History of pre-colonial mining in Zimbabwe


THERE are many misconceptions and outright lies about pre-colonial Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular, such as there was no civilisation and mining on the continent before the whiteman came.
A perusal of Zimbabwe’s history in particular shows that mining was a thriving industry before the whites set foot in the country with ‘sophisticated’ value addition facilities in place to promote trade and development.
The mining and value addition projects ensured that Zimbabwe was a developed economy that had the potential to become a critical player in global political economic affairs, a thrust being vigorously pursued by President Robert Mugabe today.
Yet documentation on the success of the country’s mining industry has largely become a treasure that whites have refused to release to the public for very obvious reasons.
The modern Zimbabwe nation state had its origins in 12th Century Great Zimbabwe, which had its capital at present day Great Zimbabwe monument with a network of over 350 related royal towns fashioned after it.
The nation state had been fully developed by 1450 AD, which time Mutapa embarked on a full military expansion that gave rise to the Munhumutapa Empire.
The Zimbabwe mining legacy dates back to medieval Great Zimbabwe.
The Munhumutapa Empire had command over and exploited not less than
4 000 gold and 500 copper mines spread across the country.
The milling and purification of gold and copper was carried out close to the extraction sites.
The gold processing and purification standards achieved then were extremely high.
As part of a value addition process, gold was made into articles of jewellery and used to decorate articles such as knife handles, ceremonial axe handles and other articles of religion.
Archaeological evidence for such domestic use of gold is abundant at Great Zimbabwe and related sites.
But, most importantly, gold and copper were major items of trade; first along the Limpopo River to Sofala on the sea and later along the Zambezi River to Beira on the Indian Ocean.
Iron ore processing graduated from individual bellow-driven furnaces to industrial natural draught furnaces as evidenced at the Chigaramboni iron smelting fields near modern-day Bondolfi Teachers’ Training College.
Iron forging technology that produced complete hoes without any welding was developed around the Wedza (Hwedza) Mountain.
The mining industry of today has a lot to learn from pre-colonial Great Zimbabwe and all colonial mining prospecting has to acknowledge that it was guided by pre-colonial workings.
Disappointing is the fact that modern day Zimbabwe has dismally failed to ride on this great mining heritage.
It is in the early Iron Age that a new economy, driven mainly by mining, spread rapidly, from about 1000 AD.
The new economy was facilitated by the discovery of iron and its mining, smelting and forging which made it possible for people to possess efficient hoes and axes for clearing ground and preparing fields for planting such crops as millet.
In his book, The Shona and Zimbabwe 900 to 1850: An Outline of Shona History, historian David Beach asserts that:
“They (Zimbabweans) mined iron, built furnaces and forges, and made iron hoes and axes as their predecessors had done, and like them they cleared fields and sowed their crops.
They hunted and kept goats and sheep and in general life must have been much like that of the early iron trade.”
Beach adds that the locals exhibited sophistication in their mining through the systematic location of the mines.
“Few places were more than 50 miles from an iron ore mine,” says Beach
The Beach assessment is buttressed by yet another historian Stanlake Samkange who states besides mining, blacks had methods of washing and preserving the minerals.
Samkange, in his 1968 book, The Origins of Rhodesia, says:
“After the settlement of the Shona, ‘trade with the East Coast developed steadily. By the 12th Century, reef mining was in progress, and it continued up to the 19th century’, with gold constituting ‘the most important single export from the Plateau’, gradually being overtaken by ivory.
There were also other exports such as copper.
On the whole, ‘the Shona achievement (in the mining and other industries) was remarkable’ as it was carried out by village communities ‘which mined, washed and milled the gold and reduced it to a condition suitable for export’.
Hence, it is believed that ‘all possible advances in mining technology were made relatively early in the Shona period’.
It is estimated that gold production before 1500 approximated one and half million ounces a year; 53 125 to 25 571 ounces a year for the 16th and 17th centuries.
This wealth was evident in such states as the Zimbabwe and Kilwa states.”
What is clear from the above assessment thus far is that the whiteman did not come to Africa solely for the benefit of the African; that the African, far from being ignorant, had a profound knowledge of medicine, religion and Government; that he exploited minerals like iron, copper, gold and silver.
It is clear blacks had industries which manufactured cloth, pottery and ironware.
Prominent local writer Chakamwe Chakwame is one of the few Zimbabweans who has had the privilege to stumble upon rich material that demystifies the lies that there was no mining activity in the country.
In 2011 Chakamwe explicated a paper that unravels the history of Globe and Phoenix Gold Mine in Kwekwe.
The research paper titled A Historical Account of the Globe and Phoenix Gold Mine (1894-1935) and the part it played in the Development and Growth of the Town of Que Que was written in 1971 by one Heather Heap.
Writes Chakamwe:
“The mine, which the early Europeans waxed lyrical about its gold, was founded in 1894 by two prospectors, one Edward Thornton Pearson and another Joseph Schukala.
The two gentlemen actually rediscovered a series of ancient mines which had been worked on for centuries by the Shona in Zimbabwe.
Legend has it that Pearson and Schukala were shown the ancient mines by a middle-aged Shona man who they gave two blankets before he could lead them where the ancient workings were.
