Like many African countries, the independent people of Zambia chose their country’s name in connection with a need to identify with something uniquely African and resembling their environment.
Before 1964, the territory that is Zambia was known as Northern Rhodesia. It shared boundary with Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
Indeed, Rhodesia itself was a British colony that covered territories in southern Africa which included today’s Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was named after Cecil Rhodes, a private financier of British colonialism and a one-time colonial governor.
Thousands of years before the European invasion, the area was inhabited by the Khoisan people. Anthropologists suspect that the Khoisan, also known as San, are some of the oldest human beings in the world. Today, the San are about 90, 000. But they come from a time 100,000 to 140,000 years ago.
One of the reasons the San could settle and grow in numbers around southern Africa was due to available water sources. The Zambezi is one of such waters.
Geologists say the Zambezi could be as old as two million years. If that is true, it means the Zambezi has literally been watering life for as long as humanity has existed, according to evolutionary science.
After the San, the next major group of people to inhabit the area were the Bantu. The Bantu are a collection of natives in the southern and central parts of Africa whose languages and cultures are similar. They too, and their livelihood was supported by the Zambezi.
The Zambezi translates into “The Great River” according to some Bantu tongues. It is thought that the river was named by the Bisa people of modern Zambia.
There are, however, a lot of academic disputations over what the river should be referred to. It seems that “Zambezi” was the rendition that survived because it is probably the oldest documented name.
Whatever the politics of what the river should be called, the people of the land formerly known as Northern Rhodesia knew and understood that they have been the people of The Great River.
The name Zambia was thus teased from the Zambezi.
Zambia was originally inhabited by hunter–gatherer Khoisan people. About 2000 years ago Bantu people migrated from the Congo basin and gradually displaced them. From the 14th century more immigrants came from the Congo, and by the 16th century various dispersed groups consolidated into powerful tribes or nations, with specific territories and dynastic rulers.
The first Europeans to arrive were Portuguese explorers, following routes established many centuries earlier by Swahili-Arab slave-traders. The celebrated British explorer David Livingstone travelled up the Zambezi in the early 1850s in search of a route to the interior of Africa. In 1855, he reached the awesome waterfall that he promptly named Victoria Falls.
Livingstone’s work and writings inspired missionaries to come to the area north of the Zambezi; close on their heels came explorers, hunters and prospectors searching for whatever riches the country had to offer. In 1890 the area became known as Northern Rhodesia and was administered by the British South Africa Company, owned by empire-builder Cecil John Rhodes.
At around the same time, vast deposits of copper were discovered in the area now called the Copperbelt. The indigenous people had mined there for centuries, however now large European-style opencast pits were being dug. The main sources of labour were the Africans who had to earn money to pay the new ‘hut tax’; in any case, most were driven from their land by the European settlers. In 1924 the colony was brought under direct British control.