An African island at the nexus of global trade: The Comoros island of Nzwani from 750-1889AD

 

In the 17th century, a small island off the coast of East Africa became a cosmopolitan locus of economic and cultural interchanges in the Indian ocean world that stitched together the continents of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Surrounded by wealthier and more powerful neighbors, Nzwani forged economic and political alliances with distant maritime empires through strategies of similitude, enabling it to grow its economy and emerge as one of the most important port-of-call in the Indian ocean.

This article explores the history of Nzwani, from its settlement in the 8th century to its emergence as the busiest port in the western half of the Indian ocean.

Map of the global maritime trade routes in the 17th and 18th century showing the position of Nzwani and its largest cities.


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Early History of Nzwani, from its settlement to the establishment of a state.(8th-15th century)

During the second half of the 1st millennium, the island of Nzwani was primarily settled by groups from the east African mainland which spoke the shinzwani dialect of the Comorian language (related to Swahili and other Sabaki languages, found within the Bantu languages subgroup). Between 750–1000, several nucleated settlements of farming and fishing communities were established all over the Island beginning with the old town of Sima. The inhabitants of these communities engaged in long distance maritime trade and constructed houses of wood and daub, which would gradually be replaced with coral stone.1

Through their extensive maritime trade, the people of Nzwani adopted Islam and the old mosques of Sima and Domoni were built in the 11th century and enlarged over the 13th-15th century. The classical period of Nzwani’s history begins in the 15th century with the emergence of centralized institutions, an elaborate social hierarchy and the flourishing of a large agro-pastoral economy supplemented by maritime trade. The towns of Domoni and Sima both extended over 8- 11 hectares with populations exceeding 1,000 each. The elites at Domoni, which had a well-sheltered port, later imposed themselves over Sima and parts of the Island during the course of the 15th century.2

The old mosques of Sima and Domoni, originally built in the 11th century, and extended in the 14th-15th century.


Classical Nzwani, east African ties and maritime trade in the 15th and 16th century

The al-Maduwa dynasty kings that ruled Nzwani for much of its history were closely associated with the ruling elites of the wider Swahili coastal civilization of east Africa and utilized the same superficial « shirazi » claims to legitimize social positions of domination. Like in the Swahili traditions, the « shirazi » of Nzwani, are an endonymous identification for the recognized local kin groups, whose claims to residence in their coastal environs were putatively the most ancient.3

According to Nzwani founding traditions, the al-Maduwa elites moved their capital from Sima to Domoni around the 15th century, and later intermarried with the dynasty of Pate (one of the larger Swahili cities of the era), and by the 17th century, had also intermarried with other groups from the east African coast and Hadramaut who claimed sharif lineages.4 The distinction between the autochthonous « shirazi » rulers and the sharifs served, as in the rest of the Swahili coast, to justify either group’s pedigree in the competition among the isalnd’s socially dominant social positions,5 allowing the al-Maduwa dynasty (which often included the nisba ‘al-Shirazi’) to retain their power.

Domoni old town

Nzwani was extensively engaged in trade with the Swahili cities and the wider Indian ocean world, mostly as a trans-shipment port rather than from domestic production. The merchants of Nzwani used their own sewn ships and sailed to Madagascar for commodities including rice, millet, ambergris and ivory which they included cowries fished near Nzwani, and were then sold to Pate, Lamu, Hadramaut, and India where they received silk fabrics and iron weapons.6


Comoros’ first contacts with European maritime traders and Nzwani’s growth as a port of call.

The first contact between the Comoro archipelago and European sailors was when Vasco Dagama’s ships passed by Grande Comore in march 1503, but his crew was rushing to sail back to Portugal with its loot obtained in India so it didn’t make anchor. Over the following century while the Portuguese were occupying Swahili cities, informal trade and descriptions of Comoros were made by Portuguese captains in Kilwa and Mombasa, who described the Islands as « healthy, fertile and prosperous », urging the crown to bring them formally under the Portuguese rule but no significant extension of political hegemony over them was achieved by the Portuguese whose activities in Nzwani were confined to trading and a few settlements at Mwali.7

Map of the Comoros archipelago (inset) with the Islands of Grande Comore (Top), Nzwani and Mwali (middle), and Mayotte (bottom).

