The name Zimbabwe is derived from the Shona, dzimba dzemabwe, meaning houses of stone or stone buildings, today symbolized by the Great Zimbabwe Ruins near the present day town of Masvingo. Zimbawe has a rich history, not only of achievement, innovation, co-operation and economic prosperity, but also of conflict, trials and tribulations that reflects the dynamism of its peoples. Many scholars, past and present, have enhanced our knowledge of the Zimbabwean past through their works. Particularly important in our understanding of the pre-colonial past have been the works of archaeologists, linguists, historians, oral traditions and records of 16th century Portuguese traders that interacted with central and southern Africa during that time.
Pre-colonial Zimbabwe was a multi-ethnic society inhabited by the Shangni/Tsonga in the south-eastern parts of the Zimbabwe plateau, the Venda in the south, the Tonga in the north, the Kalanga and Ndebele in the south-west, the Karanga in the southern parts of the plateau, the Zezuru and Korekore in the northern and central parts, and finally, the Manyika and Ndau in the east. Scholars have tended to lump these various groups into two huge ethnic blocs, namely ‘Ndebele’ and ‘Shona’ largely because of their broadly similar languages, beliefs and institutions. (The term Shona itself is however, an anachronism, it did not exist until the 19th century when it was coined by enemies as an insult; it conflates linguistic, cultural and political attributes of ethnically related people). The political, social, and economic, relations of these groups were complex, dynamic, fluid and always changing. They were characterised by both conflict and co-operation.
Huge empires emerged in pre-colonial Zimbabwe, namely the Great Zimbabwe State, the Mutapa State, the Rozvi State, the Torwa state, Rozvi states and the Ndebele state. Great Zimbabwe was a majestic ancient stone city that flourished near the modern town of Masvingo from about 1290 to 1450 on the strength of a powerful and organised society. It thrived on the foundation of favourable agricultural conditions, cattle-keeping, great mineral wealth and most significantly, both regional and long distance trade. Trade was conducted with such far away areas as China, India, the Middle East and the Near East, East and West Africa, among other regional and inter-regional areas. Persian bowls, Chinese dishes, Near Eastern glass and other such items have been excavated at Great Zimbabwe, signifying the trade contacts with these far away places. Other trade goods identified with Great Zimbabwe included a variety of glass beads, brass wire, seashells iron wire, axe heads and chisels. Local goods included ivory, iron gongs, gold wire and beads, soapstone dishes and other items. The art of weaving was practised and some locals wore locally woven cloth. Some of the finest and most enduring finds at Great Zimbabwe were the seven or so soapstone bird carvings sitting on decorated monoliths. It is speculated that these were religious symbols signifying the point that Great Zimbawe may have been a political, economic and cultural centre of great religious importance.
The period of prosperity at Great Zimbabwe was, however, followed by decline and abandonment due to shortages of food, pastures and natural resources in general, not only at Great Zimbabwe, but in the city’s most immediate neighbourhood. Shona traditions identify Mutota, a Mbire ruler, as the leader who led his people to found a new kingdom, the Mutapa, in the Dande area in the Zambezi Valley where smaller and less spectaculor madzimbahwe were built. By the late 15th century, Great Zimbabwe had completely lost its wealth, trade, political and cultural importance. Today, Great Zimbabwe is preserved as a valuable cultural centre and tourist attraction. It epitomises what has certainly been the finest and highest achievement of Shona civilisation.
By about the 14th century, the process of political centralisation had begun among the Shona-speaking people. This has largely been attributed to good economic conditions that ensured successful harvests and the accumulation of surplus grain, animals and other forms of wealth, which in turn stimulated population growth, allowing some individuals to assume positions of leadership. The decline of Great Zimbabwe thus allowed Mutota to conquer the Korekore and Tavara of the Dande and Chidema areas. Oral traditions have it Mutota’s victims were so impressed that they nicknamed him Mwene Mutapa, ‘owner of conquered lands’ or ‘master pillager’, hence the birth of the Mutapa dynasty. He then embarked on an expansionist policy that resulted in the creation of a vast empire the Mwene Mutapa or simply, Mutapa, state, which stretched from the Zambezi valley into the Mozambique lowlands and towards the fringes of the Kalahari Desert. The Mutapa’s control in these far away lands may, however, have been peripheral and not regular. (In fact, the vastness of the empire partly explains the breakup of the Mutapa state.)
An important feature of the Mutapa state way of life was the close link between politics and religion. So, when the Portuguese reached the Mutapa state, they sought to penetrate it through religion. When father Gonzalo da Silveira arrived in December 1560, he worked on converting the royal family to Christianity. He was largely successful in this because the vast empire had become heavily riddled with conspiracies, coup plots, succession disputes and civil wars to the extent that the reigning Mutapa probably wanted Portuguese help to hold on to power. The King, however, soon turned around and renounced Christianity, leading to the murder of da Silveira, henceforth marking a turn in Portuguese – Mutapa relations. Punitive expeditions were sent to assist the Mutapa’s enemies, particularly Mavhura, a rival claimant to the Mutapa kingship. For their help, the Portuguese demanded that Mavhura sign treaties of vassalage to the Portugal, thus tying the Mutapa state to the Portuguese crown. The Portuguese took this opportunity to advance their imperial interests by using slave labour to work on the land they acquired under these treaties. This resulted in many armed conflicts in the area, causing many Shona to flee to the south where Changamire’s rule was being established.
