Rozvi Empire

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The Rozvi Empire

Map showing the extent of the Rozvi empire and its center around Batwa
Map showing the extent of the Rozvi empire and its center around Batwa
Common languagesShona (Karanga)
Belief in Mwari
GovernmentAbsolute Monarchy
• c. 1660 – c. 1695
Changamire Dombo(first)
• 1831–1888
Changamire Tohwechipi
• Rozvi conquest of Butua
• Pioneer Column
1889 1889
1700[1]624,000 km2 (241,000 sq mi)
• 1700[1]
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kingdom of Butua
Mutapa Empire

The Rozvi Empire (1684–1889) was established on the Zimbabwean Plateau by Changamire Dombo. The term "Rozvi" refers to their legacy as a warrior nation, taken from the Shona term Kurozva or to plunder.


In 1683, Portuguese militia tried to take control of the gold trade in the interior of Africa by invading the Rozvi empire. The Rozvi, armed with the traditional spears and shields, were able to successfully defeat these attacks and maintain their control of the gold mines until their empire collapsed. The Rozvi were led by Changamire Dombo, and his son Kambgun Dombo[2] whose power was based in Butua in the southwest of Africa. The Rozvi were formed from several Shona states that dominated the plateau of present-day Zimbabwe at the time. They drove the Portuguese off the central plateau, and the Europeans retained only a nominal presence at one of the fair-towns in the eastern highlands.

Changamire brought the whole of present-day Zimbabwe under his control, forming a polity that became known as the Rozvi Empire. This powerful kingdom of warriors was to be known as the Rozvi or baLozwi people.[3] They established their capital at Danangombe, also known as Dhlo-Dhlo (the Ndebele name).

Many sources see the Rozvi not as a recovering segment of the Mutapa people, but in fact a people in its own right emerging under the wing of the Mutapa (compare the rise of the Khumalo from under the Zulu nation). The administrative power of the Mutapa began to fail in its control of the whole empire, and tributaries began to exert more independence.[citation needed]

A leader of the people of Guruuswa, given the title Changamire and known as Dombo, became independent from the Mutapa. When the Portuguese tried to colonize them, Changamire Dombo led rebellions against their rule. The area of the Rozvi Empire fluctuated. Its influence extended over much of present-day Zimbabwe, westward into Botswana, and southward into northeastern South Africa. The Rozvi leader Changamire Dombo was originally a herdsmen in the Mutapa state, yet managed to drive away the Portuguese, earning himself support and followers, thereby enabling him to break away from the legendary Mutapa empire. Changamire Dombo, according to oral tradition, is believed to have possessed supernatural powers. He was said to be able to turn a white cow into a red one, and more. His magical ability made him feared by people and earned him respect and even more followers. The name Changamire became the honour name of all the kings who followed after him.

The Rozvi's political system was hierarchical. Kingship followed a male line and the king was the highest political, religious, military, economic, judicial and social authority, as well as the main distributor of land. The King was helped to rule by an advisory council made up of state officials appointed by him; this consisted of his most senior wives, the crown prince, the tumbare (regent), religious leaders, military commanders and also vassal chiefs. The Rozvi Empire eventually became the most powerful empire in present-day Zimbabwe.[citation needed]

Many tales identify Dombo ('Rock') as Chikura Wadyembeu. Modern scholars agree that this is confusion with another leader of a different people.[citation needed] Rulers of Rozvi State included Chirisa Mhuru and Chikuyo Chisamarenga.

Technology and economy[edit]

The Rozvi kings revived the tradition of building in stone and constructed impressive cities, now known as 'zimbabwes', throughout the southwest. Polychrome pottery was also emblematic of its culture. The Rozvi empire had many economic branches but agriculture was its backbone. They planted crops such as sorghum and millet and the state depended heavily on subsistence farming. Livestock was also another important agricultural branch. They kept animals such as sheep, goats, cattle and chickens; those with many livestock were considered rich and were accorded very high economic status within the society. Trade was another important economic activity and the Rozvi practiced both internal and external trade. From foreign traders they obtained imported goods such as guns, salt, beads and sea shells; in return they bartered ivory, copper and gold. Mining was another major branch and was done by males. The warriors were armed with spears, shields, bows and arrows when they raided others or defended their state.

