For thousands of years, copper, meteoric iron, and gold were collected and used simply as another stone, only brighter and more beautiful. The development of true metallurgy, as opposed to the lithic use of naturally occurring metals, followed from several discoveries. Unlike other stones, metals were malleable and did not chip or flake when struck. The first discovery was that when heated they became more workable. Copper, for example, when cold-hammered quickly becomes brittle, but if it is heated and then hammered (a process called annealing) it can be shaped and hardened without cracking. The second discovery was that metal could be recovered from ore by smelting …
Copper and Trade in Southern Africa
Written by James Kipling BA (Hons) Archaeology
Miners, Smelters, and Metalsmiths
The history of metallurgy in southern Africa dates back at least 1800 years. The prospecting for and mining of metal ores (stones like green malachite, red cuprite, blue azurite, and black magnetite) together with the technologies of smelting and smithing spread rapidly through sub-Saharan farming communities. While the art of working metals (smithing) was widely practiced in Africa south of the Kunene and Zambezi Rivers, the recovery of metal from ore (smelting) remained a specialist craft, guarded by the initiated, and governed by taboos.
The smelting of metal involved a series of consecutive stages. Firstly, ore was collected from surface outcrops and shallow open-cast pits or was extracted from below the ground through mineshafts dug with iron hoes and digging sticks. It was then cleaned and concentrated using dolerite hammerstones to crush the parent rock. Slow-burning charcoal was made using suitable hardwoods (camel thorn, umbrella thorn, or knob thorn acacia trees and, where available, mopane or protea trees). A flat bowl or low shaft furnace was constructed using clay and soil from white ant hills. Without the height needed to generate sufficient natural draft, these small furnaces were built with clay pipes (tuyeres) through which air was blown to increase the temperature during the smelt. This was done using bag bellows made of animal hides and drum bellows carved from wood, with nozzles oftentimes made of animal horn. The tuyeres were flared at the ends and the nozzles of the bellows were held in place with wooden pegs and large stones. Occasionally, taller natural draft furnaces were constructed with many more tuyeres that were larger in diameter. With the necessary heat achieved, the prepared copper and iron ore melted. After smelting, crude copper nodules were recovered from the dust and slag and hammered into bangles or were resmelted in potsherd crucibles placed inside refining furnaces and the resulting liquid copper then poured into clay moulds lined with powdered ash. In the case of smelted iron, the metal bloom was refined in smithing hearths and beaten on stone anvils into usable metal.
The mining of metal ores by early African farming communities had far reaching economic and social implications. Mining was labour intensive. Specialised centers of production formed around the best mineral deposits. Some of these deposits (such as those of Phalaborwa mined from AD 700 – 1900 and Musina mined from AD 900 – 1500) lay in unhealthy regions; in areas that were plagued by mosquitoes, ticks, and tsetse flies (the transmitters of malaria, tick fever, and sleeping sickness). Trade networks developed around isolated mines allowing for the exchange of product for produce. Iron, important for making farming implements and hunting weapons like arrowheads and assegai (spear) tips, and copper for making objects of adornment, art, and ritual could be exchanged for cattle, sorghum, and millet, produce that was limited by fly and fever. Regional trade in iron, copper, mined pigments (including ochres and dark manganese oxides), farmed grains, dried fish, animal hides, salt, and honey connected neighbouring communities, bringing together hunters, herders, foragers, and farmers.
With the rise of centralised states and empires in Southern Africa, trade networks based on bartering were replaced by state-sponsored, tribute-based exchange systems. Political authority within growing urban settlements was largely founded on livestock wealth (who had the most cattle) and on the ability of the powerful to control rain-making rituals. Members of the ruling elite sought to expand their power by opening up ever more extensive trading networks in the African interior. By the early centuries of the second millenium AD, trade routes had spread to the East African coast and had stretched out across the Indian Ocean. Southern African centers of commerce like Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe exported gold, ivory, leopard skins and rhinoceros horn in exchange for luxury goods like Near and Far Eastern glazed ceramics, glass beads and brightly coloured cloth, funding the local building of monumental stone architecture that created legitimacy for an ever-more exclusionary political elite and provided justification for hereditary privilege and royal succession.
