- LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0148
- LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0148
The four islands of the Comoro archipelago lie across the northern end of the Mozambique Channel between the African mainland and Madagascar. At the far southern reaches of the monsoon wind system, the islands constitute a southern outpost of the Swahili cultural zone as well as serving as stepping-stones between the continent and Madagascar: culturally and ecologically, the islands’ influences are from both. The islands may well have been first visited during the settlement of Madagascar; Islam arrived in the late first millennium and the islands’ economies grew as traders and slavers took advantage of their pivotal position in the Indian Ocean. Following the European arrival in the ocean in the late fifteenth century, the islands became important supply points for both the Portuguese in Mozambique and other Europeans travelling to Asia. Whalers, pirates, and explorers frequented the islands, particularly Mwali (Mohéli) and, later, Ndzuani (Anjouan), while Ngazidja (Grand Comore) developed as a center of religious scholarship. French and British interests in the archipelago in the nineteenth century were resolved in favor of the former, who attached them to the French colonial empire as a province of Madagascar, consigning them to economic and administrative neglect for the first half of the twentieth century. Since 1975 the three westernmost islands have formed an independent state, now known as the Union of Comoros—a member of the Arab league and the only Islamic country wholly within the Southern Hemisphere—while the fourth island, Maore, better known as Mayotte, chose to remain French and became a département d’outre-mer in March 2011. European neglect during the colonial period belies the social and cultural importance of the islands across the region. Comorian migrants served as civil servants and religious leaders the length of the East African coast, particularly in the British colonies, and a numerically important population in Madagascar was economically significant. Today, the local economy is dependent on a moribund spice industry and remittances from migrants in France. The lack of English language literature on the islands—a result of their colonial history—was exacerbated by Africanists who viewed the islands as part of the Indian Ocean world, and scholars of Madagascar, for whom the islands were African. Only recently has this in-between status been recognized as contributing to the islands’ pivotal role rather than marginalizing them. Nevertheless, although there are English-language texts in the natural sciences, in the humanities, and in the social sciences, the Comoros remain very much embedded in a Francophone world. For more on the wider Indian Ocean world, see also the following Oxford Bibliographies articles: Swahili City States of the East African Coast, Indian Ocean Trade, and Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trades.
There are very few monographs of any kind on the Comoros in English. Scattered references and occasionally whole chapters may be found in works on the Swahili, the Indian Ocean, or Africa generally, but the paucity of original research and lack of firsthand knowledge of the islands has seen many of the general English-language texts—usually chapters in reference works—simply being reiterations of previous works. Much is therefore repetitive; unfortunately, this observation extends to errors, the most egregious (and tenacious) of which is Njazidja for Ngazidja, but this is only one of many. In English, Walker 2019 is the only real choice; the alternative, Newitt 1984, although now thirty years old, is also recommended. In French there is more, but curiously most work is discipline-specific and there is again a conspicuous lack of recent works of a general character. Although both are some twenty years old, Chagnoux and Haribou 1990 is a competent “pocket guide” type text, while Vérin 1994 is the standard longer work. Barraux 2009 is a more recent contribution that complements Vérin 1994 nicely. Flobert 1976 is more academic, while Faurec 1941, Gevrey 1870, and Manicacci 1939 remain useful although they are almost primary sources themselves now.
Barraux, Roland. Du Corail au Volcan: L’histoire des îles Comores. Moroni, Comoros: Komedit, 2009.
Written by a French civil servant who was posted to the islands twice between 1954 and 1972, this book’s strength lies in the author’s firsthand knowledge of the colonial period.
Chagnoux, Hervé, and Ali Haribou. Les Comores. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1990.
A slim volume that provides a first overview of and a good introduction to the islands.
Faurec, Urbain. L’Archipel aux Sultans Batailleurs. Tananarive, Madagascar: Imprimerie officielle, 1941.
Situated firmly within the Orientalist tradition, the book is more interesting perhaps for its perspective than for the historical details. Reprinted in 1971 (Moroni, Comoros: Promo al Camar).
Flobert, Thierry. Les Comores: Evolution juridique et socio-politique. Aix-en-Provence, France: Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur les Sociétés de l’Océan Indien, 1976.
Despite the title, this text covers much historical ground and touches on the economy as well as social structures.
Gevrey, Alfred. Essai sur les Comores. Pondicherry, India: Saligny, 1870.
A comprehensive study of the islands by an early governor of Mayotte that, despite its emphasis on the classical period, remains a key text for the historian. Reprinted in 1980 (Antananarivo, Madagascar: Association Malgache d’Archéologie), available online.
Manicacci, Jean. L’Archipel des Comores. Tananarive, Madagascar: Imprimerie Officielle, 1939.
Although a demographic study, this includes useful economic, historical, and ethnographic details.
Newitt, Malyn. The Comoro Islands: Struggle against Dependency in the Indian Ocean. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1984.
For long the only general work in English, providing an excellent introduction to the islands that although largely historical also deals with society and culture and the islands’ economies.
Vérin, Pierre. Les Comores. Paris: Karthala, 1994.
An accessible general history of the islands by an archaeologist who was in the islands in the immediate post-independence period.
Walker, Iain. Islands in a Cosmopolitan Sea: A History of the Comoros. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
A comprehensive history of the islands with an anthropological influence. The inevitable first text for an English-speaking audience.
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