A Short History of Zambia

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Zambia

At the time of Christ, the inhabitants of Zambia were Bushmen, Stone Age hunters, and gatherers. They hunted antelope with bows and arrows. They also snared smaller animals, they collected fruits and nuts and gathered caterpillars and locusts. They lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle and made windbreaks from stones and branches, or if they were staying in one area for a season they made huts of bent poles and thatched grass.

In about the 4th AD century, a new wave of Bantu-speaking immigrants arrived from the north. They were farmers and they had iron tools and weapons. The farmers grew sorghum and beans as well as bananas and yams. They raised herds of cows and goats. They also did some hunting with iron-tipped arrows. The farmers also made pottery.

They lived in small villages of a dozen or so houses and each little village was more or less self-sufficient. The farmers made huts of poles and lathes arranged with a central enclosure where the cattle and goats were kept at night. The men were buried in this enclosure when they died.

The farmers practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. They moved on when they had exhausted the soil. The farmers seem to have lived peacefully alongside the bushmen for centuries.


By the 11th or 12th centuries, a more advanced Iron Age culture called the Luanga culture had arisen. The original farming villages were mainly self-sufficient but by the 12th century long-distance trade was flourishing.

One trading center was called Inge-ambe-Ilede (the place where the cow lies), near the confluence of the Zambezi and the Kafue. Cotton weaving, ivory carving, and metalwork were all carried on there. Copper was made into bracelets or it was made into crosses, which were used as currency. The population rose and political units grew larger.

By 1500 organised kingdoms arose. Chewa in the east, Lozi in the west, Bemba, and Lunda in the north were the largest of these. In the 16th century, some men were buried with gold beads. The rulers also had glass beads from the Indian Ocean coast.

Europeans Arrive in Zambia

By 1500 the Portuguese were sailing around the coast of Africa (although they did not penetrate far inland). They brought new foods from the Americas, maize, and cassava.

From the 7th century, the Arabs took slaves from Africa. The Portuguese also took slaves. They offered African rulers goods in return for slaves. So African tribes raided other tribes to capture slaves to sell to the Portuguese. However, the people of Zambia had no direct contact with Europeans until the 19th century.

In the early 19th century Shaka, the Zulu ruler, began conquering neighboring peoples. He displaced whole peoples across southern and central Africa. The effects were felt as far north as Zambia. One tribe fled from their home in South Africa. Their leader named the tribe after his favorite wife, Kololo. In the 1830’s they crossed the Zambezi and marched to the area north of Victoria Falls. Later they marched west and subdued the Lozi kingdom of the Upper Zambezi. They founded the Kololo kingdom. (Later, in the 1860s the Lozi managed to regain control of their territory).

Yet another people, called the Ngoni left Shaka’s domain in the 1820s. They crossed the Zambezi in 1835 and went as far north as Lake Tanganyika. Later they settled in east Zambia. The Ngoni lived partly by raiding other tribes or raiding traders’ caravans.

The first European to visit the area was David Livingstone. He traveled there in 1851. He visited the Kololo kingdom and saw the nobles wearing British cloth that had been sold to Africans by the Portuguese in Angola. He was also the first European to see Victoria Falls. Livingstone formed a mission in the Kololo kingdom but it failed because most of its members died.

Livingstone wished to convert the Africans and also wished to put an end to the slave trade. He knew the Africans wanted European goods and would sell slaves to get them. He hoped he could replace the slave trade with legitimate commerce. He knew the Africans grew cotton and there was a great demand for it in Europe. There was also a European market for ivory (it was used to make keyboards and snooker balls). Livingstone hoped he could persuade the Africans to sell cotton or ivory to the Europeans in return for their goods instead of selling slaves.

The idea failed because goods would have to be taken to Mozambique for export. Unfortunately, a gorge in Mozambique made the river unnavigable and it was too difficult to transport goods by foot.

