THE Portuguese enjoyed active commercial and political control with the Mwenemutapa Kingdom by the middle of the 16th Century and had established warehouses and trading centres up the Zambezi River both at Sena and Tete.
However, there was continuing tension between the Portuguese and the Arabs at the time, as the latter were not prepared to relinquish their hard-won position of political and economic privilege easily.
The flashpoint was symbolised, in early 1561, by the murder, which was engineered by the Muhammadans of Mozambique, of Father Silvera, a Jesuit priest at the court of Mwenemutapa Negomo, whom Silvera had succeeded in baptising.
This direct challenge by the Arabs to the Portuguese inspired them to military intervention as a result of which, the first formal treaty was concluded in 1575 between the Portuguese and Mwenemutapa Negomo Sebastião (his baptismal name).
Under the terms of the treaty, the Arabs were to be expelled and substantial mining concessions were to be granted to the Portuguese who could freely conduct trade in the interior and establish missions in which the parish priests were Dominicans.
Subsequent treaties were concluded in 1609 with Gatsi Rusere and in 1629 with Mavura Philippe, who acknowledged himself a vassal of the Portuguese crown.
Superficially cordial, but uneasy, relations prevailed at this time between Mavura and the Portuguese until his death in 1652.
His son and successor Siti Domingos tried to oppose their land-grabbing activities and, in 1663, was brutally killed by, and in collusion with, his rival and younger brother Mukombwe.
During the period 1575 to 1666, the Portuguese were able to effect steady penetration of the territory under Mwenemutapa, and to acquire vast tracts of land through formal concessions, purchase and conquest.
Furthermore, in the 1640s, when Mavura was still alive, the Portuguese were able to penetrate the southern kingdom of Changamire, restoring to his throne the current Changamire driven out by local Arab intrigue.
They then followed up with a mission to evangelise him – a mission that, however, proved futile.
Nevertheless, during this period, the Portuguese succeeded in establishing an extensive network of entrepôrts throughout the interior.
During the early 17th Century, ‘Masapa’, their principal and commercial centre in the interior, was already established by 1575, as was their centre in Manyika undoubtedly also already well established.
By the time of Mavura’s accession to power in 1629, the Portuguese had trading stations flourishing in Ruhanje, Bokoto, Tafuna, Chitomborwizi, Hwangwa and Dambarare in areas under the formal jurisdiction of the Mwenemutapa.
The ‘fiera’/fair of Dambarare was considered “…always the best there was on the rivers.”
The fair of Dambarare was where all the merchants used to go who were then dispersed through other areas as Chitomborwizi, Maramuca, Luanze and Mathafuna.
It was at these centres, rather than at the ruling royal court at MaDzimbahwe, that the Portuguese came into significantly close contact with the various indigenous tribes.
Moreover, all these stations had a mission Church. One of these early areas was called Maramuca by the Portuguese. It was located towards the north, and was said by them to be “…a great kingdom…. and the richest kingdom in gold known.”
In 1663, Mukombwe Affonso succeeded his brother Siti Domingo.
During Mukombwe’s reign, who ruled until about 1692, most uneasy relations prevailed between him and the Portuguese throughout the period. From the 1688s onward, Dombo, the current Changamire, began to manifest aggressive intentions against the Portuguese and their ‘puppet’ emperor.
On the demise of Mukombwe, a usurper, Nyakambiro, seized power at Mwenemutapa and, encouraged by hatred of the Portuguese, prevailed on Changamire Dombo to drive them out from the interior.
Changamire Dombo succeeded in doing this in a military campaign that lasted from 1693 to 1694 and thereby incorporated within his kingdom the entire portion of what is Zimbabwe today, leaving the subsequent Mwenemutapas with a sorry remnant of their empire stretching eastwards from the River Mukumbura to the River Rwenya.
The Portuguese by now openly recognised the political ascendancy of the Changamire Dynasty
A line of Mwenemutapa still continued to control a restricted domain within the sphere of influence of the Portuguese at Tete and Sena, but the authority of this line was drastically impaired by internal feuds throughout the 18th and early 19th Centuries.
The scope of Portuguese trade with the people in the interior depended exclusively on the policy of the ruling Changamires, who were strong enough in some cases to liquidate any puppet Mwenemutapa nominated by the Portuguese and replace them with their own candidates.
In the 1760s, an attempt made by the Portuguese to re-establish their fair/ market at Dambarare proved abortive.
By now, Portuguese contact with the Kingdom of Changamire was limited mainly to the trading caravans manned by the half-caste and indigene personnel they dispatched from Zumbo to the interior when conditions permitted, since, on some occasions, these trading caravans were robbed and the people manning them massacred by vassal chiefs of Changamire, through whose areas they traversed.
During the 1830s, when Portuguese influence was at its lowest ebb on the Zambezi, the Swazi, Shangaan and Ndebele incursions from the south, across the Limpopo River, smashed the Changamire Kingdom.
Plundering, they reached as far north as the middle and lower reaches of the Zambezi River where they reduced the local population to terror and threatened the very base of Portuguese existence in the area.
The increasing decadence and disintegration that prevailed affected the remnant of the Mwenemutapa Kingdom between Zomba and Tete until, by the 1850s, the Portuguese had largely abandoned their prazos and any attempts to control the local indigenous population with whom they had had such long and historic relations.
Ever in pursuit of wealth and power, in the 1880s, Portugal re-established political control of the central and lower Zambezi under the stimulus of new political competition that was threatening from the British and Dutch in the South African republics to the south; and so it was, that in the 1890s, the area of the old Mwenemutapa Empire was effectively parcelled out between the British and Portuguese colonialists.
The rebellion in 1895 put paid to the occupying Ndebele who had conquered the Changamire Kingdom.
Equally, the so-called Barwe Rebellion of 1902 put paid to the last remnants of the Mwenemutapa Empire.
Chioko Dambampute, whose people took active part in that rebelion by the side of Makombe, king of the old Barwe Province, was the last titular Mwenemutapa.
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