History and Culture of the Comores

This account of the history and culture of the Comores was kindly contributed by
Sultan Chouzour & Dr Mbaé Toyb of Moroni.
English tranlation by Claire Spottiswoode.

“Djazirat et Komr” or “Islands of the Moon” – so the Arab navigators of the Middle Ages dubbed this archipelago at the end of the earth. It is far from easy nowadays to disentangle the origins of this name! Certainly, the tropical nights do indeed appear to reflect “Magellan’s Clouds” which illuminated the uncertain way of those who intrepidly navigated the southern seas and first colonised these islands during the sixth century.
Less well understood, perhaps, is the shroud of mystery that continues to cloak these islands, among the less well-known of the western Indian Ocean region despite their privileged position between Madagascar and the African continent. Certainly, given its position at the northern end of the Mozambique channel through which pass enormous oil tankers en route from the Gulf states to Europe, the archipelago is regarded as eminently strategic.
 

History and Society

Relative to that of one its most famous inhabitants, the coelacanth – an ancient fish which has remained virtually unchanged for more than three hundred million years and which still prospers in the depths of Comorien waters – the history of the Archipelago is recent indeed! Yet, relative to that of the neighbouring Mascarenes, for example, the islands’ not inconsiderable history can rightly inspire in its inhabitants a certain pride in belonging to a long-established culture. Certainly, a large part can be attributable to myths and legends – among them the sovereignty of Solomon, David’s son! In more recent times, some authors suggest, the archipelago has received visits from Phoenicians, Jews and Greeks.

Though the archeology of the Comores remains much disputed, it is reasonably well established that the peopling of the Comores dates to the sixth century. It probably began with colonisation by negroid peoples from the coast of East Africa, followed by Indonesians and Arabs from the Hadramaout and from Oman. During the twelfth century, people from the Chiraz of Persia made their arrival on the Archipelago. All these (and most notably those of the Hadramaout) made their contribution to the brilliant and prosperous Swahili civilisation which brought fame and development to the numerous cities of the African coast and the Indian Ocean Islands, among them Mogadiscio, Zanzibar, Kilwa, Lamu and, on the Comores, Moroni, Mutsamudu, Domoni, Mitsamiouli, Mwali-Mdjini and Sima.
At the dawn of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese who rounded the Cape of Good Hope en route to the East Indies often made stops on the Archipelago, notably on Grande Comore. Yet, little trace of their passages remain – just a few tombs crowned by crosses – and their influence was negligible. The Arabo-Chirazians, by contrasts, established strategic matrimonial links with the ruling chieftans or mabedjas. Hence, in addition to their propagation of Islam, they introduced a new political organisation based on sultanates, which ultimately replaced the traditional Bantu system.

A relative prosperity then ensued on the islands. Peace was interrupted only by dynastic conflicts and, towards the end of the 18th century, by the Malagasy raids which sought menial labour for the colonial plantations of the Mascarenes. The fortresses which protect the capital cities of the sultanates date from this era, and indeed a number of towns mounted particularly heroic defenses against their invaders.

The islands, bled dry by the Malagasy raids and divided by dynastic conflicts, hence became easy an easy victim for a yet more enterprising invader, France. During the course of the 19th century, France extended its domination on the islands of the region, thus superceding the English and Germans who had already settled on some of the Comoro islands.

Despite their independence in 1975, the Comores continue to suffer the effects of a somewhat ineffectual decolonisation. Indeed, Mayotte remains under French administration today, whereas the islands of Mohéli, Grande Comore and Anjouan form the Islamic Federal Republic of the Comores (RFIC).
 
Royal Museum for Central Africa, 2001
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