The Beginning of British Rule in Zambia

After Livingstone Zambia was left to go its own way for 35 years. It came under British rule in the years 1889 to 1901 due to the efforts of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). In 1889 Rhodes set up the British South African Company (SAC) to exploit minerals in southern and central Africa. The British treasury refused to finance colonies in Africa. However, Rhodes and his company made treaties with African tribes allowing them the right to prospect for and mine minerals.

Once the British started mining in African territory they gradually took it over. Lewanika, king of the Lozi in west Zambia sought British protection from another tribe the Ndebele. There were also rivals for his throne and he thought having a British representative at his court would strengthen his position. He also hoped the British would set up schools and educate his people. He dealt with a representative of the SAC in the mistaken belief that he was talking to a representative of the British government.

The king allowed them to mine in his kingdom and agreed that British nationals in his territory in return for 2000 pounds a year and protection from the Ndebele. But the British did not deal decisively with the Ndebele until 1893 when they raided the Lozi again. Furthermore, no money was sent until 1897 no British representative was sent to his court until the same year. Rhodes and his men made treaties with other tribes in 1891-1894. These included the Tabwa, Lungu, and the Mambe.

However, the Bemba and the Ngoni refused to negotiate and they were conquered by force. At first, the Bemba held their own against the small number of British troops sent against them. But the Bemba lived by raiding long-distance caravans. As the Europeans took over more and more of Africa these caravans ceased. Without them to prey on the Bemba grew weaker. Finally, in 1898 a French Catholic missionary declared himself king of the Bemba and welcomed the SAC’s soldiers into the capital. In the southeast, the Ngoni were defeated by British machine guns.

The British then took Ngoni land and cattle and forced the men to become wage laborers. However, Rhodes and his men did not find great mineral wealth in Zambia. They found some copper oxide, a kind of copper ore at or near the surface, and some zinc but nothing like the number of valuable minerals they hoped they would find. (Below the copper oxide was a vast amount of copper sulfide, a different type of ore but this was not discovered till the 1920s). So the British imposed a hut tax. Every able-bodied man had to pay the tax in cash. That meant that many men were forced to work as wage laborers in Zimbabwe or South Africa. Uprisings against the tax were suppressed by force. If any man defaulted his hut was burned and if he was caught he was imprisoned.

However, only a small number of Europeans came to live in the new colony. There were only about 3,000 in 1914. Most of them lived in a strip of land beside the railway that ran north to south through the middle of the colony. They lived on farms worked by African laborers. However many Indians came to work as traders and craftsmen in the colony. They were seen as ‘middlemen’ between the Europeans and the Africans.

Zambia in the early 20th Century

Livingstone was founded in 1905 when a railway bridge was built across the Zambezi. (A railway was built north from Rhodesia. It reached Zaire in 1909). Residents of a settlement called Old Drift then moved to the site. At first, Zambia was divided into 2 parts. They were called Northwest Rhodesia and Northeast Rhodesia. After 1907 Livingstone was the capital of Northwest Rhodesia. In 1911 the 2 halves were united to form one colony and Livingstone became the capital. Lusaka was founded in 1905 to serve a lead mine at Kabwe. (It became the capital in 1935). Ndola was founded in 1904.

Zambia, or North Rhodesia as it was called, suffered severely in World War I. Some 3,500 Zambians joined the armed forces to fight against the Germans in Tanzania (which was then a German colony). Between 50,000 and 100,000 Zambians joined the British army as porters. Worse much grain and many cattle were impounded for military use.

Attitudes toward the Africans had changed by 1923 (in Britain anyway) and company rule was no longer acceptable to the British government. So in that year, Zambia was made a crown protectorate. In 1925 a legislative council was formed but the franchise effectively excluded blacks. Nevertheless, in 1929, the British colonial secretary declared that in the future the interests of the Africans were paramount. Unfortunately, his words made very little difference to the lives of ordinary Africans.

