The Comoro Islands

The Comoros consist of four major islands and a number of smaller islets located strategically at the northern end of the Mozambique channel. They are 10 to 12 degrees south of the equator and halfway between northern Madagascar and eastern Africa. Three of the islands, Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani), and Moheli (Mwali), are members of an independent country, the Union of the Comoros. The fourth island Mayotte (Maore), is a department of France. The names in parentheses are the Comorian names of the islands. In the following paragraphs, the French names will be used reflecting the common use in English publications.

A common error is the reference to the archipelago as the "Comoros Islands" with each word ending in 's'. 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 Philippine Islands as "the Philippines Islands" is incorrect.

Occasionally, you may also read the Comoros being referred to as "the islands of the moon." This is an error that arose from a misinterpretation of a label on a 12th century Indian Ocean map. The label is written in Arabic script and correctly identifies the islands as al Qmr (the Comoros). However, "al Qmr" can be translated from the Arabic as "the moon" and someone unacquainted with the western Indian Ocean made the mistake of misinterpreting the label with the Arabic meaning. This error has been repeated for decades and the Comoros are still referred to in a number of publications today as "the islands of the moon."

Volcanic in origin, the Islands arose from the seabed of the Indian Ocean over many eons with each island having distinct characteristics today due to its age. Mayotte, the oldest of the islands, has highly eroded mountains and slow, meandering streams. Grande Comore, in contrast, is the youngest of the islands with no permanent rivers, a number of visible lava flows, and Karthala, an active volcano that dominates the southern half of the island. The other two islands, Anjouan and Moheli, are of intermediate age and have relatively high mountains, tropical forests, no recent volcanic activity, and rivers flowing swiftly to the sea.

Genetic evidence indicates that the Comoros were populated by peoples of African, Arabian, Asian, Austronesian, and Polynesian descent. In a recent study, archaeobotanical data revealed that the Comoros were settled in prehistoric times by Austronesians. These people settled on the island of Madagascar as well and probably sailed directly from S.E. Asia. Estimates are that the islands were settled by Austronesians over a thousand years ago and it is likely that others were there even earlier. The Comoro Islands occupy a strategic location in the western Indian Ocean and have played an integral role in the maritime trade of the area for many centuries. Merchants traveled between the Comoros and a number of ports in the Indian Ocean. They traded 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 Anjouan, was specifically mentioned in a document written by Ibn Madjid, a well-known traveler throughout the western Indian Ocean during the 15th century. Madjid visited the Comoros on his travels and noted that Domoni was a major port for African, Indian, and Persian sailing vessels at that time. Archaeological evidence, furthermore, verifies that the town, founded as early as the 12th century, has been involved in maritime trade for centuries.

The mountainous islands have diverse microecologies with spectacular scenery, exotic plants and rare animals. Several species are unique to the Comoros. One animal, Livingstone's Flying Fox, is a fruit bat that soars on wings spanning more than four feet (1.2 meters)! It roosts in steep-sided valleys high in the mountainous forests of Anjouan and 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. Get a closer look at Pteropus livingstoni.

The Anjouan-scops Owl is one of over a dozen bird species unique to the islands. All are under a threat of extinction due to expanding human populations trying to meet their needs. The islands also have a number of species of insects found nowhere else in the world plus a variety of rare orchids and other plant life on the mountains that have seldom been seen. Some of these have medicinal properties unknown to western science.

A large variety of sea life can be found in the waters around the Comoros. One can find everything from giant whales, large sharks, big manta rays, sailfish, sunfish, to lobsters, crabs, blennies (Alticus anjouanae) and tiny shrimp. Deep water close to the islands, coral reefs, miles of both rocky shores and sandy beaches, plus fresh water streams and shoreline springs provide multiple habitats for marine life. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in pollution from human activity that now threatens the coastal life around the islands. The coral reefs and their associated sea life, in particular, are being affected.

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One species of fish, the Coelacanth, has a remarkable story. Scientists for a long time thought that the Coelacanth had been extinct for 60 million years! But, in 1938, one was caught in the waters near South Africa and brought to the attention of an ichthyologist. The ichthyologist, once he learned that coelacanths were still being caught in the waters of Anjouan, went there to secure a specimen from fishermen who regularly caught the fish for their kitchen tables. Since then, numerous specimens have been caught, preserved, and sent to museums around the world. Coelacanths have also been photographed live in Comorian waters. There are videos of the living fish on YouTube. To learn more about this remarkable story visit the National Geographic web site.

THE UNION OF THE COMOROS

Following the Berlin conference of 1884-5 in which European powers divided up Africa, the Comoros became a French protectorate. France made them a French colony in 1912 then, in 1946, the French declared them to be an Overseas Territory of France. They remained under French political control until 1975 when the local government declared the Islands' independence. Three years of political turmoil then ensued which ended in 1978 when three of the islands formed the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoro Islands. The three islands: Grande Comore, Moheli, and Anjouan, constituted the Republic while Mayotte remained under French administration. French administration of Mayotte was disputed by the new Comorian government and the United Nations General Assembly recognized the island as part of the independent nation of the Comoros. In spite of these actions, the French government remained in control of the island and made it a Department of France in March, 2011. Mayotte remains a part of France today.

In 1997, separatists on the islands of Anjouan and 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. The country was renamed the Union of the Comoro Islands and the constitution gave each of the three islands considerable autonomy. Besides there being an elected president of the Union, each island would have its own president. In 2007, the president of Anjouan, who proposed independence of the island from the Union, refused to relinquish his position after losing an election. Subsequently, 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 newly elected president of Anjouan and a return to a normalized relationship with the central government.

Under the Union's constitution, presidential elections were scheduled to be held every four years with the office rotating between the three islands. In 2002, Colonel Azali Assoumani from Grande Comore was elected President. He was followed in 2006 by Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi from Anjouan and then, in 2011, by Ikililou Dhoinine from Moheli. Azali Assoumani was elected President again in the Spring of 2016.


Further information about the Islands can be found through the links below.

Select an island to read details about it:

Grande Comore | Moheli | Anjouan | Mayotte


Some other sites with information about the Comoro Islands are:

A bibliography for those who wish to do research about the Islands.

The Permanent Mission of the Union of the Comoros to the United Nations.

Seniors Discover the Comoros by Jim Becker.

Dahari is a Comorian NGO founded in 2013.

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)

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.


Any questions, suggestions, or comments about this site contact:

Dr. Martin Ottenheimer or Dr. Harriet Ottenheimer
Emeriti Professors of Anthropology
K-State University

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