Arab Dhows, Chinese Junks, and Monsoon Trade Winds
East Africa has a rich and ancient history. The seasonal monsoon winds that blew up and down its coastline and back and forth across the warm Indian Ocean allowed for the free movement of goods and people throughout the region. In the months from December to March, the gentler northeast monsoon winds transported traders from India and Arabia to Africa in large wooden dhows with matted lateen (triangular) sails and frayed rigging made of plaited palm leaves and coconut fiber and the more violent southwest monsoon winds that built up in April and tailed off in September returned them. East Africa’s bone-white sand beaches and palm-covered islands were home to coastal trading centers with whitewashed walls and brightly painted, intricately carved ebony and teak hardwood doors that welcomed traders and travellers from afar. Port cities like Kilwa, Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa, Pate, Pemba, Sofala, and Zanzibar competed with one another to provide the best hospitality, merchandise, and trade terms to visiting merchants sailing over emerald waters from distant lands.
It was through East Africa’s vibrant market-towns and coastal trading ports that Southern Africa was brought into contact with Arabia, Persia, India, and China. Soon Hindu brides were draping themselves with intricately carved southern and east African ivory, and Chinese court officials were traveling in ivory palanquins carved from long, straight tusks. African ivory was easier to carve than Asian ivory and so was highly valued in workshops throughout Asia. East African iron too quickly gained international favour. Writing from twelfth century Sicily, al-Idrisi noted that while the best steel came from India, the best iron came from southeast Africa, superior in both its quality and malleability.
East African City States and Southern African Empires
Spread out along the coast from what is now Somalia to Mozambique, Swahili city-states with palaces, mosques, and bath houses built of carved coral and cut stone and plastered with bright white coral lime offered shelter to buyers and sellers from many different nations. Marketplaces were filled with coffee-coloured Abyssinians, dark Zanjians, pale Circassians, black Nubians, and Banyan merchants dressed in ivory-white dhotis; Africans, turbaned Arabs, Persians, and Indians with long beards and braided hair. Merchant-adventurers and traders met under the shade of coconut palms and mango trees, on verandahs and terraced courtyards, and in walled pleasure gardens full of tamarind trees, peacocks, and tamed guinea fowl with wild spots.
Seated on stone baraza benches that lined the streets of coastal entrepots like Kilwa and Zanzibar, travellers and traders shared stories and exchanged products from distant places. Double-ended East African dhows, built entirely of local materials (with hulls made of wooden boards stitched and sewn together and with sails made of woven raffia) were laden with trade goods and sent up and down the coast in search of ivory, ambergris, and gold. Smaller than ocean-faring dhows, and with a more flexible hull, African dhows were particularly well suited to coastal conditions, capable of withstanding frequent strandings on coral reefs and repeated moorings on sandy beaches where shallow waters and receding tides allowed cargos to be loaded and offloaded with ease.
The regional networks that underpinned this coastal traffic were focused on three centers of commerce in the African interior, each a couple of hundred miles from the next. These were Mapungubwe, at the confluence of the Sashe and Limpopo rivers in the far north of what is now South Africa, Great Zimbabwe, in modern Zimbabwe, and Ingombe Ilede, situated on the southern extremity of the Zambian copper belt. Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, and Ingombe Ilede all traded copper internally, the first sourced from Musina, the second its own and possibly also that from surrounding deposits, and the third from the mines at Urungwe. Forged in the crucible of this African copper trade, all three were to play important roles in the extended trade routes that transported exotic goods back and forth across the Indian Ocean.
The Arrival of Traders from the West
Spices, Galleons, and Trade Winds
Spices from the Indies (nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper) were first carried to the west on the backs of grumbling camels. Taxes levied on the caravan routes that crossed the Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman Empires inflated the prices of oriental spices in European markets. Maghribi traders’ accounts of the trans-Saharan traffic in gold, ivory, kola nuts, and grains of paradise (a spice with a warm pepper-like flavour) encouraged Portuguese navigators to set sail down the West African coast. Fleets pushed further and further southward, always hopeful of finding a new passage to the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape and opened the ocean route east. Other nations followed and soon European galleons were trading Asian spices across the Indian Ocean. Competition between merchant ships and the many risks posed by long distance ocean trade led to the amalgamation of trading fleets and the formation of joint-stock companies, the English (British) East India Company in 1600 and the Dutch East India Company in 1602 (which was the first company in history to offer shares to the public).
