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Monomotapa Empire

From the 15th century, if not earlier, until about the close of the 18th century, a considerable part of this area was ruled by a hereditary monarch known as the Monomotapa, whose Zimbabwe (capital) was, in the earlier part of the period in Mashonaland. Some of the Monomotapas during the 16th and 17th centuries entered into political and commercial relations with the Portuguese. The Monomotapa “ empire” included many vassal states, and probably fell to pieces through intertribal fighting, which greatly reduced the number of inhabitants. In the early years of the 19th century the tribes appear to have lost all cohesion. The people were mainly agriculturists, but the working of the gold-mines, whence the Monomotapas had obtained much of their wealth, was not wholly abandoned.

Mwene Mutapa, or Monomotapa, was the title borne by a line of kings ruling an African territory between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, in what is now Zimbabwe and Mozambique, from the 14th to the 17th century. The standard map of southern Africa throughout the 17th century depicted Monomotapa as occupying much if not all of South Africa. What was the condition of this so-called empire, and what the measure of the effective dignity of its emperor, were points rather difficult to determine. The kingdom of Monomotapa, lying altogether south of the Zambeze, was one of those African states which have been hitherto invariably seen magnified through the medium of ignorance and credulity.

Their domain was often called the empire of the Mwene Matapa, or simply Matapa (or Mutapa). Today, it is associated with the World Heritage historical site known as the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, the largest ancient stone construction south of the Sahara, located in the southeastern part of modern Zimbabwe. When the Portuguese first came upon these vast ruins in the early 1500s, they thought they had found the fabled capital of the Queen of Sheba. In further expeditions, the Portuguese gained control of the country during the first half of the 17th century, but were expelled by tribal warriors after a disastrous defeat in 1693.

Zimbabwe was well enough known to the Portuguese between the years 1550 and 1700; that it was the home of the court of the so-called Emperor of Monomotapa; that a Christian Church nourished, or at any rate existed there; and that under the shadow of its ancient walls the protomartyr of South-eastern Africa, Father Consalvo Silveira, of the Society of Jesus, laid down his life in the service of the Faith. Afterwards it would seem that a new incursion of barbarians took place—how many such have those ruins witnessed? Probably these savages were the Zulu; at least they stamped out whatever civilisation, Christian or Mahommedan, still nickered in Monomotapa so completely that even native tradition is silent concerning it, and once more oblivion covered the land and its story.

In 1871 Herr Mauch re-discovered the fortress-temple of Zimbabwe, that now, as in the time of the early Portuguese, was said to be nothing less than the site of one of the ancient Ophirs. The site of the region of Ophir has from time immemorial been a bone of contention amongst archaeologists, and vast learning has been uselessly expended to prove its locality, whether in Arabia Felix, or Arabia Petrea, Socotra, the Persian Gulf, India, the Punjaub, Malacca, or the Moluccas of Spain. Such a weighty authority as Milton, who surely ought to know something on the subject, is in favor of Africa.

The empire of Monomotapa was represented by some to be bounded on the north and partly on the west by the river Zambesi— Empondo, or Quama; on the remaining part of the western border and on the south by the country of the Hottentots and certain Kafirs, from which it was separated by the river Magnika, called also that of 'Lorenzo Marques,' and the 'Holy Ghost.' On the east Monomotapa was bounded by the Indian Ocean. The richest mines were said to be those of Massapa, called Afur or Fura, where has been found a lump of gold worth twelve thousand ducats, and another of the value of fourhundred thousand. The mines of Manchika and Butua were reported to be not much inferior.

Great ZimbabweGreat Zimbabwe, built in about 1200 AD is a perplexing UN world heritage site. At its heart is the Great Enclosure - a wall comprised of over 5000 cubic metres of stone and marking a perimeter 240 metres in length. "The Great Zimbabwe" is situated in the territory of the British South Africa Company between the Limpopo and Zambesi rivers, far inland, and 3,300 feet above sea level in latitude 20° 16' 30", and longitude 31° 10* 10" E. Built of granite rock on a granite foundation, the ruins of the fortress are composed of rough blocks of stone put together without mortar. Situated on the top of a hill and protected on the south by a precipice ninety feet high, the position is made still stronger by being protected in one direction by gigantic granite boulders, while on the only accessible side a wall of massive thickness was erected.

