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It is uncertain where the first inhabitants of Zanzibar came from, but they were probably fishermen who crossed over from mainland Africa to the Zanzibar archipelago during the first millennium BC. At that time, Zanzibar was also visited by other cultures, such as the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and the Phoenicians.

In the 1st century AD, Greek, Roman, Arab and Persian ships sailed along the coast of East Africa in search of valuables such as ivory and ebony. Around the year 60, a Greek trader described an island called 'Menouthesias', probably the present main island of Zanzibar, Unguja or Zanzibar Island.

During the 3rd and 4th centuries, other groups appeared on the scene. These were Bantu peoples who spread from present-day Cameroon across the African continent. They founded settlements on the East African coast, which later developed into trading cities such as Kilwa, Lamu and Mombasa and Unguja Ukuu on Unguja.

The Arab traders called the East African coast 'Zinj el Barr', which means 'land of the black people'. The name Zanzibar is said to be derived from this. Another theory is that Zanzibar is derived from the Arabic 'Zayn za'l barr', which means 'the beautiful land'. Until the late 15th century, Zanzibar referred to the entire East African coast, including the large islands of today's Zanzibar archipelago, Unguja and Pemba.

In the 7th century, Islam flourished on the Arabian peninsula. Due to unrest and wars, a small group of Muslims fled to the East African coast, including from the Persian city of Shiraz, established settlements and introduced Islam to the area.

Emergence of the Swahili

During the second half of the first millennium, the Bantu people developed a language and culture, which became known as Swahili (Arabic: sahil = coast). The language they spoke, Kiswahili, was peppered with Arabic words. They married the Arab and Persian settlers and partly adopted their traditions and customs, including Islam. In the south of Unguja there is still a Persian mosque, built in 1107, which makes it the oldest Islamic building on the East African coast. From the end of the 12th century, immigrants from Oman arrived on Pemba.

From the 7th century onwards, the Swahili traded extensively with Arabs and Persians, but also sailed themselves in their dhows to the Persian Gulf with gold, ivory and leopard skins on board. Later, trade was also conducted with India, China and Indonesia. This made Zanzibar at that time an increasingly powerful and important commercial centre. People even minted their own coins and the kings and queens of Unguja and Pemba lived in great wealth in their stone houses. At the beginning of the 15th century, the first slaves were shipped to the East.

n the mid-15th century, the islands of Zanzibar, together with cities such as Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and Kilwaop on the mainland, formed a chain of economically very successful Islamic Swahili city-states, each with its own sultan. At the end of the 15th century, however, this came to an abrupt end when the Portuguese arrived on the coast of East Africa, in search of the eastern trade routes. The main reason for this was that goods from these regions, including the highly sought-after spices, which until then had been delivered overland to the Portuguese by hostile Muslim countries, were sold at high prices.

Portuguese period

The explorers Pedro da Covilhan and Vasco da Gama were the first to sail past the archipelago, around 1489 and 1497 respectively. In 1499, Da Gama anchored for a day just off the coast of Unguja. More Portuguese soon followed and the islands of Zanzibar were used to store provisions and repair ships. Not long afterwards, the first garrisons were stationed in the ports of Unguja, Pemba and Mombasa.

In 1503, Unguja was violently occupied by the Portuguese under Rui Lorenco Ravasco. The king of Zanzibar, the 'Mwinyi Mkuu', was forced to cooperate with the Portuguese and even had to pay an annual sum to the Portuguese crown.

In 1505 Mombasa was controlled by the Portuguese, in 1506 Pemba, and between 1507 and 1511 territories in the Arabian Gulf were occupied, including Muscat and the island of Hormuz.

From 1510, the inhabitants of Zanzibar rebelled against the occupiers. After Duarte de Lemos set fire to Unguja and Pujini plundered Pemba, both islands were again under Portuguese control. By 1525, the entire East African coast was in Portuguese hands and a vital part of their trading empire. Around 1560, the Portuguese built a church and a small settlement on a western peninsula. This would later develop into the later capital Zanzibar City. But although Unguja was occupied and the inhabitants were only allowed to trade under the supervision of the Portuguese, the islanders remained loyal to their own king.

In November 1591 the first English ship, the 'Edward Bonaventura' with Sir James Lancaster, moored at Zanzibar; the English also had a keen interest in this area. Not long afterwards, more and more English ships stopped at the coast of Zanzibar and the East African mainland. The Portuguese gradually felt threatened and strengthened their position on the various coasts. In 1594 they built a fort near Chake Chake on Pemba, and in 1595 Fort Jesus was completed in Mombasa.