In 1591 and in 1616, two separate English and Portuguese ships which landed on Grande Comore for provisions of food and water, had their crew attacked after a heated dispute as the islands were at the end of the dry season. Subsequent ships were thus warned to avoid the island and despite occasional positive reports by other ship crews who landed on the island as well as the Mitsamiouli ruler efforts at diplomacy in 1620 using letters written by previous traders, the lack of supplies and good anchorage only make the island less attractive for European ships who chose Mwali and later Nzwani as their main stops.8

The Island of Mwali, which was under the suzerainty of Nzwani’s rulers, briefly became a major stop-over for the European ships entering the Indian ocean in the 1620s, it possessed relatively safe anchorages and plenty of agricultural produce for provisioning ships. But by the 1630s, the European ships had shifted to Nzwani, whose harbor at Mutsamudu was much safer despite Nzwani being less provisioned than Mwali.9

Given the significance of export trade to the islands, Nzwani’s rulers gradually shifted their capital from Domoni to Mutsamudu. The increased demand for agricultural produce from the dozens of ships -each with crews of over 500- allowed the urban based Nzwani rulers to extend their control over the rest of the hinterlands in the rest of the island, by collecting agricultural tribute, as well as reserving lands for livestock rearing.10

The old palace of Domoni, traditionally dated to the 13th century, was likely built in the 15th-16th century.

Interior and exterior of the old palace of Mutsamudu called ‘Ujembe’ built in 1786

 

The circular trade of Nzwani sailors buying raw cotton and arms from Bombay (India), to selling them Madagascar, which they then sold for silver and gold from European ships at Mutsamudu, which were inturn exchanged in Mozambique for livestock, ivory and other commodities that were retained on Nzwani, was described by a prince of Nzwani in 1783 to an English traveler William Jones . Adding that « we carry on this traffic in our own vessels« .11

Unlike most of their East African peers who infrequently sailed the Indian ocean, the Nzwani merchants were regular sailors to Arabia and India. In the 17th century, the English diplomat Thomas Roe met a sailor in Nzwani with an elaborate nautical chart of the Indian ocean and was a regular traveler to Mogadishu and Cambay (India).12 In the 19th century, an American trader, J. Ross Browne described a mosque in Mutsamudu whose walls were painted with naval charts.13

Over the mid-17th and 18th century, the population of Nzwani had grown to over 25,000. Trade expanded significantly and was well organized with fixed port fees levied on each foreign ship (often in reals -silver coinage); a fixed price list of supplies for ships; and tributes for the Nzwani King, princes and Mutsamudu governor (often silver coinage and firearms). Such trade was significant, with the Nzwani King reportedly earning as much as $500 from every ship that passed by.14

Between the years 1601 and 1834 over 90% of all 400 English ships outbound to India called at Nzwani’s harbor at Mutsamudu, and more than 55% of these ships had made a direct sail from England to Nzwani without having stopped over anywhere along the way, attesting to the importance of the Island in the Indian ocean world.15

A 1787 account by one English merchant describes the trade on Nzwani as such;

« The town is close to the sea, the houses are enclosed either with high stone walls or palings made with a kind of reed, and the streets are little narrow alleys, the better kind of houses are built of stone. The king lives at a town about two miles off on the eastern side of the island (ie; Domoni), Two princes of the blood reside here (ie; Mustamudu), These black princes —for this is the complexion of them and all the inhabitants— have by some means or other obtained the titles of prince of Wales. They have an officer who seems to be at the head of the finance department. Of dukes they have a prodigious number, who entertain us (ie: host) at their hotels for a dollar per day. Even before the ship has let go its anchor, they come alongside in their canoes, and produce written certificates of the honesty and abilities from those who have been here before. The price of every article is regulated and each ship has its contractor, who engages to supply it with necessities at the established rate. Most of the people speak a little English ».16

This description highlights Nzwani’s strategy of similitude in which nonmaterial signifiers such as English titles and speaking the English language, were employed by Nzwani-ans not only to affect local relationships, but also to shape the way the itinerant English traders perceived and related to Nzwani. Through superficially approximating English customs, Nzwanians forged commercial alliances and used them for all the economic, political, and military benefits they could offer.17

Nzwani’s similitude was a strategy born of the island’s particular politico-economic history in relation with the Indian ocean world, which they leveraged to make requests for commercial alliances and military aid that played on sentiments of reciprocity and camaraderie.

