APPROXIMATELY 2 000 years ago, Bantu-speaking Africans were conducting the maritime Indian Ocean trade along the East Coast of Africa.
The trade was significantly stimulated after the rise of Islam in the 7th Century by Arab traders who expanded the trade to the interior to MaDzimbahwe.
The visiting Arabs called the African people along the coast ‘Swahili’, which has stuck to them and their descendants.
Arab and Swahili traders plied the routes to MaDzimbahwe with merchandise, such as glass beads, cloth, Chinese celadon and blue-on-white porcelain bowls, in exchange for ivory and gold.
In the 9th -10th centuries, a string of trading city States arose on the east coast of Africa, from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south.
By the 13th Century, these cities were entering a Golden Age of prosperity which lasted throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.
Ships from all over the eastern world – India, Malaysia, Indonesia and as far as China — docked in their harbours bringing silk, cotton cloth, glass beads, porcelain and seashells in exchange for ivory and gold.
Among the most important and powerful of these ports were Mogadishu in Somalia, Malindi and Mombasa in Kenya and Zanzibar and Kilwa in Tanzania.
The most famous and imposing of these ports was Kilwa, situated on a small island.
Kilwa became the main centre of the East-African gold and ivory trade.
From the wealth derived from the control of the gold trade, the ruler built a fine city and a luxurious cliff-top palace from where he presided over the city of Kilwa.
The king also minted a currency of his own.
Much of the gold for this trade came from the inland Korekore people of Zimbabwe – the Shona tribes of the Bantu-speaking peoples.
Gold was integral to Korekore material culture.
At Great Zimbabwe, apart from ornamentation, symbolic ceremonial objects, musical instruments, weaponry and royal accessories were embellished in gold.
The embellishment of these objects with gold was part of a deeper cosmological frame of beliefs.
At Great Zimbabwe, prior to colonial plunder, gold coins from ancient times existed in profusion and re-navigated ancient trade roots.
Their dates yield chronology and their distribution.
Their images serve as unrivaled ‘portrait galleries’ of past visitors to the courts of MaDzimbahwe.
Historically, it is known that due to the abundance of Zimbabwe’s gold, the courts of MaDzimbahwe
maintained extensive trading relations with the East-African Coast, Arabia and the Far East.
This export trade is thought to have started around the 10th Century, when the Shona had been settled in the region for about 1 000 years, raising crops and cattle while becoming skilled miners and iron smiths.
Between the 12th to 14th centuries, the Kore-kore built the city of MaDzimbahwe.
The gigantic structures included advanced technology like stairs for the surrounding stone wall, possibly completed circa 1400, which still exist.
The size and innovation evidence that MaDzimbahwe was an important power in the area at the time.
Situated on the shortest route between the northern gold fields and the Indian Ocean, the kingdom was well-positioned to control trade routes to the Indian Ocean coast for the export of gold and other resources of the central-southern plateau.
A policy of political expansion by the Korekore/Shona began in the 15th Century.
King Mutota, moved his capital from MaDzimbahwe northwards, where he conquered other peoples and acquired the royal title Mwene Mutapa.
He, and then his son Matope, added to the Kore-kore/Shona Kingdom all the land from the edge of the Kalahari Desert in northern Botswana in the west, to Mozambique in the east, excluding the Swahili cities on the coast, to northern South Africa in the south — MaDzimbahwe was the area’s economic and political centre.
Here, the rulers regulated the thriving medieval gold trade.
In about 1490, following Matope’s death, civil wars broke out and the empire became divided into two – one under the Mwene Mutapa in the north, and another in the south ruled from MaDzimbahwe by another Shona Dynasty.
It was under this dynasty, that ruled for over three centuries, that some of the largest buildings were constructed, known today as Great Zimbabwe – from where the modern-day Zimbabwe derives its name.
During the Great Age of MaDzimbahwe’s Changamire dynasties, gold and ornamentation was part of the Shona cosmic view of life for indigenous royal pageantry.
An Arabic Swahili record described the pageant as such: “The kings of Great Zimbabwe blazed forth in lavish splendour surrounded by ornaments and nuggets of gold. The luster of gold symbolically represented the king’s divine visibility that was believed to be as omnipresent as the Ignis fatuus of the moon.”
The Changamire courts of Munhumutapa created a thriving guild of goldsmiths and blacksmiths who created much of the material culture found at Great Zimbabwe. Spears, knives, bangles, amulets and body jewellery, found during colonial excavations of the monument, gives an insight into the relevance of gold in the lives of the Mutapas.
References to gold and golden objects abound in Korekore orature and traditions.
Ndarama (gold coins), ndaza (golden crown) and ndarira (ornamental gold and brass bangles, anklets and amulets) are some of the objects.
Worked gold ornaments reflected the power and authority of the elite rulers.
Ancient musical instruments such as the kore-lore percussion clappers (hwakwati), fashioned in hard wood, were sometimes adorned with gold plating on the handles.
The matepe mbira, made of mutiti (erythrina abyssinia) and the nhare mbira made from mwenje (pteroxylon obliquum/sneeze wood), were also adorned with beaten gold as a way of sanctifying the music for the ancestors and Mwari.
The strands of orature, cultural ceremonies, legends, traditions and craftsmanship of the ancient gold smiths (mhizha dzeutare) are woven into a fabric which is made tangible by the proof of the physical and geological abundance of gold in the country.
The drive for excellence in everything produced was reflected in the artistic work throughout the empire.
In traditional Southern Erythraean culture, as termed in Frobenius terminology, Zimbabwean indigenous culture had sacral kingship as its most important trait; with this kingship, gold was an integral commodity and symbol of divine authority.
To a large extent, mineral prospecting of gold and other precious minerals was blurred by a discreet veil of secrecy purposely designed by the former colonisers under Cecil John Rhodes and the British South Africa Company (BSAC) to protect their excavations and wanton looting of minerals from the indigenous people of Zimbabwe.
Yet as a Korekore elder boldly said: “Veins of gold course beneath the skin of our land and silt in the ebbs and flows of the sands of our rivers.”
According to Elder Tsivo, the first nation Korekore descendants of Munhumutapa I, under the Gushungo royalty, were the primary ancient gold miners of MaDzimbahwe.
The numerous Western references to pre-colonial gold mining in Zimbabwe do not give credit to these early indigenous gold miners who understood the craft of gold extraction from their native land.
In fact, contrary to common belief that early gold mining was the initiative and preserve of the pioneers, there are over 3 500 ancient gold mines in Zimbabwe, of which only 100 were reported to be productive since 1986.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) in Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a gemology scholar and connoisseur.
For views and comments, email: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com