The Kingdom of Mutapa, sometimes referred to as the Mutapa Empire (Shona: Wene we Mutapa; Portuguese: Monomotapa) was a medieval kingdom which stretched between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers of southern Africa in the modern states of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Its founders are culturally and politically related to the builders who constructed Great Zimbabwe.
The Portuguese term Monomotapa is a transliteration of the title Mwenemutapa (Lord of the conquered land). However it came to be applied to the Kingdom as a whole, and was used to indicate its territory on maps of the period.
The origins of the ruling dynasty at Mutapa go back to some time in the first half of the 15th century. According to oral tradition, the first "mwene" was a warrior prince named Nyatsimba Mutota from the Kingdom of Zimbabwe sent to find new sources of salt in the north. Prince Mutota found his salt among the Tavara, a Shona subdivision, who were prominent elephant hunters. They were conquered, a capital was established 350 km north of Great Zimbabwe at Zvongombe by the Zambezi.
Mutota's successor, Matope, extended this new kingdom into a great empire encompassing most of the lands between Tavara and the Indian Ocean. The Mwenemutapa became very wealthy by exploiting copper from Chidzurgwe and ivory from the middle Zambezi. This expansion weakened the Torwa kingdom, the southern Shona state from which Mutota and his dynasty originated. Mwenemutapa Matope's armies overran the kingdom of the Manyika as well as the coastal kingdoms of Kiteve and Madanda. By the time the Portuguese arrived on the coast of Mozambique, the Mutapa Kingdom was the premier Shona state in the region.
The religion of the Mutapa kingdom revolved around ritual consultation of spirits and a cult of royal ancestors. Shrines were maintained within the capital by spirit mediums known as "mhondoros". The mhondoros also served as oral historians recording the names and deeds of past kings.
The Portuguese dominated much of southeast Africa's coast, laying waste to Sofala and Kilwa, by 1515. Their main goal was to dominate the trade with India; however, they unwittingly became mere carriers for luxury goods between Mutapa's sub-kingdoms and India. As the Portuguese settled along the coast, they made their way into the hinterland as sertanejos (backwoodsmen). These sertanejos lived alongside Swahili traders and even took up service among Shona kings as interpreters and political advisors. One such sertanejo managed to travel through almost all the Shona kingdoms, including Mutapa's metropolitican district, between 1512 and 1516.
The Portuguese finally entered into direct relations with the Mwenemutapa in the 1560s. They recorded a wealth of information about the Mutapa kingdom as well as its predecessor, Great Zimbabwe. According to Swahili traders whose accounts were recorded by the Portuguese historian João de Barros, Great Zimbabwe was an ancient capital city built of stones of marvellous size without the use of mortar. And while the site was not within Mutapa's borders, the Mwenemutapa kept noblemen and some of his wives there.
In 1569, Sebastian of Portugal made a grant of arms to the Mwenemutapa. These were blazoned: Gules between two arrows Argent an african hoe barwise bladed Or handled Argent - The shield surmounted by a Crown Oriental. This was probably the first grant of arms to a native of southern Africa; however it is unlikely that these arms were ever actually used by the Mwenemutapa.
In 1561, Gonçalo da Silveira, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary managed to make his way into the Mwenemutapa's court and convert him to Christianity. This did not go well with the Muslim merchants in the capital, and they persuaded the king to kill the Jesuit only a few days after the former's baptism. This was all the excuse the Portuguese needed to penetrate the interior and take control of the gold mines and ivory routes. After a lengthy preparation, an expedition of 1,000 men under Francisco Barreto was launched in 1568. They managed to get as far as the upper Zambezi, but local disease decimated the force. The Portuguese returned to their base in 1572 and took their frustrations out on the Swahili traders, whom they massacred. They replaced them with Portuguese and their half-African progeny who became prazeiros (estate holders) of the lower Zambezi. Mutapa maintained a position of strength exacting a subsidy from each Portuguese captain of Mozambique that took the office. The mwenemutapa also levied a duty of 50 percent on all trade goods imported.
Mutapa proved invulnerable to attack and even economic manipulation due to the mwenemutapa's strong control over gold production. What posed the greatest threat was infighting among different factions which led to opposing sides calling on the Portuguese for military aid.
In 1629 the mwenemutapa attempted to throw out the Portuguese. He failed and was overthrown, leading to the Portuguese installation of Mavura Mhande Felipe on the throne. Mutapa signed treaties making it a Portuguese vassal and ceding gold mines, but none of these concessions were ever put into effect. Mutapa remained nominally independent, though practically a client state. All the while, Portugal increased control over much of southeast Africa with the beginnings of a colonial system.