As early as the late 17th century, Nzwanians were asking English captains to intervene in conflicts with other neighboring Islands as well as on the Island itself And by the 18th century, the English would give military assistance to Mutsamudu in its attempts to re-impose its suzerainty over Mwali and Mayotte which however, only garnered mixed results.18

cannons in the fortress of Mutsamudu supplied by English traders in 1808.19


Political upheaval and changing patterns in the late 18th century.

During the late 18th century, Nzwani was faced with succession disputes which forced the feuding Kings; Alwali and Abdallah to request for military assistance from the Sakalava (of northern Madagascar), the Merina (of central Madagascar) and the English, to strengthen their power.20But given the English’s past failures in assisting Nzwani’s military, their conquest of the cape colony (south Africa) in 1795 and other international concerns, they only offered token assistance to Abdallah and Allawi won.21 Nzwani and its neighbors would continue to face incursions of the Sakalava over the course of the 18th century, prompting them to construct more elaborate fortifications.22

 

Overtime, the English reduced their activities on Nzwani and were intime supplanted by the French and Americans merchants who were becoming active along the east African coast, allowing Nzwani to continue playing a leading role in international trade throughout the 19th century.


Nzwanis’ resurgence in the 19th century.

While its neighbors of Mwali and Mayotte were faced with Sakalava raids and were increasingly coming under the suzerainty of the Omani Arabs at Zanzibar and the Merina rulers of Madagascar,23 Nzwani’s Kings were expanding the island’s economy, and encouraged the settlement of Indian merchants who had funded the arming of the fortress of Mutsamudu24, and by the middle of the 19th century, an average of 60 French and American ships called at Mutsamudu each year between the years 1852-1858.25

the citadel of Mutsamudu, construction begun in the 1780s under King Abdallah I and was completed by 1796, its cannons were added around 1808 under King Allawi.26

 

The second half of the 19th century was Nzwani in the twilight of its political and commercial autonomy in the face of expansionist colonial empires. The French had taken over much of the administration of the neighboring island of Mayotte in 1841 and were gradually occupying Mwali (which were both claimed by the Nzwani rulers) as well as the largest island of Grande Comore, in contest with the Omani sultans of Zanzibar.27

To counteract the French, Nzwani’s King Salim (r. 1837-1852) invited the British to establish a consulate on the island in 1848. After having outlawed slavery in 1844, Salim and his successor Abdallah III (r. 1852-1891) sought to expand plantation agriculture using British capital inorder to compensate for the declining port revenues following the reduction in the number of ships calling at Mutsamudu after the 1860s. Through the services of the British consuls Napier and Sunley, sugar plantations and refineries were set up that produced 400 tonnes of sugar a year.28

But internal conflicts between the dynastic families and the sharifs continued to undermine Abdallah III’s central authority, forcing him to build a palace outside the city in a town called Bambao. His relationship with the British waned, and he was wary of American activities in Mutsamudu, the King thus shifted alliances to the French signing a treaty in 1886 to conduct foreign affairs through them ( as a protectorate) but retained significant internal political autonomy at a time when all the neighboring Islands had been forcefully occupied by the French.29

ruins of King Abdallah III’s palace in Bambao built in the late 19th century.

But this state of affairs was opposed by the conflicting factions of Nzwani and a rebellion broke out, prompting a French military occupation in 1889 shortly before Abdallah’s death in 1891. While Nzwani was formally brought under colonial control, its social institutions were relatively preserved thanks to the political maneuverability of its elites, who remained a powerful group its politics and enabled the island to retain a measure of political autonomy throughout the colonial and modern era.30

Anjouan in the early 20th century


Nzwani’s place as a cosmopolitan African state in the Indian ocean world.

For nearly three centuries, the entrepôt of Nzwani was at the heart of a vast maritime trade network that connected the Indian ocean world to the Atlantic world.

Through its strategic economic alliances and extensive commercial networks, Nzwani transformed itself from an island that was peripheral to the region’s trade networks, into cosmopolitan state that was one of the Indian ocean’s busiest port cities

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