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date: 07 October 2022

The History of the Comoro Islandslocked

The History of the Comoro Islandslocked

  • Iain WalkerIain WalkerMax Planck Institute for Social Anthropology


The Comoro Islands were first settled toward the middle of the 1st millennium ce by Arab or Austronesian traders and navigators and their African slaves. Strategically located in the southwestern Indian Ocean between Madagascar and the African mainland, the islands were well embedded in regional trading networks and served as an entrepôt for goods, particularly slaves, as well as producing livestock and foodstuffs for export. The islands continued to prosper following the arrival of Europeans in the Indian Ocean in the early 16th century, and developed a niche supplying ships, particularly those of the East India Company (EIC), on their way east. During the 19th century, however, shipping declined and the islands fell within the French sphere of influence. Cut off from their trading partners and suffering from a lackluster plantation economy, the islands stagnated, and were a neglected corner of the French colonial empire for much of the 20th century.

In 1975 the three westernmost islands attained independence, while the fourth, Mayotte, remained a French possession. The newly independent state was plagued by a string of coups d’état, lurching from one crisis to another as a socialist revolution that bankrupted the country was followed by a mercenary-led dictatorship aligned with South African interests. Toward the end of the 20th century, and despite (or perhaps because of) the restoration of democracy, the country fell apart: two of the three islands not only declared independence, but also called for recolonization by France. A new constitution in 2001 provided for a renewed, if fragile, stability founded on principles of equality between the islands and greater decentralization; but the economy remains weak, based on vanilla, spices and perfume oils, remittances, and foreign aid, while a steady flow of undocumented migrants to Mayotte continues to foment discontent on the latter island, a French department since 2011.


  • Political History

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