Despite these fortifications, the Portuguese position began to weaken. In 1622 Hormuz was recaptured by the Persians, and in 1650 Muscat by the Omanis. Strengthened by this victory, the Omani sultan sailed to Zanzibar to help the then queen Mwana Mwema. The Omanis attacked the Portuguese settlement on Unguja and also on Pemba. By 1668, practically the entire east coast of the mainland was under Oman's control. In 1679, the Queen of Pemba, who had given the island to the Portuguese, became a Christian and left for Goa, India. In 1682, the Portuguese urged her to return. Thus, the Portuguese would have a friendly ruler on Pemba, but her own people threw her off the island. The last Portuguese left Pemba in 1695. To be on the safe side, the Omanis built Fort Zanzibar (also known as the Old Fort and in Swahili as Ngome Kongwe) in the late 17th century to defend themselves well against the Portuguese. It is known that at least one attack by the Portuguese was repelled.

Meanwhile, Queen Mwana Mwema of Unguja was succeeded by her son Yusuf. After his death, the island was divided between his two children; son Bakari ruled over the south, daughter Fatuma, who collaborated with the Portuguese, over the north. When the Omanis besieged Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Fatuma sent three dhows with reinforcements to help the Portuguese. However, the ships were destroyed, after which the Omanis attacked Zanzibar and Fatuma fled to the central part of the island. In December 1698, the Omanis captured Mombasa and installed an Omani governor. Again Zanzibar was attacked and the last Portuguese were expelled and Fatuma was taken to Oman. Her son Hassan took over the title of Mwinyi Mkuu, but he remained loyal to Oman.

By this time, the Portuguese had been completely driven from the East African coast and the Omanis ruled the entire region from Muscat with a firm hand as far as Mozambique.

Oman rules Zanzibar

By the beginning of the 18th century, Oman had become an important trading country, especially in dates. To be able to exploit the date plantations, many slaves were needed. Because of Islam, it was forbidden to use Muslims for this purpose, so black people were brought in from Africa in large numbers. This often happened via Zanzibar.

In 1744, after a long civil war, the ruling Yaa'rubi dynasty was succeeded by the Busaidi dynasty led by Ahmed bin Said al Busaidi. Ahmed became sultan of Oman and the East African coast. In Africa, he was represented by governors who were loyal to him but could still make decisions autonomously to a large extent. Unguja, Pemba, Lamu and Kilwa were ruled by the Busaidi family, but Mombasa was ruled by a rival Mazrui family. In 1746, the Mazrui declared independence from Oman and defeated the Mazrui soldiers on Pemba. In 1753, they also tried to conquer Unguja but the incumbent governor repelled the attack. The ruler at that time was the grandson of King Hassan, Hassan II. Zanzibar was now an important commercial centre and was also strategically located. The slave trade also flourished as never before, especially to Mauritius and Reunion.

In 1792, a new sultan came to power in Oman, Sultan bin Ahmed. He sought a strong ally against the Mazrui in Mombasa and also to keep the Persians out of Oman. Britain, meanwhile, had become a very strong maritime nation and their empire was expanding all the time. The British in turn were at war with Napoleon Bonaparte's France in the late 18th century. The French wanted to invade India via Muscat and Persia, so the offer of Oman was very convenient. In 1798, the two countries formed an alliance and managed to keep the French out. The British also had another motive: slavery had already been abolished in the British Empire in 1772 and this was a way of persuading the Sultan of Oman to do the same.

Meanwhile, Zanzibar's trading position had become even stronger due to the exclusive export of ivory from Mozambique via Zanzibar. In 1804, Sultan bin Ahmed died and was succeeded by his young sons Salim and Said under the regency of Bedr. In 1806, Bedr was killed by Said, who subsequently became sultan of Oman and the East African coast. He too maintained good relations with the British, but had to deal with a disappointing economic development due to wars and drought. The excessive number of slaves on Zanzibar also became a problem, but this was solved by the introduction of clove trees by the Arab Saleh bin Haramil al Abray from the island of Bourbon (now Réunion). The production of cloves became such a success that even more slaves were needed. However, the slave trade was abolished and banned in almost the entire western world, and Said was put under great pressure by the British to end the slave trade. In 1822, a treaty was concluded that prohibited much of the slave trade, except that between Zanzibar and Oman.

