The kingdom of Mutapa is sometimes, despite the lack of evidence of an administrative apparatus, flatteringly described as the Mutapa Empire. The kingdom would, however, nominally control territory south of the Zambezi River bend in what is today's northern Zimbabwe and a small slice of southern Zambia. Here in the valley of Mazoe, a tributary of the Zambezi, the kingdom prospered and was able to subjugate, or at least exert some form of dominance over neighbouring kingdoms like the Mannyika, Uteve, and Mbara. Here there were also alluvial and reef gold deposits but not as rich as those once found at Great Zimbabwe. Beyond these areas, it is not known where precisely the borders of the Mutapa kingdom extended to except that its heartland was the Mukaranga region.
Monarchs ruled over a population of warriors who were also farmers and cattle-herders and who fought for the ruling elite in campaigns against rival tribes and chiefdoms. Initially, this arrangement worked well but rulers either did not or could not impose any form of administrative apparatus across their kingdom so that its unity, and indeed, survival, very much depended on the personality and talents of particular rulers. By appointing their own family members as regional governors and not creating any institutions of local government, whenever a chief died so too did the wholly centralised state apparatus. His successor had to then balance the difficulties of appeasing his own loyal followers and those powerful males of his predecessor's regime. A result was frequent civil wars between the king and those governors not keen to give up their power. Around 1490 CE the southern part of the kingdom split off to become the kingdom of Changamire, which would prosper into the 18th century CE.
The kingdom of Mutapa and the Portuguese: on the failure of conquistadors in Africa (1571-1695)
Among the most puzzling questions of world history is why most of Africa wasn’t overrun by colonial powers in the 16th and 17th century when large parts of the Americas and south-east Asia were falling under the influence of European empires. While a number of rather unsatisfactory answers have been offered, most of which posit the so-called “disease barrier” theory, an often overlooked reality is that European settler colonies were successfully established over fairly large parts of sub-equatorial Africa during this period.
In the 16th and 17th century, the kingdom of Mutapa in south-east Africa, which was once one of the largest exporters of gold in the Indian ocean world, fell under the influence of the Portuguese empire as its largest African colony. Mutapa’s political history between its conquest and the ultimate expulsion of the Portuguese, is instructive in solving the puzzle of why most of Africa retained its politically autonomy during the initial wave of colonialism.
The first Portuguese invasion of Mutapa; from conquistadors to “King’s wives”
Beginning in the 1530s, a steady trickle of Portuguese traders begun settling in the interior trading towns and in 1560, an ambitious Jesuit priest travelled to the Mutapa capital to convert the ruler. His attempt to convert the king Mupunzagutu failed and the latter reportedly executed the priest, having received the advice of his Swahili courtiers about the Portuguese who'd by then already colonized most of the east African coast following their bombardment of Kilwa, Mombasa and Mozambique, the last of which was by then their base of operation.
Long after the news about the priest's execution had spread to Portugal, a large expedition force was sent to conquer Mutapa ostensibly to avenge the execution, but mostly to seize its gold mines and its rumored stores of silver. An army of 1,000 Portuguese soldiers --five times larger than Pizarro's force that conquered the Inca empire-- landed in Sofala in 1571, it was armed with musketeers led by Francisco Barreto , and was supported by a cavalry unit. It advanced up to Sena but it was ground to a halt as it approached the forces of Maravi (Mutapa's neighbor), and while they defeated the Maravi in pitched battle, the latter fortified themselves, and the most that the Portuguese captured were a few cows.
Another expedition was organized with 700 musketeers in 1573, supported by even more African auxiliaries and cavalry, and it managed to score a major victory in the kingdom of Manica but eventually retreated. A final expedition with 200 musketeers was sent up the Zambezi river but was massacred by an interior force (likely the Maravi). By 1576, the last remaining Portuguese soldier from this expedition had left.
Following these failed incursions, the Portuguese set up small captaincies at the towns of Tete and Sena and formed alliances with their surrounding chieftaincies controlling the narrow length of territory along the banks of the Zambezi. Like the Swahili traders whom they had supplanted, the Portuguese traders were reduced to paying annual tax to Mutapa, and were turned into the 'king's wives'.
This story was originally brought by Isaac Samual.