Geography and History of Zimbabwe

The area of southeastern Africa where The Convert is set has changed a great deal throughout history, and particularly in the past century. From what was once Matabeleland and Mashonaland to Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, the changing place names provide a window on the profound political and cultural shifts that occurred before, during, and after the colonial period.

Jekesai’s people, the Shona, have been the dominant ethnic and linguistic group in what is now Zimbabwe for at least a millenium. They arrived as part of the gradual migration of Bantu-speaking peoples from West Africa through the Congo Basin and into Southern Africa, where they intermingled with the indigenous Khoisan inhabitants and introduced agriculture. The Bantu group that would become the ancestors of the Shona established most powerful kingdom in medieval Sub-Saharan Africa, building their wealth through gold mining and trade with the Swahili Arabs. Their society reached its peak in the fourteenth century, but was already beginning to decline when Europeans began to arrive in the region following Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s landing in 1498.

Map showing African language families

While the Portuguese colonized Mozambique to the east, the Dutch and British began to colonize the Cape region in the seventeenth century. In the first half of the nineteenth century, there was a major influx of British settlers, and many Dutch Boers moved north to establish their own state in the Transvaal (the northern region of what is now South Africa). At the same time, the Bantu tribes were experiencing a major upheaval known as the difaqane (forced migration). The Zulu Nation established an army under the formidable commander Shaka and began conquering territory in Natal on the east coast of South Africa. Among the groups displaced by this violence were the Ndebele, originally a Zulu clan who formed a new tribe under their chief Mzilikazi and conquered southwestern Zimbabwe in the 1830’s, establishing their capital at Bulawayo. In the 1860’s, Mzilikazi and his son and successor Lobengula allowed European missionaries to enter their territory; the British referred to the area as Matabeleland and to the Shona territories as Mashonaland.

Map of colonial possessions in Southern Africa

When the British South Africa Company (BSAC), led by Cecil Rhodes, moved into the area in 1888, they treated Lobengula as the sole ruler of Matabeleland and Mashonaland (although in fact only a few of the Shona chiefs paid him tribute). Rhodes’ men took advantage of Lobengula’s reliance on translators to manipulate him into signing away exclusive mining rights in his kingdom and effectively handing over most of his power. In 1890, Rhodes sent an invading force of some 700 men—the so-called “pioneer column”—across Matabeleland and into Mashonaland, where they built Fort Salisbury in the northeast before spreading out to mine and farm. In 1895, the colony officially adopted the name Rhodesia in honor of Rhodes.

In 1923, BSAC administration ended and Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony until 1965, when white primer minister Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain. In 1980, after years of civil war, Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister, ending white minority rule. Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe, and the capital Salisbury was renamed Harare.