It is rather a daunting task to sort out the way the kingdom of Nkhamanga was organised. The contrasting views by historians give testimony to this. There are those historians who contend that Chikulamayembe exercised both political and economic influence in vast kingdom that stretched from Dwangwa to the south to Songwe River in the north and from Lake Malawi in the east to Luangwa River in the west.
The opposing school of thought challenges the idea of a political kingdom arguing that economic factors were more important than political factors in the state of Nkhamanga. Despite these disputing interpretations of the organisation of the kingdom of Nkhamanga, the theme that runs in most literature is that the Tumbuka, long before the intrusion of immigrant in the 19th century, has been a feeble political organisation where clans were independent of each.
Every clan had a leader who controlled the affairs of that clan in a loose decentralised political system. In this essay, it is argued that the kingdom of Nkhamanga was more of an economic ‘empire’ than a political kingdom. As much as some of these clan leaders were more powerful and could control more than one clan such as the Luhanga clan, absence of a strong centralised political organisation explains that the influence of the state was anchored in the economy. It was the economic activities that expanded the kingdom other than political transformation.
Trade in ivory, animal skins such as lions and leopards and control of trade routes were of greatest concern to Chikulamayembe. These economic factors were very significant because Chikulamayembe was more interested in trade than political control of the local people. Since Mlowoka had arrived in the Tumbuka land, he proved to be a very shrewd business person. His assets accumulated from trade soon earned him the support and respect among the local people.
The politically incompetent local people voluntarily took tribute to the Mlowoka. Mlowoka unlike other immigrants who came to settle in the area did not take advantage of the ignorance of the local people in commercial activities. He went on concentrating on buying ivory, animal skins and organising caravans across Lake Malawi and to the east of Kilwa where he supplied to the Arabs and Swahili traders. Eventually, he usurped political power over the local people. No wonder at the apex of his economic activities, one of his sons , Gonapamhanya was crown the leader of the Nkhamanga and altered the political succession system of the people from Matrilineal to Matrilineal system. As much as Mlowoka had infiltrated and assimilated into the local people to the extent of assuming power, the political system of government was very shaky.
In other words, the political structures of the local people still remained unchanged. The Mlowoka as alluded to elsewhere, was full of activity in the trade activities other than acquiring authority and exercising it over the Nkhamanga people. Even this system which was not changed had been a weak one long before the 19th century immigrants who further weakened it. Though Chondoka reports a kind of centralised system of the Tumbuka before the 19th century in which M’nyanjagha led all the Tumbuka Chiefdoms, he latter contradicts himself by indicating that such chiefdoms voluntarily decided to be subordinated to what I would term the head chief.
This apparently implies that one chief could easily claim independence from the head chief at will. It can equally be inferred that that head-chief could not command political power over these voluntarily subordinated chiefdoms. In this way, it can be argued that the Nkhamanga kingdom had been weak politically speaking. Economically it could have been strong since its history boasts of a very fertile land with high yields. They also fished and made hoes. They engaged in barter trade locally and regionally.
These economic activities were key antecedents for the establishment of an economic ‘empire’ that emerged later on in the 19th century. It thus becomes plausible to argue that the kingdom of Nkhamanga was more of an economic ‘empire’ than a political kingdom. Proponents of the notion that the Nkhamanga kingdom was vast and politically strong, overlook or do not explain the extent of this political influence so that it can be ascertained as to whether it was indeed a political kingdom or not. This is so because the extent of the area can only be explained consistently and reasonably in reference to the economic activities of Mlowoka other than political transformation. Mlowoka had participated in long distance trade which covered such a vast area and not that he had political influence over the people in the area. What is more is that, “No single Mlowoka or a number of Balowoka ever ruled the entire M’nyanjagha kingdom.”
In this scenario the likely correct account that can be given to the vast area covered by the Nkhamanga is left to economic influence of the Chikulamayembe. Therefore, it can be argued that the Nkhamanga kingdom was more of an economic ‘empire’ than a political kingdom. That is the large area covered only signals about the people the Nkhamanga people traded with in trade. For example, the Tumbuka traded with the Bisa and Bemba on the western border, Chewa and the Portuguege especially through the A chikunda in the south, Ngonde in the North Lake shore , Tonga to the east and the Arabs and Swahili from the east coast.
