The Comorian archipelago is located at the northern end of the Mozambique channel, 10 to 12 degrees south of the equator and halfway between northern Madagascar and eastern Africa. It consists of four islands plus several islets. Three of the islands, Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani), and Moheli (Mwali), are an independent country; the Union of the Comoros. The fourth island, Mayotte (Maore), is a department of France. The Comorian names of the islands are in parentheses while those used in the following paragraphs reflect the common practice in English publications and use the names in French.
Sometimes, the Islands are mistakenly referred to as the "Comoros Islands" with each word ending in 's'. This is incorrect just as referring to the Philippine Islands as the “Philippines Islands" would be incorrect. The correct way to refer to them is the "Comoro Islands" or, simply, the Comoros.
A less common mistake is the Comoros being labelled "the islands of the moon." This is an error due to the misunderstanding of a label on a 12th century Indian Ocean map. The label is written in Arabic and 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 mistakenly used the Arabic meaning of the words as their name which led to them being referred to as “the islands of the moon” by others not familiar with the Comoros. This mistake has since appeared in a number of publications.
The Comoro Islands have volcanic origins and arose from the seabed of the Indian Ocean at different times giving each island istinct geological characteristics today. Mayotte, the oldest of the islands, has highly eroded mountains with slow, meandering streams. Since May of 2018, a large number of earthquake tremors with a magnitude as high as 5.8 have been reported. In what may be related events, the island has been moving slowly to the East and has sunk more than 10cm over the past year. The youngest of the islands is Grande Comore and is the only one with an active volcano. Mount Karthala rises 7,746 feet above sea level and has erupted more than 20 times in the past two centuries. The caldera at its summit is one of the largest in the world with an area of 12 km2. Numerous lava flows are visible on Grande Comore’s slopes and a permeable lava crust coats the island resulting in there being no permanent rivers on its surface. The other two islands, Anjouan and Moheli, are of intermediate age, have high mountains covered by tropical forests, and rain fed rivers running down to the sea.
Genetic, archaeological, archaeobotanical, and historical evidence revealed that the Comoros have been populated for over a thousand years. The population today is a mixture of peoples of African, Arabian, Asian, Austronesian, European, and Polynesian descent resulting from a long history of Indian Ocean seafaring and trade. Strategically located at the head of the Mozambique Channel, the Comoros were for many centuries an integral part of the maritime trade of the area. Merchants sailed between the Comoros and ports in Africa, Arabia, and Asia to trade a wide variety of goods including rare gems, exotic animals, woods, cowries, cloths, slaves, ambergris, and spices. When one who is familiar with the Islands reads the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, it is easy to imagine he’s visiting the Comoros.
The Arabian navigator, Ibn Madjid, visited Domoni, a community on the eastern shore of the island of Anjouan. It had been founded before the end of the 12th century and at the time of Madjid’s visit in the 15th century had become a major stopover for African, Indian, and Persian sailing vessels. By the 17th century, the city had also been visited by European and American sailors. Domoni’s extensive involvement in the maritime trade diminished substantially after the middle of the 19th century due to the introduction of the steamship, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the control of the Indian Ocean littoral by European nations. When Europeans regulated colonization of Africa in the late 1800s, the Comoros came under French administration then became a French colony and, lastly, a French Overseas Territory before three of the islands achieving independence in 1975.
The Islands possess unusual geological features, exotic flora and fauna, plus a form of social organization that is rare among the world’s societies. This rare social system is known in Cultural Anthropology as “matrilocal polygyny”. It is a system that features men marrying multiple wives and living in each of their households on a system of rotation. The first marriage for a man is marked by a large traditional wedding ceremony in which a considerable amount of wealth is transferred between the families of the wedding couple and benefits the both the bride and the groom. This gave women a significant role in the Indian Ocean trading system 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 Comorian 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 in the Comoros 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 more details of the system of marriage and the role it played in women's status, see the book, "Marriage in Domoni" by Martin Ottenheimer.
The capital city of the independent country of the Comoros is Moroni. It 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 in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church, “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; the sacred text of The Church. Critics have challenged Smith’s story claiming that the source of the words, ‘Moroni’ and ‘Cumorah’, was from accounts about the Comoro Islands Smith had heard before 1830. 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 maintain 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 its construction as 11 February 1427. (2) Walls that once surrounded the city were seen and mentioned in travelers. accounts 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 New England with tales about the Islands. These tales were likely carried westward along the route of the Erie Canal and it was 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 and then used them in the Book of Mormon 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 had thought that the Coelacanth had been extinct for over 60 million years! But, in 1938, it came to the attention of an ichthyologist, J. B. Smith, that they were being caught in the Indian Ocean near the Comoros. He subsequently offered a reward to anyone who would provide a specimen for him and in 1952 a fisherman in Anjouan 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. In March of 2008, he was removed by a combined force of Comorian and African military units. This led to a newly elected president of Anjouan and a return to a normalized relationship with the central government.
Under the Comorian '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.