Consisting of four major islands plus some islets, the Comorian archipelago is located strategically at the northern end of the Mozambique channel, 10 to 12 degrees south of the equator and halfway between northern Madagascar and eastern Africa. Three of the islands, Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani), and Moheli (Mwali), are members of an independent country, the Union of the Comoros. The fourth island Mayotte (Maore), is a department of France. The names in parentheses are the Comorian names of the islands. In the following paragraphs, the French names will be used reflecting the common use in English publications.
The Comoro Islands are sometimes mistakenly referred to as the "Comoros Islands" with each word ending in 's'. In English, the proper way to refer to them is "Comoros" or "Comoro Islands." Referring to them as "Comoros Islands" is incorrect, just as referring to the Philippine Islands as the “Philippines Islands" would be incorrect.
A less common mistake is the Comoros being called "the islands of the moon." This is due to misinterpretation of a label in Arabic on a 12th century Indian Ocean map. The label correctly identifies the islands as "al Qmr" (the Comoros). However, the Arabic meaning of ‘al Qmr’ is “the moon” and someone unacquainted with the Islands mistook the Arabic meaning of the words for their name and called them “the islands of the moon”. This mistake has since appeared in a number of publications.
Volcanic in origin, the Comoros arose from the seabed of the Indian Ocean and each island has distinct geological characteristics due to its age. Mayotte, the first to emerge, is the oldest of the islands and shows its age with highly eroded mountains and slow, meandering streams. Grande Comore is the youngest and is dominated by an active volcano that rises 7,746 feet above sea level and whose caldera at its summit measures twelve kilometers wide. Numerous lava flows are clearly visible on the slopes of the island and no permanent rivers exist due to the permeable lava crust on the island’s surface. The other two islands, Anjouan and Moheli, are of intermediate age with no active volcanic activity, high mountains, tropical forests, and rivers flowing to the sea.
Genetic, archaeological, archaeobotanical, and historical evidence have revealed that the Comoros have been populated for over a millenium by peoples of African, Arabian, Asian, Austronesian, and Polynesian descent. Some originally settled on the island of Madagascar and it is likely that they sailed directly across the southern Indian Ocean to the islands from S.E. Asia. Strategically located in the western Indian Ocean, the Comoros have played an integral role in the maritime trade of the Indian Ocean for many centuries. Merchants sailed between the Comoros and numerous ports in the western Indian Ocean to trade a wide variety of goods that included gems, exotic animals, woods, cowries, cloths, slaves, ambergris, and spices.
Domoni, a community on the eastern shore of the island of Anjouan was visited by the Arabian navigator, Ibn Madjid, who recorded in the 15th cebtyrt that Domoni was a major stopover for African, Indian, and Persian sailing vessels. Archaeological evidence has revealed that the city had been established before the end of the 12th century and the island was visited by numerous American pirates and whalers as early as the 17th century. After a long history of participation in the maritime trade, Domoni’s involvement diminished considerably after the middle of the 19th century due to the introduction of the steamship, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the region coming under the control of western European nations. By 1908, the Comoros came under a French administration and, especially for Americans, became “Forgotten Islands”.
One of the unusual social features found in the Comoros is a pattern of marriage known to Anthropologists as “matrilocal polygyny.” It is a rare combination of men having multiple wives and living with each of them in their households on a system of rotation. Combined with a traditional wedding ceremony involving a large transfer of wealth and playing a significant role in the Indian Ocean system of trade, women possessed a high degree of freedom, power, and wealth not seen in most other countries. In the 2013 Thomas Reuters Foundation’s poll, the status of women in the Union of the Comoros was ranked the highest of all 22 members states of the Arab League (including Syria which was suspended in 2011). Three percent (3%) of the national parliament’s seats were held by women (World Bank 2011), twenty percent (20%) of politicians in ministerial positions were female (World Bank 2011), and thirty-five percent (35%) of adult women were in the labor force (United Nations 2011). Furthermore, women are usually awarded land and homes in cases of divorce or separation (United States Department of State 2012) and fifty percent (50%) of all inmates are males held for crimes of sexual aggression (United States Department of State 2012). For details of the system of marriage and the role it played in women's status, see "Marriage in Domoni" by Martin Ottenheimer.
