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Can Zimbabwe return to its former Great Zimbabwe trading era?

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

From Kilwa Kisiwani, to Oman, India and China... the global trade of Zimbabwean commodities spanning the Indian ocean. Was Great Zimbabwe the power house of the Southern African economy in the 13th and 14th Century?

Great Zimbabwe – the grandest African ruins south of the Sahara – retains its enigma, but recent excavations have produced more pieces in the giant puzzle. Fragments of blue and white Chinese porcelain have been dug out, along with local pottery. Glued together, the delicate pieces form about a third of a Ming dish dating from the sixteenth century.

In the 9th century, Swahili began to expand south to southern Tanzania. This expansion was connected to the development of harbours, ocean sailing vessels, and trade with the Arab world. Imported glass beads in several Early Iron Age sites show that the trade network had extended to southern Africa by the 8th and 9th centuries.

The distribution of ancient workings (Summers, 1969) shows that visible gold reefs were concentrated on the Zimbabwe plateau in greenstone belts not found in central or southern Mozambique. Thus, gold from Southern Africa had to come from its hinterland. The most important port at the beginning of the Swahili trade is thought to have been Mogadishu in southern Somalia. The importance of Kilwa, south of Zanzibar, began to increase in the 12th century, and some 100 years later it was the seat of maritime power. A marked increase in international demand contributed to an upsurge in gold production in the 13th and 14th centuries. As a result, gold from Great Zimbabwe helped to support a boom at Kilwa. The distribution of Mapungubwe sites, Mapungubwe pottery in ancient workings (e.g. Jones, 1939) and Mapungubwe dates (Summers, 1969) from the Aboyne and Geelong Mines show that the Mapungubwe state expanded north to control some of the gold fields.

The international consumers responsible for the gold boom included the East and Far East namely India, and China. In addition to gold, the Chinese wanted ivory and leopard skins. In return Chinese celadon, a green-glazed stone ware, made its way to Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe. Part of the Indian Ocean trade followed the rhythms of the monsoons. African items were taken from the interior to coastal stations such as Sofala where Swahili transported them up the coast in ships to Kilwa.

After taxation, Arab traders sailed on the easterly monsoon to southern Arabia and India. There they exchanged the African items for glass beads, cloth and glazed ceramics. On the reverse monsoon, the sailors returned to Kilwa where they were taxed again, and then Swahili sailed down the coast to Sofala to begin another cycle. A east/west route across the ocean, from South East Asia to Sofala, could be competed in a few weeks at any time of year. The return took about three months. Some beads in the Mapungubwe area have a South East Asian link (Wood, 2000, 2005). Traders used both the southern and coastal routes, and the Indian Ocean network was complex, involving Indians, Arabs, Swahili and Indonesians before the Portuguese. It is the surplus wealth from this trade, and its associated multicultural interaction, that presented new opportunities and challenges to people in the Mapungubwe landscape. Glass beads deposits show that external trade also encompassed the Great Zimbabwe area. There are lessons in the deposits of glass beads as they were the currency of the time and although some materials where exchanged on account of barter such as mined metal goods, most goods had a medium of exchanged based on glass beads. Lessons can be learnt from these two states such as their commitment to self determination as with currency, the imported beads where eventually manufactured internally by the people of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe, once they developed the technique from the originis of their imports like China. Mapungubwe also added value to metal mined and produced elsewhere, particularly from further south and with regards to Zimbabwe, gold coming from further inland northern states and controlled the export of these goods to international markets. Mapungubwe’s vulnerability lay in the fact that it did not have full control over the source of gold, leading to Zimbabwe taking that central position of trade of the commodity.

Around the 1300's a change in hands of centralisation of trade started to emerge from Mapungubwe to Great Zimbabwe. The growth of Great Zimbabwe was accredited to its location closer to Sofala, the vast new gold mines it had control over, developments in technology for mining and new agricultural lands hosting a larger population than could in Mapangubwe. Some historians have posted the argument of picturing Southern african civilisations as one state, as was recognised by the Greeks in 9th century BC with South East Africa then known as Azania. Judging from the interactions of trade, cultural exchanges united ecosystem of these cities, from Mapangubwe, to Great Zimbabwe to Sofala to Kilwa and the rest of the world. These African states depended on each other to prosper. This is proven by that Kilwa Kiswani decline at the same time Great Zimbabwe had dismantled. Demonstrating the dependancy Kilwa Kiswani had on the Great Zimbabwe gold mines and sustained trade links it could facilitate to other parts of the world. This presented Great Zimbabwe as a power house of trade dependant on other states infrastructure for reaching global markets and other states dependent on the state for its gold mines and other trades. Lessons from Great Zimbabwe give us an understanding of a self determined centralised trading economies, and monetary systems with a Pan African outlook that Pre-colonial leaders maintained, and African Liberators dreamed of having.

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