Galleons were ships designed for carrying large cargos, not for speed. Journeys were long and governed by the strength of the trade winds. Under favourable conditions, fleets could make quick way and at night the moon would turn the wakes of the ships into glimmering “rivers of light”; but when the winds failed, marooned at sea for weeks, disease could take the lives of those less fortunate. Fresh produce was required to prevent sailors from losing their teeth and dying from scurvy while at sea. The Dutch East India Company needed an outpost between its headquarters in Amsterdam and its factories in the East that could supply its spice trading fleets with fresh water, fruit, and vegetables. In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape to establish a refreshment station at the southern tip of Africa where the cold waters of the South Atlantic and the warm waters of the Indian Oceans met.
Ostrich Eggs and Stone Walled Gardens
The company’s gardens (plural because several gardens were planted at the Cape of Good Hope) were first laid out in a valley at the foot of Table Mountain, flanked east and west by Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. A variety of fruits and vegetables were grown along the banks of a river that ran through the valley. Gardens were also planted behind Devil’s Peak where vineyards and grain fields could be protected from the most impetuous of the Cape’s wild southeasterly winds. Root vegetables like turnips, radishes, sweet potatoes, and yellow carrots all grew well, as did leafy vegetables like spinach, red cabbage, mustard cress, and crisp green lettuce “with leaves as firm as the cabbages”. Local seeds were collected and were sown – wild sorrel, wild asparagus, and wild mustard. A herb garden was laid out and a flower garden was planted to attract pollinators.
In 1685, a French Jesuit missionary who stopped over at the Cape en route to the East (and who later recollected in an account of his counselor visit to Siam first printed in English in 1688 the “rivers of light” that he had seen from the deck of his galleon and the delicious firm lettuces he had tasted while at the Cape) wrote of walking through the company’s gardens and of seeing pineapples and exotic fruit trees growing abundantly. Father Tachard noted that while some plants struggled to fruit (cherry trees, for example, did not flower in Table Valley as they did in Japan and pineapples, perfectly suited to the climate of Batavia, would only fruit in hothouses at the Cape), other plants flourished. Orchards of apricot, almond, Persian pomegranate, pear, quince, and Japanese plum trees were sheltered from seasonal winds by limewashed stone walls and by hedges of wild almond and peach trees. The indigenous wild peach (known locally as the butterfly tree) is a host plant for the caterpillars of the Garden Acraea Butterfly and at times the gardens would have been aflutter with countless of these orange and black butterflies.
All of the Dutch East India Company’s trading fleets sailed under orders to stop at the Cape. Galleons returning from the Indies laid anchor in March and awaited the arrival of the outbound fleet from Europe. In April, after news had been exchanged and supplies replenished, the return fleet would set sail for Amsterdam and the outbound fleet would push on for Batavia (Java) and Japan. Men that sailed the trade winds arrived in Table Bay and were greeted with the sight of the iconic flat-topped and sheer cliffed Table Mountain often covered with a tablecloth of thin white cloud set flat by the dry southeasterly winds that blew during the Cape’s late summers. The view was made all the more welcoming by the white limewashed buildings that lay at the foot of the mountain, the bountiful fruit and vegetable gardens, and the cerulean blue summer skies above the bay. Fresh meat from indigenous black-headed, fat-tailed sheep and long-horned cattle with hides ranging from tan to deep cherry added to the revitalising menus that comforted weary sailors accustomed to diets of hard biscuits, fish, and turtle meat from galley kitchens.
From the earliest days of settlement at the Cape, ostriches were bred and tamed to be sent to the Indies as gifts for the menageries of sultans, rajahs, and shahs. Ostrich eggs were collected and hatched and sent to the celestial courts of China and to the Mughal gardens of India. Young birds with long necks and startled eyes were delivered to the Emperors of Japan in exchange for permission to export copper and brass from the land of the rising sun and birds were sent to the Kings of Kandy in return for permission to peel golden-yellow bark off cinnamon trees that grew in the rainforests of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Cape wines were bottled, and brandy was distilled to compliment the coconut flavoured arrack imported from the East and drunk in great quantities. Thick bars of copper were traded with Khoikhoi pastoralists for their horned cattle and lengths of Japanese brass wire for their fat-tailed sheep (with lengths measured as long as the sheep, tail included). Half-drunk, and peppered with information obtained from Khoikhoi and Namaqua herders, the prospects of fabulous copper mines in the African interior inspired several expeditions of discovery.