Meanwhile, the struggle between Oman and the Mazrui sultan of Mombasa continued. In 1823, the sultan of Mombasa called in the protection of the British. The British saw their chance and sailed to Sultan Said. They told him that they would protect the Sultan of Mazrui from Oman unless Oman abolished the slave trade. Said refused and thereupon the British declared Mombasa a British protectorate on condition that the Sultan of Mombasa would abolish the slave trade. The sultan agreed, but the agreement was short-lived; the Bazrui resumed the slave trade and in July 1826 the British protectorate came to an end.

Slave trade and slavery

In 1827, Sultan Said also established economic contacts with the Americans and realised that this was not only good for Zanzibar but also for his own position. He decided to dramatically increase clove production and even confiscated all the plantations of Saleh bin Haramil al Abray, who had introduced cloves to Zanzibar. He did this also because Saleh was the leader of a political faction bent on more power; moreover, he did not care about the ban on slave trade to Mauritius and Reunion.

Meanwhile, British pressure on Said to abolish slavery increased (1833: Emancipation Act abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire). In order to escape this pressure, Said made an agreement with the Americans and hoped for support against the Mazrui of Mombasa. Madagascar was also asked for help but this failed. Nevertheless, Said succeeded in driving the Mazrui out of Mombasa in 1837, which meant that the coast of East Africa was finally completely in Omani hands. In 1837 an American consul was also appointed and in 1839 the first Arab ship sailed for New York.

In December 1840 Said moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar. The reason for this was the economic prosperity of Zanzibar, in contrast to Oman, which was becoming increasingly poor.

Zanzibar was now ruled directly by Said, which also had a great impact on Zanzibar Town, which quickly developed into a real capital. In 1841, the first British consul installed himself in the town, and in 1844 the French consulate was opened. Meanwhile, the slave trade continued unabated; on average, around 13,000 slaves were shipped from the mainland to Zanzibar each year.

In October 1845, the British pulled the strings even tighter, which meant that slaves could only be imported, but could no longer be shipped to Oman, for example. This did not mean that fewer slaves were imported, on the contrary: in the 1950s, 14,000-15,000 slaves were shipped to Zanzibar every year. Slave routes penetrated deep into the African mainland and ensured that Said controlled an ever larger part of Africa, up to about 2.5 million km2 (about 10% of the entire African continent). The empire included present-day Tanzania and large parts of Zambia, Zaire, Uganda and Kenya. In those days, voyages of discovery into the heart of Africa started from Zanzibar. Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke were famous for their search for the source of the White Nile.

Oman and Zanzibar split

Said made more and more trips to Muscat, and appointed his son Khaled, and later his son Majid, as governor of Zanzibar. On 19 October 1856, Said died and his son Barghash tried to overthrow Majid, the intended successor. This failed completely, however, and on 28 October 1856 Majid was proclaimed Sultan of Zanzibar, despite the vain protests of Said's eldest son, Thuwaini. It was agreed that Majid would pay Thuwaini a kind of annual ransom. However, this agreement was soon no longer honoured by Majid.

In February 1859, Thuwaini sailed for Zanzibar with the intention of deposing Majid. However, he was intercepted by the British, who did not need a civil war in that region. Thuwaini was advised to submit his claim to the throne to the Governor General of India, Lord Canning. Majid, meanwhile, was threatened by another brother, Barghash. However, this coup too failed grandly.

In April 1861, Lord Canning declared Oman and Zanzibar as two separate states. In March 1862, the British and French signed an Anglo-French declaration recognising Majid as Sultan of Zanzibar and the territories he ruled over as a sovereign state. Of the original rulers, the Mwinyi Mkuu, not much was heard in the meantime. A certain Mohammed died in March 1873, had no successors, and so the time of the Mwinyi Mkuu came to an end. In 1866, Thawaini was murdered by his son Salim. Majid again refused to make his payments and as a result Oman found itself in an isolated situation that was to last for over a hundred years.

The growth of the population and prosperity seriously affected the environment on Zanzibar. It was therefore not surprising that the 19th century was full of contagious diseases such as cholera (1821, 1836, 1858, 1869/70), smallpox (1858) and outbreaks of dysentery and malaria. Tens of thousands died as a result of these diseases. The slave population reached a maximum at a time of overproduction and falling clove prices.

After the death of Sultan Majid, he was succeeded by his brother Khalid bin Barghash, who was proclaimed sultan on 7 October 1870. In 1873, the pressure on Zanzibar to abolish slavery and the slave trade increased again. Sultan Barghash, however, did not budge, after which the British navy set up a blockade for every slave port on the mainland.

