps because important information has not been captured, and in some cases, there are disparities.
These past documentations are, however, the basis for future research works as the case is with the recent project funded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
UNESCO Zambia was motivated to write a project proposal to the international body to document the history of the slave trade in the country.
Information has been collected from Lusaka, Copperbelt, Luapula, Northern, Southern and Western provinces and the project is at finalising stage.
A team, which included officials from UNESCO Zambia, National Heritage Conservation Commission (NHCC), Lusaka Museum and a research fellow from the University of Zambia undertook the research project.
The team recently set base at Kabwe High School Teachers Resource Centre to compile data, which will culminate into a detailed publication of slave trade in Zambia.
Zambia National Commission for UNESCO secretary-general Charles Ndakala, who was the team leader, says a lot of information on slave trade has not been documented in detail.
Dr Ndakala says well-written and researched publications on slave trade have mainly concentrated on international slave trade undertaken by Europeans and Arabs who ventured into the interior of Africa
He, however, argues that impeccable evidence also reveals that before the coming of Europeans and Arabs, slave trade existed in Zambia within tribes and chiefdoms.
“One tribe would raid another and capture those people that they could be used to cultivate on their behalf,” Dr Ndakala explains.
“There was also an aspect that we had Arabs here in Zambia for a long time which is why you see some people who are Muslims.”
Dr Ndakala’s team, during its research work, met different people and conducted interviews, held focus group discussions and reviewed existing literature on slave trade in Zambia.
The team’s research also revealed that available documentation on the famous Stevenson Road, a slave trade route is totally different from what is on the ground.
“Whoever wants to talk about slave trade in Zambia will talk about the Stevenson Road which starts from Mbala to Nakonde en routes to Tanzania,” Dr Ndakala says. “Through our research, we have established exactly where the Stevenson road is.”
The team also visited Mambwe Mwela and Kawimbe burial sites where the last slave woman to be buried there is believed to be Mama Meli.
Kawimbe is the only known burial place of a freed slave in Zambia.
The team documents that some settlement patterns of people in areas like Kilwa Island on Lake Mweru are based on where they came from during the period of the slave trade.
Kilwa Island in Kazembe kingdom, Chief Chitimukulu and areas around the Slave Tree in Ndola are among areas where slave trade happened.
The NHCC documents in the latest edition of “A Guide to Zambia’s Heritage” that a major slave route connecting Northern Province to the Atlantic and Indian oceans existed during the slave trade era.
From Mporokoso, the route passed through Kabuta village, a stronghold for Arab-Swahili traders who were the main suppliers of slaves and ivory on the plateau.
This route runs from Kalonga in Malawi via the Stevenson Road to Lake Tanganyika through to Nakonde, Old Fife, Mwenzo and onwards up to Chituta Bay, which was a slave port.
“From this point, some slaves were taken by boat to Nsumbu Slave Island before heading for Tanzania. Nsumbu is still rich in ruined remains of holding houses,” the publication reads in part.
Places like Ikomba were used to lay ambush on slave caravans to free captured slaves and many missions developed on the slave route as places of refugee.
Kayambi Mission was opened with more than two hundred former slaves and huge communities like Ilondola also developed adjacent to missions.
“The missionaries also helped in fighting slave traders and freed their captives and provided shelter for them,” Dr Ndakala explains.
The research has identified the places, the routes, people involved in slave trade and the type of activities that were happening during the era.
Therefore, with up-to-date information, people will easily know places where slave trade actually happened, routes used, the people involved, and how people were bought or captured as slaves.
The team will also make recommendations on the need to preserve heritage sites related to slave trade and how to popularise them for tourism.
“We are hoping that when we do the publication, it’s going to inform Zambians about the slave trade in Zambia, what happened and where exactly slave trade was taking place and what were the routes used,” Dr Ndakala says.
He says it is important for people know that slave trade happened and it can still happen again.
Well, the Libyan case is there.
“This is why during our research, we also looked at the modern forms of slave trade, and once we do the publication, people will know that things like forced marriages are a form of slavery,” Dr Ndakala says.
The foundation Dr Ndakala’s team has laid is a milestone development for Zambia to have factual, concrete and well documented information on slave trade.
The team’s research is also a stepping stone for continued research on slave trade in Zambia and will help other researchers in identifying gaps that still exist.
“So, we are assuming that after we have documented this, Zambia will have documented rich history about slave trade which will be used in institutions of learning, schools and even other researchers that would want to know about slave trade,” Dr Ndakala explained.

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