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 paragraphs, an island’s local name is followed by its French name in parentheses reflecting 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, Nzwani (Anjouan) and Mwali (Moheli), 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, 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, 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 find Dr. Livingstone, 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”.

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 and Mwali. 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. 

 In the waters around the islands, lives the coelacanth, a fish with an amazing story. Western scientists once thought that the fish 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. In the 1950s, the ichthyologist went to the Comoros to secure a specimen from fishermen who regularly caught the fish for their kitchen tables. Since that time, several specimens have been caught, preserved, and sent to museums around the world. Coelacanths have also been photographed live in the Islands’ waters. To learn more about this remarkable story visit the National Geographic web site. There are also videos of the fish on YouTube.

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There is an abundance of sea life around 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, 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 badly 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 protectorate. They became a French colony in 1912 and the French declared them to be an “Overseas Territory of France” in 1946. 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 islanads formed the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoro Islands. The three islands: Ngazidja, Mwali, and Nzwani, became members of the Republic but Mayotte remained under French administration. French control of Mayotte was disputed by the Comorian government and the United Nations General Assembly recognized the island as part of the independent nation of the Comoros. Despite this, 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 Nzwani and Mwali 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 Nzwani, who favored complete independence from the Union, refused to relinquish his position after losing an election. 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 newly 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 was elected President in 2006, replacing Azali Assoumani from Ngazidja. The current President, Ikililou Dhoinine, is from the island of Mwali.

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

Further information about the Comoro Islands can be found below under the following categories. A Loubnatyoung Comorian woman from the island of Nzwani says, "Wangalie!" ("Take a look!")


For details about a particular island select from:

          Ngazidja (Grande Comore),  Mwali (Moheli),  Nzwani (Anjouan), or  Maore (Mayotte)

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

 

Some online sites with further 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

Dr. Martin Ottenheimer or Dr. Harriet Ottenheimer

 Traditional doll
 from Nzwani