This reduced the number of slaves arriving on Zanzibar from 4,000 to 21 in the same period. In June 1873, the British consul John Kirk threatened that Zanzibar Island would face a total blockade. Barghash relented and signed the Anglo-Zanzibar Agreement. This meant that in the entire area under Barghash's control no more slaves could be traded, the slave markets had to be closed and all freed slaves enjoyed protection. That the lucrative slave trade now continued illegally was to be expected.

Zanzibar German protectorate

In 1884, the Germans entered the colonial scene in East Africa. Under the leadership of Karl Peters (founder of the Deutsch-Ostafrika-Gesellschaft), treaties were concluded with local African chiefs in exchange for large tracts of land. In no time, he had annexed more than 6000 km2 of land for Germany. The British did not take kindly to this, but were too busy defending their interests in other parts of the world. In 1885, the territories in East Africa annexed by Karl Peters were officially considered German protectorates. Barghash still hoped for the help of the British, but they failed. In August of that year, a German fleet arrived in the harbour of Zanzibar City and it was not long before Barghash recognised that Zanzibar would henceforth be a German protectorate.

A few months later, the British government arranged a summit with France and Germany to definitively define the borders on mainland East Africa (1886: Anglo-German Treaty). The result was that Barghash's land was curtailed Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia, Lamu and a sixteen kilometre wide, 1200 kilometre long coastal strip on the mainland of East Africa. The rest of East Africa was divided between the British and the Germans. Barghash had no choice but to sign the treaty in December 1886, as did the French. On 27 March 1888, Barghash died and just two days later his brother Khalifa bin Said was proclaimed Sultan.

Zanzibar British Protectorate

In April 1888, the name British East African Association (BEAA) was changed to Imperial British East Africa Association (IBEAA) with Mombasa as its capital, which was taking over from Zanzibar as the commercial centre of Africa. Without the income from the slave trade, Zanzibar's prosperity was soon over. On 13 September 1889, Khalifa signed an agreement and agreed to the total abolition of slavery in his territory. Not much later, Khalifa died, aged only 36, and was succeeded by his brother, Ali bin Said.

On 1 July 1890, a second treaty was concluded between the British and the Germans, the Treaty of Zanzibar. Germany agreed that the sultanate of Zanzibar would become a British protectorate in exchange for British concessions on the mainland. In addition, Germany received the strategically located Helgoland, a small island north of Germany. In 1891, a constitutional government was established on Zanzibar, with General Lloyd Matthews as prime minister. From then on the British controlled Zanzibar, and when Sultan Ali died in March 1893, leaving no will, Hamad, son of Thuwaini, was put on the throne by the British.

Hamad died in August 1896 and was succeeded by his nephew Hamoud. He signed an agreement with the British in which the legal status of slavery was finally abolished.

After Hamoud's death in July 1902, the sultans followed in quick succession: Ali followed Hamoud, but died in 1911 and was succeeded again by Khalifa bin Harub, a cousin of Ali.

Zanzibar in the 20th century

Khalifa managed to steer Zanzibar through the turbulent first decades of the 20th century with skill and diplomacy.

Immediately after Khalifa took office, responsibility in Britain for Zanzibar was transferred from Foreign Affairs to Colonial Affairs, and the post of British Consul was changed to British Resident under the responsibility of the Governor of the British East Africa Protectorate. At the same time, a Protectorate Council was established, an advisory council with the Sultan as President and the British Resident as Vice-President.

Zanzibar suffered almost nothing from the First World War, in fact there was only one incident. The British ship Pegasus was bombed in Zanzibar harbour and sunk by the German ship Königsberg. After the war, the German East African region was administered by the British under the mandate of the League of Nations (later the United Nations) and from then on was called Tanganyika.

During the Second World War, Zanzibar was in no way involved in acts of war.

On the road to independence

After the Second World War, the indigenous people of Zanzibar gradually became involved in the governance of the island. Several local political parties were founded and the first elections were held in July 1957. The Afro-Shirazi Union (later the Afro-Shirazi Party -ASP- and consisting mainly of blacks) defeated the Zanzibar Nationalist Party -ZSP- (consisting mainly of Arabs).

In October 1960, Sultan Khalifa died after a reign of 49 years and was succeeded by his only son Abdullah. In November of the same year, Zanzibar received a new constitution that included elections for members of the Legislative Council. These elections were held in January and June 1961 and won by the ZNP, supported by the Zanzibar and Pemba People's Parties.

The British realised that internal self-government was inevitable and this was granted in June 1963. In July, Sultan Abdulla died and was succeeded by his eldest son Jamshid.