The fate of Zambia changed dramatically in the late 1920s when rich underground deposits of copper and cobalt were discovered. Kitwe was founded as a copper mining center in 1936. By 1939 Zambia was the world’s main source of copper and was potentially a rich country. By 1930 there were about 30,000 African miners in Zambia and about 4,000 white miners who did the skilled and managerial jobs. In the early 1930s, demand for copper fell but the price of copper rose between 1935 and 1937 and the workforce expanded.

Furthermore, the number of white people in Zambia rose sharply after copper was discovered. There were about 13,000 of them by 1939, 3 times the 1930 figure. Many of these whites came from South Africa.

In the early 20th century the British government hoped that large numbers of whites would come and settle in Zambia. They, therefore, divided the land into 2, some for whites and some for Africans. However, the expected influx of whites did not happen. Most of the land set aside for them remained empty. However, so much land was set aside for whites that the Africans were left short. This and the need to pay taxes meant most of the Africans were forced to become wage laborers for whites. By 1936 it was estimated that 60% of able-bodied men in Zambia were working away from home. About 60,000 were employed in Zambia often as miners. Many more worked on plantations in Zimbabwe or Tanzania.

The large numbers of men working in the mines had an important social effect. It tended to weaken tribal bonds. Miners tended to see themselves as miners, foremost, rather than belonging to this or that tribe. And they began to organize themselves. There were no African trade unions in the 1930s but in 1935 the African miners went on strike spontaneously. There were also riots. The army was sent to suppress them. Six miners were killed and 22 were wounded.

In 1940 the white miners went on strike and forced their employers to give them better conditions. Although they still did not have a trade union the Africans decided to follow their example. Again there were riots, which were suppressed by force. This time 17 miners were killed and 64 were wounded.

However, in 1948 the African miners founded a proper trade union. So did the African railwaymen in 1949. The existence of African trade unions was a major threat to British rule.

There were other signs of change in the 1930s. The missionaries had been providing schools since the late 19th century. In the 1930s the British government began to provide them. There was a growing number of educated Africans working as clerks, traders, and teachers and they too began to organize themselves. They formed welfare associations. By 1933 there were ones in Abercorn, Kasama, and Fort Jameson. At first, the welfare associations campaigned against local injustices but later they began to campaign for independence. In 1946 14 of them joined to form the Federation of African Societies of North Rhodesia (the old name for Zambia).

There were also changes in the way the colony was ruled in the 1930s and 1940s. After 1930 the British adopted a policy of indirect rule. African chiefs were given a role in local administration. After the riots in the copper belt in 1935, the government formed urban advisory councils to give urban Africans an ‘advisory’ role in the way their towns were run. Furthermore in 1943 African provincial councils were formed. They were made up mainly of traditional chiefs but they did contain some elected members.

Finally, in 1946 an African Representative Council was formed; 25 members were elected and 4 were appointed by the paramount chief of Barotseland (in the west of Zambia). In 1948 some Africans were appointed to the legislative council. In 1949 the first real in when the African Nationalist Congress (ANC) was formed from the welfare associations first begun in the 1930s.

The white settlers viewed these settlements with alarm. In 1936 the Europeans in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe began to conspire to keep their power. They decided the best way was to form the 3 different colonies into 1 territory. They believed that would enable them to control the Africans more easily. In the 1940s they campaigned vigorously for unification but they were strongly opposed by the Africans.

Then in 1953, London enforced a compromise. The 3 colonies were not united into one. Instead, they were formed into a federation. Each of the 3 colonies had its own government responsible for local administration and ‘native affairs’. A federal parliament was formed with authority over matters involving more than 1 colony and over foreign affairs. Of the 35 MPs, 6 were to be African, 2 from each colony (although in Zimbabwe only whites were allowed to elect the African MPs!). The African MPs were given the power to query any legislation they considered racist and send it to London to be either approved or vetoed.

However, in 1957 and 1958 the federal parliament passed legislation that would increase the number of African MPs but would also reduce the franchise so that the majority of voters were white! The African MPs sent this legislation to London but it was approved. During the period 1953-1963 the Federal government ‘creamed off’ the revenues from Zambian copper mines and spent very little on the colony. (White Zimbabweans made no secret of the fact that they regarded Zambia as a resource to be exploited).