Its warriors were known to be violent; this earned them the name rozvi, meaning plunders or destroyers. They became the most powerful fighting force in the whole of Zimbabwe.[3]

The economic power of the Rozvi empire was based on cattle wealth and farming, with significant gold mining. They established connections with Arab traders, in which valuable items such as gold, copper, and ivory were exchanged for imported luxury goods.[citation needed]

Records from the Portuguese show that the Rozvi were sophisticated military strategists. They were noted for using the cow-horn formation years before the great Zulu leader Shaka adopted it in the 19th century. Armed with spears, shields, bows and arrows, the aggressive Rozvi took over the Zimbabwe plateau.[3]

Invasion and demise[edit]

The late 1700s and early 1800s saw the Rozvi Empire face a number of challenges. The Empire, like the Mwenemutapa Empire, was federal in nature and political tensions between allied kingdoms and the ruling dynasty resulted in some kingdoms (e.g. Manyika) and chieftainships breaking away from the Empire. Internal palace revolutions and constant attacks from the BaMangwato placed increased political pressure on the empire. Two major droughts, one in 1795 to 1800 and 1824 to 1829 contributed to the worsening political instability.[4] As the demand for gold decreased as long term trading partners like the Portuguese shifted their attention to slaves, the Shona tradition of gold mining and trading which had lasted for almost a millennium declined and with it the power held by central governments like the Rozvi started to weaken.[4] On top of all the challenges, the 1830s were a time of multiple invasions and wars that the Rozvi Empire never recovered completely from.

In the area of modern day South Africa, a number of events resulted in a mass exodus. Drought, invading Dutch settlers and the catastrophic aftermath of the Mfecane resulted in waves of Nguni tribes moving north. Successive attacks on the Empire by the armies of Mpanga, Ngwana, Maseko and Zwangendaba were repelled driving off the attackers but a great deal of damage had been done. Without any time to recover, another wave of attacks by the group led by the Swazi Queen Nyamazanana resulted in the capture of the capital Manyanga and the murder of the Rozvi Mambo Chirisamhuru. Still, contrary to the established narrative, this was not the end of the Rozvi Empire. Chirisamhuru's son, Tohwechipi escaped and went into exile in the Buhera area. With the support of the Mutinhima and other Noble Rozvi Houses, Tohwechipi effectively became the Rozvi Mambo.[5]

Mzilikazi realized that even though some of the Rozvi nobility had accepted him as King, the majority of the Shona did not accept him, limiting the geographic area of his Kingdom. Taking a diplomatic approach, he sent word to Tohwechipi asking him to return home and submit to him, crowning him King of the Shona. Tohwechipi did not accept Mzilikazi's offer and instead, consolidated his power and spent the next 30 years in a series of back and forth raids and counter-raids with Mzilikazi and eventually Lobengula, earning the nickname Chibhamubhamu because of his army of raiders armed with rifles. Tohwechipi was defeated in battle and around 1869 and curiously, Mzilikazi let him go. He died around 1873[5] in Nyashanu area in Buhera and was buried there in Mavangwe Hills. His grave is a protected national monument.


Names and dates taken from John Stewart's African States and Rulers (1989).[6]

  1. Changamire I (c. 1480-1494)
  2. Changamire II (1494-1530)
  3. Changamire Tumbare (1530-c.1660)
  4. Changamire Dombo (c.1660-1695)
  5. Changamire Zharare (c.1695-c.1700)
  6. Changamire Negamo (c.1700-1710)
  7. Chirisamuru (c. 1712-1788)
  8. Changamire Dhafa(c.1790-1824)
  9. Changamire Baswi (c.1825)
  10. Changamire Chirisamuru II (c.1828-1831)
  11. Changamire Tohwechipi Zharare (1831-1866)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cornell, James. Lost Lands and Forgotten People Sterling Publishing Company, Incorporated, 1978, ISBN 978-0806939261 page 24
  2. ^ Isichei, Elizabeth Allo, A History of African Societies to 1870 Cambridge University Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0521455992 page 435
  3. ^ a b c "Rozvi". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 9 May 2007.
  4. ^ a b Shillington, Kevin, ed. (4 July 2013). Encyclopedia of African History 3-Volume Set. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203483862. ISBN 978-0-203-48386-2.
  5. ^ a b Beach, D. N. (October 1974). "Ndebele raiders and Shona power". The Journal of African History. 15 (4): 633–651. doi:10.1017/s0021853700013918. ISSN 0021-8537.
  6. ^ Stewart, John (1989). African States and Rulers. London: McFarland. p. 226. ISBN 0-89950-390-X.