History Monday: Summary of the Kingdoms of Zimbabwe

This History Monday will mark the end of the Kingdoms of Zimbabwe series. A summary will be given of  the history of the Kingdoms of Zimbabwe

The earliest settlement of the area now known as Zimbabwe goes back about 100.000 years. Since then the area has been home to many great kingdoms and states. Great Zimbabwe was famous for its large stone structures. Other kingdoms include the Mapungubwe, Mutapa, Rozvi and Ndebele. In the 1880s the country became a British colony, called Southern Rhodesia, which lasted until 1965 when the white minority declared independence from Britain to avoid having majority rule. After this the country was known as Rhodesia. In 1980 the country gained independence after a 15 year long Civil War. Zimbabwe has since 1980 been led by Robert Mugabe.

Early History of Zimbabwe

The country which is now known as Zimbabwe does not have one single history, nor was it a single geographical entity before the colonial occupation by the British Empire. There were throughout history many different peoples, kingdoms and polities which inhabited the land. The earliest archaeological evidence of human settlements in the area dates back about 100.000 years. Arrowheads and other artefacts point to San people being the first inhabitants of the area. They lived mainly of hunting and gathering food, and were to a large degree nomadic peoples moving from place to place. This meant that they had little in the way of material possessions, but at the same time gave them a mobility which meant that as soon as food ran out they could move to a richer and more fertile area. Some academics argue that this life style meant that they lived in relative abundance. The San people created rock paintings, many of which are still found across Southern Africa.

It is estimated that around 150 BCE cattle herding people from the north began to settle in the area. They spoke languages belonging to the Bantu linguistic group, and are often referred to as Bantu speaking peoples.  Some of the San peoples migrated west to present day Botswana, while others integrated into the Bantu speaking communities. By about 400 CE the Bantu speaking peoples had established farms and village along rivers in central Zimbabwe. These peoples made a variety of jewellery and goods, as well as growing several different kinds of crops. The names of the earliest Bantu-speaking peoples in Zimbabwe is not known, but it is thought that many moved away because of droughts and a long period with a shortfall of rain.

Around 900 CE a people known as the Zhizo people had moved into southern Zimbabwe, in the area around the Shashe-Limpopo basin . This area is also known as Mapungubwe. Mapungubwe was at the time to dry for extensive agriculture, but could sustain cattle herding and large packs of elephants. The Zhizo people would hunt elephants for ivory which was a valuable trade good at the time. They would trade up the eastern coast of Africa as far as the Swahili coast of present day Tanzania. Through this trade the Southern African region was, by the 900s, connected in a system of trade which stretched all the way to Persia and India. In return for the ivory the Zhizo people would get glass beads which could in turn could be traded for grain by successful farmers in other more fertile areas. It is argued that it was in part accumulation of goods through successful trade which meant that some people had enough wealth to create for themselves positions of power. This created the first stratified polity in southern Africa, and began a process in which more power and wealth would be accumulated by a few families. This meant that where before the different kin-groups had internal power structures, yet had a high level of equality between each other, now there was a kin-group establishing itself as above the other. This is thought to have been the origin of hereditary kings in the area . Some argue that there was a similar process of stratification and centralisation of power happening in several locations, such as Mapela and Khami, in the same period.

The location of the first known larger settlements in Zimbabwe. Source: Chirikure, Shadreck., Manyanga, Munyaradzi., Pollard, Mark., Bandama, Foreman., Mahachi, Godfrey., Pikirayi, Innocent. 2014. “Zimbabwe Culture before Mapungubwe: New Evidence from Mapela Hill, South-Western Zimbabwe” in PLOS ONE 9(10): e111224. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111224.

The Zhizo people would be in control of the area and prosper through trade for a hundred years until about 1000 CE. It was at this time that a Kalanga (Western Shona) speaking people which is known as the Leopard Kopje, or Karanga, people migrated to the area. They settled in several locations around the Shashe-Limpopo basin, but the most prominent settlement was at Mapungubwe Hill. Many Zhizo people would migrate away from the area, but the Zhizo people and the Leopard Kopje people would greatly influence each other, and many Zhizo people would become part of the new communities. Some Zhizo settlements remained in the area as late as the thirteenth century. By 1220 the settlement at  Mapungubwe Hill is estimated to have sheltered between 1500 and 2000 people. It is around this time that the settlement at Mapungubwe Hill begins to be known as the Kingdom of Mapungubwe. The settlement was organised so that the royalty would live on top of the hill in a enclosure separated from the rest of the community. Archaeological evidence shows that there was a large herd of cows in Mapungubwe at the time showing the great wealth which had been accumulated.

