The Comoro Islands
The Comoros consist of four major islands and a number of smaller islets in the western Indian Ocean. Three of the islands, Ngazidja, Nzwani, and Mwali, are members of an independent country, The Union of the Comoros. In the map above, these islands have their names in their language. The fourth island is a department of France and ‘Mayotte’ is its French name. In the following pages, an island’s local name is followed by its French name in parentheses. A common error is the reference to them as the “Comoros Islands.” In English, the proper way to refer to them is “the Comoros” or “the Comoro Islands.” Referring to them as “the Comoros Islands” is incorrect just as referring to the Falkland Islands as “the Falklands Islands” isn’t correct. Occasionally, you may also read the Islands being referred to as “the islands of the moon.” This is an interesting error based upon an Arabic inscription on an ancient map of the Indian Ocean. The Islands are identified on the map as ٵڶڨ٥ر which is Arabic for ‘moon.’ But it is also the way one would write “the Comoros” in Arabic. What apparently happened is the translation was written by someone unfamiliar with the Comoros and just mistakenly assumed the label meant they were called the “islands of the moon.” That mistake has subsequently been repeated in various publications and one can still find it in print today.
Of volcanic origin, the Comoros arose from the seabed of the Indian Ocean between northern Madagascar and eastern Africa over the past millions of years with each of the islands having distinct characteristics due to their different ages. Maore (Mayotte), the oldest of the islands, has eroded mountains and slow, meandering streams. Ngazidja (Grande Comore), the youngest of the islands has a massive, active volcano that dominates two-thirds (2/3) of the island. It has several clearly discernable lava flows and no rivers. The other two islands have wooded mountains without any recent volcanic activity and rivers flowing to the sea. The Islands occupy a strategic position in the western Indian Ocean and the people of the islands have played an integral role in maritime trade for many centuries. This is reflected in the multicultural nature of the population. Africans, Arabians, Asians, and Europeans have all contributed to the mixture.
Documents written over the centuries in the islands tell of the history of the area and of the large, seaworthy sailing vessels that, until very recently, were involved in the maritime trading network. While the tales of Sinbad the Sailor are an entertaining and fanciful view of seafaring life in the Indian Ocean, they are based on the life of the sailors traveling between India, Persia, Arabia, Eastern Africa, and the African islands. Merchantmen traveled between ports in the Comoros, Kilwa, Oman, and the Malabar coast of India trading a wide variety of goods including gems, rare animals, slaves, exotic woods, and spices. Domoni, a town on the eastern shore of the island of Nzwani (Anjouan), was specifically mentioned as a major trading center in a document from the fifteenth century. This document was written by Ibn Madjid, a navigator at that time said to have guided Vasco da Gama from Africa to India. The navigator visited the Comoros on his Indian Ocean travels and noted that Domoni was a major port for African, Indian, and Persian sailing vessels. Archaeological evidence, furthermore, verifies that the town, founded as early as the 12th century, had been a part of the network of trade well before the sixteenth century European involvement in the Indian Ocean maritime trade.
Traditional sailing vessels of the Indian Ocean, much like the 60 foot merchantman pictured at right, carried tons of cargo and were notably fast sailing ships. They were especially remarkable in that nothing of the ship was made of metal. Even metal nails weren’t used in the construction of the vessels. Their hulls were made of wooden planks sewn together with rope made from coconut fiber. They were very seaworthy, long lasting vessels well suited to the conditions of the ancient Indian Ocean maritime trade. They were flexible, shallow draft craft able to stand the pounding of surf without breaking apart when they approached a landing spot. The ports in the Indian Ocean rarely had deep water facilities in ancient times and ships would be beached or anchored close to shore.
During the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, large numbers of European and American ships visited the Comoro Islands. American whalers and pirates, including the infamous Captain Kidd, would anchor in Comorian waters to restock water and food. The island of Nzwani (Anjouan), in particular, was a favorite stopover for provisions. Occasionally, ships would take aboard islanders as crew or leave sailors ashore that were sick or had misbehaved. It was also a place where ships coming from or going to the United State traded mail. The British navy had a coal refueling station on Anjouan in the last half of the 19th century and since the middle of the 19th century French colonial administrators, plantation owners, and mercenaries became intimately involved in the life of the Islands. But, the demise of the whaling industry, the introduction of steamships, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the control of the islands by the French, the Comoros ceased to be a significant part of the western Indian Ocean international trading system. Today, they are truly "Forgotten Islands".
