History Monday: Mutapa Empire (c.1450 -1629)

The Kingdom of Mutapa Empire (Shona: Wene we Mutapa; Portuguese: Monomotapa) was a medieval kingdom (c. 1450-1629) which stretched between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers of Southern Africa in the modern states of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. A second Mutapa polity existed from 1803 until 1902. Its founders are culturally and politically related to the builders who constructed Great Zimbabwe. In the early seventeenth century, the Portugal Portuguese arrived in the area eventually colonizing what is now Mozambique. After gaining control of the Monomotapa in the early years of the century they were later driven out after a defeat in 1693. Rumor associated Monomotapa with the fabled city of the Biblical Queen of Sheba. The high plateau area does in fact have rich gold deposits. This may explain why early European maps of Africa often identify the territory. The empire was largely built on trade exporting copper and ivory. Initially, the Portuguese took part in this trade by transporting goods further to the East, to India.

The Empire gave stable government to many people across a large territory for a century and a half. It represents a pre-colonial African polity that flourished before the coming of European rule. Written sources dating from 1502 make study of this Empire an important but neglected field. The Mutapa empire may not have been the equal of contemporary European empires in technology but its craftsmen produced high quality artifacts while trade was carefully regulated with set measurements and standards to ensure fairness. Knowledge of this empire, built up through commerce more so than conquest, can help to construct a balanced story of where, when and how human societies have flourished.


The name Mutapa means “the conquered lands.” The mwene (bantu term for “lord,” specifically a conquering king) was the title giving rise to the state being referred to as Mwene Mutapa. This phrase has been preserved in documents as Munhu mu tapa, Manhumutapa, and the Portuguese, Monomotapa.


Towers of Great Zimbabwe.

The origins of the ruling dynasty at Mutapa go back to some time in the first half of the 15th century. According to oral tradition, the first “mwene” was a warrior prince named Nyatsimba Mutota from a southern Shona kingdom sent to find new sources of salt in the north. Prince Mutota found his salt among the Tavara, a Shona subdivision, who were prominent elephant hunters. They were conquered, a capital was established 350 km north of Great Zimbabwe at Mount Fura by the Zambezi.


Mutota’s successor, Matope, extended this new kingdom into a great empire encompassing most of the lands between Tavara and the Indian Ocean. The Mwenemutapa became very wealthy by exploiting copper from Chidzurgwe and ivory from the middle Zambezi. This expansion weakened the Torwa kingdom, the southern Shona state from which Mutota and his dynasty originated. Mwenemutapa Matope’s armies overran the kingdom of the Manyika as well as the coastal kingdoms of Kiteve and Madanda. By the time the Portuguese arrived on the coast of Mozambique, the Mutapa Kingdom was the premier Shona state in the region.


The religion of the Mutapa kingdom revolved around ritual consultation of spirits and a cult of royal ancestors. The ancestors advised the kings through mediums appointed by the court. Known as “mhondoros” these mediums maintained Shrines within the capital. The mhondoros also served as oral historians recording the names and deeds of past kings. Local lords, fumos, usually relatives of the king, were appointed to administer the provinces. Over time, some of these “lords” became hereditary.” The King was “Lord of the Sun and the Moon, King of the Land of the Rivers and Conquerors of Enemies.” Natural resources were thought to have been created by Mwari, the deity and could only be “exploited with the approval of the Mutapa, Mwari’s earthly representative and custodian.” When approaching the King, arms had to be left outside the city, and approach on bare feet.

Portuguese contact

The Portuguese dominated much of southeast Africa’s coast, laying waste to Sofala and Kilwa, by 1515. Their main goal was to dominate the trade with India, however, they unwittingly became mere carriers for luxury goods between Mutapa’s sub-kingdoms and India. As the Portuguese settled along the coast, they made their way into the hinerland as sertanejos (backwoodsmen). These sertanejos lived alongside Swahili traders and even took up service among Shona kings as interpreters and political advisers. One such sertanejo managed to travel through almost all the Shona kingdoms, including Mutapa’s metropolitan district, between 1512 and 1516.

The Portuguese finally entered into direct relations with the Mwenemutapa in the 1560s. They recorded a wealth of information about the Mutapa kingdom as well as its predecessor, Great Zimbabwe. According to Swahili traders whose accounts were recorded by the Portuguese historian João de Barros, Great Zimbabwe was an ancient capital city built of stones of marvelous size without the use of mortar. And while the site was not within Mutapa’s borders, the Mwenemutapa kept noblemen and some of his wives there.


The Portuguese also left information about the capital of Mutapa. They paint a far different scene than that of Great Zimbabwe. The capital was built north of the granite outcrops that had supplied Great Zimbabwe and was composed mostly out of clay, wood and thatch. It was surrounded by a wooden stockade that could be walked around in an hour. Within there were three public enclosure. One was where the mwenemutapa held court, another housed his wives and courtiers whom numbered some 3000 and the last for pages and bodyguards recruited among the young unmarried men throughout the kingdom. These men would later serve as soldiers and administrators. According to Chanaiwa, the empire was loosely knit together and its unity depended on the “charisma, well-being and political wisdom of the ruling Mutapa.” The Mutapa did not intervene needlessly in the lives of his subjects. He appears to have realized that if the people enjoyed a reasonable living standard and a stable society, their loyalty could be expected.


The Empire engaged in importing goods as well as in exporting them. Imports included such luxury goods as silk, ceramics and glassware. Gold and silver was made into bracelets “and other insignia of rule” by local craftsmen. A cloth known as Machira woven from local cotton was draped over the ruler’s throne as a symbol of his kingly rule. Gifts were given by the king to officials and regional governors to ensure their loyalty. Trade was centrally regulated, with weights and measures controlled by the court. The Mutapa also regulated “the volume of local produce on the international market” to maintain “a favorable balance of trade.”

The accidental crusade

In 1561, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary managed to make his way into the mwenemutapa’s court and convert him to Christianity. This did not go well with the Muslim merchants in the capital, and they persuaded the king to kill the Jesuit only a few days after the former’s baptism. This was all the excuse the Portuguese needed to penetrate the interior and take control of the gold mines and ivory routes. After a lengthy preparation, an expedition of 1,000 men under Francisco Barreto was launched in 1568. They managed to get as far as the upper Zambezi, but local disease decimated the force. The Portuguese returned to their base in 1572, and took their frustrations out on the Swahili traders whom they massacred. They replaced them with Portuguese and their half-African progeny whom became prazeiros (estate holders) of the lower Zambezi. Mutapa maintained a position of strength exacting a subsidy from each Portuguese captain of Mozambique that took the office. The mwenemutapa also levied a duty of 50 per cent on all trade goods imported.




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