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Zimbabwe empire was a great empire which covered both Zimbabwe, central Mozambique

The Empire of Mutapa

The Mutapa, or Mwene-Mutapa, or Great Zimbabwe empire was a great empire which covered both Zimbabwe, central Mozambique, and other parts of neighboring countries. The Mutapa empire was led by the Mwene-Mutapa, and the name means "Lord of the Realm" or "Owner of the Mines". Mwene means "Lord" or "Owner", and Mutapa means " Realm" or “Mines”. The Mutapa empire existed from about 900CE to 1902CE (CE = Common Era), and was about 1002 years old. In the 1400s, the capital now known as Great Zimbabwe, was abandoned by the leaders of the empire. The two princes would take many people with them; one would go north and the other west. Although the main leader of the empire moved north, the ruling dynasty was still the same bloodline, and the empire continued to thrive and expand, gaining new trading routes and partners. The people of Mutapa were mainly from the Shona group (previously called the Karanga, or Nyai group). Other groups such as the Lower Zambezi Tonga (of modern-day Mozambique) also served in the Great Council of Mutapa.


The Shona/Karanga people have no idols, but believe in one supreme God named Mwari. According to the Shona, Mabweadziva or Matonjeni, is where the first man was created by Mwari. Mwari, the Supreme Being, made the first man, Musikavanhu, in the heavens. He put the man to sleep and dropped him down to earth. As Musikavanhu was falling he awakened and saw a stone falling near him. Mwari told him to step onto the stone, and they landed softly on the ground. Water gushed from the place the stone landed with Musikavanhu and it became a scared place for the Shona. Musikavanhu had dreams and visions of birds and animals. When he awakened, his dreams and visions had come true. Birds flew through the skies and animals roamed the earth. A woman appeared and when Musikavanhu touched her, she came to life and became his wife. Musikavanhu instructed their children in the ways they were to live and then he and his wife went to the heavens to dwell with Mwari. Musikavanhu exists within the shadow of Mwari, and the earth exists within the shadow of Musikavanhu.

The Shona believe their dead ancestors go to Nyikadzimu (Ancestral Spirit World), and refer to them as Mudzimu. They call upon them in times of need, as others do to saints. The spirits of their kings return as lions called Mhondoro, and the word Mhondoro is also used to refer to the founding father of the Dynasty. The Mhondoro ancestral creed, and the Mwari Creed, were the largest and most extensive creeds in Southern Africa. In the hierarchy of spirits, Mwari is the Supreme Being and Lord of all spirits. Under Mwari is the Gombwe spirit. It is second in the hierarchy of spirits, these being spirits which were thought to have never have been human beings. The worship of Mwari is done through ancestral spirits known as Mhondoro. There is a hierarchy of ancestral spirits. On the top being the mhondoro, and on the bottom being the mudzimu. A mhondoro is an ancestral spirit of a king who started a dynasty. A mudzimu is a family ancestral spirit.

The Pre 1450CE Mutapa Empire

The Mutapa empire was an expansion of another Shona / Karanga civilization which dates back a century or so from the year 1000CE. This civilization is known as Mapungubwe, and its first king was called Tovera (Thovhele) Nemapungubwe. To know who the Shona, and their close relatives are, we must know their sacred ancestors. The earliest recorded “Mhondoro”, or royal ancestor of the Shona, and their close relatives such as the Venda, and Lobedu is Tovera. He is also known as Thobela or Thovhele (Nemapungubwe) by the Venda, and he was the first recorded legendary king. There is a song which recognizes Tovera as the royal ancestor of the Shona, it includes the following lyrics: “Tovera mudzimu dzoka! Vana vanorwara. Mudzimu dzoka! Kwaziwai Tovera!” There is also a road in Zimbabwe named after Tovera. The son of Tovera was Mambire. He was the father of the legendary Murenga Pfumojena Sororenzou, also known as Thohoyandou. Murenga Sororenzou was the founder architect of Zimbabwe, and is also the legendary ‘Murenga’ after whom all the liberation wars of Zimbabwe are named. He is revered as the great ancestral spirit of war. It was recorded that during the Chimurenga war, Shona warriors would shout the war-cry “Murenga wamuka” meaning “The God of War has awakened.” When hunting, Shona hunters would shout “Komborera, Murenga” meaning “Bless, oh God” and the animal would instantly fall or die. Murenga was the father of the original Runji, Chaminuka, Nehanda, and Mushavatu. Today there is a city in South Africa named after him. Murenga was a manifestation of Mwari who aided the Shona/Karanga people in great wars.