Another problem for Mutapa was that its tributaries such as Kiteve, Madanda and Manyika ceased paying tribute. At the same time, a new kingdom under a Rozwi dynasty near Barwe was on the rise. All of this was hastened by Portugal retaining a presence on the coast and in the capital. At least one part of the 1629 treaty that was acted on was the provision allowing Portuguese settlement within Mutapa. It also allowed the praezeros to establish fortified settlements across the kingdom. In 1663, the praezeros were able to depose mwenemutapa Siti Kazurukamusapa and put their own nominee, Kamharapasu Mukombwe on the throne.
By the 1600s, a dynasty of Rozwi pastoralists under the leadership of a changamire (king/general) began transforming the Butwa kingdom into new regional power. The Rozwi not only originated from the Great Zimbabwe area, but still continued to build their towns in stone. They were also importing goods from the Portuguese without any regard for the mwenemutapa.
By the late 17th century, Changamire Dombo was actively challenging Mutapa. In 1684 his forces encountered and decisively defeated those of Mwenemutapa Kamharapasu Mukombwe just south of Mutapa's metro district at the Battle of Mahungwe. When Mukombwe died in 1692, a succession crisis erupted. The Portuguese backed one successor and Dombo another. In support of his candidate, Changamire razed the Portuguese fair-town of Dembarare next to the Mutapa capital and slaughtered the Portuguese traders and their entire following. From 1692 until 1694, Mwenemutapa Nyakambira rules Mutapa independently. Nyakambira was later be killed in battle with the Portuguese who then placed Nyamaende Mhande on the throne as their puppet.
In 1695, Changamire Dombo overran the gold-producing kingdom of Manyika and took his army east and destroyed the Portuguese fair-town of Masikwesi. This allowed him complete control of all gold-producing territory from Butwa to Manyika, supplanting Mutapa as the premier Shona kingdom in the region.
It appears neither the Rozwi nor the Portuguese could maintain control of the Mutapa state for very long, and it moved back and forth between the two throughout the 17th century. Far from a victim of conquest, the Mutapa rulers actually invited in foreign powers to bolster their rule. This included vassalage to Portuguese East Africa from 1629 to 1663 and vassalage to the Rozwi Empire from 1663 until the Portuguese return in 1694. Portuguese control of Mutapa was maintained or at least represented by an armed garrison at the capital. In 1712, yet another coveter of the throne invited the Rozwi back to put him on the throne and kick out the Portuguese. This they did, and Mutapa again came under the contrl of the Rozwi Empire. The new mwenemutapa Samatambira Nyamhandu I become their vassal, while the outgoing king was forced to retreat to Chidama in what is now Mozambique.
The Rozwi quickly lost interest in Mutapa, as they sought to consolidate their position in the south. Mutapa regained its independence around 1720. By this time, the kingdom of Mutapa had lost nearly all of the Zimbabwe plateau to the Rowi Empire. In 1723, Nyamhandi moved his capital into the valley near the Portuguese trading settlement of Tete, under Mwmenemutapa Nyatsusu. Upon his death in 1740, the young Dehwe Mapunzagutu took power. He sought Portuguese support and invited them back to Mutapa along with their garrison of armed men, but Mutapa remained independent.
The mwenemutapa died in 1759, sparking yet another civil war for the throne. This one was more destructive than its predecessors and Mutapa never recovered. The "winners" ended up governing an even more reduced land from Chidima. They used the title Mambo a Chidima and ruled independently of Portugal until 1917 when Mambo Chioko, the last king of the dynasty, was killed in battle against the Portuguese.
The empire had another indirect side effect on the history of Southern Africa. Gold from the empire inspired in Europeans a belief that Munhumutapa held the legendary mines of King Solomon, referred to in the Bible as Ophir..
The belief that the mines were inside the Munhumutapa kingdom in southern Africa was one of the factors that led to the Portuguese exploration of the hinterland of Sofala in the 1500s, and this contributed to early development of Mozambique, as the legend was widely used among the less educated populace to recruit colonists. Some documents suggest that most of the early colonists dreamed of finding the legendary city of gold in southern Africa, a belief mirroring the early South American colonial search for El Dorado and quite possibly inspired by it. Early trade in gold came to an end as the mines ran out, and the deterioration of the Mutapa state eliminated the financial and political support for further developing sources of gold.