The Kingdom of Mapungubwe would last for another 80 years, until early 1300. During this time large stone walls were constructed which separated the entrances to areas for elites by building stone walls, some of which still stands today. The walls created a material distinction between the royal elite and common people. It was at this time that the political leadership came to be seen as sacred. At the height of the Kingdom the settlement at Mapungubwe is estimated to have had a population of about 5000 people. After 1300 people began to abandon Mapungubwe after erratic weather and flooding made it difficult to farm in the area. The climate changes would also have the effect of  weakening the royal dynasty as the King was seen as sacred and responsible for the weather. This movement away from the city would be the end of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe. With the decline of Mapungubwe another centre of power would emerge in the settlement of Great Zimbabwe

Kingdom of Zimbabwe and Great Zimbabwe

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe formed around the city of Great Zimbabwe and came about through a similar process as that of Mapungubwe. It is debated whether the system was set up and inspired by migrants from Mapungubwe or whether Zimbabwe established a similar social organisation independently. It is certain, however, that both Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe were founded by Kalanga speaking people. The first low stone walls of Great Zimbabwe was built in the 1200s and that it was at this time that the city became an important centre of trade and cultural production. Previously it has been thought that Great Zimbabwe only came about after the fall of Mapungubwe, but recent archaeological research shows that Great Zimbabwe was already a place of great importance when Mapungubwe began its decline.

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe. Image source

At its largest the city of Great Zimbabwe housed an estimated 18.000 people and the stone walled parts of it covered about 78 ha of land. This makes it by far the largest of Zimbabwe’s early stone walled cities. The city was made on a hill, which made it easier to defend against invasions, and it had walls dividing royalty and ordinary citizens. Much like with Mapungubwe the walls served to remind people of the elevated status of the royal dynasty. The Kingdom arouse out of the city of Great Zimbabwe between 1220 and 1290. The Kingdom consisted of the city of Great Zimbabwe and about 150 smaller tributary settlements which were allied with and paid tribute to the royal dynasty. The name “Zimbabwe” is derived from either one of the two Shona terms: dzimba dza mabwe (great stone houses) or dzimba woye (esteemed houses).

Trade was an important part of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. Much like with the other kingdoms in the area Zimbabwe was connected to a vast network of trade which went up the east African coast and stretched as far as India. It is thought that the most important port in this trade network was first the city of Mogadishu in present-day Somalia, and later Kilwa, south of Zanzibar. Zimbabwe traded gold, ivory and leopard skins.

By the 1400s Great Zimbabwe was in decline. An increasing amount of people were migrating away from the city, and after 1450 the city, and the Kingdom, had been reduced to a minor settlement and shadow of its former self. The reason for the decline was that, much as what had happened to Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe had lost its importance to other centres of trade and power such as the city of Khami. It is also speculated that a change in climate and a natural disaster might have been the cause of the exodus from Great Zimbabwe.

At around 1430 Nyatsimba Mutota, a prince of Great Zimbabwe made the journey north, either to secure further trade routes from Arab-Swahili influence, or to gain control over vital salt deposits. As he arrived in the southern part of the middle Zambezi valley he and his followers conquered the Tawara peoples and founded the Mutapa Kingdom. A minor civil war broke out in the Kingdom of Zimbabwe sometime in the mid to late part of the 1400s and as a result a new Kingdom, the Torwa Kingdom was established in the south-western parts of Zimbabwe. By 1550 Great Zimbabwe had lost all autonomy and become a vassal of the Mutapa Kingdom.

The Mutapa Kingdom

A core factor in the growth of the Mutapa Kingdom was the large standing army which they used to exact tribute from neighbouring polities. This army was recruited amongst the nyai, the poorest young men who did not own any cattle to get a wife nor land. Their only way for them to start a family was to do military service with one of the noble households. Once their military service was done they would receive a wife from their patron. The army was not compensated by their patrons in any other way, and would often survive by robbing merchants and raiding neighbouring towns.

