A History of Adventure

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 (like green malachite, red cuprite, blue azurite, and black magnetite), together with the technologies of smelting and smithing, spread rapidly through farming communities south of the Kunene and Zambezi Rivers. While the art of working metals (smithing) was widely practiced in sub-Saharan Africa, 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 hammer stones to crush the parent rock. Slow-burning charcoal was made using suitable hardwoods like camel thorn, umbrella thorn, or knob thorn acacia trees and, where available, from 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 or 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. The resulting crude copper was then resmelted in potsherd crucibles placed inside refining furnaces and the liquid copper was poured into clay moulds lined with powdered ash; or in the case of smelted iron, the metal bloom was refined in smithing hearths and beaten into usable metal.

The mining of metal ores by early African farming communities had far reaching social and economic implications. Mining was labour intensive. Specialised centers of production formed around the best mineral deposits. Some of these deposits lay in unhealthy, inhospitable regions like the hot, infertile lowveld, an area plagued by mosquitoes, ticks, and tsetse flies (the vectors for malaria, tick fever, and sleeping sickness). Trade networks developed around isolated mines (like Musina and Phalaborwa) allowing for the exchange of product for produce. Iron, essential for making farming implements, hunting weapons like assegai (spear) tips and arrowheads, 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. Local and regional trade in iron, copper, 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 with state-sponsored, tribute-based exchange systems. Political authority within growing urban settlements was largely founded on livestock wealth (measured in heads of 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/CE, trade routes had spread to the East African coast and stretched across the Indian Ocean. 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 (and still blow) 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 gentle 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. Dhow sailors navigating the emerald waters of east Africa used the sun and the night skies to plot their courses. Along East Africa’s bone-white sand beaches, and on many of her palm-covered islands, coastal trading centers with whitewashed walls and magnificently carved dark ebony and teak hardwood doors 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 from foreign lands.

“To get lost is to learn the way.”

African proverb

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.

African City States and Empires

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 nations. Market places 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.

Merchants and traders met under the shade of coconut palms and mango trees, on verandahs and terraced courtyards, or in walled pleasure gardens full of tamarind trees, peacocks, and tamed guinea fowl. Seated on stone baraza benches that lined the streets of entrepots like Zanzibar, they shared stories and exchanged products from distant lands. Double-ended East African dhows, built entirely of local materials with hulls made of wooden boards stitched and sewn together and sails made of woven raffia, were laden with trade goods and sent up and down the coast in search of ivory and gold. Smaller than ocean-faring dhows, their flexible construction made them 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. They were Mapungubwe 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 last 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. The taxes levied on caravan routes that crossed the Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman Empires inflated the price of spices considerably. 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 distant Spice Islands of the Orient. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape and opened the ocean route East. Other nations followed and soon European galleons were trading spices across the Indian Ocean.

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 needed 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.

“Patience attracts happiness; it brings near that which is far.”

African proverb
Ostrich Eggs and Stone Walled Gardens

The Company’s gardens (there would be several gardens planted at the Cape) 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 nutritious fruits and vegetables were grown along the banks of a fresh stream that ran through the valley, and later in gardens behind Devil’s Peak where vineyards and grain fields could be protected from occasional gusting winds. Root vegetables like turnips, radishes, beets, sweet potatoes, and yellow carrots, and leafy vegetables like spinach, red cabbages, mustard cress, and crisp green lettuce “with leaves as firm as the cabbages” all flourished. 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, Father Tachard, a French Jesuit missionary visiting the Cape on a voyage to Siam – who would later recollect in an account of his travels (first printed in English in 1688) the “rivers of light” that he had seen from the deck of his galleon and the Cape’s delicious firm lettuces – had an opportunity to walk through the gardens and saw pineapples and other exotic fruits growing abundantly. Orchards of apricot, almond, Persian pomegranate, cherry, pear, quince, and Japanese plum trees were sheltered from the damaging seasonal winds by limewashed stone walls and by hedges of wild almond and peach trees. The indigenous wild peach 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 the Dutch East India Company’s spice trading fleets were required 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. Men sailing the trade winds arrived in Table Bay and were greeted by the welcoming embrace of the sheer cliffed, flat-topped mountain, often covered with a tablecloth of thin white cloud set flat by the dry south-easterly winds that blew during the Cape’s late summers. The view was made all the more welcoming by the white limewashed buildings, bountiful fruit and vegetable gardens, and 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. Ostriches were 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 from Japanese mines, and were sent to the Kings of Kandy for permission to peel golden-yellow bark off the cinnamon trees in 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 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 in search of cannibals and kingdoms that were said to tame lions and 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 in the interior. The first farmers’ market was established in the Cape in 1665. Game meat was often sold alongside farm produce; hartebeest fillets, hippopotamus fat, large eland steaks, and rhinoceros meat whetted the appetites of many for adventure.

