The  Comoro  Islands

 

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The Comoros consist of four major islands and a number of smaller islets strategically located 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, 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. This reflects the influence of the French over the past two centuries.

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 inscription in Arabic on an ancient map of the Indian Ocean. The Islands are identified as ٵڶڨ٥ر which is Arabic for ‘the moon.’ But the label is also the way ‘the Comoros’ is written in Arabic. The translator of the words on the map apparently was unfamiliar with the islands and just assumed the label meant the “islands of the moon.” That error has been repeated several times and one can still find it in print today. 

zhomani.jpgOf volcanic origin, the Comoros arose from the seabed of the Indian Ocean over many eons 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.

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 Nzwani (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.

dhowFor over 4000 years, African, Arabian, Egyptian, Indian, and Persian sailing vessels carried seafarers and cargo over vast areas of the Indian Ocean. The traditional ships were seaworthy, strong, fast, and remarkable since no metal was used in their construction. Not even metal nails were used. The hulls of the traditional dhows were made of wooden planks sewn together and lashed to sculpted logs with rope made from coconut fiber. They were well designed for the conditions of the ancient Indian Ocean maritime trade. Even the largest vessels were flexible, shallow draft craft able to reach a destination on or near a shore without being demolished by breaking waves. The seaports in ancient times rarely had deep water facilities and ships had their cargos transferred either on a beach or in shallow water. 

From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, 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 sailing vessels coming from or going to the United States traded mail. In the last half of the 19th century, American warships visited the islands, the British navy had a coal refueling station on Anjouan which Henry Morton Stanley visited on his way to look for Dr. Livingstone in eastern Africa, and the islands became a French colony. With the disappearance of the whaling industry, the introduction of modern steamships, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the control of the islands by the French, the Comoros became the “Forgotten Islands” of the Indian Ocean.

Livingston's Fruit BatThe 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. Get a closer look at Pteropus livingstoni.

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 also unique to the islands. They are under increased pressure as well from expanding human populations and facing a serious threat of extinction.

 

Anjouan-scops Owl

 

coelacanth photo by Davi OttenheimerIn 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 in 1938 it was discovered in South Africa that live Coelacanths still exist and in the 1950s an ichthyologist came to the Comoros to get a specimen from local fishermen who were catching them for food. Several specimens have since been caught, preserved, and sent to museums around the world. 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

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Following the Berlin conference of 1884-5 in which European powers divided up Africa, the islands became a French colony. In 1946, the French declared them to be an “Overseas Territory of France” and they remained under French political control until 1975. In that year, the local government declared the Islands’ independence and in 1978, after three years of political turmoil, 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. Despite control of Mayotte by France being disputed by the Comorian government and recognition of the United Nations General Assembly that the island belongs within the sphere of the independent nation of the Comoros, the French government made it a Department of France in March, 2011. Mayotte remains a part of France today.

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. The country was renamed the Union of the Comoro Islands with the new constitution giving each of the three islands considerable autonomy. Besides electing a president of the Union, each island would elect a 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 constitution, presidential elections were scheduled to be held every four years with the office rotating between the three islands. Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi from the island of Nzwani (Anjouan) was elected President in 2006, replacing 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.

For details about a particular island select from:

                                    Ngazidja (Grande Comore)
                                   
                                    Mwali (Moheli)
                                   
                                    Nzwani (Anjouan)

                                    Maore (Mayotte)


                                   

 

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.

Interested in recent military actions in the Comoros? Visit the site of the South African Air Combat Information Group.

For more general background information you may want to visit the following sites:

African Gateway

 

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Any questions, suggestions, or comments contact

Martin Ottenheimer or Harriet Ottenheimer

 Traditional doll
 from Nzwani (Anjouan).

Copyright (C) by Martin and Harriet Ottenheimer. (Last update 01 July 2015)