Comoros Islands

Comoros’ Location

The Comoros consists of 2361 km2 of volcanic islands, which lie in the Mozambique Channel, north-west of Madagascar.  The archipelago boasts three important reefs: the Banc Vailheu (Raya), a reef formed by a submerged volcano 20 km west of Grand Comoro; Banc du  Geyser 130 km Northeast of Grand-Terre and Banc du Leven which is a submerged island between Madagascar and Grand-Terre.

Comoros’ Climate

The islands enjoy a tropical climate with a wet season from October to April.  The heaviest rains are usually from December through to April.  The average temperature during the rainy season is usually between 74°F to 78°F and in March can reach as high as the 84 to 86°F.  Southerly winds bring cooler and drier weather between May and September when temperatures average around 66°F.  However, higher regions on the islands are moister than the low-lying coastal areas.

History of the Comoros Islands

There is Archaeological evidence that there were some settlements on the islands as early as 1000BC, however, the evidence indicates that these would have been temporary settlements.  There is no evidence of permanent settlements until the 8th century AD but this evidence is restricted to the islands of Mohéli and Mayotte.

It is thought that the first inhabitants of the islands were most likely to have been of African origin, after which it is probable that the Austronesian people who colonised Madagascar may have spread to the archipelago.  When Arab traders arrived sometime during the 10th century a thriving ivory trade was established.  Some of the Arab traders are known to have intermarried with the local population and also to have introduced the first slaves to the islands.  On the first Arab map of the area, the island of Madagascar is named ‘Al-Komr’ (the moon), but the name was later used to refer to the Comoros archipelago.

The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese around 1505, but apart from describing Grand Comore in 1529, they had no great influence on the islands.  The most prominent influence on the islands was during the 15th and 16th centuries when Arab traders and Shirazi (Iranians) brought Islam to the population.  It was at this time that the first mosques were built and sultanate rule was established.

The Comoros Islands were a strategically important stop-over for traders from Europe and in the 17th century, British and Dutch ships found safe harbour at Anjouan.  The French purchased the island of Mayotte in 1841 and French colonisation followed.  This colonisation led to France declaring the archipelago a protectorate of France in 1886, and the islands became a single French colony in 1908.  In 1912 the French protectorates of Grand Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli were annexed to the Island of Madagascar.

In 1946 the islands of Comoros broke away from the administration of Madagascar and became a separate administrative entity.  Madagascar gained its independence in 1960 leaving the Comoros Islands still under French rule until 1975 when they declared unilateral independence from France.  However, as a result of a referendum all three islands remained as French territory, although from the end of 1942 to 1946 they were occupied by the British.

Excluding Mayotte, the islands formed the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoro Islands until 1997 when the islands of Anjouan and Mohéli declared their independence thus breaking up the Islamic Republic.

The Comoros Islands have a turbulent 20th-century history, with coups, mercenary actions and deposed Islamic presidents occurring with dramatic regularity until in 2006 when a Sunni cleric, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi became the president of the Union of the Comoros.  He is a moderate Islamist and has not permitted his people to follow an extremist route, so Comoran women are not forced to wear a niqab or hijab (veil).

Modern Culture and the People of the Comoros

The history of the islands is reflected in the culture, a mix of African-Swahili, Arab, French and Portuguese.

The language:

The majority of Comorians speak a dialect of Swahili called Shikomoro while others speak Arabic and French.

Traditional Dress:

Most women on the island wear the traditional Shiromeni: long skirts or dresses in bright poster-colours.  Comoran women are often seen with their faces covered in an orange coloured substance made by crushing coral into a paste and adding sandalwood.  This is considered to be a beauty mask.  Men also wear long skirts over which hangs a long white shirt while on their heads they wear the much valued Koffia or skull cap.

Traditional Crafts:

The Comoran people are known for their handicrafts and most particularly for their pearl and shell jewellery, wood carvings, pottery, basket weaving and embroidery.

Traditional Cuisine:

Comoran cuisine is a healthy blend of local seafood and locally grown fresh produce as well as rice.  Traditional dishes are a delicious blend of Arab and French cuisine with fish as a staple at every meal.  Food is spiced with vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cloves and nutmeg.  Lobster cooked with vanilla (Langouste a la vanilla) is a traditional favourite as well as the deliciously flavourful meat kebabs.  Cassava porridge garnished with fresh fruit provides a healthy start to each day.  Jackfruit, one of the many fruits grown on the island, is a large, long, green fruit with a flavour reminiscent of lychee is a firm favourite among the locals.

Music and dancing:

There is a strong Malagasy influence in the music of the islands which is mainly derived from the taarab music of Zanzibar.  The similar style of music on the islands is termed twarab and the islands boasts many twarab bands in which the gabusi (lute), úd, violin and ndzenze are played. The influence of Mauritius and Reunion can be heard in the islands’ Sega music

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