The Comoros consist of four islands and several islets in the western Indian Ocean. Three of the islands are members of an independent country, The Union of the Comoros. These islands have their names in the map above in the local languages of the islands. The fourth island is a department of France and its name is in French. In the following paragraphs, when the island name is in its local language its French name appears in the following parentheses.
The Comoro Islands are located at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and Africa with each of them: Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Moheli), Nzwani (Anjouan), and Maore (Mayotte) having distinct characteristics due to their different ages. Mayotte, the oldest of the islands, is an ancient volcanic island with highly eroded mountains and slow, meandering streams. Grande Comore, the youngest of the islands has a massive, active volcano and recent lava flows. The other two islands are mountainous but have had no recent volcanic activity. The Islands occupy a strategic position in the western Indian Ocean and have played an important role in the history of the area. They have been involved in the ancient maritime trade of the Indian Ocean for many centuries and this is reflected in the makeup of the population. Peoples from Africa, Arabia, Asia, Europe, and Madagascar have all contributed to the mixture.
Documents written in the local language with Arabic script tell of large, seaworthy sailing vessels and a widespread maritime trading network in the western Indian Ocean. While the tales of Sinbad the Sailor are an entertaining and fanciful view of sailing in the Indian Ocean, they are based on the ancient maritime trade between India, Arabia, Eastern Africa, and the African islands. Sailors 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. Comorians were heavily involved in this trade. The town of Domoni on the eastern shore of the island of Anjouan was specifically mentioned as a major trading center in the fifteenth century. Ibn Madjid, the navigator, wrote of the town in his descriptions of the western Indian Ocean maritime trading centers. He purportedly guided Vasco da Gama, the first European to sail around the south of Africa into the Indian Ocean from Africa to India. Ibn Madjid visited the Comoros on his Indian Ocean travels and noted that Domoni was a port for African, Indian, and Persian sailing vessels. Archaeological evidence, furthermore, indicates that the town, founded before the 12th century, became involved in the network of trade that by the 15th century stretched as far away as China.
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 on a 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 reprovisioning. 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 mercernaries 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 and Mwali. With disappearing forests due to increased human population and demands for timber, however, the bat's habitat is rapidly diminishing and the species is endangered.
Several different kinds of insects and over a dozen bird species are also unique to the islands. Many are now are facing 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 fisherment 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.
For details about a particular island select from:
Other world wide web 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 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:
Any questions, suggestions, or comments contact
Copyright (C) by Martin and Harriet Ottenheimer. (Last update 24 December 2014)