and Culture of the Comores
account of the history and culture of the Comores was kindly contributed
Sultan Chouzour & Dr Mbaé Toyb of Moroni.
English tranlation by Claire Spottiswoode.
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
Magellans 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, Davids
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
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).