The simple way to think about sub-Saharan Africa is as an unhappy result of European colonisation and nothing more. Most of the borders you can see today were drawn along the borders of old dominions, for a start. Most countries still use a European “business language” and a fair few still use their old colonial names. The African Commonwealth even have their own version of Eurovision, and if that’s not a grisly reminder of a Europe-dominated past I don’t know what is. But history, like nature, romance or War and Peace, resists any attempts to make it simple. History works on a sort of reverse Occam’s Razor – the simplest answer isn’t just incomplete, but incorrect, obtuse and even harmful. Much like being hit over the head with War and Peace. That’s why it’s so important to appreciate the things that break the stereotypes – those places and events that prove that an area’s history is more than the two-dimensional cut-out that non-holistic thinking makes it into. And that’s why today, we’re going to talk about some zimbabwes.
A zimbabwe, for those of you who are shaking your fists at the screen and saying that I can’t use proper nouns, is a specific type of stone fort found in southern Africa. But I admit, you got me, because I’m going actually to talk about the country they give their name to, and the centuries of history behind it. But ironically, our story – like so many of the best stories – begins in Nigeria.
Nigeria is a pretty relevant place in the world today, with its 174 million people and all, but in 400 BC they were the freaking place to be – well, along with that other tourist hotspot, Niger – because they had that luxury resource everyone was talking about…well, talking about or getting killed by. Nigeria had iron, and like the Etruscans, Celts, ancient Indians with whom they shared the discovery they used that technology to spread across huge areas very, very quickly. The Bantu culture, originally from the area around Niger and Nigeria, spread and diversified across hundreds of thousands of miles, conquering the stone tool-wielding natives of the southern jungles and savannahs and slowly assimilating them into the 250-odd Bantu ethnicities there are today. When they came to the Highveld of Zimbabwe (Highlands, but think less Scotland and more The Last King of Scotland), they were able to dominate it for over a millennium.
It’s difficult to know much about the early Bantu in Zimbabwe – being a culture that, for all its early technological advancements, had no written language to brag about them in – but contact with Arab traders on the lucrative Indian Ocean trade routes gives an impression of a pretty cohesive kingdom there in the 9th century. Zimbabwe is rich in gold and diamonds, something that would propel them to great heights pretty quickly with the northern kings and sultans who deemed their palaces insufficiently blinged out. Thus, the Zimbabweans got rich trading with…well, whoever had the ships to take their goods: first the Arabs and then the Portuguese, who enthusiastically claimed in that oh-so-European way that they had “discovered” the settlements. But what the Portuguese found might have looked rather familiar. Because the first Bantu’s descendants still had one technological advancement up their sleeves, and it was a surprising one. They had invented, independently of Europe and probably of the Middle East, the castle. To be precise, they had invented the zimbabwe.
All the wealth they got back from ports in what would later become the ironically un-wealthy Mozambique had to go somewhere. The zimbabwes that still dot the Highveld show just what that wealth could do. Curved fortresses that housed every major family for a whole region, often built just from fuck-off huge chunks of limestone without mortar. The largest, the Great Zimbabwe, whose keep alone would have housed 300 local leaders and their families in a sort of “Well, your mansion is nice so I’m going to build mine literally on top of it” sort of fashion, is surrounded by farmland that fed a desmene around 30,000 people strong. The people of the area – now named the Shona, although that name started out as derogatory (they’d get along with the Iroqouis) – abandoned it in time, spreading north to better farmland safe from the desertifying effect of climate change and better, safer trade. But it’s a testament to that interim between Iron Age invaders and modernity like those castles found in Europe. It’s still standing.
I’ve talked before about what happened in Africa in the late 1800s, and that’s how long the Shona survived in their latest and greatest independent country, Matapa. From there, they started a slow decline– they didn’t take up guns or develop their own invader-bashing technology. Some southern tribes did, and that’s probably why you’ve heard of the Zulu. From there, the decline got a little faster. They also didn’t count on the invaders bringing machine guns, gold and frankly ridiculous shipments of tea, and so it was that the area that is now Zimbabwe became one of the southernmost points of the British “stripe” across Africa. This, unfortunately, is where the tragedy begins. Britain weren’t terrible colonial masters. While they lacked the tolerance and spending on education that the French Empire had (although that tolerance was frequently lost with horrible consequences – see Haiti) they ruled with at least some consent from local rulers and under the unwritten “British constitution”. In Zimbabwe, this was not the case. Because Zimbabwe wasn’t run as a colony. It was run as a company.
There have been few privately run countries in history. The British East India Company had one in India, the Dutch equivalent in Indonesia, and Leopold II of Belgium used one to justify owning the Congo personally as a dictator – the Congon Free State conveniently had only one shareholder. Newly renamed Southern Rhodesia was, de facto, run by the British South Africa Company under the leadership of a man called Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes and Rhodesia. Before you say anything, not a coincidence. The BSAC was a mining company, and the wealth that had once built Great Zimbabwe now built Rhodesia, finding diamonds, gold, silver – all with cheap Boer (Dutch-come-White-African) and black labour, whom they kept “honest” by imprisoning them literally within the mines themselves. For the record, while the BSAC doesn’t exist any more, it basically merged into the Rhodes’ De Beers mining cartel – you know, the one which currently make up 50% of the world’s diamond market. Zimbabwe’s history, in the process, was often forgotten or even actively suppressed – the colonial government went as far as to claim that Great Zimbabwe was the work of early white Christians, the acolytes of the mythical “Prester John”, because what Bantu could build something like that? So British farmers settled, using what was essentially perfect farmland for their European crops, and British politics emerged. Not even a struggle for independence could rid them of that, and Rhodesia emerged as an independent white-minority-led nation in 1965. It was a democracy in the loosest sense, and was widely denounced as a “racist state” along with its southern neighbour South Africa. When a black man won the 1980 elections, it was denounced as a Shona takeover. Unlike its equivalent in South Africa, this time it sort of was. Rhodesia had just elected Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe’s sort-of-socialist, sort-of-fascist government changed a lot of things in Zimbabwe. They justified it as returning the country to what it used to be – so it was renamed Zimbabwe, given a flag that incorporated treasure found in its largest fortress, and declared 16 Bantu languages to be the official languages of state. It also took over the land of white farmers by force. It also started a massacre of Mugabe’s political opponents called the Gukurahundi. It translates from Shona as “the rain that blows away the chaff”. In Zimbabwe today, the moral questions aren’t easy. Whether the country had the right to take away the land that had been taken from it before with force is debatable. Whether Mugabe is a better leader than men like Ian Smith and Cecil Rhodes were before him is debatable. Whether the government is really motivated by revanchism is debatable. But Zimbabwe remains a country ingrained in and affected by its powerful, vibrant and interesting history, in its mines and forts and trading posts. But by doing that it’s also defining itself by its colonial history, and maybe in doing so creating a situation if not worse then just as bad. A saying about Mugabe from a the white Rhodesian government days sums up Zimbabwe’s trouble best. “The problem is…he thinks too much like us”.