Mutapa Empire

Mutapa Empire (1430 to 1760) was an empire, in present day Zimbabwe, extending to the Mozambique coast. It was the successor kingdom of Great Zimbabwe. The empire was comprised of a Karanga majority speaking population.


Around 1425, Mutota, king of the Shona, embarked on conquest of the inland plateau, the region located between the Zambezi River and the Limpopo River, to the coast of Mozambique.

Matope, son of Mutota completed the conquest and expansion started by his father. The empire was the most powerful political entity in the region for most of the 1470s. In 1480, Matope died, hurling the empire into a power struggle, with factions seeking to split from the empire. Dombo or Changa, a noble was able to split away from the empire to the south and founded a separate Shona kingdom, the Rozwi Kingdom.

Portuguese and Rozwi Empire

During the sixteenth century, the Portuguese arrived seeking gold, setting up trading stations. They tried to gain political control of Mutapa territory by siding with the various dynastic clans and forging alliance with rival kingdoms, like the Maravi. By 1628, the strategy worked. In 1628, Mavura a Portuguese puppet was placed on the throne. Mavura signed treaties giving away all mineral rights to the Portuguese. Overtime, the Portuguese was able to undermine and destroy the monomotapan system. The Portuguese then tried to use the populace to mine gold. The populace fled their villages, seeking protection from more powerful and wealthy strongmen, who had strong private armies. Much violence marked the Mutapan Kingdom, with private armies of the wealthy, raiding, resisting the Portuguese, and protecting cattle. Between 1684 through 1696, the Mutapa Kingdom was absorbed into the Rozwi Empire, which had become the dominant empire in the region. The Mutapa Kingdom became a much diminished kingdom in the empire.

Political Organization

The empire was ruled by the munhumutapa (mwanamutapa, monomotapa), who was considered divine. Divinity was achieved with conquering Mutota incorporating other territorial spirits and shrines. The capital changed with time. Mutapa continued the stone building traditions of Great Zimbabwe. Zvongombe was one of the early capitals and contains some of the elaborate stone structures seen in Great Zimbabwe. Conquest was solidified by land distribution. A type of feudal system developed.

The empire was ruled on the capital, provincial, and village levels. Initially, it was only kins of the munhumutapa were assigned to provinces and villages. Individuals called nevanje controlled provinces.


International Trade

Gold was a major commodity of trade. Gold minning was an important economic activity, more for international export via the Swahili town of Sofala and later Portuguese ports. The empire held a monopoly on gold. It was forbidden by law to reveal the location of gold mines. Transgression of this law held a death sentence. The state owned all gold in the empire.

Ivory was another important commodity for international trade and much sought after by the Swahili and Portuguese.

International trade, stimulated the growth of an African merhchant class called the vashambadzi. They were middlemen between african laborers providing goods and Swahili and Portuguese traders. 

Africans mainly purchase cloth, beads, and other exotic goods from the Portuguese.

Local Trade

Iron was also mined. Iron was more important for the local trade, which was used for making hoes. Salt,   especially in the Middle Save region, was very important to local trade. The empire grew cotton and produced cotton cloth. They even made cloth from the bark of the baobab tree.

Swahilis established bazaars in the kingdom. Later Portuguese traders in during the 1500s would usurp the Swahili traders in Mutapa, by establishing feiras.

Works Cited

Davidson, Basil. Africa in History, Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Touchstone Book, pp. 50, ISBN 0-684-82667-4

Ogot, Bethwell A(1992). Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Unesco. p. 640-682  ISBN 923101711X, 9789231017117

Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa, rev, 2nd. ed. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2005, ISBN 0-333-59957-8