Mapungubwe was one of the first major cities of the Shona ancestors in Mutapa / Madzimbabwe, or Southern Africa. They later moved to Zimbabwe and built their capital at Wedza in Marondera. The original Chaminuka’s son, Kutamadzoka, became Mwene-Mutapa I. After Kutamadzoka his brother, Chingwangu, became Mwene-Mutapa II. He moved the capital to Great Zimbabwe and he became known as Rusvingo, which means "Stone Mason" or "Builder of Stone Walls".

Great Zimbabwe is actually the largest of many zimbabwes, or stone cities, built without mortar in Southern Africa. Mwene Mutapa Chingwangu Rusvingo instructed through his council, that every visitor to the city of Great Zimbabwe had to bring five stones. This was to build the walls of Great Zimbabwe. On every valuable thing exported from the empire of Mutapa, the leaders of Great Zimbabwe took a 50% cut. If Swahili merchants extracted ivory from an elephant, the emperor would keep one tusk. Elite warriors from all over the Mutapa empire were sent to Great Zimbabwe to defend and fight for the Mwene-Mutapa as a way of paying tribute by vassal kings (Madzishe). Great Zimbabwe is located in the Masvingo province of the modern-day country of Zimbabwe. The city was built almost 1000 years ago by the ancestors of the Shona/Karanga people. After the era when Great Zimbabwe was the capital of the Mutapa empire, the sub kingdoms, or provinces, in the east or in modern day Mozambique included the sub-kingdom of Gambe and zimbabwes which were called Manyikeni and Chibuene.

There were nine Greater Mwene-Mutapas ruling at Great Zimbabwe:

2 Mwenemutapa Chingwangu Rusvingo,

3 Mwenemutapa Chidyamatamba,

4 Mwenemutapa Chimedzamabwe,

5 Mwenemutapa Kangambeu-Kurima-Kwakona (Dyambeu),

6 Mwenemutapa Mombemuriwo,

7 Mwenemutapa Mavhudzi (Chibatamtosi),

8 Mwenemutapa Nyatsimba Mutota (He would later move to Dande)

9 Mwenemutapa Munembire Mudadi

According to oral history, Great Zimbabwe also served as a sanctuary for Murenga Sororenzou, and his spirit was against blood being shed amongst his children. It was said that during the fight for the throne there was bloodshed. Murenga's spirit was appalled and then it moved away from the site, moving west to Mabweadziva or Matopos. Nyatsimba Mutota, a feuding prince, moved north perhaps to find resources, and new convenient trading routes, and Mukwati/Torwa (a rival feuding prince) moved west; following Murenga's spirit to Mabweadziva. According to some historians that is when the city of Great Zimbabwe started to decline: however, there were Portuguese manufactured shells which were discovered at the ruins. There were also people living at Great Zimbabwe in the 1890s, who were removed by the British South African Company

The Mutapa empire and the Great Zimbabwe empire were one and the same. The bloodline of the dynasties was the same, sharing common ancestry. Nyatsimba Mutota's movement northwards was to lead the expansionist of the same empire, and to find more convenient trading routes as well as new partners.

Much of the Shona royalty left the city of Great Zimbabwe and went to surrounding countries in the region to expand the Mutapa empire and perhaps gain new trading routes and partners. Princess Dzugudini of Great Zimbabwe returned to modern day South Africa and became the Lobedu and Venda. They built zimbabwes or cities, and among some of their zimbabwes was the stone city of Thulamela. Other Shona/Karanga people went east to modern day Mozambique. Those following Mukwati or Torwa went west to expand and secure the spiritually significant and mineral rich sub-kingdom of Guruhuswa. Their zimbabwe was Khami. It was thought that there was rivalry between Nyatsimba Mutota and Mukwati/Torwa, however in the future, Torwa's people paid tribute to the Mwenemutapa in the north. They even kept the northern Mwene-Mutapa's cattle. Those under Nyatsimba Mutota, as stated, went north to find new resources/trade routes, and expand the Mwenemutapa empire, though some of the Mwenemutapa's wives stayed at Great Zimbabwe. Their zimbabwes were Zvongombe, Tuuyu Tusere, and Mount Pfura. Pfura means Rhino in ChiShona/Chikaranga, and there was a golden rhino found at Mapungubwe.

