History of land and agriculture in Zimbabwe: Part 21…political, economic and technology development


FOR centuries, the southern part of Central Africa remained virtually untouched by Europeans.
The Portuguese were the first to colonise this area of Africa in the 16th Century, prior to the arrival of other European explorers, missionaries, ivory hunters and traders 300 years later.
In 1482, Portugal had established Elmina, its first African trading outpost, in modern day Ghana.
The first British explorers and missionaries arrived in the 1850s, soon to be followed by early colonists.
The arrival of Cecil John Rhodes’ pioneers in 1890; the granting of a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria of England and the formation of the British South Africa Company (BSAC) that followed led to the widespread influx of settlers.
White immigration to Rhodes’ new territory began modestly but intensified during 1900 to 1910 following the Second Boer War and an economic slump in the Cape (South Africa) that motivated many white South Africans to move north to Southern Rhodesia.
The BSAC’s land settlement programme encouraged further permanent immigrants into the country; registering 12 586 whites in 1904 and 23 606 in 1911.
The population in Southern Rhodesia in 1927 comprised 922 000 indigenous and 38 200 white people.
White mining and farming industries, during this period, advanced extensively.
But human history in Southern Africa began millennia earlier; reaching back to the first signs of humanity on the planet.
The first upright-walking hominids had well-established themselves in the savannas of southern and eastern Africa nearly four million years ago.
As climatic conditions became more favourable, organised hunting and gathering societies were established, which began to make the first tools.
By the middle Stone Age, 20 000 years ago, these hunter-gathers had established themselves into well-knit familial communities.
Stone Age implements and pebble tools have been discovered by archaeologists in several areas of present-day Zimbabwe, together with remains of early humans, dating back 500 000 years, that evidence human habitation in Zimbabwe for many centuries.
The first of these inhabitants were most likely nomadic, adaptable San groups, progressively absorbed by Khoi-Khoi grazier societies that gradually transmuted into a culture known as Khoisan.
These were this land’s earliest settlers, dating back to 200 BC.
By the late Stone Age, indigenous communities were occupying rock shelters and caves all over southern Africa; many are still in evidence today.
As people conquered one another, struggles for survival prevailed over land for 900 years; with successive waves of people from northern equatorial regions overcoming the region’s original inhabitants.
The ruins of stone buildings built between the 9th and 13th centuries AD, are proof of the early Shona civilisation in the region.
These early Shona pastoralists were the first occupants of the great sites in the country; the most impressive of these is the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, located near Masvingo, after which the country is named.
Just as the land God promised to Abraham — ‘from the River of Egypt to the great River Euphrates’ — so the fertile plateau between the rivers of Zambezi and Limpopo offered rich opportunities to the early indigenous inhabitants.
The lush grasslands made excellent grazing for their cattle and other livestock.
The tusks of old, dead elephants were gathered for trading with Muslim merchants along the Indian Ocean coast that helped to develop the great settlement states established by these early agrarian cattle-herding people.
Mapungubwe was the earliest Shona settlement-state.
An important trading centre in southern Africa, established on the banks of the Limpopo River by cattle-herding agriculturalists, whose increasing prosperity led to the rise of a sophisticated ruling elite with a population of about 5 000 people at its height.
In 1075, the ruler of Mapungubwe moved his court to the top of a sandstone hill, where he ruled from a palace of imposing stone walls.
Owing to a nutritious diet, the people at Mapungubwe were healthy, and life was centred on clan, family and farming.
Skilled craftsmen produced iron tools, distinctive pottery, glass beads as well as body ornaments, copper bangles and figurines of humans and domesticated animals in solid gold.
They traded ivory for glass beads imported by traders via the East African Coast.
The original development of the kingdom of Mapungubwe later culminated in the creation of the Kingdom of Madzimbahwe and other smaller unique sites; the distinctive dry stone masonry is an outstanding feat of architecture, built between the 9th and 13th centuries AD.
This latter kingdom was established by a ruler known as the Munhumutapa (keeper/trader of slaves); a title adopted by all successors.
Strategically positioned on the edge of the Central Plateau, the power and wealth of Madzimbahwe was derived from agriculture and the control of the trade in gold and other resources, to the Indian Ocean coast as their predecessors at Mapungubwe had done.
Exploiting the mineral wealth of their land, the people initially traded with their neighbours; ultimately establishing a large network through the area prior to developed long-distance ocean trade with Asia and the Middle East with land routes to ports on the East African coast.
Arab and Swahili merchants plied these routes with commodities such as glass beads, cloth, Chinese celadon and blue-on-white porcelain vessels which they barter-traded for copper, ivory, iron, gold, meat and hides.
Unlike other continents, some parts of Africa receive insufficient rainfall to grow large amounts of surplus domesticated crops; thus, population densities in these areas remained low as land could not produce enough food to support larger populations.
As a result, pre-colonial civilisations were often more mobile societies; moving to more fertile land or closer to water supplies when necessary.
This was particularly true in the Sahel and desert regions of West Africa as well as eastern and southern regions of the continent, but not in Zimbabwe.
Here there was abundant agriculture, animal husbandry, mining and commerce which were instrumental in the formation of formidable kingdoms.
Trade offered the ability to exchange local surpluses for rare foods and goods. Tribute for goods sold or passing through the territory was also obtained by the kingdom state.
Primarily dependent on cattle and farming activities, the early indigenous people of the area cultivated various small grains and other crops on the middle and high velds, with generally wet micro-climate, while large cattle herds were tended in the mopane woodlands and lower grasslands.
Agricultural fertility was ensured by way of rain-asking ceremonies undertaken by territorial spirit medium rain-askers; a practice that has survived to this day.
These ancient Zimbabwean sites, Madzimbahwe in particular, are of remarkable agricultural, political, cultural and scientific significance; and continued to be an important religious centre after its collapse in the 15th Century.
It stood as a symbolic pillar of resistance during the struggle for freedom from colonial rule.
Today, it stands as testimony of our forebears’ remarkable achievements and the cultural richness of southern Africa’s past civilisation and a rich source of inspiration today.
Of the African civilisations that underwent many changes since the continent’s first people began the process of state formation, the ruins of Madzimbahwe are celebrated as an African contribution to world civilisation; even though African civilisation was, and remains, extremely diverse and varied.
The productiveness of pre-colonial agriculture was largely a result of the people’s indigenous knowledge and their intimate connection to the land as well as the close observations regarding weather patterns, soils, issues of soil fertility and erosion.
Africans developed their own local polities, economies and technology using raw materials readily at hand, such as metals and indigenous plants and animals, with outside influences, in all probability, playing a minor part.
All this changed radically as a result of colonisation and all its corollaries.
Throughout the African continent, however, the resilience and ability of the African peoples to adapt from early state formation to the present day demonstrates how Africa was affected by Western influence from the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade to colonial looting and domination, to the disproportionate commerce of today.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com


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