The Rozvi state (1684-95)

Collapse of the Mutapa state saw the birth of strong military empire called the Rozvi State. Changamire Dombo the Mutapa king defeated the Portugese at the battle of Mangwe. This battle helped Changamire Dombo to elope from the Zambezi area and resurface to his new capital city Tsindi ruins which is present day Marondera and Macheke. Due to his strong military tactics he managed to conquer and raid weaker states. Changamire Dombo expanded his space and later established his capital in Manyanga. Changamire Dombo became stronger and later secured his final capital known as Danangombe (Dhlo-Dhlo) in present day Matabeleland.  The word Rozvi was given to these militant people meaning the plunders.

Oral tradition also helps to construct the Rozvi state. In fact, Dombo is believed to have possessed supernatural powers that made him earn power, respect and he got more followers. Interestingly, Dombo is believed to have had the ability to change white colour cattle to red colour, making rain and turning his soldiers to be brave.  It is therefore prudent to ascertain that Dombo’s strong military tactics earned him a stepping stone in erecting a powerful kingdom. This political leverage enabled him to live peacefully and erecting proper economic and social policies that helped the rise and expansion of his state.  

Rise, growth and expansion of the Rozvi state

The Rozvi state grew due to sound economic, social and political polices. In fact politics was  behind the rise of the Mutapa state. Politically Changamire Dombo managed to defeat the Portuguese in 1684 and 1695 near Butwa. This move led Dombo to acquire more land and expand in Mbire and Guruuswa. Land is the source of wealth. Grabbing of fertile land made it possible for changamire Dombo to grow crops and rear animals. Crop cultivation made it possible for the Rozvi state to grow and expand. Agriculture was subsistence and every family was compelled to feed itself. Crops grown included rice, vegetables and pumpkins. Crop cultivation was made possible through the use of axes and hoes. Food for the chief was made available through the Zunde Ramambo scheme, a community-based program where most, if not all villagers participate in helping the king till his land and weed the crops. These tools made it possible to grow more crops to feed the growing population. Various methods to increase yield were put in place such as nhimbe or hoka. It was a system whereby people could gather and do work collectively. Yields improved and Rozvi became food sufficient to its people. Thus, it was possible for the state to expand with a healthy population. Animal husbandry of cattle, sheep and goat was successful due to the abundant grazing land and water availability. Cattle were a symbol of wealth and were for chiefs and important people in the society. Goats and sheep were normally used for relish. Thus, the Rozvi people ate healthy food and hence were able-bodied. It is also imprtant to note that Changamire Dombo’s powerful  army gave rise to prosperous agricultural development.

Land became the source for erecting sound economic and social activities. The king introduced military tactics to improve its efficiency and execution. The move was aimed at safeguarding the territory and preserving its gains. Military innovations such as the use of semi-circle, military weapons such as bows, arrows, assegais, wooden shields strengthened the Rozvi army. The army managed to grab more land and human resources. Land became available for men to get involved  mining. Mining of precious minerals such as gold and copper was done. All minerals were surrendered to the chiefs and thus became a form of tribute payment. It maintained loyalty, respect and integrity. Harmony excited in the society which saw the continuous mining of such precious minerals. Tribute was then a way of showing respect to the King. Items of tribute payments include, gold, cattle, ivory, axes and hoes. These items proves beyond doubt that the Rozvi land everything was  a self-sustaining community. The availability of land made hunting and gathering possible. Abundant forest provided the Rozvi people with juicy wild fruits that were nutritious and healthy.  The forest also provided relish such as Howa, tsambatsi, madora and mandere. Gathering of these fruits supplemented relish and improved diet. Hunting of wild animals was also done by the Rozvi people. Military tools were converted to hunting tools. Hunting objects included spears, arrows and axes. Hunting methods such as game nets and pits were used and they were environment friendly. Game meat supplemented the diet of the people to be stronger and energetic. Animals hunted included wild pigs, kudu, elephants and pangolins. Hunting promoted internal and external trade and military dominance. Elephant tasks were exchange with guns which were used then to conquer and attack weaker groups. Thus Rozvi chiefs and kings became politically strong due to the vast rich hunting area which produced elephants as a symbol of trade.  It is imperative to argue that, politics shaped and moulded the stability and expansion of Rozvi Empire.  Also elephant hooves were given to the king and chiefs as a form of tribute. Pangolin hunting was a royal game and they were surrendered to the ruling elite. Pangolin meat became a special dish for the king. The meat was believed to be more delicious, soft and tender.  It is therefore, exposed that Rozvi state strong political organisation stabilised the society and paved way for continual existence.

Hand craft activities promoted both political, social and economic development within the Rozvi state. Hand craft activities including iron smelting, weaving, soap making and basketry were done in promoting the rise and expansion of Rozvi Empire. Production of iron axes and spears improved military and hunting competence.  Weaving of cloth such as nhembe provided a brand that distinguished the Rozvi as a super power. Basketry and soap making improved hygiene and people lived healthy thus saw the continuation of society. The society tried hard to keep pace with time and political power maintained peace, law and order. Thus Changamire Dombo’s first achievement of grabbing abundant land and this was a stepping stone towards the rise, growth and expansion of this military state.  The king was the religious leader together with his  political and legal personnel. This proves beyond doubt that, politics dominated Rozvi existence. Unlike other pre-colonial societies, Rozvi stability and pillars were the army. The king communicated with their god through ancestors. Priest of Mwari were worshiped and they were very powerful. They cemented the voices of ancestors by telling people to obey the words and be loyal to the word of god. Vanyai acted as the intelligence as it networked people by spreading the word of Mwari. Thus religion became the opium of the Rozvi people as they believed and respected the ancestors. Ancestors and spirit mediums were behind the protection and installation of chief and kings. Disobeying a chief was a punishable offence by the ancestors.  Hence social structures were politically constructed and they they fairly contributed to rise and expansion of Rozvi empire.

The Rozvi empire collapsed around 1690 and the reasons for the collapse were complex but politically motivated. Rozvi political dominance and superiority gave and taught other states military tactics. Surprisingly, in 1690 Zwangendaba of the Mtethwa kingdom attacked and gained control of some of the Rozvi people. He managed to conquer little space living other parts untouched. The remaining society was on its path of recovery but Mzilikazi and his stronger Ndebele attacked the society and gained control. Furthermore, the Shangaani managed to raid the Rozvi in Chipinge area and the state began to crumble. Importantly, the Rozvi were only left in Mashonaland areas and it made it possible for the British to usurp power and gained control of the remaining Rozvi Empire. In present day Zimbabwe, the Rozvi people are located in Manicaland-Chipinge, Mashonaland-Marondera and parts of Matebeleland..  People were disturbed of their social and economic ways of life hence they were subdued and spread to different parts of Zimbabwe.

Author: Helen Gwatidzo (Master’s degree in African Economic History UZ)

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