Emergence of Luba Governance

Institutions of royalty among the Luba of central Africa were among the earliest and most influential political traditions in medieval and early modern Africa, marking the first centralized state in the Congo region.

Summary of Event

The Luba political system emerged after the fifteenth century among peoples of the grasslands of central Africa, on the shores of Lake Kisale, near the upper Kasai, a tributary of the Congo River. The founders of the Luba kingdom were probably immigrants from the north who spoke a language of the Bantu family. Settlers were initially drawn to the region by the opportunities for fishing in the marshes and streams. [kw]Emergence of Luba Governance (17th cent.)
[kw]Luba Governance, Emergence of (17th cent.)
Government and politics;17th cent.: Emergence of Luba Governance[0060]
Expansion and land acquisition;17th cent.: Emergence of Luba Governance[0060]
Africa;17th cent.: Emergence of Luba Governance[0060]
Congo;17th cent.: Emergence of Luba Governance[0060]

By 1000, the economy of the region was expanding, with fishing communities being joined by farmers who raised sorghum, beans, and millets, and domesticated chickens and goats. The area had significant deposits of iron and salt, which were traded with neighbors who lived downstream. In addition to food production, hunting remained an important dietary supplement as well as a source of prestige for experts.

Economic diversification encouraged significant population growth, which in turn allowed for the social stratification that resulted in the emergence of the Luba kingdom. This is reflected in burials in the region, which by 1000 include copper grave goods, signifying the emergence of individuals with elite status. Since copper is not found in the immediate vicinity, its appearance likely means that trade existed with the mineral rich regions to the south. This suggests that by 1000 a political hierarchy had developed to deal with the challenges of allocating land and water resources, and to protect and foster commerce. Flood-plain agriculture and fishing both necessitated a degree of economic specialization and political centralization that encouraged the emergence of “big men,” or authorities, who could organize and protect access to natural resources. Commerce also flourished best in areas where local leaders could assure the protection of traders and trade routes. Political authority fell naturally to religious leaders, those members of society who maintained connections to the ancestors and to the spirit world. Thus, the early Luba rulers successfully joined religious prestige with political power.

Luba oral traditions attribute the emergence of their political system to the conflict between their first ruler and a magical hunter. The first Luba king was Nkongolo Nkongolo , a mythical figure whose name means rainbow. Remembered as a tyrannical and barbarous ruler, Nkongolo and his people became civilized only with the arrival of a magical hunter named Mbidi Kiluwe Mbidi Kiluwe , a foreigner who attempted to tutor the king. The two men quarreled, leading Mbidi to leave, but not before he had married and impregnated two of the king’s sisters, each of whom bore sons: Kalal Ilunga Kalal Ilunga and Kisulu Mabele Kisulu Mabele . Suspicious of the stranger’s children, Nkongolo tried to kill Kalal Ilunga, who escaped and returned to his father’s village. Kalal returned with an army and overthrew the tyrannical Nkongolo.

This origin myth hints at the important political transformations that took place among the Luba after 1000. Socially stratified chiefdoms appear to have merged into a unitary state sometime during the fourteenth century. During this era, early Luba kings combined existing social institutions with novel political concepts to create a dynamic royal institution. Rulers over a relatively large population, and wealthy in salt and iron resources, the Luba kings established a confederation of tributaries over a wide swath of the eastern savanna, tributaries that recognized the authority and legitimacy of the Luba kingdom.

The Luba royal clan drew legitimacy from their founding myth, and the throne was available only to those who could claim to be descended in a line of male relatives from Kalal Ilunga. Because the great ancestor was believed to have been invested with magical powers, Luba kings also claimed to rule by divine right, which was associated with an inherited magical property called mulopwe. However, all male members of the royal family were expected to rule as chiefs on behalf of their monarch, and the claims of Luba kings did not prevent weak or unpopular rulers from being challenged by rivals. To administer the kingdom, Luba rulers relied on members of the royal family as well as secret societies, social organizations that probably predated the rise of the monarchy and used to monitor the chiefs and their domains.