Wild Flowers and Copper Mountains
Jan van Riebeeck sent out nine expeditions during his term as commander of the Cape (1652 to 1662). They went in search of lost cities, and fabled empires, and cannibals, and kingdoms that were said to tame lions and to use them in warfare. It was hoped that explorers might discover a direct road to the lands of Munhumutapa and Butua. Those who took over commanding the settlement continued the search. Early travellers traded with long-haired, dark-skinned Namaqua herders wearing large ivory plates over well-dressed leather skins, with copper bangles on their arms and copper beads braided into their hair; red African copper that came from old copper mines deep in the interior where the beating of sacred drums and the roaring of lions (the dogs of the kings) heralded royal proclamations. The first farmers’ market was established at the Cape in 1665. Game meat was often sold alongside farm produce; zeekoespec (hippopotamus bacon), hartebeest fillets, eland steaks, and rhinoceros meat whetted the appetites of many would-be adventurers.
Simon van der Stel (governor of the Cape from 1679 to 1699) undertook one of the more spectacular of these early expeditions of discovery. The proud owner of two Japanese gold and silver fish that he kept in a Chinese porcelain bowl, he is often better remembered today as the founder of the wine farm Constantia, laying out its famous vineyards in 1685. In August of that same year, accompanied by over one hundred people including soldiers, miners, cattle drivers, Khoikhoi interpreters, and an artist armed with a box of pigments and ink to record exotic fauna and flora encountered along the way, the commander left the shores of Table Bay in search of a copper mountain in the far northern interior.
It was flower season in Namaqualand and spring rains had carpeted the veld with bright orange, purple, yellow, and white flowers. The departing expedition consisted of fifteen wagons drawn by one hundred and twenty long-horned trek oxen (eight rust-red oxen to each wagon), eight carts, and a six-horse drawn black coach for the governor. Loaded on the wagons were two small cannons, a boat for exploring any navigable rivers or coastal bays, and a number of musical instruments including two trumpets, several oboes, and six violins, for meet-and-greet events, camp concerts, and evening dances. Completing the procession were three hundred sheep and two hundred more cattle, some trained as draft and others as pack oxen to pull and carry provisions.
After 58 days of trekking through veld where caves covered in rock art offered men the colour of burnt ochre shelter from the sun, seven wagons reached their destination. Prospectors dug several mineshafts in a hard mountain spotted with verdigris, the deepest dug to a depth of twice a man’s length. Rich samples of copper ore were collected, some found to contain pure metal disseminating through the rock. Frustratingly far from a coastal harbour, and without a perennial supply of water nearby, nor a forest of trees to make the charcoal that would be needed to smelt the recoverable ore on site, these copper mines would remain largely unworked (although never forgotten) for years to come.
The Namaqualand expedition party returned to the Cape in 1686, led by a governor who was in no anxious mood to mount another great jaunt north. A year later a boat sailed into Table Bay carrying twenty men, twenty goats, one-hundred-and-fifty pumpkins, and three tons of ivory. The men were survivors from ships that had been wrecked along the southeast African coast. They had built the boat from the keel of an ivory trading ship, the Good Hope, that had run aground near Rio de Natal (now Durban) in 1685, using nails and tools fashioned from metal salvaged from another ship, the Stavenisse, lost in 1686 on the same coast. They brought with them firsthand accounts of lands where large herds of elephant roamed and where friendly people were keen to trade, and they turned the focus of exploration from the northwest to the northeast.
The boat they had built was bought by the company, refitted and renamed de Noord (the North) and sent back to map the wild coastline of southeast Africa. By October 1688, it had sailed as far as Delagoa Bay (Maputo Bay) where on a small island infested with malarial mosquitoes (and then known as the Island of the Elephants, lying just off present day Inhaka Island) the crew discovered an English factory producing copper bangles. These bangles were being feverishly exchanged for ivory with giTonga speaking people living around the bay. The tusks that were traded with the English came from isiNguni speaking hunters who carried them over the magnificently forested Lebombo Mountains all covered with rock-splitting fig trees and tall cycads to the Delagoa Bay hinterland where they were exchanged for imported goods with vaTsonga traders.
