Civil War and Theories of Power in Barotseland:
African and Medieval Analogies
It is appropriate to start this description of the Barotse political structure with a myth, since myths reputedly are the stock-in-trade of anthropologists. According to Lozi mythology, the royal family is descended from a daughter of God Nyambe, whom he took as his wife. One of their sons, a member of the Lozi tribe, was out hunting on the plain, which was then inhabited by many tribes, and members of a foreign tribe decided it would be polite to present him with part of their catch of fish. The Lozi were impressed by this propriety, when compared with their own practice of keeping all catches for themselves. So they chose this son of God Nyambe and his daughter to be king and agreed to give him part of their produce. Although God and the wife he created to bear the mother of the first king lie only ten generations back from the present-day king, the Barotse do not think of this as a limited number of generations. I doubt if any of them has ever counted the generations: for the Barotse they cover almost the whole of time. They believe the events narrated in the myth occurred only slightly later than the beginning of creation.
This myth emphasizes that the kingship was established by the people, who themselves undertook the obligation to render tribute. Thus, there inheres an idea of a contract between king and people. The myth also hallows the kingship because the family which claims the kingship is descended from God, mated with his own daughter. All eighteen of the Barotse kings have come from that ancestral origin, by virtue of agnatic descent. 1 It is inconceivable that someone not thus descended from the line of kings should gain the throne. During revolts by pow‐
erful councillors against a king and his favorites, the rebels have had to find an ambitious prince, or even cajole a reluctant prince, into leading them. Hence revolts attacked particular kings, but not the kingship or the rights of the royal family to it. They were clearly rebellions and not revolutions. 2
The princes are very numerous for kings had many wives, though princeliness is lost when a man's tie to a reigning king is more than three or four generations away. Descent through a princess within this range still transmits princeliness, but this female link bars a man from the kingship. Among the agnatic descendants of kings, anyone is eligible to be selected by the national council, but ideally candidates should be the product of a union between a reigning king and a woman on whom one of a number of queenly titles has been conferred. This is the Barotse definition of being born in the purple.
Barotse who can speak English define the kingship as "a constitutional monarchy." The king is supposed to legislate and judge only with the consent of his councils, and to take action only through their members. A simplified explanation of these councils will help demonstrate Barotse ideas about their government. When the king sits in full court, his magnates are seated in three divisions about his throne. On his right sit the most powerful councillors, as well as a number of junior councillors. These councillors‐ of-the-right are said by the Barotse to represent the common people and the commoners' interests in the kingship, which are seen as distinct from the interests of the royal family and the reigning king in that kingship. The reigning king's interests are represented by councillors who sit on his left. I shall refer to these men as the king's stewards, because besides acting as judges and national administrators they, rather more than councillors-of-the-right, have the duty of looking after the king's property, his queens, and princes and princesses. The Barotse refer to them as "wives" or "boys" of the king because,____________________