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 error is the Comoros being called "the islands of the moon." This mistake is due to a misinterpretation of a label on al-Idrisi's 12th century map. The label is written in Arabic and identifies the islands as "al Qmr" (the Comoros). However, the Arabic meaning of ‘al Qmr’ is “the moon” and a writer unfamiliar with the Islands misunderstood the label and published “the islands of the moon” as their name. This error has since been repeated in several 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 with an active volcano.
Karthala is one of the largest, active volcanoes 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 result of the volcanic activity is a permeable lava crust that coats the island. The result is there are no permanent rivers on its surface. However, there are freshwater springs emerging at seaside and these may help explain why European sailors passing by the island in the seventeenth century thought that Comorian cattle drank seawater.
The two islands, Anjouan and Moheli, are of intermediate age, have high mountains covered by tropical forests, and rivers flowing 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. It remains a geological mystery.
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 have revealed the Comoros having been populated for over a thousand years. The population is a mixture of peoples of African, Arabian, Asian, Austronesian, European, and Polynesian descent resulting from a long history of Indian Ocean seafaring and maritime trade.
Strategically located at the head of the Mozambique Channel, the Comoros for many centuries were 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 Indian Ocean maritime trade was noted in the 15thth century by the Arabian navigator, Ibn Madjid, who visited Domoni, a community on the eastern shore of the island of Anjouan. 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 sailors from French, American, and British vessels. 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 refresh their supplies of potable water and food. Sailing vessels from other countries also visited the Comoros during that time. By the late 19th century, however, the Islands' involvement in the maritime trade of the Indian Ocean had considerably diminished. Changes in the maritime routes by larger sailing vessels, the introduction of the steamship, the opening of the Suez Canal, and changes in the political arena of Eastern Africa and the islands of the Indian Ocean following the Berlin Conference of 1886 all contributed to considerably reducing the Islands' role in international maritime trade.
The Islands possess unusual geological features, exotic flora and fauna, plus a marriage system rarely found among the world’s societies. This system was considered to be impossible in the past by social scientists although it has been practiced in the western Indian Ocean region for centuries. The system is known as matrilocal polygyny and is characterized by men marrying multiple wives over time and residing with each of their wives in rotation in each of their households. The expectation is that each household is to be treated equally by the husband although his first marriage is marked by a series of public ceremonies not repeated in later marriages with other women. A man's first marriage involves a number of public ceremonies and gift exhanges of money and goods between the families of the wedding couple. The exchanges serve to benefit the families of both the bride and the groom. It provided them the opportunity to play a significant role in the past in the Indian Ocean trading system. It also provided the wives a degree of freedom, power, and wealth not always attained by women in other societies. The high status of women in the Comoros was publicized in the 2013 Thomas Reuters Foundation’s poll where 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). At that time, 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.
A controversial issue involving the Book of Mormon deserves just a brief mention here. The capital city of the independent country of the Comoro Islands is Moroni. It is located on the largest island in the archipelago, Grande Comore, called “Big Comoro” or "Large Comoro" in the past by American sailors who visited the Comoros. Recently, these words; ‘Moroni’ and ‘Comoro’, became a topic of contention about the Book of Mormon, the sacred text of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church, the angel “Moroni” led him to “Cumorah”, a hill in New York state, where engraved golden plates were buried. He then translated their story into English and published it in 1830 as the Book of Mormon. Critics claim that the actual source of the words, ‘Moroni’ and ‘Cumorah’, were sailors who returned from the Indian Ocean and told stories about the Comoros. In responding to the critics' claims, members of The Church defend Smith's account by arguing that it was not possible for him to have heard these words before 1830. They maintain that the Comoros were unknown in the U.S. at that time and that Moroni didn’t even exist before the Book of Mormon was published.
The Comoros have a long history that is not well known. In regard to the controversy above it should be noted that: (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 Moroni 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 in the 18th century by many American sailors. By the middle of the 19th century, for example, as many as forty American vessels a year had visited the island of Anjouan in the Comoros. (4) From 1780 to 1830 alone, over 3000 whaling ships had set sail from New England ports and returning sailors from the Indian Ocean likely brought back stories about the Comoros. These would have been heard in the ports of New England and spread westward as the returning whalers retired inland along the Erie Canal. Thus, it was not impossible for Joseph Smith to have heard about Moroni and the Comoros before the publication of the Book of Mormon. Whether or not, in fact, he did hear about them is a different issue.
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 unique animal is Livingstone's Flying Fox. It is a 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 today, the bat's habitat is diminishing and its future existence is endangered.
A number of unique bird species are also facing the threat of extinction due to the expanding human population on the islands. There are also a number of species of insects found nowhere else in the world plus a variety of rare orchids and other plant life existing in the mountains that are little known outside of the Comoros. Some have exhibited medicinal properties unknown to western medical science.
A large variety of sea life exist in Comorian waters. Everything from whales, sharks, manta rays, sailfish, sunfish, coelacanths, to lobsters, crabs, blennies (Alticus anjouanae) and tiny shrimp exist in the deep water close to the islands and on the miles of rocky shores and sandy beaches. Fresh water streams and shoreline springs help to add to the diversity of plant and animal life around the Islands. In recent years, unfortunately, human activity has increased pollution that now threatens much of Comorian coastal species. The coral reefs and their associated sea life are especially in danger.
Receiving Payment in Anjouan for the Coelacanth
There is a remarkable story about the, Coelacanth, a fish found in Comorian waters. Not too long ago, scientists believed that the Coelacanth had been extinct for 60 million years. They were not aware that Comorian fishermen were catching them regularly and bringing them home for dinner! When the catch of a live Coelacanth came to the attention of J. L. B. Smith, an ichthyologist in South Africa, he subsequently offered a reward to anyone who would provide him with a specimen. In 1952, several years after the fish had been identified, the Comorian fisherman from the island of Anjouan in the picture above received the reward from Dr. Smith. Since then, numerous Coelacanths have been caught, preserved, and sent to museums around the world. They have also been photographed live in Comorian waters and videos of the fish in the ocean are available on YouTube. To learn more about this story visit the National Geographic website.
THE UNION OF THE COMOROS
The Comoros became a French Protectorate after western European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 divided up Africa into spheres of influence. They were declared a colony by France in 1912 and an Overseas Territory in 1946. The Comoros remained under 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 while France retained control of Mayotte. This control 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.
Under the constitution, presidential elections were to be held every four years with the office rotating between the three islands in the Union. 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. He then asked that a referendum be passed that changed the system of presidential rotation allowing a President to run for two consecutive five-year terms. The referendum passed in 2018 and the president stepped down and then successfully ran again for the office of the president in March of 2019. He is 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:
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.