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 Karthala, the only active volcano in the Islands. Karthala rises 7,746 feet above sea level and the caldera at its summit is twelve kilometers wide. Numerous lava flows are clearly visible on the island’s slopes and due to the permeable lava crust on its surface there are no permanent rivers on Grande Comore. The other two islands, Anjouan and Moheli, are of intermediate age with high mountains covered by tropical forests and rivers flowing to the sea.
Genetic, archaeological, archaeobotanical, and historical evidence have revealed that the Comoros have been populated for more than a thousand years 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 island from Southeast Asia. Strategically located in the western Indian Ocean, the Comoros were for many centuries an integral part of the maritime trade of the area. Merchants sailed between the Comoros and ports from Africa to Asia to trade a wide variety of goods including rare gems, exotic animals, woods, cowries, cloths, slaves, ambergris, and spices. Reading the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, it is easy to imagine he’s visited the Comoros.
Domoni, a community on the eastern shore of the island of Anjouan was visited in the 15th century by the Arabian navigator, Ibn Madjid. It had been founded before the end of the 12th century and at the time of Madjid’s visit had become a major stopover for African, Indian, and Persian sailing vessels. By the 17th century, the city was also visited by numerous European and American sailors. Domoni’s role in the maritime trade diminished after a long history of involvement in 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. When colonization was regulated by Europeans in the second half of the 19th century, the Comoros ended up under French administration then became a French colony and a French Overseas Territory before becoming an independent country.
The Islands possess unusual geological features, flora, and fauna plus a form of social organization that is rare among world societies. The system of marriage known in Cultural Anthropology as “matrilocal polygyny” is practiced in the Comoros. This marriage system features the rare combination of men having multiple wives and living with each one in their households on a system of rotation. In the Islands it is combined with a traditional wedding ceremony at which a large transfer of wealth transpires between families. The marriage system gave women a significant role in the Indian Ocean trade and enabled them to possess 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 the book, "Marriage in Domoni" by Martin Ottenheimer.
Moroni is the capital of the independent country of the Comoros and is located on the largest island in the archipelago, Grande Comore, called “Big Comoro” in the past by American sailors. Recently, the words ‘Moroni’ and ‘Comoro” became involved in a religious controversy. According to Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Moroni” was an angel who led him to “Cumorah”, a hill in New York state, where engraved golden plates were buried. Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the plates and then published their story in 1830 in the Book of Mormon; a book that became the sacred text of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Critics have challenged this story claiming that the source of the words, ‘Moroni’ and ‘Cumorah’, was from accounts about the Comoro Islands that Joseph Smith had heard before his discovery of the plates and the publication of the Book of Mormon. 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 before 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 were seen and noted by travelers in the late 18th century. (3) The infamous American pirate, Captain Kidd, visited the Comoros in 1697 and was followed by numbers of American sailors over the next several decades. Whaling seamen, in particular, returned from the Indian Ocean to ports along the eastern shores of New England with tales about the Islands. Thus, it was clearly possible for Joseph Smith to have heard of the Comoros and the city of Moroni before the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon. Whether or not, in fact, he did hear their names is a different question. The answer to that one requires details about the life of Joseph Smith.
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 increased human demands for cleared land and timber, the bat's habitat is diminishing and the species is becoming 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, a fisherman brought one 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 and kept one 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 live 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, western European powers divided up Africa into spheres of influence and the Comoros became a French protectorate. France declared them a colony in 1912 and they became an Overseas Territory of France in 1946. The Comoros 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 Mayotte 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, attempted to make the island independent and leave the Union of the Comoro Islands. Subsequently, in March of 2008, he was removed by a combined military force from Comorian and African Unions. This led to a newly elected president of Anjouan and a return to a normalized relationship with the central government.
Under the Comorian 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 further 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.