The Mutapa Kingdom was established around 1430 when, Nyatsimba Mutota, a prince of Great Zimbabwe made the journey north, either to secure further trade routes from Arab-Swahili influence, or to acquire salt deposits according to other sources. His capital was Zvangombe, close to the Zambezi River. The rulers who came after him also used the Monomutapa title and they conquered other lands and peoples, expanding the Kingdom. Monomotapa is a Portuguese conversion of the title Mwenemutapa (Owner of the conquered land), and Mutapa meaning (Territory). In the Shona language, kutapa means conquering and Mwenemutapa would mean ‘one who conquers’. The title, Monomotapa came to be applied to the kingdom as a whole, and was used to indicate its territory on maps of the period.

Mutota’s successor was Monomutapa Matope Nyanhehwe Nebedza. He extended this new kingdom into an empire encompassing most of the lands between Tavara, through what is now North Central Mozambique up to the Indian Ocean. The Monomutapa became very wealthy through copper and ivory exploits. (Although some historians argue that much of the power of the royalty was because of their monopoly on trade, while others dispute the very idea that the Kings of Mutapa ever had a monopoly on trade) As a result of the great wealth and their large standing army, the Mutapa kingdom subjegated the kingdom of Manyika, the whole of the Dande area and 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 arrival of the Portuguese had a significant effect on the Mutapa Kingdom however. Relations ranged from one of allies to that of Mutapa being a Portuguese vassal. The Portuguese would weaken the Mutapa Kingdom by pitting different claimants to the kingship against each other and thus creating instability in the Mutapa state.

In 1663 the Mutapa Makombwe became king of the Mutapa Kingdom. In 1674 after extensive warfare he managed to drive the Portuguese out of their fortresses and farms in the coastal interior. This severely weakened the power and influence of the Portuguese in the area [l]. The conflicts with the Portuguese had weakened the Mutapa state as well, however, and a new and powerful Kingdom the Rozvi was emerging from the South-western part of the Zimbabwean plateau [li]. This new and rapidly Kingdom would be the final nail in the coffin for the Mutapa state.

The Rozvi Kingdom

The Torwa Kingdom was established by the Torwa royal dynasty in the 1490s as a result of a civil war between different royal dynasties in the area around Great Zimbabwe. It was one of the two successor states to the Kingdom of Zimbabwe (the other being the Mutapa Kingdom). As a result of the internal strife and succession struggles the Torwa fled southwards and settled in Guruhuswa region.  They settled in around the capital city of Khami. Khami, much like Great Zimbabwe, would emerge as a centre of trade where gold and ivory was traded for glass beads, china and other goods from Asia and Europe. The leadership structure of the Torwa was that any decendant of the King could succeed to the throne. This created a an unstable ruling system, and in 1644 the Torwa split in two during a civil war. The split caused the capital of Khami to be abandoned, and a new capital was established in Danangombe.

At the end of the between 1670 and 1690 a cattle owner in the Mutapa Kingdom, Changamire Dombo, put together an army and rebelled against the Mwami Mutapa (King of Mutapa). Dombo would attack Portuguese merchants and raid the Mutapa Kingdom as well. He then set up a Kingdom in the area previously controlled by the Torwa dynasty (who were severly weakened by internal conflict), and made the recently established Danangombe the capital of the new Rozvi Kingdom. With the establishment of his Kingdom Changamire Dombo moved his army north and counqured the central parts of the Mutapa Kingdom, reducing the latter to a small chieftancy west of Tete. In 1684 and in 1693 he won a victory against the Portuguese in the battle of Mahungwe and the battle of Dambarare. when the colonial power attempted to take control of gold mines in the interior of Zimbabwe. By 1695, Changamire Dombo’s new Kingdom had replaced the Mutapa as the supreme kingdom in the region.  After the death of Changamire Dombo that same year his successors would take up the title Mambo.

The Rozvi Kingdom at its greatest extent. Source: S. I. Mudenge, “The Role of Foreign Trade in the Rozvi Empire: A Reappraisal”,The Journal of African History, Vol. 15, No. 3 (1974), pp. 373-391. Page 376.

