History of the Comoros

The position occupied by the islands of Comoros in the Mozambique Channel has placed them at the crossroads of various influences: African, Malagasy and Arab. Over time, one unique culture and one unique language have emerged from these various roots.

Archaeological evidence testifies to the presence of temporary human colonies in the Comoros from the year 1000 BC, but the first evidence of permanent settlement dates back to the 8th century AD on Mohéli and Mayotte. The first inhabitants were probably of African origin and were followed by the same Austronesian peoples who colonised Madagascar. The islands became an important port of call for the commerce that was developing between the Arab world, Madagascar, Asia and the east coast of Africa, the resultant of which was Swahili culture. It wasn’t merely merchandise that was exchanged there: the merchants got married on the islands and founded families, and a large number of slaves were brought from elsewhere to the region. The population of the Comoros descends from these different groups. The Swahili influence is detectable in Shikomori – the Comorian language that is related to KiSwahili – as well as in the numerous communal customs and traditions.

 

Two-mirhabs mosque (mkiri wa Chiraz) in Domoni, built around the 17th century

The Comoros islands were well-known to Arab sailors, appearing on their maps well before they were discovered by the Europeans. The name “Comoros” comes from the Arabic word “Al-Komr” which means “moon” although it would seem, according to an ancient Arab map, that this name was attributed first to Madagascar before being attributed to the Comoros. The first Europeans to discover the island were the Portuguese who discovered Grande Comore in 1529.

Arab sailors probably brought Islam to the islands in the 15th century and were followed by the Shirazi settlers, who came from the town of Shiraz, in modern-day Iran. The Shirazi were Sunni Muslims and had an important influence on Comorian society in the 15th and 16th centuries, establishing sultanates and building mosques.

Until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and perhaps until some time after (because sailing boats could not cross the canal), boats would travel from Europe to the Indian Ocean, skirting round the Southern Cape and then climbing north along the Mozambique Channel. As a result of this, the islands of Comoros were an important port of call. Anjouan in particular became an important port for British and Dutch boats in the 17th century. During the race for control of the Indian Ocean at the peak of the expansion of European empire, France finally managed to make Mayotte a solely French colony by buying the island in 1841 and then declaring a protectorate on the remaining islands in 1886. The four islands became a single colony in 1908.

 

Djoumbé Fatima, queen of Moheli (1836-1878).

The islands were under the control of Madagascar from 1912 until its independence in 1960. It wasn’t until 1975 that the parliament of Comoros declared unilateral independence for the four islands of the archipelago. Referendums were soon organised in Mayotte, and the population voted to remain a part of French territory. Mayotte remains under French administration and  the government of the Union of the Comoros continue to claim sovereignty over the island of Mayotte..