Before Nyatsimba Mutota left Great Zimbabwe for Dande, incidentally there was a fight for the throne. The story states that when it was Nyatsimba Mutota’s turn to rule, prince Mukwati (who was also called Torwa) said “Bva torwa” or “Bva togwa”, meaning “Then let’s fight”, thus Mukwati was given the praise name Torwa, and a war of succession broke out at the stone city. Prince Mukwati/Torwa fought with prince Nyatsimba Mutota, but nobody won the war. Murenga’s spirit moved to Mabweadziva or Matopos as a result of the bloodshed, and Torwa followed it. Meanwhile Mutota stayed at Great Zimbabwe for a while before moving to northern Dande where there was fertile soil, and wild game Mutota. Murenga's departure was also a factor. They would leave behind Great Zimbabwe under the leadership of their relative, Mwene Munembire Mudadi. Nyatsimba Mutota would arrive at the Zambezi where he built the Zimbabwes called Zvongombe and Tuuyu Tusere, and where he protected the Tavara since he had a strong relationship with them. Prince Mukwati/Torwa was forced to move away from Great Zimbabwe to the province of Guruhuswa, because of Murenga’s departure. He ended up moving west where he built the famous zimbabwe or stone city of Khami, which was near Murenga’s great spirit. The dynasty he left behind was the Torwa/Togwa dynasty of the kingdom of Guruhuswa or Butua. Nyatsimba Mutota established another new capital, Zvongombe, by the Zambezi. Mutota achieved total control of the area through conquests, intermarriage, and economic intercourse with the northern people. Under Mutota, political control extended to the South, and the North to include the Mbire province. Nyatsimba Mutota was said to have had many wives. Eight baobab trees were planted at the site where Nyatsimba Mutota was buried along with his eight friends / council members centuries ago. The site was called Tuuyu Tusere, meaning "Eight Baobabs."

The Post 1450CE Mutapa Empire

Nyatsimba Mutota ruled from 1430 - 1450. Nyatsimba Mutota's successor, Mwenemutapa Matope Nyanhehwe Nebedza, extended the Mutapa empire to encompass most of the lands between Tavara and the Indian Ocean, securing new trade routes, and provinces. Matope was the most powerful African leader south of the Equator in the latter half of the 15th century. His regal costume included an exquisitely decorated small hoe as part of the belt. The hoe had an ivory handle and suggested peace through the ability to gain wealth from the earth. Other symbols of the kingship included granaries, animal horns, and spears or weapons. The Mwenemutapa or Emperor was believed to be the “lord of the sun, and the moon, king of the land and the rivers and conqueror of enemies.”

The Mutapa empire had achieved uniting a number of different peoples in Southern Africa by encouraging states to join voluntarily, offering membership in the Great council of the Empire to any whom joined without resistance. The Mukomohasha/General of Mutapa's army as well as its sub-kingdom of Barwe, was said to be always a royal Tonga of the Tembo totem. The Mwenemutapa became very wealthy by exploiting copper from Chidzurgwe and ivory from the middle Zambezi. Matope's armies secured the kingdom of the Manyika as well as the coastal kingdoms of Barwe, Uteve and Madanda. By the time the Portuguese arrived on the coast of Mozambique, the Mwenemutapa Empire was still the premier Shona polity in the region.