The capitol of the independent country, the Union of the Comoros, is Moroni. It is located on the largest island in the archipelago which was called “Big Comoro” by American sailors. In an interesting controversy, the words ‘Moroni’ and ‘Comoro” (Note: They are found with various spellings.) have become involved in a religious controversy. According to Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the angel “Moroni” led him to “Cumorah”, a hill in New York state, and revealed where golden plates were buried that told of ancient inhabitants of the Americas. Joseph Smith translated the plates and published their story in 1830 in a book that became the sacred text in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Critics have challenged Smith's story and claim that he had actually heard about the Comoros before publishing The Book of Mormon thereby somewhat demeaning its spiritual nature. In responding to the critics' claims, members of The Church defend its sacred nature by arguing that it was not possible for Smith to have heard these words before 1830. They believe that the Comoros were unknown in the U.S. and that Moroni didn’t even exist until after The Book of Mormon was published.
Was it possible for Joseph Smith to have heard about Moroni and the Comoro Islands before 1830? To answer this question, I point to the following facts: 1. The Friday mosque in Moroni has a plaque inscribed with the date of 11 February 1427. 2. Walls that once surrounded the city are known to have been built in the late 18th century. 3. The infamous American pirate, Captain Kidd, visited the Comoros in 1697 and was only one of several American sailors over the next several decades who visited the Islands. Whaling vessels returned from the Indian Ocean to a number of ports along the eastern shores of New England with seamen who told tales about the Comoro Islands. Thus, it was clearly possible for Joseph Smith to have heard of the Comoros and Moroni before the publication of The Book of Mormon in 1830. Whether or not, in fact, he did hear about them is a different question. It will require details about the life of Joseph Smith to answer that one.
Livingstone’s Flying Fox
The mountainous islands have diverse microecologies with spectacular scenery, exotic plants and rare animals. Several species are unique to the Comoros. One animal, Livingstone's Flying Fox, is a fruit bat that soars on wings spanning more than four feet (1.2 meters)! It roosts in high valleys in the mountainous forests of Anjouan and Moheli. With disappearing forests due to increased human demands for cleared land and timber, the bat's habitat is disappearing and the species is endangered.
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.
A large variety of sea life can be found in the waters around the Comoros. One can find everything from giant whales, large sharks, big manta rays, sailfish, sunfish, to lobsters, crabs, blennies (Alticus anjouanae) and tiny shrimp. Multiple forms of marine life exist in the deep water close to the islands, among the coral reefs, on the miles of both rocky shores and sandy beaches. Fresh water streams and shoreline springs help to add to the diversity of plant and animal life in the Islands. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in pollution from human activity that now threatens much of the coastal life around the islands. The coral reefs and their associated sea life are especially in danger.
There is a remarkable story about a species of fish found in the waters of the Comoro Islands. Scientists, at one time, thought that the Coelacanth had been extinct for over 60 million years! But, in 1938, one was caught and brought to the attention of an ichthyologist, J. B. Smith, in South Africa. Once he learned that coelacanths were still being caught in Comorian waters, he offered a reward for anyone in the Islands who caught one and kept it as a specimen for him. In 1952, a fisherman from Anjouan, who regularly caught the fish for his kitchen table, presented him with one. Since then, numerous specimens have been caught, preserved, and sent to museums around the world. Coelacanths have also been photographed while swimming in Comorian waters. There are videos available on YouTube. To learn more about this story visit the National Geographic website.
THE UNION OF THE COMOROS
At the Berlin conference of 1884-5, the major European powers divided up Africa into spheres of influence and the Comoros became a French protectorate. France declared them a colony in 1912 and in 1946 they became an Overseas Territory of France. They remained under direct French political control until 1975 when the local government declared the Islands' independence. In 1978, after three years of political turmoil, three of the islands; Grande Comore, Moheli, and Anjouan, formed the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoro Islands. France retained control of Mayotte but this was disputed by the new Comorian government and the United Nations General Assembly also recognized the island of Mayotte as a part of the independent nation of the Comoros. However, in spite of these actions, the French government retained control of Mayott and, in March of 2011, made the island a Department of France. It remains a part of France to this day.
In 1997, separatists on the islands of Anjouan and Moheli demanded more independence from the Federal Islamic Republic. This led to the breakup of the Republic and 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 Anjouan, proposed that island become independent from the Union. Subsequently, 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 Anjouan 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. In 2002, Colonel Azali Assoumani from Grande Comore was elected President. He was followed in 2006 by Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi from Anjouan and then, in 2011, by Ikililou Dhoinine from Moheli. Azali Assoumani was elected President again in the Spring of 2016 and is currently attempting to change the system of presidential rotation which would allow him to continue as President beyond four years. This resulted in some serious political disturbances in 2018 with several of those opposed to the changes proposed by President Azali being jailed or threatened with incarceration.
Some web sites with information about the Comoro Islands are:
Seniors Discover the Comoros by Jim Becker.
Radio and Television from the Comoros. (In French, Arabic, and Comorian)
Interested in examples of Comorian money? Go to Coins of the Comoros.