The Comoro Islands’ position in the Mozambique Channel made them a crossroads between African, Malagasy and Arab influences. Over time a unique culture and language emerged from the combination of these diverse roots.
Archaeological evidence shows there may have been temporary settlements in the Comoros as early as 1000 BC, but the first evidence of permanent inhabitation dates from the 8th century AD in Mohéli and Mayotte. The first inhabitants were probably of African origin, followed by the same Austronesian people who colonised Madagascar. The islands became an important stop-off point in the trade that developed between the Arab world, Madagascar, Asia and the east coast of Africa that resulted in the Swahili culture. It wasn’t just goods that were exchanged: traders married in the islands and set up families, and large numbers of slaves were moved around the region. The Comorian population is descended from these different groups. The Swahili influence is apparent in the Comorian language Shikomori, which is a relation of KiSwahili, and the many shared customs and traditions.
The Comoros were well-known by Arab sea-farers, appearing on maps a long time before Europeans came across them. The name Comoros come from the Arabic for the moon “Al-Komr”, though it seems from an early Arab map that the name first applied to Madagascar, before being transferred to the Comoros. The first Europeans to discover the islands were the Portuguese, who described Grande Comore in 1529.
Arab traders probably brought Islam to the islands in the 15th century, and were followed by Shirazi settlers from the city of Shiraz in what is now Iran. The Shirazi were Sunni Muslims and had a big influence on Comorian society in the 15th and 16th centuries, setting up sultanates and building mosques.
Until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and sometime after (as sailing ships could not use the Canal) ships travelling from Europe to the Indian Ocean passed around the Cape of Africa and then up the Mozambique Channel, and the Comoros Islands were an important stopover. Anjouan in particular became an important harbour for British and Dutch ships in the 17th century. During the struggle for power in the Indian Ocean at the height of European empire building, France eventually succeeded in making Mayotte a full French colony by purchasing the island in 1841, and then declaring the rest of the islands a French protectorate in 1886. All four islands were transformed into a single colony in 1908.
The islands were governed through Madagascar from 1912 until Madagascar gained independence in 1960. It wasn’t until 1975 that the Comoros parliament declared unilateral independence for the four islands of the archipelago. Referendums were then organised in Mayotte and the population voted to remain a French territory. Mayotte continues to be administered from France, becoming a Département Outre Mer in 2011, so the government of the Union of the Comoros has effective control of only Grande Comore, Mohéli and Anjouan.
Since Independence, there have been many periods of political instability in the Comoros – the islands have seen 20 coups and attempted coups.