Kingdom of Luba

Luba shown in the lower middle of map in blue.

The Kingdom of Luba or Luba Empire (1585-1889) was a pre-colonial Central African state that arose in the marshy grasslands of the Upemba Depression in what is now southern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Origins and foundation

Archaeological research shows that the Upemba depression had been occupied continuously since at least the 5th century AD. By the 6th century, fishing people lived on lakeshores, worked iron, and traded palm oil. Soon they began trading dried fish to the inhabitants of the adjacent forest regions.

By the 10th century, the people of Upemba had diversified their economy, combining fishing, farming and metal-working. Metal-workers relied on traders to bring them the copper and charcoal that they needed in smelting. Traders exported salt and iron items, and imported glass beads and cowry shells from the distant Indian Ocean.

The Luba Kingdom was founded by King Kongolo Maniema around 1585. His nephew and immediate successor, Kalala Ilunga, expanded the empire over the upper left bank territories of the Lualaba River. At its peak, the state had about a million people paying tribute to its king.

Luba Empire


The kingdom of Luba's success was due in large part to its development of a form of a government durable enough to withstand the disruptions of succession disputes and flexible enough to incorporate foreign leaders and governments. It was based on the twin principles of sacred kingship and rule by council. The Luba model of governing was so successful that it was adopted by the Lunda Kingdom and spread throughout the region that is today northern Angola, northwestern Zambia, and southern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Law and order were handled by the king, known as the Mulopwe, with the assistance of a court of nobles known as Bamfumus. The kings reigned over their subjects through clan kings known as Balopwe. The diverse populations of the Luba were linked by the Bambudye, a secret society that kept the memory of the Luba alive and taught throughout the realm.


The Mbudye tradition states that all of the rulers of the Luba Empire traced their ancestry to Kalala Ilunga, a mystical hunter credited with toppling the cruel ruler known as Nkongolo. This figure is also credited with the introduction of advanced iron forging techniques to the Luba peoples. Luba kings became deities upon their deaths, and the villages from which they ruled were transformed into living shrines devoted to their legacies.

The Luba heartland was dotted with these landmarks. Central to Luba regalia for kings and other nobles were mwadi, female incarnations of the ancestral kings. Staffs, headrests, bow stands and royal seats featuring this subject represented the divine status of the ruler and the elegant refinement of his court.


The Luba Kingdom kept official "men of memory" who were part of a group called the Mbudye. They were responsible for maintaining the oral histories associated with kings, their villages and the customs of the land. Parallels to these kinds of officials can be found in neighboring kingdoms such as Kuba and Lunda.


The local economy led to the development of several small Luba kingdoms. Luba traders linked the Zaire forest to the north with the mineral-rich region in the center of modern Zambia known as the Copperbelt. The trade routes passing through Luba territory were also connected with wider networks extending to both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts.

With the formation of the Luba kingdom, the economy was complex and based on a tribute system that redistributed agricultural, hunting and mining resources among nobles. The ruling class held a virtual monopoly on trade items such as salt, copper, and iron ore. This allowed them to continue their dominance in much of Central Africa.

Arts and beliefs

Further information: Luba art

As in the Kuba Kingdom, the Luba Kingdom held the arts in high esteem. A carver held relatively high status, which was displayed by an adze (axe) that he carried over his shoulder. Luba art was not very uniform because of the vast territory which the kingdom controlled. However, some characteristics are common. The important role of woman in the creation myths and political society resulted in many objects of prestige being decorated with female figures.

Headrests and staffs were of great importance in relation to beliefs about prophetic dreams and ancestor worship. Dreams were believed to communicate messages from the other world. Therefore, it was common to have two priestess figures adorned on a headrest on which one slept. Luba staffs, usually owned by kings, village chiefs or court dignitaries, were also carved with dual or paired female figures. Single figures on art pieces, specifically staffs, represented deceased kings whose spirits are carried in a woman’s body.

Among the Luba, the name "Nkole" appears at the head of every genealogy. It is an honorific title, with the literal meaning of "the essentially powerful." It was given to the three most distant patriarchs and inserted symbolically in all genealogies.

In Baluba tradition, the "Kasala" is a well-defined form of slogans or free-verse poetry. It is chanted or recited, sometimes with instrumental accompaniment, by both men and women who are professional specialists. It dramatizes public events that call for strong emotions, such as courage in battle, collective joy at official functions, and bereavement at funerals. In both style and content, the kasala by itself is a quite diverse genre along with proverbs, myths, fables, riddles, tales and historical narratives.


The prestige attached to the lineage of the sacred kings was enormous, and rulers of small neighboring chiefdoms were eager to associate themselves with Luba culture. In return for tribute in goods and labor, these less powerful rulers were integrated into the royal lineage and adopted the sacred Luba ancestors as their own. Luba courtly traditions, including artistic styles and sculptural forms, were also passed along to client states.


Ultimately, long-distance trade destroyed the kingdom of Luba. In the 1870s and 1880s, traders from East Africa began searching for slaves and ivory in the savannahs of central Africa. Tempted by the lure of quick profits, European colonists (particularly Belgians) began raiding the empire for slaves, beginning the rapid destruction of the Luba Kingdom. In 1889 the empire was split in two by a succession dispute, ending the empire as a unified state. The empire was later absorbed into the Belgian Congo Free State.

See also


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