Back at the Cape governor van der Stel appointed a man who had accompanied him to the copper mines in Namaqualand to lead an overland expedition east to search of other shipwreck survivors and, more importantly, to make contact with a distant Khoikhoi Kingdom who were said to be very wealthy in cattle. The founding commander of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, had first learnt of this faraway kingdom in 1660, having received reports of a people whose lands lay between the two seas and who were said to cultivate daccha which he had written in his journal “stupifies the brain like opium, ginger, strong tobacco, (or) brandy”. This powerful Inqua (!khukwa) Kingdom commanded several passes that cut through the Cape Fold Mountains. It was through their lands that copper was traded into the western and eastern Cape via isiSotho speaking farmers in the Caledon Valley and from tshiVenda and Setswana speaking copper miners and chiKaranga speaking metalsmiths in the more distant African interior.
As luck would have it the Inqua, accomplished copper traders, were looking to secure relations with the new suppliers of brass from the south. Late in 1688, with the intention of setting up trade links with Table Bay, Hijkon (Gei!khub), the Inqua King, sent a delegation to the Cape with instructions to guide a diplomatic envoy back to his country. On the 4th of January 1689, the first expedition party to travel to the Inqua Kingdom set out from the castle. They travelled in two wagons loaded with tobacco, trade beads, bottles of arrack, bundles of assegais, and long lengths of brass wire to barter for cattle; and they carried with them a copper crown, a gift for the king of the Inqua from the governor of the Cape.
South and East Africa’s Cultural Diversity
Copper, Cattle and Click Consonants
The coastal plains of the Cape that stretch in a wide arc between the mouth of the Orange River in the northwest, down through the south Peninsular, and up to the Great Fish River in the east are separated from the dry Karoo interior by the rugged Cape Fold Mountain Belt. These plains were originally inhabited by short statured hunter-gatherers dressed in wild antelope skins – foraging bands of Bushmen speaking languages with implosive click consonants and wearing ostrich eggshell beaded necklaces. They lived off the fruits of the veld and the plunder of the chase and they built stone cairns on old paths to mark the boundaries of territories that protected hunting grounds, beehives, and springs.
Some hunters acquired cattle and sheep from pastoralists in the north and became herders. Over generations, they grew taller on a diet of fermented milk and, with the use of cattle as beasts of burden, developed a rich material culture. The herders referred to themselves as Khoikhoi, meaning “the real people” or “men of men”, and they melted copper in crucible furnaces built on the slopes of mountains. They wore soft leather skins and copper bangles and kept flocks of fat-tailed sheep. They trained their red cattle for riding and for use as shields in warfare and told fearful stories of others who trained lions to do the same.
Old African folklore cautioned that it was polite for a traveller who met a bushman to say, "I saw you from miles away". This was considered sensible etiquette because it was understood that bushmen were sensitive about their height (the tallest man stood no more than 5ft), and, easily offended, might otherwise shoot you with a poisoned arrow.
African crops like sorghum and millet were not suited to the western Cape’s cold wet winters and hot dry summers. The southernmost limit of the summer rains fell in the eastern Cape and it was here that another people, the amaNguni, sowed these grains and seeds. Although isiNguni speaking farmers and Khoikhoi herders spoke different languages, they shared a great love for copper, for cattle, and for daccha. After generations of trade and intermarriage, the farmers of the eastern Cape incorporated a number of clicks into their language and became known as the amaXhosa. They wore magnificently beaded leather garments, dyed white with clay and red with ochre, and wore bangles of twisted copper and brass.
