This History Monday will see the introduction of the Dynasty series with a look at the Mutapa Dynasty.
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. 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. This new and rapidly Kingdom would be the final nail in the coffin for the Mutapa state.