Widespread mining mainly for gold, copper and iron was done by the Shona long before contact with the Europeans. The mining was extensive with numerous activities including crushing and smelting.
It was said to have been highly organised and the gold extremely well prospected.
The majority, if not all, modern gold mines in Zimbabwe were established on such ancient workings.
The country has the largest number of ancient gold workings in the world and no wonder the great Arab historian Masud referred to a thriving trade in gold at Sofala which originated from a place called Ophir in Zimbabwe.”
In January 1974, the Journal of the South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy published a paper by Huffman titled Ancient Mining and Zimbabwe which also feeds into the argument that Zimbabweans were not taught mining by whites as has been widely proclaimed.
Not only were Zimbabweans miners of note, but the Ophir argument keeps popping, further entrenching the widely held belief that the country is the Biblical land of gold.
“Since the beginning of recorded history in Southern Africa, ancient gold mining has been associated with Zimbabwe. Early Portuguese chroniclers, such as De Barrosi, linked Rhodesia with ancient Ophir and the gold mines of King Solomon.
The next evidence for early gold mining comes from the Golden Shower claims near Arcturus.
In 1943, miners unearthed a considerable amount of pottery in a quarry.
The pottery was concentrated with clay figurines, charcoal, and iron slag in a few shallow pits and on a level just under the surface.
The pits were only about six feet deep.
The pottery belongs to the Ziwa facies of the Gokomere Tradition, approximately AD 200 to 600, and is somewhat earlier than was previously thought.”
Of course, most of the credit goes to the prowess of the Empire of Mutapa, that legendary Zimbabwean leader.
Tome Lopes, who accompanied Vasco da Gama on a voyage to India in 1502, wrote a narrative that became popular in Portugal.
Lopes knew about Zimbabwe and Great Zimbabwe monument in particular, but was not convinced that the construction of that gigantic structure could not have possibly been the product of African people.
He sold a narrative, a lie.
Lopes identified Mutapa with the Biblical land of Ophir and King Solomon’s Mines.
One Milton, a great poet, then wrote a poem called ‘Paradise Lost’ which triggered so much interest in Zimbabwe.
That is just part of the iconic aspect of our story, which is yet to be fully told, that we were one of the few countries that had value-addition and beneficiation facilities as far back as some 2 000 years ago.
This value addition saw the country becoming one of the most powerful nation during the pre-colonial era.
“There were many gold mines and evidence of solid trade with many nations from as far as China and India during that period,” a National Museums and Monuments official told The Patriot.
“It is also important to note that the levels of pre-colonial production were high and evidence has been found in areas such as Masvingo and Nyanga showing that there were blast furnaces which were used to process the iron and steel they would have mined.
“Also, take into consideration that their mining methods were not primitive but
included, among other things, highly sophisticated prospecting skills which they were never taught by whites.”
The locals had metallurgical skills which they developed in the mining and processing of iron, copper, tin and gold.
This promoted regional and international trade.
The anchor of that trade was gold mining, iron, copper and tin, with soapstone being quarried.
There was metalwork too.
A book titled Rhodesiana Publication No. 7 of the Rhodesiana Society that was published in 1962 lays bare the closely guarded Rhodesian secret that it was not them who introduced mining in the country.
It says:
“Jacob Viljoen, Plet Jacob and Henry Hartley came as far as Umfuli in 1865 but they valued their hunting rights to go any further.
It was on this trip that Hartley saw the pits and shafts which he suspected were ancient gold workings — perhaps his ‘most important pioneering feat’.”
A couple of years later, he came back with the German geologist, Carl Mauch, to confirm the discovery and the gold rush began.
In 1868, a book appeared in London with the title To Ophir Direct which gives a fair idea of the Old Testament visions which hypnotised the early prospectors.
A 2011 paper titled Entrepreneurship Strategic Document Module 2011 Mining lays the path for the country’s return to the apex of mining.
It says:
“Zimbabweans have been great miners way before the arrival of the British in the 1880s.
Entrepreneur-miners extracted iron ore from the ground. Mining rights were given by the King and his advisors.
The minerals mined included gold, copper and iron, for instance.
Metallurgist and Iron smith (Mhizha) Entrepreneur-metallurgists crushed iron ore and smelt it with very hot fire. At Great Zimbabwe there is still evidence of clay furnace, forge and bellow.
This smelting separated the metal from the stone.
As the pure iron cooled, it hardened again and the village smiths could hammer it into (the) shape of hoes, axes and knives.
This was a revolutionary development in the way of life of Africans.
These were the most skillful technicians, engineers and business people who had the role of processing the iron, copper and gold into useful products.
The farmers needed hoes (mapadza) and axes (matemo) etc. The hunters needed spears (mapfumo), bows and arrows etc. Jewellery such as golden necklaces was also needed by the wealthy people and the royal family.
These products could be traded to other kingdoms for other products.
The ironsmiths were usually very wealthy.”
As more blacks continue to take the initiative of telling their story, it is important that they write about the exploits of forefathers, especially in the fields of economic development.


  1. A most interesting article. One only needs to visit Nyanga with its massive hill terraces and again north of Bulawayo to see how extensive and sophisticated this nation was. It fell well before European explorers arrived. Is there data on causes and events of the fall of the national and economic entity?


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