The Comoro Islands 

 

 

Consisting of four islands plus some small 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 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 transformed their name into “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 from the seabed is the oldest of the islands with highly eroded mountains and slow, meandering streams. Grande Comore is the youngest and largest of the islands. An active volcano dominates the southern half of the island, numerous visible lava flows are clearly visible in many parts of the island, and no permanent rivers exist due to the permeable lava crust. The other two islands, Anjouan and Moheli, are of intermediate age with mountains, tropical forests, and rivers flowing to the sea.

Genetic, archaeological, archaeobotanical, and historical evidence have revealed that the Comoros have been populated since the first millenium CE 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 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 western Indian Ocean for many centuries. It was noted that merchants sailed between the Comoros and numerous ports in the western Indian Ocean to trade a wide variety of goods. Their goods included gems, exotic animals, woods, cowries, cloths, slaves, ambergris, and spices.

 

The port of Domoni on the eastern shore of the island of Anjouan was mentioned by the famous Arabian navigator, Ibn Madjid. He visited the Comoros in the 15th century and noted that Domoni was a port 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 participated in maritime trade until very recently. Its involvement diminished considerably in the 19th century after the introduction of the steamship, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the colonization by European nations. The Comoros became a French Protectorate and subsequently were “Forgotten Islands”; especially for Americans.

 

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 English speaking sailors. In an interesting controversy, the words ‘Moroni’ and ‘Comoro” (Note: They are found with various spellings.) have become involved in a religious controversy. Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told of the angel “Moroni” leading him to “Cumorah”, a hill in New York state, and revealed where golden plates inscribed with a description of ancient history were buried. Joseph Smith translated and published the history in 1830 as "The Book of Mormon". Critics have challenged this story and claim that Joseph Smith had actually heard about the Comoros before publishing The Book thereby somewhat demeaning its spiritual nature. In response to this claim, members of The Church defend its sacred nature by arguing that it was not possible for Smith to have heard these words before its publication since the Comoros were unknown in the U.S. and the city of Moroni didn’t even exist before 1830. Was it possible before 1830 for Joseph Smith to have heard about the Comoros? To answer this question, I point out the following facts: 1. The Friday mosque in Moroni has a plaque inscribed with the date of 11 February 1427 and walls that once surrounded the city were built in the late 18th century. 2. The infamous pirate, Captain Kidd, visited the Comoros in 1697 and was only one of numerous American sailors who had knowledge about the Islands in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Many were seamen aboard whaling vessels hailing from ports along the eastern shores of New England. They very likely returned to the eastern United States with tales about the Comoros. Thus, it was possible for Joseph Smith to have heard of the Comoros and Moroni before the publication of The Book. Whether or not, in fact, he did hear about them is a different question. I leave it to others more familiar than I with the life of Joseph Smith to answer that one.

A picture containing a bat

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.

One species of fish, the Coelacanth, has a remarkable story. Scientists for a long time thought that the Coelacanth had been extinct for over 60 million years! But, in 1938, one was caught in the waters near South Africa and brought to the attention of a South African ichthyologist, J.B. Smith. The ichthyologist, once he learned that coelacanths were still being caught in the waters of Anjouan, offered a reward and in 1952 secured a specimen from one of the fishermen who regularly caught the fish for his kitchen table. 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 of the living fish on YouTube. To learn more about this remarkable story visit the National Geographic website.

THE UNION OF THE COMOROS

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At the Berlin conference of 1884-5, the major European powers divided up their spheres of influence in Africa and the Comoros became a French protectorate. France declared them a colony in 1912 then, 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. Three years of political turmoil then ensued followed by three of the islands forming the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoro Islands in 1978. The three islands: Grande Comore, Moheli, and Anjouan, constituted the Republic while Mayotte remained under French administration. French administration of Mayotte was disputed by the new Comorian government and the United Nations General Assembly recognized the island as part of the independent nation of the Comoros. In spite of these actions, the French government remained in control of the island and made it a Department of France in March, 2011. Mayotte remains a part of France today.

In 1997, separatists on the islands of Anjouan and Moheli demanded more independence from the Republic. This led to the breakup of the Federal Islamic Republic and a 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 the 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. Azali Assoumani was elected President again in the Spring of 2016 and is currently embroiled in an attempt to change the system of presidential rotation that resulted in some serious political disturbances in October, 2018.

Some web sites with 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.

Comoro Islands Resources Page of Stanford University Libraries.

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.