The Mutapa Empire had a social welfare system for the blind, and the maimed who were known as the "King's poor". The empire had expanded to its full extent by the year 1480 a mere 50 years after Nyatsimba Mutota left Great Zimbabwe. The Portuguese made contact with South East Africa by around 1515. Their main goal was to dominate the trade with India; however, they unwittingly became mere carriers for luxury goods between Mutapa's sub-kingdoms/provinces and India. As the Portuguese settled along the coast, they made their way into the hinterland as sertanejos (backwoodsmen). These sertanejos lived alongside Swahili traders and even took up service among Shona sub-kings as interpreters. One such sertanejo, António Fernandes, managed to travel through almost all the Shona/Karanga sub kingdoms and provinces, including Mutapa's metropolitan district, between 1512 and 1516. Antonio Fernandes also witnessed a smaller Zimbabwe being built by the Shona in 1511. The Portuguese finally entered into direct relations with Mutapa in the 1560s.

The Military of Mutapa.

The Mwene-Mutapa could easily summon thousands of warriors within less than 24 hours. These armies had their own herds of cattle, and they fed off the land as well. They once made the majority of people between the Zambezi and Vembe/Limpopo, including the invading Portuguese, submit and pay tribute to the Mwene-Mutapa. The Mutapa armies also repelled the Maravi north across the Zambezi. The Shona/Karanga armies went to war under battle standards / banners of basketwork covered with cloth, in the shape of leopards, lions, elephants, or bulls. Their weapons were spears, clubs, axes, and bows and arrows, and they carried large shields as tall as a man and three palms wide, made of wood with a spike at the bottom. They were commanded by means of signals from horns and drums, the distinctive note of the commander's drum being easily distinguished. Preferring pitched battles fought in the open, Mutapa armies attacked in crescent formation with a strong center and two wings. For retreat they formed a three-sided square with interlocking shields.

As stated, the Shona/Karanga people of the early seventeenth century used the crescent formation similar to the so called cow-horn formation, which they called “Muromo”, and had developed a defensive technique that could be used in the field; on the blowing of a given signal on a horn, the men would plant their spiked shields in the ground in a formation that made three sides of a square, with the baggage in the middle and an open rear from behind which they could use their weapons more freely. This gave their attacking formations a degree of security if the battle should start to turn against them. In the early seventeenth century, the Mutapa armies were as likely to come up against the African slave-armies of the Portuguese prazo-holders, and this involved the possibility of coming under the fire of guns. Guns had been in the hands of the Shona/Karanga and their neighbors since about 1515, and by the late 1590s they were sufficiently common for there to be a prohibition against carrying them in Mutapa.

The Mutapa military recruited young warriors known as the Nyai. The rise of the Portuguese prazo warlords and their Chikunda slave armies involved a great deal of violence which threatened the people of the Mutapa kingdom. In the Zambezi valley the Mutapa kingdom developed its own defense. Because the valley was dry, there were those with no cattle who depended upon the wealthier people. These young men of Mutapa became the Nyai. The Nyai in the south of the plateau at that time simply meant the subjects of the Changamire, but in the Mutapa kingdom it referred to the young fighters. The Nyai gathered under local leaders, chosen by the subruler, known as makurukota, and were trained by him as fighters. They took part in other activities traditional to young men, such as hunting, helping with the crops at peak work periods, running messages, and herding whatever livestock existed, but their main value was as a fighting unit that was highly appreciated. These groups of VaNyai might number anything from 500 to 3,000. They were subdivided into boka (companies) of one hundred each, and sixteen of these were named in the 1760s. They only retained a separate existence until their members were able to marry, and then they were replaced by fresh recruits.

The emergence of the VaNyai appears to be one of the reasons for the continued existence and surprising resilience of the Mutapa kingdom. They also provided the military muscle to repel Portuguese, and Ngoni attacks and to extend the Mutapa's influence. In 1835, the Nyai forces of Mutapa defeated the Nguni led by Nxaba and Maseko, who invaded the eastern part of the kingdom near Tete. In the end, the Nyai forces of Mutapa forced the Nguni to retreat. Later, Nxaba's Ngoni and Mzilikazi's Ndebele moved close to Zumbo on the Zambezi, but the Mutapa kingdom held off these Nguni offensives into the 1860s. Mutapa survived as a kingdom. In the twilight of Mutapa, Mwene-Mutapa Chioko Dambamupute, the last Mwene-Mutapa, was guarded by 300 men armed with modern rifles. Mwene Mutapa Chioko Dambamupute showed himself ‘really hostile’ to Portuguese and British alike, stimulating tax refusal, armed raids and other manifestations of rejection of administrative authority both British and Portuguese.

