The Comorian archipelago is located in the western Indian Ocean at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel. It lies 10 to 12 degrees south of the equator and halfway between northern Madagascar and eastern Africa. There are four major islands plus a number of 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 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 the language used by Comorians. Below their names, the parentheses contain their names in French. In the following paragraphs, the French names will be used for all four islands. This follows the common practice in English publications.
The Islands are occasionally 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 in English is "the Comoro Islands" or simply, "the Comoros".
Another error is the Comoros being called "the islands of the moon". This is an interesting mistake due to a misinterpretation of a label on a 12th century map drawn by the Arab geographer, al-Idrisi. 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 writers unfamiliar with the Islands misunderstood the label and published their name as "the islands of the moon”. This error can still be found in publications today.
Of volcanic origin, the Islands arose from the Indian Ocean seabed at different times resulting in each island having different geological characteristics. Grande Comore, the youngest island still has an active volcano which dominates the southern part of the island.
Karthala is one of the largest, active volcanoes in the world. It rises 2360.98 meters above sea level and the caldera at its summit has an area of 12 km2. The volcano has erupted more than 20 times in the past two centuries and numerous lava flows are clearly visible on the island. A major result of the past volcanic activity has been a permeable lava crust coating the island and there are no permanent rivers on its surface. There are freshwater springs emerging at seaside, however, and these may help explain why some European sailors, after passing by the Islands in the seventeenth century, wrote that Comorian cattle drink seawater.
Anjouan and Moheli are of intermediate age with high mountains, tropical forests, and rivers flowing down to the sea. Recently, geologists have discovered that one mountain on Anjouan contains the mineral quartzite. This has puzzled geologists since the mineral is associated with continental plates and is not normally found on a volcanic island. It is a geological mystery.
Mayotte is the oldest of the islands. It has relatively low mountains, slowly meandering streams, and a coral reef. There has been no volcanic activity on the island since ancient times but, since May of 2018, numerous earthquake tremors with a magnitude as high as 5.8 have been reported. In what may be related events, in the past year Mayotte has moved slightly eastward and sunk about 12 centimeters. Furthermore, in May of 2019, the Institute of Geophysics in Paris reported an eight hundred meters high and five kilometers wide volcano had risen from the seabed near Mayotte in the previous six months.
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.
Located at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel, the Comoros for centuries played an integral part in the western Indian Ocean maritime system of trade. The Arabian navigator, Ibn Majid, noted in the 15th century that the city of Domoni on the island of Anjouan was a major port for African, Indian, and Persian sailing vessels. Merchants sailed between the Comoros and ports in Africa, Arabia, and southern Asia trading in a wide variety of goods that included rare gems, exotic animals, woods, cowries, cloths, slaves, ambergris, and spices. As early as the 17th century, European and American sailing ships also played a role in the Comoros. Between 1601 and 1834, for example, at least one of the ships of the British East India Company anchored in the waters of Anjouan to refresh supplies of potable water and food. The Comorian involvement in trade dramatically changed when sailing ships became much larger and no longer needed to stop in the islands to refresh supplies, the steamship was invented, the Suez canal was completed, and the European colonial system became established in Africa and its offshore islands following the Berlin Conference of 1886. By the end of the 19th century, the Comoros no longer played any significant role in Indian Ocean maritime trade.
Due to the presence of American sailors in the Indian Ocean in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Comoros may have had an impact on American culture. The capitol of the Union of the Comoros is the city of Moroni. This city 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 Joseph Smith's source of the words, ‘Moroni’ and ‘Cumorah’, were sailors who had returned from the Indian Ocean and related stories about the Comoro Islands. 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.
In regard to this controversy, 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, as many as forty American vessels a year had visited the island of Anjouan in the Comoros. (4) From 1780 to 1830 alone, more than 3000 whaling ships had set sail from New England ports and sailors returning from the Indian Ocean were likely to have brought back stories about the Comoros. These stories would have been heard in the ports of New England and spread westward along the Erie Canal. Thus, the possibility does exist that Joseph Smith 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 question.
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Comorians practice a form of marriage known to social scientists as "matrilocal polygyny". It is rarely found among the world’s societies and was even thought to be impossible at one time. Its core features are a married man having several wives at the same time, the husband resides in rotation with each of his wives, and he is expected to treat each household equally. The period of time the husband resides in each household usually varies depending upon the distance between them. The further they are apart, the more time is spent in the household when visiting it. While the households are supposed to be treated as equals, the wedding ceremonies for each marriage vary considerably. The second and subsequent marriage ceremonies are private ceremonies involving a cadhi and, at most, a few friends and family members. In contrast, the first marriage ceremony is celebrated in a large public celebration involving numerous events, numbers of community members, and significant gift exchanges between the families of the bride and groom that benefit both families.These, in the past, provided the opportunity for both the husband and the wife to play a significant role in the Indian Ocean trading system. The system of marriage also provided women with a high degree of social status plus freedom, power, and wealth not attained in the past in many societies. The high status for married women in the Comoros was noted in the Thomas Reuters Foundation poll of 2013. The poll discovered that, of the 22 member states of the Arab League (including Syria which was suspended in 2011), the status of the women in the Union of the Comoros ranked the highest. 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 were usually awarded land and homes in cases of divorce or separation (United States Department of State 2012) and fifty percent (50%) of all inmates were males held for crimes of sexual aggression (United States Department of State 2012). Details of the system of marriage and the role it played in Comorian women's social status can be found in the book, "Marriage in Domoni", by Dr. Martin Ottenheimer.
Livingstone’s Flying Fox
A number of plant varieties and animals exist on the islands that are found nowhere else in the world. One of the species unique to the Comoros is Livingstone's Flying Fox. It is a bat that roosts in the mountainous forests of the high valleys of Anjouan and Moheli and soars on wings spanning more than three feet. A number of unique bird, insect, and plant species also exist on the Islands. Today, they are seriously threatened by a demand for cleared land and timber by an increasing human population.
A large variety of animal life also exists 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.
Mr. Saima Receiving Payment for the Coelacanth
The Coelacanth is a rare fish found in Comorian waters. At one time, ichthyologists thought that it was extinct and had ceased to exist sixty million years ago. Only aware of its fossil remains, the scientists did not know that Comorian fishermen were catching them regularly and bringing them home for dinner! When J. L. B. Smith, an ichthyologist in South Africa learned about Comorians catching live Coelacanths, he offered a reward to any fisherman who would provide him with a specimen. In 1952, the Anjouanese fisherman 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 swimming in the Indian Ocean are available on YouTube. To learn more about the fish visit the National Geographic website.
THE UNION OF THE COMOROS
At the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, European nations divided up Africa into spheres of influence and the Comoros became a French Protectorate. They were subsequently declared a French colony in 1912 and a French Overseas Territory in 1946. The Comoros remained a French Overseas Territory 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. 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 of the Comoro Islands. This led to the breakup of the Republic and the establishment in 2001 of a central government under a new constitution. 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. Furthermore, 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 for the passage of a referendum that would change the system of presidential rotation and allow 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 in March of 2019. He is expected to run again and extend his current term in office to 10 consecutive years. These events have led to a period of unrest with political disturbances in which people have been threatened, jailed, or bodily harmed.
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)
University of Pennsylvania African Studies Program
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.