It must also be noted that the Nkhamanga people traded locally. They made clothes from spinned cotton, made castor oil and imported calico, beads, copper bungles through the regional trade6. Hence, it is clear that the kingdom was more marked by the trade activities than politics. Phiri, Kalinga and Bike acknowledges the existence of a linkage of the Nkhamanga people to a trading network that stretched from the Katanga in north west to Kilwa in the east initiated by the Balowoka. In this trading network there was a frail political decentralisation that only led to emergence of trading chiefs.
From this perspective it can be argued that the Nkhamanga Kingdom was more of an economic ‘empire ‘than a political kingdom. Furthermore, the establishment of Chikulamayembe never changed the justice and administrative system of the Nkhamanga kingdom of the natives. For instance, the Chinkhang’ombe cult still continued to be run by the local people.
The Tumbuka language was maintained as the mode of communication and local people never got affected by the trading chiefs politically. Recognising the peace that prevailed in the land of the Nkhamanga and the vast land that was enough to accommodate everyone stand one, it can be deduced that a strong political system was not a necessity. It is pointed out that the Mlowoka barely interfered with the adjacent tribes for example the Ngonde but controlled trade and trade routes such as that of the Bisa in the west of Nkhamanga.
When Mlowoka introduced the taxation system; which probably helped his economic exploits, the judicial authority remained in the sub-chefs with no centralised political power. What is therefore observed is leader engrossed in the economic activities with very fragile political impact on the local people. This shows that trade activities were the pillar to which the Nkhamanga Kingdom anchored.
Moreover, lack of a strong bureaucratic political institution to effectively respond to changes in the patterns of trade over space and time coupled by the increasing numbers of immigrants into the area indicate that there was deficient political power. The political power that would organise large scale planning as regards their kingdom’s sustainability.
Equally related is the failure for the Nkhamanga to resist and expel invaders which suggest a fragile political system of government. This is why it is argued that the Nkhamanga Kingdom was more of an economic ‘empire’ than a political kingdom. When the demand for ivory grew in the east, Mlowoka manipulated the local people and married from leading clans like Luhanga who controlled more than one clan, but their political system was too weak to command expansion and influence that has glued to the Nkhamanga Kingdom.
What is known is that trade other than politics was significant to the Nkhamanga people as seen in their ability to guard their trade routes. Mlowoka would even send leading men to various strategic points to be his regional trade representatives in order to secure the economic interests12. They were “self-sufficient economically but loosely organised politically.” By the end of the day there were more autonomous political units especially in the southern Tumbuka but all prospering in trade.
For example, the Phoka maintained their independence until the colonial era. There was therefore no kingdom under one ruler but rather the area was controlled by commercial representatives who spread the Nkhamanga influence as an economic empire and not a political kingdom. It has to be noted, with all carefulness and critical analysis, that in a politically weak system, there must be factors aligned to economic activities, if not military prowess- which has already seen was feeble, to explain the influence and prestige of the Nkhamanga Kingdom. Morris has argued that in any expansion, whether through plunder or peace could only be feasible if trade were strong in that kingdom.
It would a gross mistake to assume that the Nkhamanga people influenced passive people who easily accepted being controlled. Besides, studies by Msiska challenge the over-generalised view supported by scholars like Vansina, Gray and Birmingham which states that strong economic empires occurred in strong centralised kingdoms. He finds that this was not the case in the Nkhamanga in which absence of strong chieftaincies led to liberalisation of trade among people other than one powerful king monopolising the trade activities. For example, “though Mwaphoka Mwachindika had central authority there was little or no political authority over trade.” It is therefore inferable to argue that the trade activities of the people of Nkhamanga led them to acquire guns from such long distance trade with the Portuguese and the Arabs.
These advanced weapons symbolised a more sophisticated society hence influenced the others. All this followed from the trade activities of the Nkhamanga people. Thus the Nkhamanga state was more of an economic empire than a political kingdom. It has been argued that the Nkhamanga Kingdom was more of an economic empire than a political kingdom. There are two schools of thought one agitating for the notion that the Nkhamanga Kingdom was vast area politically and economically controlled by the Chikulamayembe.
The school dubbed as the revisionists are of the view that the vastness of the kingdom was just exaggerated and romantised to flatter their tribes. They argue that the kingdom had a weak decentralised political system marked by massive economic activities. In addition to that it has been found that the Chikulamayembe was less interested in the organisation the people but rather more interested in the trading activities. It is from this perspective that it has been argued that the Nkhamanga Kingdom was to a lesser extent a political kingdom since some chiefs administered justice and other affairs over other people. Nonetheless, to larger extent the Nkhamanga kingdom was more of an economic empire than a political kingdom.