The rise of the famous Mutapa kingdom

It is interesting to delve into the major contributors of the the birth of one of the most famous kingdoms in Zimbabwe. Mineral wealth, available grazing land, abundant land for crop cultivation, salt deposits and favourable climate proves beyond doubt the birth of Mutapa state. Socially, religion was the binding factor and it supressed elements of coup and disturbances within the Munhumutapa kingdom, spirit mediums played a pivotal role in solving successions disputes. It is imperative to tackle the role played by politics in shaping the existence of Mutapa state. In fact, Nyatsimba Mutota was the founder of such a strong society who used his strong army to conquer and raid weaker states. Through raiding, Nyatsimba managed to bring in economics value to his state. Strong military maintained law and order. Mutapa state growth and development was economically driven. Thus how it’s social and political base was formidable.

Economic decay, stronger social pressures, anarchy and lethargic leadership within the Great Zimbabwe society led the collapse and birth of a stronger Mutapa state. Agriculture both crop cultivation and animal husbandry were the mainstay of Great Zimbabwe society. Boom in agricultural development erected a high population, better living standards, and strong social and political base. It is therefore this economic boom that overturned the fortunes of Great Zimbabwe society. Population growth led to competition over resources such as land, mineral wealth, trade centres and areas for hunting and gathering. These economic pressures weakened the social life of the Great Zimbabwe people. Living standards were eroded, people were dragged into abject poverty and misery. When the economy is not performing the social and political spheres succumbs to the pressure and thus how the marvellous Great Zimbabwe society collapsed. Economic pressure created pressure within the militant group which became porous for succession. Also, the state became weak due to hunger and poverty which gave neighbouring states powers to raid and destroy the Great Zimbabwe state. All this gave way for the Mutapa state’s rise under the stewardship of Nyatsimba Mutota. It is interesting to note that Mutota envied the Dande area which had abundant land for crop cultivation and grasslands for livestock, salt deposits, low population, and access to trade.   

The economic system was responsible in the rise, expansion and growth of Mutapa state. The growing of crops such as millet, sorghum and rapoko was necessitated by the fertile soils. Crop cultivation was done mainly by women and children while man were attached to other equal demanding chores. Existence of division of labour proves beyond doubt that surplus was achieved. Available food manage to feed the growing population within Mutapa state. Animal Husbandry of cattle and small livestock was a practise in the society. Cattle were a symbol of wealth. With the abundant pastures the Mutapa people had large herd of cattle and oral traditions indicate an estimate of 4000 cattle. The Mutapa diet was greatly enriched by eating small amounts of meat and animal fats. They also kept sheep and goat.  In fact, in so far as the Mutapa are concerned cattle fulfilled all the criteria of general purpose in that they were stores of value, standard of value and media of exchange. Cattle formed a form of social security in a society. Pastoralism led to the growth and development of the Mutapa state. Mining of gold, iron, silver, and cooper was done in the society. The abundant minerals brought economic gains through internal and external trade. Thus external trade links with the Portuguese were created. People exchanged goods and services. Hunting and gathering were chores done by everyone one in the society. Women and children were encouraged to join in the hunting activity through the ‘mambure’ system because very much noise was needed to panic the game towards the nets. This approach was adopted by the Shona people at Mutapa as their hunting method. Hunting was an important economic activity that supplied relish. Gathering of wild fruits and insects was an economic practise by the Mutapa people. Gathering of wild fruits was an important economic branch of pre-colonial Shona economies. Gathering was an activity of both children and woman and it was pursued even years of plenty. Mutapa land had abundant wild fruits consisting matamba, nhembetembe, hubva, maroro, nhengeni, nzambara and tsombori that were juicy and nutricious. Raiding as an economic activity strengthens the Mutapa state. Mutota and Matope his son managed to raid and conquer the Tonga, Tavara Kore-kore, Barwe, Guruuswa, Manyika and Uteve people. Women were mainly targeted since they were of economic value. They wanted women for more human production. Children were a source of labour.  They managed to raid grains, cattle and armoury. Thus, raiding other groups lead the growth and development of Mutapa Kingdom.

The social structure of the state was strong and formidable. The people enjoyed better living standards. The people were hunger and poverty free. Religion played an important role within the state. It gave authority to the Munhumutapa king. The king was allied to the religious leaders in the land. The king was also a religious leader and he led national ceremonies. Thus religion suppressed succession disputes and curbing anarchy within the society.  It was the role of spirit mediums and religious leaders to choose kings. Religion bonded the society. Internal marriages also united the people. Marriages were unifiers and symbol of wealth. Man married so that they will have children as sources of labour. Girl child were regarded as wealth as one could calculate his number of cattle with the number of girl child he has. Thus, social base of Mutapa state was the pillar in economic growth and development.

Politically, the army was headed by king as its chief commander of all soldiers. It was believed that, the commander was helped by an appointed commander of the soldiers. He was the second most powerful official in the state and he was called Nengomasha. Mutapa state witnessed change of leadership. These leaders include, Mutota, Matope, Gatsi Rusere, Changamire Dombo,Kapararidze and Mavhuramhande. These leaders uphold the ideologies of the founding father Mutota. These Munhumutapa kings were head of state, chief Judge, distributer of land, custodian of state property, religious leader, signing treaties, punish rebels and protecting the state.  They also followed economic techniques to strengthen the society. Economic prosperity was behind this strong army. In fact able bodied Mutapa people who ate healthily managed to dominate and raid weak states. Raiding manage to award the Mutapa kingdom the name Munhumutapa. This alone proves that Mutapa had a vicious army which was ruthless and that aimed on the expansionist agenda. Tribute payment by the subordinates supressed the ideologies of anarchy and succession. This form of political technique created wealth for the King.  Economic gains bonded the army to be loyal and respectful to the king. The political landscape became the hub of security of everyone in the society. It is therefore that this strong political structure protected the people hence promoting economic and social cohesion with the Mutapa state.

The state collapsed due to economic factors. Sound and viable economic structures created a big state that became unmanageable. Competition over resources such as land dealt the society a blow that it never recovered. Agriculture being the mainstay collapsed thus the death of the Munhumutapa kingdom. Mineral deposits depleted, some mines became death traps and were abandoned. Competition on hunting and gathering resources worsened. Drought was also to be blamed. These economic pressures begun to create social and political problems. These pressures saw the birth of civil wars, succession disputes, migration, in subornation and anarchy with the state. It is therefore prudent to ascertain that, ill managed economic based created social and political errors. External hand was involved in the demise of Mutapa state. The economic, socio-political activities weakened the great Mutapa kingdom. The Portuguese mingled into the economic, social and political branches of Mutapa thereby distorting its progress and performance. By damaging these strong structures, Mutapa state collapsed.   

Leon Chigwanda is an Economic historian and Researcher with Great Zimbabwe University.

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