The succession of the Rozvi Kingdom was organised in a manner so that the eldest brother to the King would become the next Mambo. Although there were exceptions to the rule, Changamire Dombo was for example succeeded by his son. It is thought that the strict guidelines for succession laws were one of the reasons why the Rozvi Kingdom had a greater internal stability than Torwa dynasty and Mutapa Kingdom (which were both riddled with succession struggles). The Mambo had a lot of authority, but he would also have to rule with the guidance and approval of his council, the Dare. In addition to this there existed a hereditary duty of the dynasty of Tambare (a noble family) of settling electing a ruler when there was no clear heir, and to collect tribute. The Tambare  would be a check on both the excesses and power abuses of the Kings.

A prominent factor in the success of the Rozvi Kingdom was the establishment of a large and well organised standing army. The army could muster up thousands of men, and could sustain heavy losses while still continuing to be operational. The army would be organised into different regiments, each with their own commander. The Rozvi could field an array of different weapons such as spears, axes, clubs, bows, and sometimes guns. The army fought in formations which resembled those of Shaka Zulu, and they are said to have favoured close combat. The army made sure all vassal chiefs paid tribute and stayed loyal. Through collusion with religious authorities called Mwari cults the Kings of Rozvi kept control of their population and gained legitimacy through being seen as blessed by the gods.

By the early 1800s the Rozvi Kingdom had been severely weakened. The conflicts, migrations and political upheaval known as the Mfecane was destabilising the whole region at the time and the Rozvi Kingdom was not ready to withstand the external pressures. By this time the Mwari cult and the royal dynasty were in conflict, which threatened the legitimacy of the King, and civil wars within the dynasty itself had depleted the once powerful Rozwi military. There were several different peoples who migrated through Rozwi lands. Some, such as the Sotho of Mpanga, the Ngwana Maseko Ngoni, Zwangendaba’s Ngoni, and the Nguni of Nyamazana, attacked the Rozwi Kingdom further weakening the power of the ruling dynasty. Last of the migrating peoples to the area was the Ndebele people who arrived in 1838-39 under the leadership of Gundwane. They settled in the south-western parts of present-day Zimbabwe. The Rozwi and the Ndebele were intermittently in conflict, but both Kingdoms existed for another 20 years. Many Shona people from the Rozwi Kingdom would settle in Ndebele villages over these years.

The struggle between the Ndebele and Rozwi was both militaristic and economic. The Ndebele had raided much cattle since they had settled in the area and the Rozwi had lost most of their cattle due the many raids in the early 1800s. The Rozwi needed cattle and the Ndebele needed people. As a result of this many young people from the Rozwi Kingdom moved to Ndebele lands and came to work for them in exchange for cattle. This exchange of cattle and people helped spread the Ndebele influence in the area. By this point the Rozwi ruling dynasty had retreated to the hills in the east, and they could not hold on to power long. The only choice was to fight back. The Rozwi dynasty attacked the Ndebele and a struggle ensued from 1854 to 1854. The war was a disaster for the Rozwi and in 1857 they surrendered to the Ndebele.

The Ndebele Kingdom

The Ndebele were descendants of the Khumalo people who lived under the rule of Shaka in present day South Africa around KwaZulu-Natal. They migrated into present-day Zimbabwe during the Mfecane around 1838. The name Ndebele is suspected to have come from the association with the short stabbing spears used by their warriors, which is called Litebele/kimatebele/Tebele by the Sotho-Tswana. The first leader of the Ndebele in Zimbabwe was Gundwane, but his dynasty did not last long. The Ndebele was plagued by infighting after his death which halted their expansion in the 1840s. After the death of Gundwane another group of Ndebele entered the area under Mzilikazi Khumalo, who would quickly seize power over the local Ndebele people. From 1811 to 1842 was a period in which the Ndebele focused on nation building and consolidating previous gains. This process was led by Mzilikazi and reached the Ndebele in Zimbabwe by the 1840s.

