Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe's Kingdoms (1000 - 1838 CE)

Updated December 2007

Increasing levels of population, greater social complexity and economic specialization seems to have resulted in the development of small chiefdoms, at least in the northern plateau and the Zambezi Valley by the 12th century CE. Cattle-holding increased, trade through regional networks and with the Indian Ocean network expanded and craft specialization took place (Pwiti 1996, 40-41). These, in due course, gave rise to the culture of zimbabwes, of relatively large settlements with dry stone walls and enclosures containing circular houses made of clay (daga, which hardens like cement) and poles about three metres in diameter and thatched roofs (Hirst Undated; Owen 2000; Matenga 1998, 8).

This culture spread though out Zimbabwe and into Mozambique and Botswana and was eventually consolidated in the early 15th century, either by conquest or by establishing cattle-loan client-patron relations (or both), into a single state, known as Munhumutapa to the Europeans (from the Shona Mwene Mutapa or "the conquered lands"), with its capital at Great Zimbabwe (Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2007; Pwiti 1996, 45-46; Matenga 1998, 15. Pwiti discusses the problem of state formation at some length). The other urban centres then functioned as regional capitals and administrative centres (Owen 2000; Matenga 1998, 8). The enclosures themselves contained housing for between 10-30 people, who were, presumably the local aristocracy with commoners living around it and supplying to their needs. Material remains from within the enclosures include high quality serving vessels and luxury imports and indication of a beef and veal rich diet. Outside the enclosures the density of houses is three times that of within, and sheep and goats provided the meat (Owen 2000; Matenga 1998, 8). The third level of settlement consisted of smaller villages without stone walls (Owen 2000). Taxes, in the form of grain, salt, metal, ivory and labour were extracted (Matenga 1998, 9; Pwiti 1996, 49).

The economy was based on livestock farming, sorghum, millet, ground beans, cowpeas and bananas from Indonesia introduced by Arabs (Dewey 2006, 5; Owen 2000). This was supplemented by mining of gold (primarily for export), iron, copper and tin; soapstone was also quarried and elephants were hunted for ivory (Owen 2000). Metal work used iron for tools and weaons and copper, bronze and gold for jewelry items. Other manufacturing activities included pottery, soapstone carvings and cloth production from cotton grown in the Zambezi valley (Owen 2000; Matenga 1998, 8). Cattle performed a critical political function as well, for Matenga (1998, 9) notes that cattle loans were used to cement political loyalty and royal power and, through bridewealth, political marriages (see also Pwiti 1996, 46).

To this diverse and developed economy, founded on the exploitation of indigenous resources, trade brought luxury goods such as glass beads, fine porcelain, brass wire and utensils in exchange for animal skins, ivory and gold; it is estimated that some 7 to 9 million ounces of gold was exported before 1890 (Matenga 1998, 9; Owen 2000). The central nexus of the trade system came to be Great Zimbabwe, which added to the prestige of its rulers and thereby facilitated their territorial expansion (Pwiti 1996, 46-47). The site of Great Zimbabwe was first settled around the fifth century CE and construction of the dry stone walls and the platforms on which the houses were erected began in the mid 13th century (Hirst Undated; Dewey 2006, 5). The city prospered greatly between 1250-1450 CE and the bulk of the construction was done between the 1300-1450 (Dewey 2006, 5; Owen 2000; Hirst Undated). At is height the city contained a population of as many as 18 000 and covered an area of 78 acres (Hirst Undated; Owen 2000). It functioned not only as the capital of the kingdom and centre of trade, but also functions as a cultic centre that legitimised the rule of the king (Matenga 1998, 16-17).

The site was inhabited until around 1500 CE, when it was abandoned, though it continued as a venerated cultic centre through the centuries that followed (Dewey 2006, 5; Matenga 1998, 17). The reason for the abandonment is uncertain. Ecological factors such as overpopulation and concomitant degradation of the environment due to over exploitation are frequently cited (Matenga 1998, 17; Owen 2000). Matenga (1998, 17) further suggests that internal political instability may have played a role. Owen (2000) suggests that shifts in trade circumstances such as the drop in the gold price combined with the depletion of ore that could easily be mined, as well as shits in demand for resources on the part of trading partners that could be better satisfied elsewhere to the north (see also Pwiti 1996, 46-47).

The abandonment of Great Zimbabwe marked the fragmentation of the polity and two new successor states emerged. In the north, along the Zambezi valley, the successors of the Kingdom established themselves among the Karanga and in the south the Torwa dynasty emerged; both built new zimbabwes on a smaller scale that functioned as capitals (Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2007; Owen 2000). The Portuguese by this time had penetrated the Indian Ocean and destroyed the Arab-Swahili trade system that had dominated the coast and seized Sofala (see Tanzania: Portuguese dominance (1500-1698CE). Sofala became the basis of trade between the second Munhumutapa polity, which had expanded towards the Indian Ocean, and the Portuguese along the Zambezi River valley (Owen 2000; Esterhuysen 2004). The traditional trading goods continued to be exported, but to the mix was now added the export of slaves, while the export of gold declined. The migration of Nguni speakers southwards weakened the kingdom, and the Portuguese, taking advantage of this, subjugated it in 1629 (Matenga 1998, 16-17; Wikipedia 2007a).

The Torwa dynasty was centred at Khami on the west central plateau near Bulawayo, and flourished from c1450-1683 CE (Matenga 1998, 15; Esterhuysen 2004). The material culture of Great Zimbabwe was continued and the stone working and building techniques were further refined. As with the northern Munhumutapa kingdom, trade with the Indian Ocean was resumed, through the agency of the Portuguese (Wikipedia 2006).

In the 1670's, led by Changamire, the Rozwi emerged in the southwest and destroyed the Torwa dynasty and sacked Khami in 1683. They then proceeded to expel the Portuguese from the north in 1693, uniting the territory once more under indigenous rule (Esterhuysen 2004; Wikipedia 2007b; Matenga 1998, 16-17). The Rozwi kingdom, at its greatest extent covered most of Zimbabwe, eastern Botswana and northern South Africa (Wikipedia 2007b). It continued the stone-building culture that it had inherited and resumed trade through the Portuguese (Esterhuysen 2004). Over time the kingdom was weakened by succession disputes and droughts and the components were able to assert a high degree of autonomy (Esterhuysen 2004; Wikipedia 2007b). In the early 19th century the kingdom was overthrown by invading Nguni speaking people from the south who crossed the Limpopo under Mzilikaze in early 1838 (Esterhuysen 2004; Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2007).


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