Whilst isiNguni speakers lived in scattered homesteads on lands between the Drakensberg Escarpment and the shores of the Indian Ocean (stretching from the eastern Cape to present day Natal), other farming people speaking seSotho and Setswana lived in more compact settlements on the southern African highveld interior. The first hunters, traders, and explorers who set out from the Cape met seSotho, Setswana, and isiNguni speaking farmers cultivating cloud-watered gardens on lands that stretched from the Orange and Fish Rivers all the way up to the “great grey green” Limpopo River which carved its way from deep in the interior through the lowveld and emptied out into the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
Southern African homesteads were built around cattle kraals, with thatched beehive huts, corbelled stone huts, stone walled courtyards, and wooden fences protecting the central cattle byre. The importance of cattle discouraged people from settling in large towns. Homesteads were clustered in small villages (oftentimes of between five and ten families, but some being comprised of as many as fifty families) surrounded by pasture lands and cultivated garden plots of pumpkins, melons, and beans, and fields of sorghum, and millet. Polygamy prevailed in villages. Most men had two wives, others three, four, or five, each with her own hut and separate storehouse for preserving grains. Cereal crops were stored in these granaries and used to make porridge and beer. Vegetable relishes added flavour to ground grains. Recipes for sauces included ingredients like wild cucumbers, spiked melons, cowpeas, groundnuts, and indigenous fruits and tree nuts like Kei apples, baobab and marula nuts, monkey oranges, and various kinds of wild figs and plums.
"The great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees", was known locally as the "great river with the pools". It was also called the Copper River by early Indian Ocean traders because of the vast amount of copper jewellery worn by the people living along its floodplains.
Clans, Chiefdoms, Kingdoms, and States
South of the Limpopo, political governance was characterised by alliances and overlapping affiliations. Political leaders formed defensive associations in the form of clans. On the seSotho and Setswana speaking southern highveld, clans were organised under totem animals, the Batao or “men of the lion”, Batlou “men of the elephant”, Bakwena “men of the crocodile”, Batlaru “men of the python”, and so on. Along the coast, isiNguni speakers formed clans like the Ndlovu, Dlamini, Nkosi, Khumalo, and so on, named in commemoration of important ancestors. Clans were headed by chiefs and ultimately by paramount chiefs who were believed to be the direct descendants of the original founding ancestors and so were the very embodiment of clan unity and were custodians of the land. A balance of power was maintained between neighbouring chieftainships through the widespread practice of cattle rustling and counterraiding.
Cattle were an important store of value. They were used in rainmaking rituals, were exchanged to settle fines, and were used as bridewealth (lobola), a custom that ensured that widows and their children would be provided for in the event of their husband’s untimely death. Cattle hides were tanned and made into war shields with various colours and shapes differentiating regiments that fought in pitched battles for the control of grazing lands and profitable trading routes. Battle fields were governed over by fearsome wardoctors whose medicines (made from plants like the blue and white flowering plumbago) protected painted warriors from all manner of projectiles (arrows, spears, and bullets).
Territories were defined by allegiances rather than by topography. Land was owned by political leaders and loaned to loyal followers. The size and shape of a kingdom’s land was measured by the people who professed subservience to its rulers rather than by geographical borders or by free held title deed. Land ownership, allocated by kings, chiefs, and headmen, was transferred through the levying of tribute or by conquest.
North of the Limpopo and stretching as far as the Zambezi a number of Shona States grew wealthy by taxing the long-distance trade routes that moved goods and products across the grasslands, rivers, and valleys of the gold rich central highveld. In the 17th century, the legendary Empire of Munhumutapa was one of the most powerful of these precolonial African states. This empire (appearing as ‘ M O N O M O T A P A ‘ on old copperplate engraved maps) controlled much of the trade to and from the fabulously wealthy lands of Butua where gold was panned from rivers using wooden bowls and mineshafts were dug with underground galleries that followed veins of gold-bearing quarts.
Highveld gold (together with a considerable amount of ivory) was exported through coastal African markets where Arabian, Persian, and Indian traders competed to offer the best trade goods in return. Items imported included brightly dyed cloth and coloured glass beads that were used by the people of the interior for personal adornment, strung into waistbands and necklaces and sewn into aprons and skirts. In the south, imported beads and exotic shells formed part of the tool kits of African sangomas (trance healers) who were tasked with ensuring the wellbeing of all.
Trade, Tribute, and Mapmaking
The varied landscape of the central highveld interior created attractive opportunities for early African farmers. Flat grasslands in the west gave way to rolling hills and beautiful musasa (zebra tree) and munondo wooded valleys in the east. Streams draining the highveld fed rivers that snaked through savannah country scattered with baobabs and granite outcrops, home to lions and large herds of buffalo. Fertile valleys full of zebra trees with copper-coloured spring leaves that turned green during the summer months were replaced by arid savannah forests frequented by heavily tusked elephant, low-lying woodlands of mopane trees with bright green butterfly-shaped leaves that turned flame orange and yellow in autumn.