Simon van der Stel (governor of the Cape from 1679 to 1699) undertook perhaps one of the more spectacular of the early expeditions of discovery. The proud owner of two Japanese goldfish 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 the same year, accompanied by over one hundred people including soldiers, miners, cattle drivers, Khoikhoi interpreters, and an artist armed with a box of watercolours 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 additional 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 finally reached their intended destination. Fortified with milk and honey traded from Khoikhoi herders and Bushmen hunters met en route, intrepid prospectors dug several mineshafts in a hard mountain spotted with verdigris. The deepest of these shafts was 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 the trees needed to make enough charcoal for smelting the recoverable ore on site in viable quantities, these copper mines would remain largely unworked (although never forgotten) for years to come.

“Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it chased it.”

African proverb

The Namaqualand expedition party returned to the Cape in 1686, led by a governor who was somewhat less than eager 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. 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 east. The boat they had built was bought by the company, refitted, renamed (de Noord – the North), and sent back to map the wild coast of southeast Africa. By October 1688, it had sailed as far as Delagoa Bay (Maputo Bay) where, on an island then called Elephant Island (Inhaka Island), the crew discovered an English factory producing copper bangles, beads, and bells that were being feverishly exchanged for ivory with people living around the bay.

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, the purpose of which was to search of other shipwreck survivors and to make contact with a distant Khoikhoi Kingdom. The first commander of the Cape, van Riebeeck, had first learnt of this kingdom in 1660, receiving reports of a people whose lands lay between the two seas and who were said to be very wealthy in cattle. It was also reported that they cultivated daccha which he wrote 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 from isiSotho speaking farmers in the Caledon Valley and from copper miners and metalsmiths in the more distant African interior where the beating of sacred drums and the roaring of lions (the dogs of the kings) heralded royal proclamations. Accomplished copper traders, the Inqua were looking to secure relations with the new suppliers of brass in 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 to guide a diplomatic envoy 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, arrack, assegais, trade beads, and long lengths of brass wire to barter for cattle, and they carried with them a copper crown, a gift for the head of the king from the governor of the Cape.

South and East Africa’s Cultural Diversity

Copper, Cattle and Click Consonants

The beautiful coastal plains of the Cape, that stretch in a wide arc between the mouth of the Orange River in the northwest down through the Cape Peninsular and up to the Great Fish River in the east, are separated from the dry Karoo interior by the rugged Cape Fold Mountains. This coastal region was 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. 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.

According to old African folklore, it was polite for a traveller who met a bushman out on the veld to say, "I saw you from miles away". This greeting was the accepted etiquette because it was said 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. 

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 abaNguni, sowed these African grains and seeds. Although isiNguni speaking farmers and Khoikhoi herders spoke different languages, they shared a great love for copper, 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 called izicholo and imiliza made of twisted copper and brass wire.