The only large development in Zambia at that time was the Kariba dam, which was built for hydroelectricity in the years 1955-59. A lake formed behind it in 1960-61 and 50,000 people had to be resettled. Also, many wild animals were rescued in Operation Noah. New towns appeared. Chingola was founded in 1943 and Kalushi was founded as a company town for miners in 1953. It became a public town in 1958.

Although copper was Zambia’s main export by the 1950s there was also a large gemstone industry. Beryl, rubies, sapphires, and other precious or semi-precious stones were all mined. Meanwhile, the white population continued to grow rapidly and it reached 50,000 by 1955. By then they formed about 3% of the population. Many of these new immigrants came from Britain. They often enjoyed a higher standard of living than they had in post-war Britain with its shortages and rationing. In the late 1950s, the average salary for a white worker was 2,071 pounds a year. For a black worker, it was 203 pounds a year.

In 1958 the governor introduced a new constitution for the colony. The leader of the ANC accepted it, which provoked a split in the organization. The more radical members broke away and formed the United National Independence Party (UNIP). After 1961 Kenneth Kaunda led it. White settlers were facing a losing battle. For one thing, the number of educated Africans was increasing. After 1953 they were allowed to fill managerial jobs in the 2 main mining companies.

Furthermore, the African miners went on strike for 58 days in 1955 and they won a victory. They were becoming better organized. Also, world opinion was turning against imperialism. In 1960 the British prime minister said there was a ‘wind of change’ blowing through Africa. The British government realized that independence for African countries was now inevitable.

Independent Zambia

However, the white settlers did not give up easily. In 1961 the British secretary of state of colonies proposed a constitution for Zambia, which would guarantee African control. The white settlers pressured him into altering it to give them control. Kaunda threatened to ‘paralyze’ the government unless the new constitution was changed back. He called for peaceful protests but there were violent uprisings and sabotage. This upheaval was called the cha-cha-cha. The British government eventually gave in. The constitution was amended to give the Africans a small majority in the parliament.

In 1962 elections were held and ANC and UNIP formed a coalition in a transitional government while the colony prepared for independence. The Federation of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi was dissolved in 1963.

In January 1964 UNIP won an election and Kaunda became Prime Minister. In that year Alice Lenshina, head of the Lumpa church led a rebellion. Kaunda used force to suppress it. About 700 people were killed. Zambia became independent on 24 October 1964 with Kaunda as president. The new country faced many problems. There were only about 100 native Zambians with university degrees and a lack of qualified people to run the country. Zambia lacked infrastructure and schools. Also, 90% of Zambia’s foreign earnings were from copper. So Kaunda drew up a development plan for 1965-69. He devoted vast resources to the public sector (health and infrastructure and also to a lesser extent education).

The number of children in primary school doubled between 1964 and 1972. The number of secondary schools rose from 14,000 to 61,000 in the same period.

At first, industry grew rapidly. However, the economy did well in the 1960s and 1970s mostly because of the high price of copper. After 1974 the price of copper dropped. That caused great harm to the Zambian economy which was largely dependent on copper.

Furthermore, in 1967 Kaunda declared his policy of ‘humanism’ a strange mixture of Christian ethics and socialism. This policy was unsuccessful. The government took a 51% stake in 26 companies, including, in 1969, the 2 main mining companies. In the late 1980s, it was estimated that 80% of the economy was made up of state-run enterprises but these nationalized industries were wasteful and inefficient.

In 1965 sanctions were imposed on Zimbabwe and Zambia stopped importing goods from that country. But in retaliation, the Zimbabweans stopped supplies of petrol from being transported through their country to Zambia. Petrol rationing was introduced in Zambia. Petrol was flown in or brought in through Tanzania. Furthermore, in 1968 an oil pipeline was built across Tanzania to Zambia. A railway from Zambia to the coast of Tanzania was opened in 1974. Meanwhile, Zambia was used as a base by guerrillas fighting a war in Zimbabwe.

