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NASS: The Mutapa State

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    The Mutapa State was established in the 15th century following the decline of the Great Zimbabwe State. The Mutapa state was located on the Northern part of modern day Zimbabwe. The kingdom of Mutapa is said to have stretched between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. According to oral tradition the first “mwene” was a warrior prince Nyatsimbamutota from Great Zimbabwe who was sent to find new sources of salt in the north. Prince Mutota found his salt among the Tavara. They were conquered because of the need to control agricultural land and resources mainly gold and ivory. defines rise as to attain higher rank, status or reputation. This implies that it is to move from a lower position to a higher one. defines decline as a gradual and continuous loss of strength, number, or value. This means becoming less or decrease.

    The rise of the Mutapa was greatly due to the decline and abandonment of Great Zimbabwe due to shortages of food, pastures and natural resources in general. Mudenge S.I.G (1988:38) states that it is possible that civil wars, overpopulation around Great Zimbabwe, famine, plague, decreasing gold production may have led to the decline of this state. The fall of the Great Zimbabwe in the 15th century brought the rising of the northern state of Mutapa. However spoken tradition explains that Mutapa state rose when Nyatsimbamutota was sent by his father Chibatamatosi in search of salt. The methods of getting salt from reeds and from goat dung could no longer meet the needs of the population. However, on his way in search for salt he was attracted to by elephants, pastures and salt in the north. There was also access to trade in salt and other goods along the Zambezi valley river. According to Chigwedere A.S Mutota seemed to have been a dynamic and ambitious man. It appears that Mutota wanted something of his own, his own territory which would be ruled in his own name. Foreign trade with the east coast certainly seems to have been a factor in persuading Mutota to migrate to the Zambezi Valley. The east coast was the only source of the foreign items of trade which were so highly valued in this country.

    Some Shona traditions identify Mutota, as an 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 spectacular madzimbahwe were built. By the late 15th century, Great Zimbabwe had completely lost its wealth, trade, political and cultural importance. Nyatsimba Mutota is said to have conquered many lineage groups as he went along and eventually succeeded in building a large and strong state. Mudenge (2011:38) states the foundation of the Mutapa state was a much slower process of infiltration of the Shangwe – Dande – Chidima regions by the small Karanga groups of hunters/refugees/adventurers from the South.

    Birmingham and Martin (1983:257) says by 1500 Mutapa dynasty had gained control of a large wedge of gold-rich plateau country, a viable agricultural base and a section of Zambezi valley which commanded the trade routes. There were also other ways in which the King maintained his control over his diverse kingdom, one such a way was through the use of traditional symbols, religious rituals and beliefs all which emphasized the kings’ supreme power. One example was that every ruler of a secondary state or territorial unit was expected on an annual basis to relight the royal fire sent from the king’s hearth as a sign of loyalty to and continued confidence in the king. Mutota’s successor, Mutope, extended the kingdom into a great empire. The mwene Mutapa became very rich by exploiting copper and ivory. Mudenge, S (2011:166) states that conventional wisdom has led some modern scholars to assume that trade, mainly gold and ivory, provided the wealth that enabled the Mutapas to create and continue to dominate their state. They argued that trade was so important that the Mutapas were forced to monopolize it. Swahili and Portuguese traders paid annual tax or tribute in form of luxury goods such as cloth to be allowed free passage in the state.

    In 1560 a Catholic missionary called Goncalo da Silveria came to Mutapa. He became a good friend of the king and his mother. However, this angered the people of the Mutapa State. They thought Silveria had become too powerful and they plotted to get rid of him. They told the king that Silveria had come to destroy their kingdom. One night a group of the king’s men strangled Silveria and dumped him body into a pond. It’s said the Portuguese king sent an army to revenge the death of Silveria. This army was defeated easily even
    though it had guns. The Portuguese army did not know the area. The army also wore heavy armour which made it difficult for them to move around. After two years most of them had been killed or died from sickness.

    The Portuguese also finally entered into direct relations with the Mwene Mutapa in the 1560’s. The kingdom engaged in importing goods like silk, ceramics and glassware. Gold and silver were made into bracelets. Mutapa history was dominated by Portuguese attempts to interfere with court politics, civil wars, conquests and trade. However during the 15th century the Mutapa maintained unity and managed to restrict Portuguese attempts to gain control of the markets and trade routes. Mwene Mutapa had a strong control over gold production. Civil fighting within the Mutapa state led to opposing sides calling on the Portuguese for military assistance. The Mutapa State gradually became unstable especially in the wake of internal power struggles and political manipulation and interference from external forces notably the Portuguese merchants.

    According to Mudenge S (2011:225) Gatsi Rusere’s reign was long and eventful. His reign witnessed Maravi Invasions of Mukaranga, a major civil war and the growth of Portuguese influence in Zambezia. However, the biggest disaster was brought about by Gatsi Rusere’s own impetuosity for when he was told of how Kapampo (his captain) had escaped he in a fit of temper ordered the Nengomasha (commanding officer – second most powerful man in Mutapa) to be put to death. By this act Rusere triggered civil wars which lead to his temporary deposition. Rusere found himself with fewer supporters and so was forced to rely on Portuguese support. This act by Rusere further weakened the Mutapa state.

    The Portuguese merchants who were operating in the Mutapa state took advantage of these internal conflicts to further their own economic interest. They supported one rival against the other thus contributing towards the further weakening of the state. The Portuguese then assisted the Mutapa’s enemies, particularly Mavhura to claim the Mutapa kingship. Mavhura was then forced to sign treaties with the Portuguese, thus tying the Mutapa State to the Portuguese. However the Portuguese took this opportunity to
    advance their interests in Mutapa State. This resulted in many armed conflicts in the area.

    Some of Mutapa’s tributaries stopped paying tribute. During this time a treaty was signed allowing the Portuguese to settle within the kingdom. It also allowed the praezeros to establish settlements across the kingdom. The decline of the trade activity in the state was due to Portuguese political interference, attempting to conquer the state. There was also loss of agricultural production, depopulation of the gold producing areas and unregulated trade. According to Wilson, D. (1975) when the Mwene Mutapa moved his capital further north his control of the southern areas of the empire declined. The rival Rozwi line began to dominate the south and old Mutapa State was spilt in two.

    The passing away of the political kingdom founded by Mutota and Matope did not mean the end of all its influence. The Mutapa state ends around 1695 with the rise of the rise to power of the Rozvi State. However, the Mutapas were not wholly ejected from Zimbabwe highlands. The Mutapa state is in spite of civil wars and succession rivalries it continued to exist into the 19th century and remained independent of the Portuguese.

    Birmingham, D.
    and Martin, P. (1983) History of Central Africa, USA: Longman Mudenge S.I.G (2011) A Political History of Munhumutapa c1400- 1902, Harare, African Publishing Group Chigwedere, A.S (1980) From Mutapa to Rhodes, Harare: Macmillan Wilson, D (1975)A History on South and Central Africa: Press

    Syndicate of the University of Cambridge
    Online sources accessed on 10. 10. 13

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