The main wall is thirteen feet thick on the summit, with a batter of one foot in six; it is thirty feet high in parts, and the flat causeway on the top was decorated on the outside edge by a succession of small round towers alternating with tall monoliths; seven round towers in all we made out, about three feet in diameter, and several others had been destroyed by the fall of a portion of the wall. The labyrinthine nature of the building baffles description.

The chiefs have dynastic names, like the Pharaohs and the Caesars, and the tribal name sometimes becomes the dynastic name, but not often. Thus at Zimbabwe the dynastic name was Mgabi.

In 1891, after the occupation of Mashonaland by the Chartered Company of British South Africa, Mr. Bent, the learned explorer, visited the ruins of Zimbabwe and proved to the satisfaction of most archaeologists that they were undoubtedly of Phoenician origin. There are the massive and familiar Phoenician walls, there the sacred birds, figured, however, not as the dove of Cypris but as the vulture of her Sidonian representative, Astarte, and there, in plenty, the primitive and unpleasing objects of Nature-worship, which in this shape or that are present wherever the Phoenician reared his shrines. There also stands the great building, half temple, half fortress, containing the sacred cone in its inner court, as at Paphos, Byblos, and Emesus.

In the year 1630 the Emperor of Monomotapa organised and executed a massacre of all the Christians in his country, among them the ambassador sent to his court by the " captain of Mozambique." Thereupon Father Louis, who was a Christian militant, " for the love of our Lord and honour of religion," put himself at the head of an army of fifteen thousand men, and advancing to a place named Mocapa, in either one or two battles attacked and routed the host of the emperor, which numbered a hundred thousand men, killing the greater part of the "grandees of the empire." Marching in triumph to Zimbabwe, Father Louis crowned Manura, an uncle of the defeated monarch, making him tributary to the "Catholic King." Further, he built and dedicated a church to the Blessed Virgin of the Eosary, and converted the new king and his wife to the Christian Faith.

The peculiar ability of Sebastiao Xavier Botelho, Captain-General of Mozambique from August 1829 to January 1832:, contrived to magnify it still further, even to distortion :— "This empire (Monomotapa) is divided into eastern and western, the latter of which portions is the more extensive, and is named Mocaranga. The learned Portuguese, Jose Correa da Serra, affirms that Mocaranga is the proper name of a very extensive country north of Chicova, a distinction of little consequence, as the country in question makes a part of the great empire of Monomotapa. The western part, called Mucaranga, embraces eight kingdoms, viz. Corruro-Medra, Mujau, Mococo, Turgeno, Gengir-bomba, Mano-emuges, Ruenga, and Bororo. The eastern part, properly called Monomotapa, comprehends the following eight kingdoms:—Chicova, Sacumbe, Inbabazoe, Munhare, Chirero, Manica, Chingamira, and Sofala. All these kingdoms are tributaries of Monomotapa, except Sofala, of which the Portuguese are the exclusive possessors."—Pp. 311, 312.

What a rare union of boldness and precision! The south is called the east—the north is called the west. But of the eight kingdoms named, occupying the whole interior of the African continent, from the vicinity of its eastern to that of its western shores, and from the Zambeze northwards to Abyssinia - five of the eight names are certainly not authentic, and ought not to be admitted into a modern map; and it need hardly be added that the other three never had any connexion with Monomotapa.

In the customs of the Monomotapa empire may be detected a good deal of Arab influence, and when the Portuguese arrived on the east coast, they found the Arabs there in considerable force, and had a struggle with them for the possession of Sofala. These Arabs understood the customs of the blacks better than the Portuguese did, and passed into the interior of their country on trading expeditions as the Portuguese hardly seem to have done, but probably just as the Arabs of the Sofala coast did later. The Portuguese Jesuit missionaries penetrated to the court of the Monomotapa, and boasted that they had converted the Emperor to Christianity. The Arabs were jealous of their influence, and intrigued against them, and had the missionaries destroyed, and so the battle of the faiths went on.

Eventually the king sent three of his sons as viceroys to different parts of his territory ; and, when the father died, each of these three had continued to govern independently -his own province, so that the ancient power was broken up into the kingdoms of Kitewe, or the Sofala district ; Chihanga, or the Manika district; Sedanda, or the Sabi district; and the Monomotapa district proper, which probably lay along the Zambezi, and seems to have preserved its name to Livingstone’s day.

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Page last modified: 25-10-2012 15:44:17 ZULU