The fertility of the highveld’s floodplains and grazing lands made them ideal for farming. Populations grew rapidly and the manpower was soon created for undertaking monumental construction projects. From the 8th century onwards, farming communities began to organise themselves into hierarchical states. In the centuries that followed, zimbabwe (or great “houses of stone”) spread across the highveld, from the dry Kalahari sandveld and salt pans in the west to the narrow belt of coastal rainforest that hugged the warm Indian Ocean in the east, and between the grey-green Limpopo and the crocodile-infested Zambezi Rivers on opposite ends of the highveld watershed.
Stone walled platforms with dhaka floors supported thatched huts and grain stores in the west, and defensive walls of mortarless granite with high linteled doorways and winding secret passages protected vast courtyards and great enclosures in the east. Whether exposed on platforms or obscured by walls, political power steadily concentrated into the hands of a few. Early African market towns in the interior (like Bambandyanalo and Ntabazingwe) established trade links with East Africa’s coastal bazaars. They imported glass beads and coloured cloth in exchange for carved ivory bangles, elephant tusks, and tanned skins; and they laid the foundations for the Kingdoms that would rise to power after them. The largest of these were Mapungubwe (12th – 13th c), Mapela (12th – 14th c), Great Zimbabwe (13th – 15th c), Torwa / Butua (14th – 17th c), Mutapa / Munhumutapa (15th – 18th c) and Rozvi (17th – 19th c). The highveld’s grazing lands, gold mines, and profitable trading routes were all administered from within the courts of these old kingdoms; the imposing granite walls of their palaces and citadels in some places over ten meters tall.
From atop and behind dry stone walling constructed on hilltops associated with rainmaking rituals and sacred leadership, the regional exchange of copper, iron, ivory, and gold was taxed through the levying of tribute, paid in labour service, cattle, and grain. Kings controlled the distribution and redistribution of land and were entitled to tax both the production that came from its surface cultivation and the proceeds that came from its mining. Hunters paid special taxes to local chiefs; the ground tusk (meaning the heavier tusk of an elephant) belonged to the chief in whose lands it had been brought down, as did parts of other animals hunted (often a hind leg) and the meat and skins of royal game (like pangolin and leopard). The walls of storerooms at royal courts were lined with ivory tusks.
Neighbouring chiefdoms were connected to one another through pathways of exchange and were brought together under the leadership of kings to whom tribute accrued and from whom it was again dispensed. Gift giving secured allegiances and political alliances opened up trade networks. In this way, trade reinforced power, and power was ultimately centralised in the personae of venerated rulers who were honoured with exaggerated respect, both in ritual practice and in custom. The consolidation of power on the highveld led to rivalries and to contested successions that splintered political control creating new loyalties, shifting capitals, and warring kingdoms.
Munhumutapa was one of the most powerful of Africa's great southern empires. The language spoken in the kingdom was chiKaranga. Much of the land that the Mutapa state occupied was covered with savannah vegetation and its grasses (one type called tsinde in chiKaranga) supported vast herds of Sanga cattle. These grasslands also fed large herds of zebra (mbizi), wildebeest (mvumba) and various antelope that, in turn, supported large numbers of leopard (mbada) with their coveted spotted skins. The people of the kingdom grew their hair long and elaborate hairstyles were fashionable. Men sculpted their hair into horn-like projections. Women wove copper beads into long hair dyed ochre red with a mixture of clay and mupfuta seed oil. In the south, women braided their hair and decorated the plaits with ostrich plumes. It is these shapes, styles, patterns, and places that have inspired the designs of our copper trade bangles.
The Orange River Copper Company
During the decades after Simon van der Stel’s expedition to the copper mountains of Namaqualand in 1685, many more explorers left the shores of the Cape in search of adventure in the southern African interior. They were accompanied by a somewhat disagreeable assortment of hunters, traders, cattle rustlers, and missionaries equipped with umbrellas and Bibles and faith in their ideas. The frontier was patrolled by outlaws and outcasts in the shape of raiding bands of men from mixed origins armed with guns, bows and knobkieries (fighting sticks). Explorers, rebels, renegades, and runaways travelled through unchartered lands until they reached the ‘Gariep (the great Orange River) and the ‘Nu ‘Gariep (the Upper Orange, also known as the Senqu, or Black River). Along the banks of this great southern African river, Bushmen with poisoned arrows and fire-hardened assegais hunted and fished, and dug pitfalls on game trails to trap hippopotamus, elephant, and rhinoceros.