Mzilikazi is thought to have been born around 1790 in contemporary South Africa. He was the leader of the Khumalo clan and served under Shaka Zulu until they had a falling out at around 1822. He fled north after this and came to contemporary Zimbabwe where he seized power over the Ndebele there from Gundawe in 1838-39. Mzilikazi then began to conquer the various peoples and villages surrounding his Kingdom.  Despite coming as conquerors and raiders the Ndebele would adopt many of the local customs and many of the local people already living in the area would assimilate into Ndebele villages. Some did this (as explained above) through the economic pressure due to a lack of cattle outside of the Ndebele state. One of the traditions which was the Ndebele took on was the Mwari cult.

By 1866 the once powerful Rozwi Kingdom had completely surrendered to the Ndebele. Mzilikazi died in 1868 and in the succession crisis from 1868-72 which followed his son Lobengula became the new King. Some historians argue that Lobengula needed the Mwari cult and the legitimacy they provided for his ascension to power. In 1873 the Ndebele was a consolidated state and at the height of their power. He needed this legitimacy as he did not have the legitimacy as a conqueror which his father enjoyed. The power of the Ndebele Kings were also reliant on the distribution of cattle and materials in exchange for services. This created a complex client-patron relationship between the people and the ruling elite. Land was not owned by anyone, but simply distributed by the King to anyone who needed it at the time. Cattle on the other hand was guided by two modes of ownership, one was communal and one was private.

King Lobengula son of Mzilikazi. Source: http://www.thepatriot.co.zw/old_posts/the-struggle-for-land-in-zimbabwe-…

The late 1800s was a time when the European colonial powers were increasing their efforts to conquer the African continent. By 1885 during the Berlin Conference European leaders had settled which Eurpoean nations would control what parts of Africa and the scramble for Africa had begun. There was of course a difference between drawing borders on a map and actually controlling the area. The British begun their incursions into the area in the 1880s, but the Portuguese had made several attempts to conquer resources inland since the 1600s. In exchange for wealth and arms, Lobengula approved several franchises to the British. The most far reaching one was the 1888 Rudd concession giving Cecil John Rhodes exclusive mineral rights in much of the lands east of his main territory. Rhodes used this concession to obtain a royal charter (a formal document issued by the British monarch granting him rights and power) to form the British South African Company in 1889.

Lobengula thought that the arms and ammunition he received from the concession would help him repel the European invaders. Not only was Lobengula pressured by British incursions however, but the Portuguese was also giving a large amount of fire arms to smaller chiefs and kings in the area to undermine his authority. The large amount of fire arms made some of the smaller vassal chiefs of the Ndebele Kingdom more defiant. In June 1893, Lobengula sent warriors down to Fort Victoria (now Masvingo) to put down the rebellion led by a Shona chief in the area who had refused to pay tribute. In previous years the King of Ndebele had been cautious to not attack any of the white colonisers in the past, but the colonial authorities had for the previous three years looked for an excuse to begin a full scale war with the Ndebele. With the 1893 punitive raid they had that excuse. The colonial authorities claimed that they were in command of the area and any disputes should be settled by them. The Ndebele were met by soldiers from Fort Victoria who demanded that they left, the Ndebele leadership refused, and a struggle which left an unknown number of casualties ensued. This was the beginning of the First Matabele War.

In October 1893 the British colonialists attacked the Ndebele forces who was weakened since many of their soldiers had been sent off to attack King Lewanika of Barotseland, who was a puppet of the British authorities. The Ndebele could not hold back the colonial conquerors who advanced through their lands, pillaging, looting and burning as they went. The aim of the British colonial forces was to conquer the capital of the Ndebele Kingdom, called Bulawayo, and to kill or kidnap the King. The idea was that if they could capture the King then he would have to surrender the Kingdom. However, when the British reached Bulawayo November that same year, the city had been burned to the ground by its inhabitants and King Lobengula had fled north. The British chased after Lobengula as he moved north, and in the process a Ndebele force ambushed a patrol headed by Alan Wilson, and killed him and the 34 soldiers who came with him.

In early 1894 Lobengula died of an illness and with him crumbled much of the Ndebele resistance. The reason for this was that the King was an essential aspect of Ndebele identity and especially unity. The King was the house (indlu) which held up the roof (uphahla). Not long after this the conquest of the Ndebele people was complete, and by 1895 the whole country of Zimbabwe was a British colony. The colony was named Rhodesia after Cecil Rhodes who was instrumental in its creation.

Great Zim 1




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