From its homeland, Luba influence expanded to the north and south along the trade routes linking the rain forest to the north with the copper belt of the southern savanna. The court grew wealthy from the tribute it exacted from neighboring peoples who accepted the authority of the Luba monarchs. Luba power came less from its military force (which was never very formidable) than from the immense prestige of its ruling dynasty. However, the actual influence of the Luba state was limited by the constraints on population and travel that were a fact of life in the region. The prestige of the monarch and his ability to exact tribute from his subjects diminished the farther one got from the Luba center. To assert their authority, Luba kings used a system of spies, administrators, and military men to keep its tributaries in line. Parties of warriors were sent by the king as a last resort to coerce tribute out of recalcitrant village leaders. Such parties also played an important role in disseminating Luba traditions into new regions.

Little is known about the early expansion of the Luba kingdoms. In approximately 1700, the first major expansion of one of the kingdoms began, led by King Mwine Kadilo Mwine Kadilo . Upon his death, after a protracted succession dispute, this ruler’s grandson Ilunga Sungu Ilunga Sungu emerged as the ruler of the greatest Luba state. His raids expanded the wealth and authority of the Luba throughout the region. Some historians see the rapid Luba expansion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as part of a “new” Luba kingdom brought about in part by a shift from matrilineal to patrilineal descent among some Luba communities. Luba political expansion reached its apex in the nineteenth century, and then the Luba rulers fell victim to the encroachment of Arab-Swahili raiders from the East African coast.


The emergence of Luba political institutions transformed the loosely affiliated farmers and fishing peoples who lived in the upper tributaries of the Congo River basin into the first centralized state in the region. Utilizing novel principles of divine kingship, Luba rulers were able to take advantage of a rising population and of economic diversification to claim tribute from and authority over the previously scattered peoples of the central African savanna. Luba governance proved easily adaptable by neighboring peoples. Thus, the most important result of the rise of the Luba dynasties was not in Lubaland itself, but in the adoption of Luba political traditions among the Lunda, their southern neighbors.

Under quite different environmental and geographic circumstances, the adaptation and reformulation of Luba kingship by the Lunda Lunda helped to create one of the most powerful empires of modern African history. The close connection between Luba and subsequent Lunda political traditions has encouraged scholars to speak of a Luba/Lunda political tradition. Lunda expansion in turn gave rise to other “copycat” states, such as Kazembe, which lies several hundred kilometers southeast of the Lunda heartland, or the more distant Bemba of Malawi, whose oral traditions also speak of Luba/Lunda origins. Thus, the emergence of Luba governance played a role in the rise of dynastic states throughout the central African savannas.

Further Reading

  • De Heusch, Luc. The Drunken King: Or, The Origin of the State. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982. A structuralist comparison of central African oral traditions that treats Luba creation myths extensively.
  • Edgerton, Robert B. The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. Edgerton provides a thorough and complete history of the Congo region, from the arrival of the Portuguese in the 1500’s through the twentieth century.
  • Ehret, Chris. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002. A textbook that relies heavily on linguistics and archaeology in its reconstruction of Luba history and regional influence.
  • Gondola, Ch. Didier. The History of Congo. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. A survey of Congo’s history, covering the Kuba and other kingdoms and peoples. Provides, also, biographical sketches of key figures in the region’s history.
  • Reefe, Thomas. The Rainbow and the Kings: A History of the Luba Empire to 1891. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. The only monograph devoted entirely to Luba history.
  • Reefe, Thomas. “The Societies on the Eastern Savanna.” In History of Central Africa, edited by David Birmingham and Phyllis M. Martin. Vol. 1. New York: Longman, 1983. Reefe continues his examination of the Luba kingdom and other societies of the region.
  • Vansina, Jan. Kingdoms of the Savanna. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. The definitive work on state formation in central Africa, by an author of dozens of books on central African precolonial history, art, and politics.

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