Wandering adventurers dressed in thick hard-wearing cotton trousers and moleskin jackets with leather cartridge belts slung across their shoulders learnt how to roast white ant eggs called “Bushman rice” and how to fashion fish traps from wood, river-reeds, and stone. On their journeys they ran into refugees who taught them that the gum of thorn trees could be eaten in times of hunger (thorn trees like the Vachellia karroo mimosa) and they crossed paths with itinerant metalsmiths and diviners (high-temperature specialists and rain-callers who hunted the great cloud animals that walked across the veld on long legs of rain). They traded copper bangles with metalworking Damara hunter-gatherers and Namaqua herders and listened to tales of lost copper mines told in old click languages. Rumours of rich copper deposits in the wild interior were retold on the streets of Cape Town until, in 1843, a prospectus was published calling for the formation of The Orange River Copper Company.
Filled with wanderlust and a deep desire for personal freedom, determined explorers escaped from gardens at the southern tip of Africa. They travelled across the kloofs and valleys that cut through the Cape Fold Mountains and ventured on into the hot dry Karoo with wild abandon. Here, red hartebeest and springbok migrated in search of water (in herds that could number many thousands of animals) and male ostriches danced seductively beside quiver trees courting long-legged females. On the far side of the Great Karoo thirst lands lay fields of golden-yellow grasses studded with black thorn, camel thorn, and umbrella thorn acacia trees. In these savannah grasslands, snakes grew to immense lengths, rhinoceros charged at the slightest provocation, and giraffe stood tall chewing on old bones (a behaviour that would come to be known as osteophagia).
Into this land of horns and thorns rode an array of dusty characters wearing wide-brimmed hats. Copper miners and transport riders joined the African farmers, elephant hunters, and bands of marauders already on the ragtag frontier. So too also a motley cast of prospectors, plant collectors, ivory and feather traders, artists, surveyors, linguists, misfits, mapmakers, and gunrunners in ox drawn wagons carrying contraband flintlock firearms and kegs of black powder under awnings of sailcloth.
The wind does thus when we die ... our own wind blows, for we who are human beings we possess wind, we make clouds when we die ... the wind does thus when we die ... the wind makes dust because it intends to blow away our footprints with which we had walked about while we still had nothing the matter with us ... the wind does thus when we die ... for our footprints which the wind intends to blow away, would otherwise lie plainly visible ... for the thing would seem as if we still lived ... therefore the wind intends to blow, taking away our footprints. An old |xam story, retold by Dai!kwain of the Cape Bushmen, recorded during the winter of 1875.
Listening to stories from afar, which float along from other places ... watching for a story, waiting for it, that it may float into the ear ... a story is like the wind ... it wants to float to another place ... our names pass through these people ... fellow men who walking meet their like. The words of ||kabbo, a great |xam storyteller written down in Cape Town in August 1873.
References and Selected Sources
Bleek, Wilhelm and Lloyd, Lucy. 1911. “Specimens of Bushman Folklore“
Freeman-Grenville, Greville S.P. 1962. “The East African Coast (Select Documents from the first to the early nineteenth century)“
Stayt, Hugh A. 1931. “The Bavenda“
Stowe, George. 1905. “The Native Races of South Africa“
Tachard, Guy. 1688. “A Relation of the Voyage to Siam“
Theal, George. 1883. “Basutoland Records” (4 vols)
Theal, George. 1898 – 1903. “Records of South East Africa” (9 vols)
Kipling, Rudyard. 1902. The Elephants Child in “Just So Stories“
Van der Stel, Simon. 1686. “Journey to Namaqualand in 1685“
Van Riebeek, Jan. 1660. In Moodie, Donald. 1838. “The Record”
Van Warmelo, Nicholas J. 1940. “The Copper Miners of Musina”
Van Warmelo, Nicholas J. 1938. “History of the Matiwane and the Amangwane Tribe as told by Msebenzi to his kinsman Albert Hlongwane“
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