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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 the constituents of an independent country; the Union of the Comoros. The fourth island, Mayotte (Maore in Comorian), is a department of France. In the map above, the names of the three islands in the Union of the Comoros are in Comorian. Below their names, the parentheses contain the names for the islands in French. In the following paragraphs, the French names will be used for all four islands. This follows the common practice in English publications.

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 referred to as "the islands of the moon." This error is due to a misunderstanding of the 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 a writer unacquainted with the Comoros referred to them as “the islands of the moon”. One can now find this error in other publications.

The Comoro Islands are of volcanic origin and arose from the Indian Ocean seabed at different times. The result of their differences in age is that each island has visibly different geological characteristics. The youngest is Grande Comore and it has an active volcano.

KARTHALA

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Karthala is the largest, active volcano in the world. It rises 7,746 feet above sea level and dominates the southern half of Grande Comore. The caldera at its summit has an area of 12 km2 and the volcano has erupted more than 20 times in the past two centuries. Numerous lava flows are clearly visible on the island and a major consequence of the volcanic activity is a permeable lava crust that coats the island. The result is there are no permanent rivers on its surface. There are freshwater springs emerging at seaside, however. These explain why European sailors, after passing by the islands in the 17th century, reported that Comorian cattle could drink seawater.

The 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. Recently, geologists have discovered that one half of a mountain on Anjouan contains the mineral quartzite. This has puzzled the geologists since the mineral is associated with continental plates and does not normally appear on volcanic islands.

Mayotte, is the oldest of the islands and has highly eroded mountains with slow, meandering streams. It has had no volcanic activity in the recent past but, since May of 2018, numerous earthquake tremors with a magnitude as high as 5.8 have been reported on the island. In what may be related events, Mayotte in the past year has moved slightly eastward and sunk about 12 centimeters. Furthermore, in May of this year (2019), the Institute of Geophysics in Paris reported that, in the previous six months, an 800 meters high and five kilometers wide volcano had risen from the seabed near Mayotte.

 

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 someone familiar with the Islands reads the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, it is easy to imagine Sinbad visiting the Comoros.

 

The Islands' involvement in the centuries old Indian Ocean maritime trade was noted by the Arabian navigator, Ibn Madjid, who visited Domoni, a community on the eastern shore of the island of Anjouan, in the 15th century. The city had been founded before the end of the 12th century and, at the time of Madjid’s visit, it was a major port for African, Indian, and Persian sailing vessels. By the 17th century, Anjouan had also been visited by English-speaking sailors. Each year between 1601 and 1834, at least one of the ships of the British East India Company anchored in the waters of Anjouan to trade for food supplies and potable water. Numerous American whaling vessels stopped there as well. By the late 19th century, however, the Islands' involvement in the maritime trade of the Indian Ocean virtually vanished. Changes in the maritime routes by larger sailing vessels, the introduction of the steamship, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the administration of the Comoros by a single European nation considerably reduced the Islands' role in international trade. When Europeans colonized Africa and its offshore islands after the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, the Comoro Islands became a French Protectorate, a French colony, and then a French Overseas Territory until 1975 when three of the islands achieved independence and became the Union of the Comoros. Only Mayotte remained under French administration and currently is a Department of France.

 

                                                                 MATRILOCAL POLYGYNY

 

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The Islands possess unusual geological features, exotic flora and fauna, plus a marriage system that is rare among the world’s societies. This rare pattern of social organization is matrilocal polygyny in which men marry multiple wives and reside in each of their households on a system of rotation. In the Comoros, the first marriage for a man with some means is marked by a traditional wedding ceremony in which a considerable amount of wealth is transferred between the families of the wedding couple. This transfer serves to benefit the families of both the bride and the groom but it also gives wives a significant role in the Indian Ocean trading system. As pointed out by Lincoln Paine (The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World), as early as the 3rd century C.E. women were actively engaged in the maritime trade of the Indian Ocean and became wealthy merchants. This enabled them to possess a degree of status rarely attained in other societies. It is interesting to note that, in the 2013 Thomas Reuters Foundation’s poll of the status of women in the 22 member states of the Arab League (including Syria which was suspended in 2011), the Comoros received the highest rank. 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 before publishing 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. 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, consider the following facts: (1) The Friday mosque in Moroni has a plaque inscribed with the date of 11 February 1427 for its construction. (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 century. By the middle of the 19th century, as many as forty American vessels a year had visited the island of Anjouan in the Comoros. (4) From 1780 to 1830, over 3000 whaling ships had set sail from New England ports and sailors returning from the Indian Ocean aboard these vessels brought back tales about the Comoro Islands. These stories were first heard in the ports of New England and then spread westward along the Erie Canal. Thus, it is certainly possible for Joseph Smith to have come across references to the Comoros and the city of Moroni before the publication of the Book of Mormon.

 

Livingstone’s Flying Fox

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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.

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                                Receiving Payment in Anjouan for the Coelacanth

There is a remarkable story about a species of fish caught by local fishermen in the waters of the Comoro Islands. Scientists had thought that the Coelacanth had been extinct for 60 million years! But it came to the attention of J. B. Smith, an ichthyologist in South Africa, that this ancient fish was 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 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.

 

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   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 Comoros 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 Comoros. 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 original Comorian constitution, presidential elections were to be held every four years with the office rotating between the three islands. In 2002, Colonel 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 subsequently promoted a referendum passed in 2018 that changed the system of presidential rotation allowing a President to run for two consecutive five-year terms. He then stepped down and successfully ran again for the presidency in March of 2019 and he can be expected to run again and extend his current term in office to 10 consecutive years. These recent events occurred in an environment of serious political disturbances in which some opponents to the changes lost their lives, were jailed, or threatened with incarceration.

Some web sites with further information about the Comoro Islands are:

The Permanent Mission of the Union of the Comoros to the United Nations.

Seniors Discover the Comoros by Jim Becker.

Radio and Television from the Comoros. (In French, Arabic, and Comorian)

World Bank Country Profile.

BBC News Country Profile.

University of Pennsylvania African Studies Program

Library of Congress Country Studies.

United States Peace Corps.

United States Department of State Background Notes.

United States Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook.

International Monetary Fund Publications on the Comoros.

Interested in examples of Comorian money? Go to Coins of the Comoros.

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