Union of the Comoros – The Perfume Islands – Part 1

Union of the Comoros – The Perfume Islands – Part 1

When I made the plans to visit Madagascar, I was also looking other countries I could visit from the perspective of obtaining visa. The countries that were on the path between Kenya and Madagascar seemed like a good option for a pit stop. It is then that I spotted this tiny group of islands in the Mozambique Channel, The Comoros.

The Union of the Comoros, as it is officially known, is an archipelago of three volcanic islands. A fourth volcanic island that geologically belongs to the same group, is called Mayotte and is currently a French Overseas Territory. The Comoros, along with Mayotte, may have been initially inhabited by the same people who settled in Madagascar, the Austronesians. As the research on anthropology and archeology in The Comoros is quite low, it is difficult to be exact, but it is very likely that the Bantu migrations that colonized Africa would have settled in the Comoro islands as well. The subsequent Arabic influences on the islands are quite prominent and well documented. Al Idrisi’s world map from 1154 AD marks the islands with the name ‘Al Qmr’, either meaning ‘The Comor’ or meaning ‘The Moon’.

While the islands were of high importance to the European Colonial powers as a pit-stop in south eastern Africa, no aggressive attempt had been made towards colonizing them. This may perhaps be due to the small size of the islands and relatively lower value of them as a source of high value goods. The Comoros went mostly under the French rule in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1886, all three islands that currently make up the Union of the Comoros, became a French Protectorate together with the island of Mayotte. In 1912, the islands became a province of Madagascar, still under the French rule. When the British took Madagascar under its rule in 1942 through the Battle of Madagascar to counteract any Axis influence in the Indian Ocean, the islands also fell under the British rule and eventually ceded to France in 1946. The Comoros became an independent nation in 1975 as the Union of the Comoros.

What I found very surprising about The Comoros was that between 1975 and now, the country has gone through more than 20 coups or attempted coups. For a country that is spread over 3 separate islands with only 2200 sq. km. of land and about an 800,000 population, that is very strange. The root for this perhaps lies in the history of The Comoros. The four islands that make up the archipelago do not seem to have been of the same opinion when it comes to politics. When three of the islands declared independence from France in 1975, one of the islands, Mayotte, receded to France and became a French Overseas Region. Prior to European colonization, each of the islands were under a separate rule. The island of Grand Comoroe that makes up nearly half the land mass of the country, has at certain times had up to a dozen of sultanates. It is perhaps this inheritance of division of power that currently manifests in The Comoros as coups.

Being relatively new volcanic islands, The Comoros provide a very interesting insight to biodiversity. The islands that form the archipelago are thought to have been formed between 8 million to 10,000 years ago. The oldest of the islands is Mayotte, which does not belong to the Union and is about 8 million years old. The second oldest is Moheli, about 5 million years old and next is Anjouan at about 3.9 million years old. The youngest of the islands is Grand Comoroe, about 10,000 years old. The most prominent feature of the island of Grand Comoroe, Mount Karthala, is an active volcano.

While there isn’t a large number of species across the three islands, there are very interesting endemisms observed. Each of the islands are about 40km apart from the nearest landmass. This has caused some animals, such as the Scops Owl species to evolve independently that each of the island host a Scops Owl species of their own; the Karthala or Grand Comoroe Scops Owl (Otus pauliani), the Anjouan Scops Owl (Otus capnodes) and Moheli Scops Owl (Otus moheliensis). But what is most interesting of the wildlife of The Comoros is perhaps two other species; the Karthala White-eye (Zosterops mouroniensis), a bird that is endemic only to a part of the Karthala Mountain and the Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae), a fish that was once thought to be extinct since 66 million years ago.

My visit to Comoros was mainly motivated by Mount Karthala, the active volcano in Grand Comoro which also happens to have the world’s largest caldera or the basin on top of a volcano. I also had hopes that I would be able to see a Coelacanth specimen and at least one of the other endemic species. Having absolutely zero skills in French language, the most spoken international language of The Comoros, this was planning for quite an adventure.

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