The Comoro Islands’ earliest human occupants are believed to have been Arab, African, and Austronesian immigrants who arrived by boat. These people came no later than the sixth century AD, according to the oldest documented archaeological site, which was discovered on Nzwani, but habitation may have begun as early as the first century.
A series of peoples from the African coast, the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, the Malay Archipelago, and Madagascar inhabited the Comoros islands. Bantu-speaking immigrants arrived to the islands as part of a larger Bantu expansion that occurred across Africa throughout the first millennium.
A jinni (spirit) dropped a diamond, creating a vast circular fire, according to pre-Islamic legend. This erupted as the Karthala volcano, which gave rise to the Comoros island.
The Comoros’ development was split into stages. The Dembeni period (ninth to tenth centuries), when each island had a single, central town, is the oldest securely documented phase. Trade between the island of Madagascar and merchants from the Middle East thrived from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, resulting in the formation of smaller settlements and the expansion of larger cities. Many Comorians may trace their origins back to Yemen, particularly Hadhramaut, and Oman.
Legend has it that after hearing about Islam, islanders sent an envoy, Mtswa-Mwindza, to Mecca in 632—but before the time he arrived, the Islamic prophet Muhammad had dead. Despite this, he returned to Ngazidja after a visit to Mecca and oversaw the gradual conversion of his islanders to Islam.
Al-writings Masudi’s are among the oldest descriptions of East Africa, describing early Islamic trade routes and how Muslims, notably Persian and Arab merchants and sailors, frequented the coast and islands in quest of coral, ambergris, ivory, tortoiseshell, gold, and slaves. They also introduced Islam to the Zanj people, including the Comoros. As the Comoros’ significance increased along the East African coast, modest and big mosques were built. Despite its distance from the shore, the Comoros is located on East Africa’s Swahili Coast. It was a significant commercial center and part of a network of trading cities that included Kilwa in modern-day Tanzania, Sofala in Mozambique (a port for Zimbabwean gold), and Mombasa in Kenya.
The strong Omani Sultan Saif bin Sultan started to fight the Dutch and Portuguese with the advent of the Portuguese and the fall of East African sultanates. Said bin Sultan, his successor, strengthened Omani Arab dominance in the area by relocating his administration to neighboring Zanzibar, which was ruled by the Omani. The Comoros, however, remained independent, and although the three smaller islands were typically formally united, the biggest island, Ngazidja, was split into many separate kingdoms (ntsi).
When Europeans became interested in the Comoros, the islanders were ideally positioned to take advantage of their requirements, first providing ships on the way to India and, subsequently, slaves to the Mascarenes plantation islands.
European contact and French colonization
The archipelago was first seen by Portuguese explorers in 1503. Throughout the 16th century, the islands supplied supplies to the Portuguese fort in Mozambique.
Malagasy warriors from Madagascar began attacking the islands for slaves in 1793. In 1865, it was believed that slaves made up as much as 40% of the population of the Comoros. In 1841, France established colonial authority in the Comoros. The Treaty of April 1841, which surrendered the island to the French authorities, was signed by Andriantsoly (also known as Andrian Tsouli, the Sakalava Dia-Ntsoli, the Sakalava of Boina, and the Malagasy King of Mayotte).
Until the Suez Canal opened, the Comoros functioned as a stopover for merchants traveling to the Far East and India. The Suez Canal substantially decreased trade flowing via the Mozambique Channel. Coconuts, cattle, and tortoiseshell were among the Comoros’ natural exports. Plantation-based economies were created by French settlers, French-owned businesses, and rich Arab merchants, with approximately one-third of the land utilized for export crops. Mayotte was an annexation of France, which turned it into a sugar plantation colony. The main crops of ylang-ylang, vanilla, coffee, cocoa bean, and sisal were soon introduced to the other islands as well.
The Sultan Mardjani Abdou Cheikh put Mohéli under French protection in 1886. Sultan Said Ali of Bambao, one of the sultanates on Ngazidja, put the island under French protection the same year, although having no power to do so, in return for French backing of his claim to the whole island, which he maintained until his abdication in 1910. The islands were united under a single administration (Colonie de Mayotte et dépendances) in 1908, and the French colonial governor general of Madagascar was given responsibility over them. Sultan Said Muhamed of Anjouan abdicated in 1909 to make way for French control. The colony and protectorates were dissolved in 1912, and the islands became a province of Madagascar’s colony.
