History Monday: Mutapa Empire (c.1450 – 1629) Part 2

This History Monday will continue with the Mutapa Empire series

Decline and collapse

During the fifteenth century, the Mutapa maintained unity and managed to restrict Portuguese attempts to gain control of the “markets and trade routes,” exercising “effective sovereignty”. Mutapa proved invulnerable to attack and even economic manipulation due to the mwenemutapa’s strong control over gold production. What posed the greatest threat was infighting among different factions which led to opposing sides calling on the Portuguese for military aid. In 1607 and 1629, Mutapa signed treaties making it a Portuguese vassal and ceding gold mines, but none of these were ever put into effect. Another problem was that Mutapa’s tributaries such as Kiteve, Madanda and Manyka ceased paying tribute. At the same time, a new kingdom called Barwe was the rise. All of this was hastened by Portugal retaining a presence on the coast and in the capital. At least one part of the 1629 treaty that was acted on was the provision allowing Portuguese settlement within Mutapa. It also allowed the praezeros to establish fortified settlements across the kingdom. In 1663, the praezeros were able to depose a sitting mwenemutapa and put their own nominee on the throne.

Butwa invasion

By the 1600s, a dynasty of Rozwi pastoralist under the leadership a changamire (king) were leading transforming the Butwa kingdom into new regional power. The Rozwi not only originated from the Great Zimbabwe area, but still resided there and built their capital towns in stone. They were also importing goods from the Portuguese without any regard for the mwenemutapa. By the late seventeenth century, Changamire Dombo was actively challenging Mutapa. In 1684, his forces encountered and decisively defeated those of Mwenemutapa Mukombwe just south of Mutapa’s metro district. When Mukombwe died in 1693, a succession crisis erupted. The Portuguese backed one successor and Dombo another. In an act which effectively made Mutapa a Butwa vassal, Changamire Dombo razed the fair-town of Dembarare next to the Mutapa capital and slaughtered the Portuguese traders and their entire following. In 1695, Changamire Dombo over-ran the gold-producing kingdom of Manyika and took his army east and destroyed the Portuguese fair-town of Masikwesi. This allowed him complete control of all gold-producing territory from Butwa to Manyika, supplanting Mutapa as the premier Shona kingdom in the region. The reign of the last mwenemutapa to rule from the rump state ended in 1698, and his position was never filled. Remnants of the government established another Mutapa kingdom in Mozambique that is sometimes referred to as Karanga. The Karanga kings styled themselves Mambos (singular Mambo) and reigned in the region until 1902. This is referred to as the Second Mutapa State.

Kings of the First Mutapa State

    • Nyatsimba Mutota (c. 1430–c. 1450)
    • Matope Nyanhehwe Nebedza (c. 1450–c. 1480)
    • Mavura Maobwe (1480)
    • Mukombero Nyahuma (1480–c. 1490)
    • Changamire (1490–1494)
    • Kakuyo Komunyaka (1494–c. 1530)
    • Neshangwe Munembire (c. 1530–c. 1550)
    • Chivere Nyasoro (c. 1550–1560)
    • Chisamharu Negomo Mupuzangutu (1560–1589)
    • Gatsi Rusere (1589–1623)
    • Nyambo Kapararidze (1623–1629)
    • Chimbganda matombo (1634-1698)


Kings of the Second Nutapa State

  • Cangara II (1803-1804)
  • Mutiwapangome (1804-1806)
  • Mutiwaora (1806)
  • Cipfumba (1806-1807)
  • Nyasoro (1807-1828)
  • Cimininyambo or Kandeya II (1828-1830)
  • Dzeka (1830-1849)
  • Kataruza (1849-1868)
  • Kandeya III (1868-1870)
  • Dzuda (1870-1887)
  • Cioko Dambamupute (1887-1902)


Mutapa as Ophir

The empire had another indirect side effect on the history of Southern Africa. Gold from the empire inspired in Europeans a belief that Munhumutapa held the legendary mines of King Solomon, referred to in the Bible as Ophir.

The belief that the mines were inside the Munhumutapa kingdom in Southern Africa was one of the factors that led to the Portuguese exploration of the hinterland of Sofala in the 1500s, and this contributed to early development of Mozambique, as the legend was widely used among the less educated populace to recruit colonists. Some documents suggest that most of the early colonists dreamed of finding the legendary city of gold in Southern Africa, a belief mirroring the early South American colonial search for El Dorado and quite possibly inspired by it. Early trade in gold came to an end as the mines ran out, and the deterioration of the Mutapa state eliminated the financial and political support for further developing sources of gold.


For several centuries, this trading empire enabled people across a large territory to live in peace and security under a stable government and succession of rulers. With primary records dating back to 1502, the empire is a “prime testing ground for theories … concerning economic, political and religious development” in pre-colonial Africa. Beach comments that the Mutapa was one of only four Shona states that was not entirely “uprooted by new settlements of people” and the only one “close to Portuguese centers” thus providing important data on contact and relationships between this and other Shona states as well as with Europeans. The Mutapa Empire is an example of a working system of government in Africa and of a flourishing civilization, both of which are often assumed to have been absent before the coming of the Europeans.

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