The Economy of the Mutapa empire

Later in 1648 Antonio Gomes observed that the Karanga produced a surplus that lasted until the following year; further 'they never see the bottom of their grain bin'. In 1696 Antonio da Conciecao observed that in the Mutapa empire people 'do their own farms and the king has one cultivated by his cafres which stretches where the eye cannot see and sometimes see personally but in a grave manner. He eventually collects so much food that he lives in plenty and even luxury, not only he but also his women'. We also learn from Jesuit Father Julio Cesar, who visited the Mutapa court in 1620, that this reigning Mutapa paid so much attention to agriculture. Julio Cesar reported that the Mutapa did not despise or hate the title of farmer; on the contrary, this priest says that he was quickly dispatched because the Emperor wanted 'to go and see to his farming activities because it was time to sow the fields'.

Cloth was a very well-established import in the Zimbabwean plateau by about 1500, and had been imported far earlier. The actual techniques of spinning and weaving were imported along with the cloth. By the 14th century spinning was going on at several sites on and near cities like Great Zimbabwe, Khami, and Nyanga, and by the 16th century the growth of cotton and the weaving of cotton were well established. Moreover, before long the technique of weaving had been applied to the fibers that came from the bark of certain trees like the mupfuti tree. A Portuguese traveler who visited South East Africa in the 16th century described meeting the emperors of Mutapa, the Karanga empire. He reported that; "They were black men who got naked save that they cover themselves with cotton cloth from the waist down. Some clad in the skins of wild beasts, and some, the most noble, wear capes of these skins with tails... as a token of state and dignity. They leap as they go, and sway their bodies so as to make these tails fly from one side to the other. They carry swords thrust into wooden sheaths bound with much gold and other metals... These are warlike men, and some too are great traders.” It is clear that there was an old, and powerful Shona empire in Southern Africa.

According to foreigners who observed, ‘The months are divided into three weeks of ten days each, and have several festivals. The first day of each month is the festival of the new moon (Chisi); and the fourth and fifth day of every week are kept as festivals. On these days all the natives dress in their best apparel, and the king gives public audience to all who present themselves, on which occasion he holds a truncheon about three quarters of a yard long in each hand, to leap upon. On the day of the new moon, the king runs about the palace with two javelins in his hand, as if fighting, all the great men being present at this pastime. When this is ended, a pot full of maize, boiled whole, is brought in, which the king scatters about, desiring the nobles to eat, and every one strives to gather most to please him, and eat it greedily as if it were the most savory dainty. ’The account goes on to say, ‘Their greatest festival is held on the new moon in May, which they call Chuavo. On this day all the great men of the empire, who are very numerous, resort to court, where they run about with javelins in their hand, as in a mock fight. This sport lasts the whole day, at the end of which the king withdraws, and is not seen for eight days afterwards, during all which time drums beat incessantly. He reappears on the ninth day.’

The Mutapa empire was weakened and reduced in size when the Portuguese expanded their influence in the land, forcing the once loyal provincial rulers to disobey the emperor. The Portuguese also supported, and influenced Gatsi Rusere’s converted son, Mavhura Felipe Mhande, to fight against his brother for the throne. They made Mavhura sign treaties. This angered the Tonga population of the empire who then blocked the trading routes to the Indian Ocean, and proceeded to fight against the Portuguese without the Mwene-Mutapa’s permission. The Portuguese grew powerful enough to make a puppet out of Mwene-Mutapa Mavhura Mhande, who was the ruler of the land at that time. Mavhura was said to have died from accidental gunshot wounds. The Portuguese prazo owners and warlords violently took many lands from the indigenous people of the Mutapa region. However, a Mwene-Mutapa named Kamharapasi Mukombwe successfully drove back the Portuguese from several lands in Mutapa, and managed to resettled various Mutapa families in the lands he had freed. For this he was given the praise-name, Maguranyika, meaning ‘The Divider of the Land.’ Still, many of the Shona/Karanga were also not happy with Mavhura and his successors’ decisions, and so they fought for their land. Civil war raged in the empire of Mutapa until a man related to the Mwene-Mutapa named Changamire Dombo appeared and quelled these wars with his fierce army known as the Rozvi. This event is said to be the actual very first Chimurenga, and it resulted with the Rozvi bringing peace to Madzimbahwe, or Southern Africa. Although the dynasty survived, the Mutapa empire now had to share its territory with the Rozvi empire.

