In June 1684 a Portuguese garrison at Maungwe, in what is now eastern Zimbabwe, along with its local auxiliaries and allied soldiers of the Mutapa King, fled for its life following a full day and night of fierce fighting against what the missionary Father Antonio Conceicao described as the sudden appearance of “a proud enemy who dared to measure his bows against our muskets.” Prior to their flight it is further reported that the defenders had become unnerved after being trapped in the middle of the night within a closing ring of fire.
The Portuguese soon knew their nemesis as the “wily and cunning Changamire Dombo”, while his fearsome army of archers, axe and spearman became legendary as the “Rozwi” or destroyers.
Following their attack upon Maungwe, the Rozwi disappeared into Bukalanga. They returned with a vengeance in November 1693, this time razing the fortified Portuguese feira or trading station at Dambarare. According to Father Antonio all sixty of the feira’s resident whites were killed and its Dominican church and mission completely destroyed.
The skins of the Makuwa, including those of two martyred missionaries, were thereafter displayed at the head of the Rozwi army in its subsequent attacks; while the Catholic graveyard was said to have been dug up so its remains could also become part of the mighty Changamire’s war medicine.
Local perceptions built up over many decades of the invincibility of the white man’s gun and cross were thus violently shattered. In panic, the Portuguese permanently abandoned their remaining feira in eastern Zimbabwe, retreating back to their Zambezi outposts at Zumbo, Tete and Sena in Mozambique. In the process the Shona kingdoms of Mutapa, Manyika and Maungwe, which had uneasily hosted the Portuguese, including slave traders, for many decades, were brought under the mighty Changamire’s influence.
To post-colonial Zimbabweans, in particular, Changamire Dombo has understandably come to be seen as a proto-national freedom fighter and early anti-colonial icon. His late in life role as the conqueror liberator of what are today known as the Vakorekore, Zezeru and Manyika areas of eastern Zimbabwe has, however, tended to obscure his roots and deeper legacy among the Bakalanga, as well as Vakaranga, in the western interior.
Besides the inherent timescale limitations of surviving oral traditions and occasional Portuguese texts, an additional challenge for historians of the Rozwi has been the difficulty of establish linkages and continuity for past peoples and personalities in the context of evolving social and ethnic identities.
There can now be little dispute that the line of kings known to the Portuguese and others as Changamire appear in Ikalanga traditions as Nichasike, both clearly being variations of the same name. But, for many years this seemingly obvious link was largely unnoticed, due to the general neglect of Ikalanga sources in broader attempts to reconstruct the region’s past.
Nichasike (also rendered Nichisike, Nityisike, Nitjisike etc.) may be translated as “Lord Cha the Creator”, as in creator of the empire; while Changamire is a coastal derivation, which translates as “Cha the King” (from Arabic/Swahili emir/amir as in United Arab Emirates.)
The name Dombo is shortened from the Ikalanga praise name “Dombo-lakon’wa-chin’wango”, which literally translates as “the rock that is unharmed by the hoe”.
It may be further noted that the title Changamire is known to predate the eastern appearance of Dombolakonachingwango by nearly two centuries. In a letter dated all the way back to the 20th of November 1506, a Portuguese correspondent named Diago de Alcocova gives a detailed account of war between an early Mutapa King named “Mocomba” and another Changamire.
Ikalanga accounts maintain that Nichasike Dombo’s original name was “Chilisamhulu”, or “Calf-herder”, which is attributed to his having reared a buffalo calf as a child. Ikalanga traditions do not, in this respect agree with the suggestion that Nichasike had originally been a “herd boy” of the late 17th century Mutapa ruler Kamharapasu Mukombwe (reigned 1663-92), or that he was otherwise ever the Mwene-Mutapa’s direct subordinate.
Chilisamhulu, like his forefathers, began his political career the She or clan leader/chief of the “moyo-ndizyo” totemic group, who originate among the modern Vakaranga. In this respect Chilisamhulu’s known ancestors were, his father Pasipagegwe, who was the son of Maluzapi, son of Madlazwegwendo of Chigalamoto of Mabhayangedungo.
Before his royal rebirth as Nichasike, Chilisamhulu and his followers would, nonetheless, have been labelled as Vanyai, signifying in this context a pretence of lesser, vassal or client status, by both the surrounding Mutapa (Vakorekore) and Chibundule (Bawumbe) monarchs. This in turn explains why Nichasike’s original followers are to this day known among the Bakalanga and others as the Banyai or Banyayi.
Chilisamhulu became Nichasike by first usurping the Bukalanga throne from the direct descendents of Madabhale Chibundule, thus becoming the new Mambo or “King of Kings”. By the time of his death, recorded in January 1696, he had become the overlord of virtually all of Zimbabwe and adjacent areas of north-eastern Botswana and northern South Africa.