Kaunda’s grip on power began to slip in the late 1960s. In the 1969 election his party, UNIP, saw its majority reduced. Furthermore, in 1971 Simon Kapepwe accused Kaunda of treating the Bemba unfairly. He formed a rival party, the United Progressive Party or UPP, based among the Bemba. Kaunda feared that his 2 rivals, the ANC and the UPP would ally to fight the 1973 election. So in 1972, Kaunda banned opposition parties. They were regionally based so Kaunda accused them of being ‘tribalist’ (i.e. of putting tribal interests before national ones). Some opposition leaders were imprisoned. Others were persuaded to change sides by offering them well-paid jobs. The opposition groups were either dissolved or absorbed into UNIP.

In the 1973 presidential election, Kaunda was the only candidate. Voters could vote either yes or no. Kaunda won the election easily. In another election in 1978, Kaunda won an 80% yes vote but in 1983 it fell to 60%.

However, in the 1960s and 1970s, a bloated bureaucracy was created. It soaked up resources. Worse unqualified people were given important jobs. People were given jobs because of their loyalty rather than their skills. Worse they were frequently changed. Between 1964 and 1986 there were 12 ministers of finance and 9 central bank heads. Such frequent changes of people at the top made it very hard to have consistent policies.

Worse the Zambian economy was heavily dependent on copper. From the mid-1970s, the price of copper fell – with disastrous results for Zambia. The country was forced to borrow money and Zambia got more and more into debt. In the mid-1980s, Zambia was forced to accept IMF adjustment programs, which were painful for the Zambian people. In 1985 the IMF demanded they reduce civil service manpower by 25%. They also demanded cuts in price subsidies, which provoked riots. In 1985 austerity measures provoked riots at Lusaka University and strikes. More riots followed in 1986 when food subsidies were removed. Twenty people were killed when security forces suppressed the riots. In 1987 Kaunda broke with the IMF but this provoked strong international criticism. In 1988 Kaunda was forced to accept a new agreement.

Living standards fell for most people during the 1980s and 1990s and by 1999 inflation was in triple digits. As the economy deteriorated the churches and trade unions led the growing opposition to Kaunda. In 1990 there were more riots following a doubling of the price of staple foods. Eventually, in June 1990, Kaunda lifted a ban on organized groups. In July the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy or MMD was launched. Kaunda also agreed to hold a referendum on whether to keep his one-party system. However, the MMD was not satisfied. They demanded multi-party elections.

Facing increasing opposition from churches and unions Kaunda gave in and called a multi-party election in October 1991. The MMD won 125 out of 150 seats. In the Presidential election, Frederick Chiluba won 81% of the vote.

The new government abandoned the failed policy of ‘humanism’. In the early 1990s, Zambia agreed to a structural adjustment program. This included phasing out food subsidies and allowing prices to be set by the market.

It also meant privatizing state-owned industries. Privatization began in 1994 and 2000 70% of the largest mining company was sold. Meanwhile, inflation fell from triple digits in 1990 to 25% in 1999. However, during the 1990s Zambia was struck by floods and later by droughts. As a result, economic growth fluctuated. In some years the economy grew. In others, it contracted. Zambia also faced the problem of the AIDS epidemic. By 2000 it was estimated that 10% of the population had either AIDS or HIV. This was on top of the hundreds of thousands who had already died and the thousands of orphans.

In the 1990s developed countries canceled some of Zambia’s debts and in 1999 the price of cobalt rose.

Zambia in the 21st Century

In 2005 the G8 group of rich nations agreed to cancel Zambia’s national debt (with effect from January 2006). Furthermore, in the early 21st century the Zambian economy grew rapidly. Copper mining remained the most important industry in Zambia but there was also some mining of other metals such as silver, zinc, cobalt, and lead. Zambia also has potential for tourism with its national parks and Victoria Falls. Zambia is still a poor country but it is developing rapidly.

In 2024 the population of Zambia was 19 million.

Last revised 2024