Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Political History of Munhumutapa: A Book by Dr. Stan Mudenge

A political history of Munhumutapa - a book by Dr Mudenge

Saturday, 05 March 2011 20:44
Features Dr Stan Mudenge

The Sunday Mail begins a two-part serialisation drawn from Dr Stan Mudenge’s new book that tells the story of the history of the Mutapa Empire as it expanded and then shrank, spanning five centuries from about 1400 until the last chief to use the title died at the turn of the 20th century. Dr Mudenge’s compelling account of this period examines changes in the political, religious and military structures of the state, its economic base and the court institutions. He puts a firmer chronological framework to the study of pre-colonial Zimbabwean history.

The precise relationship between the “Great Zimbabwe State” and its successor, the Mutapa Empire, remains obscure, and so too is the actual story of how the Mutapa Empire was founded.

The best evidence for the existence of a state around the Great Zimbabwe is deduced from archaeology.

Whether this state was restricted to the area immediately surrounding the Great Zimbabwe Ruins or included much of present-day Zimbabwe is not clear.

All that can be confidently said is that the culture associated with the Great Zimbabwe civilisation spread far beyond the vicinity of the ruins. It spread as far as present-day Mozambique and included much of the future Mutapa Empire.

It is also known that the people of the Great Zimbabwe state had trading relations with the east coast as well as with other parts of Zimbabwe, such as the Urungwe District which appears to have sent copper objects to the Great Zimbabwe.

It is possible that Zimbabwe cotton or cotton cloth (machira) and Chidima-Dande salt may have been other items sent from the Zambezi Valley to the Great Zimbabwe state.

The history of the Mutapa Empire from its foundation until about 1490 suffers from a lack of accurate dating. But after that date Portuguese sources can be used to reconstruct its story.

Prior to that time, historians have relied on oral evidence collected in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Although these oral sources purport to give specific names/events of the Great Zimbabwe state period and the Mutapa state before 1490 it is not at all clear as to how reliable these can be.

It seems more likely that the events described in these sources for the pre-1490 period are in effect a much telescoped version of what happened.

We know for certain that our chief source, mhondoro Mutota, by giving only 14 Mutapas who ruled from c.1700 to 1902, in fact remembered only half of the actual number of Mutapas who succeeded to the throne during that period.

The same is true of Pacheco’s informants who remembered only 20 Mutapas who ruled from the beginning of the state to 1862. The true figure should have been more than 40 Mutapas.

Following similar reasoning, it seems that the names of six Mutapas said to have succeeded before 1490 are most probably a telescoped version of the reality.

Therefore, the achievements often ascribed to such legendary figures as Mutota and Matope may well represent processes of state formation to which a number of other as yet unknown Mutapa rulers contributed.

It is therefore as embodiment of the process of state formation that the stories of these rulers are here retold.

According to archaeological evidence, the “Great Zimbabwe State” began to decline from the mid-14th century. It is not clear whether this decline was caused by internal or external factors.

It is possible that civil wars, overpopulation around the Great Zimbabwe, famine, plague, decreasing gold production and/or coastal trade may have led to the decline of this state.

One writer has even suggested that decreasing rainfall and earth movements in the region hampered the navigability of the Save River which is said to have been the main trade route of the Great Zimbabwe state.

Either as a consequence of or in response to some such forces as suggested above, some elements within the state began moving northwards, towards a region already in trade contact with the Great Zimbabwe state.

The evidence from the oral sources gives two different processes of the foundation of the Mutapa state.

One is that of a conquering army from the Great Zimbabwe state, under Prince Mutota, swinging through Shangwe into Dande in search of salt.

If indeed Mutota was a prince of the ruler of the Great Zimbabwe state, given as Chimubatamatosi, it is just conceivable that such a conquering army could in fact have established the Mutapa Empire.

The second version presents a less dramatic but much more complex, and perhaps more believable, picture.

According to this latter version, the foundation of the Mutapa Empire was a much slower process of infiltration of the Shangwe-Dande-Chidima regions by small Karanga groups of hunters, refugees, adventurers from the south.

Over a period of time, perhaps covering nearly half a century, one of these Karanga elephant hunters from the south, known to us as Mutota, a man of outstanding abilities then living in Shangwe, rose to prominence.

He began to be interested in Moslem traders coming from the newly established sultanate of Angoche who were using the Zambezi trade route into the interior of Zimbabwe instead of the traditional Sofala overland route.

The Angoche traders used to trade for ivory and gold with some Tonga and Tavara societies along the Zambezi River.

The existence of good rock salt in Dande, an area to the northeast of Shangwe, further excited the Karanga hunters’ interest in that region.
It seems that by that time the hunter(s) had made alliances with some of the Mombara, Tonga and Tavara groups and individuals.

Traditions recall that one such individual, a man called Netondo or Nyakatondo, probably a local trader who used to buy ivory from the Karanga and sell it to the Moslern traders, became a close ally of Mutota.

A Political History of Munhumutapa c. 1400-1902 by S.I.G. Mudenge, published by African Publishing Group, 2011. The revised edition of this award-winning book is updated with a reconstruction of the early 18th century Mutapa history that enhances our understanding of the politics of that period.

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