In 1973, the Comoros and France struck an agreement for the Comoros to gain independence in 1978. Mayotte’s deputies did not vote. On all four islands, referendums were conducted. Three of the islands voted overwhelmingly for independence, but Mayotte voted no and remains under French control. The Comorian parliament, on the other hand, approved a unilateral resolution proclaiming independence on July 6, 1975. Ahmed Abdallah declared the Comorian State (État comorien; ) independent and was elected its first president.
The next 30 years were marked by political upheaval. In an armed coup on August 3, 1975, President Ahmed Abdallah was deposed and replaced by United National Front of the Comoros (FNUK) member Prince Said Mohamed Jaffar. In January 1976, Jaffar was deposed in favor of Ali Soilih, his Minister of Defense.
In two referendums held at the time, the people of Mayotte decided against independence from France. The first, on December 22, 1974, received 63.8 percent support for keeping relations with France, and the second, in February 1976, received an astounding 99.4 percent. President Soilih, who governed the three surviving islands, implemented a variety of socialist and isolationist measures that strained ties with France. Bob Denard returned on May 13, 1978, with the backing of the French, Rhodesian, and South African governments, to depose President Soilih and restore Abdallah. During Soilih’s short reign, he was subjected to seven more coup attempts before being deposed and murdered.
Abdallah’s presidency, in contrast to Soilih’s, was characterized by authoritarian control and greater devotion to traditional Islam, and the nation was renamed the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros (République Fédérale Islamique des Comores; ). Fearing a coup d’état, Abdallah remained president until 1989, when he issued a proclamation ordering the Presidential Guard, commanded by Bob Denard, to disarm the armed forces. Abdallah was reportedly shot dead in his office by an angry military officer shortly after the decree was signed, but subsequent reports say an antitank missile was fired into his bedroom and killed him. Despite the fact that Denard was wounded, it is believed that Abdallah’s murderer was a soldier under his command.
Bob Denard was airlifted to South Africa by French paratroopers a few days later. The president was subsequently Said Mohamed Djohar, Soilih’s elder half-brother, who ruled until September 1995, when Bob Denard returned and tried another coup. Denard was forced to surrender when France intervened with paratroopers. Djohar was deported to Reunion by the French, and Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim, who was supported by Paris, was elected president. He was the country’s leader from 1996 until his death in November 1998, during a period marked by labor unrest, government repression, and separatist wars. Interim President Tadjidine Ben Said Massounde took over as his successor.
In an effort to reclaim French sovereignty, the islands of Anjouan and Mohéli proclaimed independence from the Comoros in 1997. However, France turned against their request, resulting in violent clashes between federal forces and insurgents. Colonel Azali Assoumani, the Army Chief of Staff, overthrew Interim President Massounde in a bloodless coup in April 1999, claiming poor leadership in the face of the crisis. Since independence in 1975, the Comoros have seen 18 coups or attempted coups.
Azali’s failure to consolidate authority and restore control over the islands drew worldwide condemnation. The African Union, led by South African President Thabo Mbeki, placed penalties on Anjouan to aid in the mediation and reconciliation process. The country’s formal name was changed to the Union of the Comoros, and a new system of political autonomy for each island was established, as well as a union administration for the three islands.
Azali stood aside in 2002 to compete for President of the Comoros in a democratic election, which he won. As a military dictator who had first risen to power by force and was not always democratic while in government, Azali led the Comoros through constitutional revisions that allowed fresh elections, despite continuing international criticism. A Loi des compétences legislation, which specifies the duties of each governmental entity, was enacted in early 2005 and is now being implemented. Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, a Sunni Muslim cleric dubbed “Ayatollah” for his years studying Islam in Iran, won the 2006 elections. Azali accepted the election results, enabling the archipelago’s first peaceful and democratic transfer of power.
Colonel Mohammed Bacar, a former gendarme educated in France, took control in Anjouan in 2001. In June 2007, he held a referendum to affirm his leadership, which the Comoros federal government and the African Union both condemned as unconstitutional. Hundreds of troops from the African Union and the Comoros invaded rebel-held Anjouan on March 25, 2008, to the delight of the local population: hundreds, if not thousands, of people were tortured under Bacar’s reign. Some rebels were killed or wounded, but no official numbers are available. At least 11 people were injured in the attack. A number of officials have been imprisoned. Bacar escaped to Mayotte, a French Indian Ocean enclave, on a speedboat to seek refuge. In the Comoros, anti-French demonstrations erupted.
More than 20 coups or attempted coups have occurred in the Comoros since independence from France.
On May 26, 2011, former Vice-President Ikililou Dhoinine was sworn in as President after elections in late 2010. Dhoinine, a member of the governing party, was backed in the election by President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi. Dhoinine, a pharmacist by profession, is the Comoros’ first President, hailing from the island of Mohéli.