The mountainous islands have diverse microecologies with spectacular scenery, exotic plants and rare animals. Several species of animals are unique to the Comoros. One, Livingstone's Flying Fox, is a fruit bat that soars on wings spanning more than four feet. It roosts in steep-sided valleys high in the mountainous forests of Nzwani (Anjouan) and Mwali (Moheli). With disappearing forests due to increased human demands for cleared land and timber, the bat's habitat is diminishing and the species is endangered.
Several different kinds of insects and over a dozen bird species; including the Comoro Blue Vanga, Humblot’s Sunbird, and the Anjouan-scops Owl, are unique to the islands. They also are under increased pressure from expanding human populations and facing a serious threat of extinction.
In the waters around the islands, lives the coelacanth, a species of fish with an amazing history. It was once thought by western scientists to have been extinct for 60 million years. But it was discovered in 1938 that they still exist and in the 1950s an ichthyologist learned that local fishermen catch coelacanths in deep water close to the Comoro Islands. Several specimens have since been caught, preserved, and sent to museums around the world. Today, Comorian fishermen still catch coelacanths. To learn more about this remarkable story visit the National Geographic web site.There are also videos of the fish on YouTube.
There is an abundance of life in the Indian Ocean surrounding the Comoros. One can find everything from giant whales, large sharks, big manta rays, sailfish, sunfish, to lobsters, crabs and tiny shrimp. Deep water close to the islands, coral reefs, miles of sandy beaches, plus fresh water streams and shoreline springs provide multiple habitats for marine life. In recent years, there has been an increase in pollution from human activity, unfortunately, that now seriously threatens the coastal life of the islands. The coral reefs and their associated sea life, in particular, are being affected.
THE UNION OF THE COMOROS
Following the Berlin conference of 1884-5 in which European powers divided up Africa, the islands became a French colony. They remained under French political control until 1975. In that year, the local government declared the Islands’ independence and formed the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoro Islands. Three of the islands: Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Moheli), and Nzwani (Anjouan), became members of the Republic but Maore (Mayotte), remained under French administration. Although control of the island by France had been challenged by the Comorian government and the claim that Mayotte belongs within the sphere of the independent nation of the Comoros was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly, it became a Department of France in March, 2011.
In 1997, separatists on the islands of Nzwani (Anjouan) and Mwali (Moheli) demanded more independence from the Republic. This led to the breakup of the Federal Islamic Republic and a reformation of the central government under a new constitution in 2001 as the Union of the Comoro Islands. The new constitution gave each of the three islands considerable autonomy. Besides an elected president of the Union, each island would have an elected president. In 2007, the president of Nzwani, who favored complete independence from the Union, refused to relinquish his position and agree to the results of a proper general election on the island. Consequently, in March of 2008, he was removed by a combined military force of soldiers from the Comorian Union and the African Union. This led to a constitutionally elected president of Nzwani and a return to a normalized relationship with the central government.
Under the Union's 2001 constitution, presidential elections were scheduled to be held every four years with the office rotating between the three islands. In 2006, Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi from the island of Nzwani (Anjouan) was elected President. He replaced Azali Assoumani from Ngazidja (Grande Comore). The current President, Ikililou Dhoinine, is from the island of Mwali (Moheli).
Further information about the Comoro Islands can be found below under the following categories. A young Comorian woman from the island of Nzwani (Anjouan) says, "Wangalie!" ("Take a look!")
A bibliography is available for those who wish to do more research about the Islands.
Some online sites with information about the Comoro Islands you may want to visit are:
The World Tourism Directory provides addresses and telephone numbers of a range of useful resources.
Al-watwan, daily news about the Comoros. (In French and Arabic)
Radio and Television from the Comoros. (In French, Arabic, and Comorian)
The Marine Science Country Profile of the Comoros provides an overview plus details of the marine environment.
World Bank Country Profile.
BBC News Country Profile.
Comoro Islands Resources Page of Stanford University Libraries.
University of Pennsylvania's African Studies Program.
Library of Congress Country Studies.
United States Peace Corps web site.
United States Department of State Background Notes.
United States Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook.
IMF (International Monetary Fund) publications on the Comoros.
Interested in examples of Comorian money? Go to Coins of the Comoros.
For more general background information you may want to visit the following sites:
Any questions, suggestions, or comments contact
from Nzwani (Anjouan).
Copyright (C) by Martin and Harriet Ottenheimer. (Last update 26 May 2015)