While 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, another farming people speaking seSotho lived in more compact settlements in the southern African interior. The first hunters and traders to explore the interior from the Cape found isiNguni and seSotho speaking farmers cultivating cloud-watered gardens all the way from the Orange and Fish Rivers up to the Limpopo River. Homesteads were built around cattle kraals, with thatched huts, courtyards, and wooden fences protecting the central cattle byre. The importance of cattle discouraged people from settling in large towns. Homesteads were rather 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, beans, and millet. Cereal crops were stored in granaries and used to make porridge and beer. Vegetable relishes added flavour to ground grains. Cowpeas, groundnuts, spiked melons, wild cucumbers, and tsamma watermelons were planted, and wild fruits including Kei apples, monkey oranges, sour figs, and wild plums were harvested.

"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 owing to 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 (Batao or “men of the lion”, Batlou “men of the elephant”, Bakwena “men of the crocodile”, Batlaru “men of the python”, and so on). 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 embodiment of clan unity. 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, exchanged to settle fines, and used as bridewealth (lobola), a custom that ensured that a widow and her children would be provided for in the event of her husband’s untimely death. Cattle hides were tanned and made into war shields with various colours and shapes used to differentiate 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).

North of the Limpopo and south of the Zambezi, on the gold-rich central African highveld, a number of Shona States grew wealthy by taxing the long-distance trade routes that moved goods across grasslands, rivers, and valleys. In the late 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 interior, 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 to coastal markets where Arab, Persian, and Indian traders competed to offer the best trade goods in return. Items imported included 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 studded 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 forests of mopane trees with bright green butterfly-shaped leaves that turned flame orange and yellow in autumn, forests frequented by heavily tusked elephant.

The fertility of the highveld’s floodplain farmlands and grazing lands that supported huge herds of livestock allowed for the farming population to increase in size such that, over time, the manpower was created for undertaking monumental construction projects. From the 8th century onwards, 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 on the highveld, like Bambandyanalo and Ntabazingwe, established trade links with East Africa’s coastal bazaars. They imported glass beads and brightly coloured cloth in exchange for carved ivory bangles, 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.

“To climb a mountain successfully, you need to meander up it.”

African proverb

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 in ritual practice and 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 Karanga. Much of the land the Mutapa state occupied was covered with savannah vegetation and its grasses (one type called tsinde in Karanga) 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 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

In the years following van der Stel’s expedition to the copper mountains of Namaqualand, a number of explorers left the shores of the Cape in search of adventure in the interior – together with a somewhat disagreeable assortment of outlaws, outcasts, hunters, traders, rebels, and runaways. The frontier was patrolled by bands of raiders of mixed origins, armed with guns, bows and knobkieries (fighting sticks). Filled with wanderlust and a deep desire for personal freedom, these exiles travelled north until they reached the ‘Gariep (the great Orange River) and ‘Nu ‘Gariep (the black, the Senqu, or the upper Orange River), along the banks of which Bushmen with poisoned arrows and fire-hardened assegais hunted and fished, and dug pitfalls 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, 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 need, and they crossed paths with itinerant metalsmiths and diviners – 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.

Into a land of horns and thorns (golden grasslands studded with black thorn, camel thorn, and umbrella thorn acacia trees, with vast herds of red hartebeest, springbok, dancing ostriches, and quiver trees) rode an array of dusty characters wearing wide-brimmed hats. Copper miners and transport riders joined the elephant hunters, cattle rustlers, farmers, herders, and raiders already on the frontier. So too also a motley cast of missionaries and prospectors, ivory and feather traders, artists, surveyors, linguists, misfits, gunrunners with kegs of black powder and flintlock firearms, and hunting them over the most sunbaked north-westerly stretches police mounted on camels.

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

Tachard, Guy. 1688. “A Relation of the Voyage to Siam

Van Riebeek. 1660. In Moodie, Donald. 1838. “The Record

Kipling, Rudyard. 1902 “The Elephants Child.” In “Just So Stories

Bleek, Wilhelm and Lloyd, Lucy. 1911. “Specimens of Bushman Folklore

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