PRIOR to the start of the 15th Century, a group from the Korekore royal clan, the renowned stone masons, occupied, in substantial numbers, the south-west of what is now Zimbabwe.
Symbolic of their power and prestige was the massive elliptical stone structure of MaDzimbahwe that ruled from the fringes of the Kalahari to the west and north-west, to the north and north-east on the central plateau, and further north to the southern part of the Zambezi Valley and east-wards to the Ruenya River beyond which the BaTonga held extensive territory south-east to within 50 miles of the Zambezi estuary.
The people, living in stockade villages of thatched mud dwellings and granaries, were mainly small-scale peasant farmers and experienced cattle breeders, and practised the ancestor-cult introduced by their forebears from the Great Lakes regions in the north.
The people were organised into a number of territorial fiefs for administration and land-tenure purposes, under one central control – Munhumutapa.
It was a federal empire, with all other centres reporting back to them – it was the central bank of the empire.
At the start of the 15th Century, resulting from Portuguese intrigues to take over the empire’s gold and trading routes operated mainly by North African Arabs, the Munhumutapa Empire came under the central control of the aggressive military group, the VaRozvi.
Influences exerted on the empire by the network of trading stations established by the Arabs, at least two centuries before, was considerable and had penetrated the interior from their commercial centres on the east coast of Africa, and south to Sofala in Mozambique.
In return for Munhumutapa’s gold, the Arabs supplied the nobility with imported textiles and beads, as well as, to a limited extent, oriental porcelain and glassware.
But commercial intercourse and social influences are indissociable, while the degree of subtle and pervasive influence exerted by the local mediators of Asiatic cultures on the social tastes, concepts, ideology and motivations of the elite within whose midst they lived and transacted trade should not be underestimated.
Stimulated by overpopulation in the empire and scarcity supplies of salt, around 1440, Mutota launched a major military campaign designed to secure the vast area bound by the Kalahari Desert, the Zambezi, the Indian Ocean and the Limpopo River. However, the fundamental cause that really prompted Mutota and his councillors into action was the mood of Arab strategy in the face of resolute attempts by the recently arrived Portuguese to oust them from their trade monopoly in the empire.
Consequently, towards the middle of the 15th Century, the Arabs conceived and instigated, in the minds of the Rozvi military, a desire for empire which, if translated into reality, was calculated to furnish them with an effective umbrella under which to expand the scope and security of their operations in the Empire’s hinterland.
In fact, by the start of the 16th Century, there were already an estimated 10 000 Arabs established in the Kingdom.Mutota marched north at the head of a formidable army and, by 1450, all, except the eastern fringes of what is now Zimbabwe, had fallen under his control; with the Arabs following in his train.
Cloth was required to pay his soldiers and retain their services; thus, they exploited his dependence and extended their commercial network to the middle reaches of the Zambezi. Mutota died before he realised his full ambition. It fell to his son and successor, Matope, to fulfil his father’s formidable vision.
Over a period of 30 years, Matope moved single-mindedly from area to area with his armies, until finally he succeeded in conquering, unopposed, right up to the Indian Ocean, south of the Zambezi estuary, leaving undisturbed the Arab entreports at Sena, Kilimani and Sofala. The southern provinces of Mbire and Guniuswa he entrusted to two Rozvi vassals, Torwa and Changa.
The newly won eastern and south-eastern provinces, he placed in the hands of his sons and trusted relatives.
The northern provinces adjoining the Zambezi Valley, he retained under the immediate control of his brother and himself; replacing the homeland in the south as the centre of political authority.
Thus, came into being the golden, but short-lived, era of the vast feudal domain created by Matope and his father Matope Mwenemutapa, after whom the Arabs called it ‘Wiläyatu ‘LMu’ änamutäpah’ and the Portuguese called it ‘Imperio do Monomutapa’.
Over extended lines of communication, political intrigue within the ruling elite and lack of ethnic and cultural homogeneity in the conquered provinces gave rise to a sense of community apathy with the central power that was destined to rapidly disintegrate the new empire into its component parts. Already, prior to Matope’s death (c.1480), Changa had taken advantage of the virtual isolation of the southern provinces to imperceptibly transform his position with the co-operation of Torwa into that of an independent ruler.
Upon the death of Matope, Changa began to openly flout the authority of his son and successor Nyahuma, and inspired by the title ‘Amir’, flatteringly accorded to him by the Arab advisers, adopted the dynastic title ‘Changamire’ to emphasise his separatist policy regarding the Mwenemutapa paramouncy.
This led to a head on collision, resulting in the death of Nyahuma in battle (c.1490) and the usurpation by Changamire of the seat of the empire for a period of four years.
Kakuyo Komunyaka, son of Nyahuma, succeeded in staging a military come-back and killed the usurper, thus regaining formal control of the empire.
Changamire’s son and successor was only able to retain control of the southern provinces of Mbire and Guniuswa that became de facto independent of the empire.
By a strenuous diplomatic campaign, the new Changamire was partly able to detach the eastern and south-eastern provinces from loyalty to the Mwenemutapa, who was left with effective domain over what now is the southern half of Zimbabwe and a strip of territory varying in size and depth, running east and then south-east down to the Indian Ocean.
This was the political situation which the Portuguese verified after their initial establishment in 1505; a situation in which they became progressively involved in pursuit of their policy to supplant the Arab trade monopoly of the interior. Economic motivations led the Portuguese, by gradual stages, to involvements of a military, social and evangelical order.
Documents relating to contacts of Portuguese administrators, soldiers, explorers, missionaries and merchants from the early 17th Century onwards, trace in some detail the progressive reduction of the Mwenemutapa Empire and the separatist movements executed by most of its component provinces — all for the sake of power and wealth.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail: linamanucci@ gmail.com