Islands in a cosmopolitan sea : a history of the Comoros

book cover ' Islands in a cosmopolitan sea : a history of the Comoros'Jonas Jonasson's latest comic novel 'The Prophet and the Idiot'* is partly set on a fictitious island off the southeastern coast of Africa, called 'Kondoren' in German and 'Condoren' in the Dutch translation of his work. The name of the island made me think of the Comoros and of how little I actually know about this country, formed by three major islands in the Indian Ocean: Ngazidja, Mwali and Ndzwani. I checked the ASCL catalogue for titles on the Comoros and I discovered that the ASCL library had just recently acquired a book on the islands’ history written by Iain Walker: 'Islands in a cosmopolitan sea : a history of the Comoros' (Oxford University Press, [2019]).

The Comoros were once part of a prosperous economic system that stretched halfway around the world. A key intersection in the trading networks of the Indian Ocean, the Comoros thrived by exchanging slaves and commodities with African, Arab and Indian merchants. By the seventeenth century, the archipelago had become an important supply point on the route from Europe to Asia, and developed a special relationship with the English. The twentieth century brought French colonial rule and a plantation economy based on perfumes and spices emerged. In 1975, following decades of neglect, the Comoros declared independence from France, only to be blighted by a series of coups, a radical revolutionary government and a mercenary regime. Today, the island nation suffers from chronic mismanagement and relies on foreign aid and remittances from a diaspora community in France. Iain Walker traces the history and unique culture of these islands, from their first settlement by Africans, Arabs and Austronesians, through their heyday within the greater Swahili world and their decline as a forgotten outpost of the French colonial empire, to their contemporary status as an independent state in the Indian Ocean (source: editor).

A map of the Comoros (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Iain Walker’s comprehensive and compelling publication is a great read for anyone interested in filling in the gaps in their knowledge of the western Indian Ocean region. The book includes a chapter describing the current situation of the islands and its diasporas. It is enriched with a section of photographs and maps.

See also the book reviews by Steven FabianMathilde Heslon and Tawfiq Alhamedi.

For all publications on the Comoros in the African Studies Centre collection, click here.

* Jonas Jonasson: Profeten och idioten; Drei fast geniale Freunde auf dem Weg zum Ende der Welt; De profeet en de idioot; English version not yet released

Ursula Oberst