The rise of Changamire Dombo, and the Rozvi Empire

Due to increased violence, local Shona leaders with cattle developed their own armies. Young men offered several years of military service in exchange for cattle. Beginning as one of these local Shona leaders, Dombo gained the title Changamire (lord) and developed an effective army known as the Rozvi, that, by the 1670s, became a major force in the northeast of the Zimbabwean plateau. During the early 1680s, Dombo led his army to the southwest, where he conquered the Torwa. He then challenged the Portuguese of the Zambezi valley.

Dombo's first military encounter with the Portuguese and their African mercenary armies took place just before June 1684 at the Battle of Maungwe. Rozvi bows and arrows vs Portuguese firearms, the engagement lasted an entire day. Although Changamire Dombo managed to rout the Portuguese four or five times, his army took heavy casualties from gunfire. Both armies camped on the battlefield and intended to resume fighting the next day. At 1 am the Portuguese awoke to see that they were surrounded by fires made by Rozvi women on Dombo's order. Believing they were surrounded, the Portuguese and their African allies ran off into the night, and when the sun came up, Changamire Dombo's army looted their abandoned camp. Changamire Dombo did not pursue the Portuguese because of the heavy casualties his army had suffered and because he had to content with a Mutapa force, including some Portuguese invading Butua that he eventually defeated, killing 5000.

From around 1685 to 1692, Changamire Dombo consolidated his hold on Butua. In 1693, a new Mwene-Mutapa called Nyakunembire, who wanted to establish his independence, invited Dombo's Rozvi to assist him against the Portuguese. In November that year, a Rozvi army attacked Portuguese settlements, destroyed the churches, and dug up graves to use the remains as war medicine. Many Portuguese fled to Tete. Changamire Dombo's Rozvi invaded Manyika, where they replaced the ruler and destroyed Portuguese presence. Further Rozvi campaigns to the northeast were delayed by Changamire Dombo's death in 1696, which allowed the Portuguese to flee the plateau. Changamire Dombo defeated the military superpower of that era which had conquered both India and China.

Records say the Rozvi used the so called "cow horn formation" long before the Zulus. They called this battle formation "Muromo” / “Mulomo Acumba". Before going into battle the Rozvi armies of Zimbabwe were always doctored. Traditions abound claiming that the Rozvi used supernatural powers against their enemies. It is said that the Rozvi could change the color of cattle, summon bees to fight for them if need be, and send their enemies to sleep by magic. They could make their warriors brave by supposedly immunizing them against bullets or spears. Even Portuguese sources remark on this reputation of the Rozvi. In 1698 the viceroy of India wrote that the Portuguese soldiers in the Rivers of Sena believed that the then Rozvi Mambo had magic oil with which he could kill anyone simply by touching the person with it. The viceroy implored the Portuguese king to send a new lot of soldiers from metropolitan Portugal who would not believe in such superstition.

The Portuguese in the Rivers of Sena had reason to fear the Rozvi magic because in 1693 after the great Rozvi Mambo, Changamire Dombo 1, had slaughtered all the Portuguese at Dambarare, he had two Dominican priests flayed and their heads cut off and carried in front of his army. On that occasion, it is reported that Dombo also disinterred the bones of some of the Portuguese and had them crushed in order to prepare a powerful medicine for his soldiers. This association of the Rozvi with the supernatural clearly gave their armies a vast psychological advantage over their potential enemies.

The credit for the last stand of the mighty Rozvi goes to emperor Tohwechipi, or 'Chibhamubhamu', who took over as Changamire and whose use of firearms allowed him to defeat the Nguni on many occasions until he was subdued in 1866; even then, he continued to win clients in the traditional fashion of parcelling out land. He had the praise name 'Chibhamu-bhamu', meaning 'the gun', because he used firearms to defeat his enemies.

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