This era of puppet Mutapas, however, came to an end due to the rise of reformists within the Mutapa royal family, led by Mutapa Mukombwe in 1663, eventuality giving rise to a class of rulers known as the VaRozvi. Between 1663 and 1704, Mukombwe and his successors successfully drove the Portuguese off their prazos with the support of the Tonga in the Zambezi valley and the Chikanga of Manyika. Mukombewe achieved the important feat of resettling Mutapa families in the lands he had freed.
However, Mutapa Mukombwe faced rebellion, a development that gave rise to the Rozvi State. Changamire Dombo defeated a pinitive Mutapa army after rebelling in 1684. He established and consolidated his control in the western Butwa/Butua area once dominated by the Kalanga as well as in the lands of the Manyika and in the trading centres of mainland Mutapa. Dombo and his successors established the Changamire dynasty and ruled over the territory that includes most parts of what is now Zimbabwe.
The economy was the cornerstone of the Rozvi State’s survival. Taking advantage of the dry grasslands, low trees and excellent pastureland of Guruuswa, the Rozvi raised large heads of cattle, goats and sheep. Crop farming also thrived. Pottery, blacksmithing, weaving and basketry were also important economic activities while the specialized iron industry produced tools and weapons. Surplus products were for trading. Gold mining and game hunting were however low key activities. The Rozvi, having ‘grown’ out of the Mutapa state, were well aware of the destructive activities of the Portuguese traders. They thus adopted an indirect way of dealing with the Portuguese. Trade was carried out through special agents called vashambadzi or through markets in the Mutapa areas. This policy allowed the Rozvi to maintain their political independence. Finally a combined Rozvi-Mutapa force managed to drive out the Portuguese out of the Zimbabwe high veld by 1694. After these celebrated anti-Portuguese campaigns of the 1680s and 1690s, Portuguese mercantilism never again made any serious attempts to establish control over Zimbabwe.
However, like the Mutapa state before it, the Rozvi state collapsed under the weight of its vastness which could not be sustained by its ‘feudal’ structures in the face of growing pressures from the Mfecane groups advancing from the south. From about 1826, the region discussed above was subjected to sever pressure from migrants fleeing from the Mfecane disturbances south of the Limpopo. By 1838, as many as five Nguni groups had passed through or settled in the region, each bombarding the Rozvi state and transforming the way of life of the local people.
Two of these groups, the Ndebele and the Gaza, however eventually settled permanently in Zimbabwe and subjected several Shona groups to their rule. The new settlers introduced a system of tributary control premised on the threat of military use. These newcomers not only dismantled the core of the Rozvi ruling elite, but also scattered its varying factions in all directions. Mzilikazi’s Ndebele state thus subjugated and or incorporated into Ndebele society some Rozvi houses. However, as the Ndebele pursued their Shona enemies on the plateau, they nevertheless deferred to Shona spirit mediums. Mzilikazi’s son and successor, Lobengula, actually strengthened his relations with the Mwari cult. By the 1850s, Ndebele rule stretched over the Zambezi, the Mafungavutsi plateau and Gokwe, with the Shona chiefs there paying tribute to the Ndebele. However, by 1879, Ndebele power was itself coming under serious threat from some Shona groups as Ndebele impis were being defeated due to the gradual adoption and proliferation of guns by most southern Shona groups.
The Ndebele had to establish a strong military presence to establish their authority in their newly acquired land. Besides subduing the original Shona rulers, they had to content with the Boers from the Transvaal who in 1847 crossed the Limpopo and destroyed some Ndebele villages in the periphery of Ndebele country. Then there were the numerous hunters and adventurers who also entered the country to the south. Over and above these were the missionaries and traders; all these groups threatened the internal security and stability of the kingdom. After protracted diplomatic negotiations with Robert Moffat, the Ndebele allowed the London Missionary Society to establish a mission station at Inyati in 1852. Through the influence of traders, hunters, missionaries and other fortune seekers, the value of the Ndebele area had become well known to the while communities in the South by the late 1860s, paving the way for the complex encounters that culminated in colonial subjugation.
While it is a source of pride that there were these huge influential pre-colonial Zimbabwe states, it should be noted that a lot happened before and after them as well as outside their boundaries. Pre-colonial Zimbabwe is not just about the big states. The majority of Zimbabweans lived in smaller units inhabiting different kinds of environment, but they inevitably had links with the larger societies.
Pre-colonial Zimbabwe societies, large and small, were mainly farming communities who adopted iron to modenise their agriculture and cultivate more extensively than their stone age predecessors. They also practiced pastoralism and put much faith in their livestock. Cattle were an important indicator of wealth and a means of maintaining clients over and above being useful as commodities for bride wealth and as objects of sacrifice in the propitiation of the ancestors. External trade was an equally important activity in the Zimbabwe subsistence-oriented economy while gold mining was a seasonal activity, confined largely to the summer and winter seasons although gold washing continued through out the year and remained the main source of the gold for trade. Even the Ndebele, who early historians described as largely predatory, relied more on cultivation than anything else. Cattle keeping only augmented their economy while tribute collection was principally a means of imposing political control, not a mode of survival.