On 10 December 1963, Zanzibar became an independent sultanate and a full member of the British Commonwealth. On 16 December Zanzibar joined the United Nations. But the new sultanate was not to last long: on 12 January 1964, the Zanzibar government was deposed after a violent revolution.

Revolutionary Zanzibar

The leader of this revolution was a Ugandan living on Pemba, John Okello. The African population supported Okello with great enthusiasm, but this ended in a gigantic massacre: more than 17,000 Arabs and Indians were killed in one night. The leader of the Afro-Shirazi Party, Sheikh Abied Amani Karume, was installed as president of the new People's Republic of Zanzibar (Unguja and Pemba).

Karume and other prominent ASP members formed the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar (Serikali ya Mapinduzi ya Zanzibar, or SMZ). Most Asian and Indian people left the islands; their property was confiscated and their lands nationalised.

Meanwhile, Tanganyika had become independent in December 1961, with Julius Nyerere elected president a year later. Nyerere soon consulted with Karume about a political union and on 24 April 1964 the two countries formed the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. In October of that year the name was changed to Tanzania (from 'Tan' to Tanganyika and 'Zan' to Zanzibar). Nyerere became the new president and Karume vice-president. The SMZ interfered with all local problems on the islands of Unguka and Pemba; foreign affairs were conducted from Tanzania. Despite this 'union', Zanzibar kept itself very aloof from its colleagues on the mainland; for example, all revenue from the clove plantations was not shared with mainland Tanzania.

As many educated Asians and Indians had disappeared or been killed, Karume drew technical and military know-how from Cuba, China, East Germany, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union. In 1970, Karume's government was accused of violating human rights and on 7 April 1972 Karume was assassinated. He was succeeded as the new leader of the Revolutionary Government by Aboud Jumbe Mwinyi. Mwinyi was not as hard-line as Karume and was also more friendly towards Nyerere and mainland Tanzania. On 5 February 1977, the ALP merged with Nyerere's party, the Tanzania African National Union (TANU), to form the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM - Party of the Revolution). After this merger, relations with the West improved somewhat, and Queen Elizabeth II visited Zanzibar in 1979.

Eighties and nineties

In 1980, Zanzibar held its first presidential election. Aboud Jumbe Mwinyi became the first president and was succeeded by Ali Hassan Mwinyi in 1984. A year later he even became president of Tanzania as Nyerere's successor.

Idris Abdul Wakil became the new president of Zanzibar. Economically, the 1980s were a low point; the clove market collapsed completely and where in the 1960s a tonne of cloves fetched $10,000, it was now only $1,000. The government now allowed more private initiative and in 1989 seaweed was produced for the first time, an export product that could help the economy get back on its feet.

The 1990 presidential election was overwhelmingly won by Dr Salmin Amour, who also greatly encouraged the private sector. The sector that grew the most in the first half of the 1990s was tourism. In 1995, only 50,000 tourists came to Zanzibar per year, but by the end of the 1990s this had risen to about 100,000 per year. Tourism currently represents about 15% of the gross national product. There are also disadvantages, especially in terms of the environment. For example, so much water is used by the tourism sector that several wells have already run dry. Overfishing is also a threat due to the increasing number of restaurants. The 21st century, however, is characterised by an increasing number of hotels, not only on Unguja, but also on Pemba.

Politically, the 1990s also saw some changes. From 1992, Tanzania, and thus Zanzibar, ceased to exist as a one-party state. For the first time in twenty years, the CCM faced stiff competition, especially from the Civic United Front (CUF) of Seif Sherif Hamad of Pemba. The 1995 elections were therefore a duel between CCM and CUF and between Salmin Amour and Seif Sherif Hamad. Amour was later found to have won with 50.2% of the votes. There were voices, including those of international observers, that spoke of irregularities during the elections. However, the reasonably independent Zanzibar Electoral Commission refused to conduct a recount.

21th century

Just before the elections at the end of 2000, Amour made a costly error of judgement. He speculated on a third, unconstitutional, term as president and immediately the polls shot up in favour of the CUF. The CCM reacted immediately and put forward Amani Karume, son of former President Arume, as its presidential candidate.

The elections in mainland Tanzania were relatively peaceful, unlike those in Zanzibar. There were fights between CUF and CCM supporters and CUF demonstrations were stopped by the police and army. The 29 October elections were postponed to 5 November due to the turmoil. Frustrated by this postponement, some CUF demonstrations went completely out of control. Particularly in Zanzibar Town, the police used tear gas, rubber bullets and even fired live ammunition.

In protest, the CUF withdrew from the elections and it was easy for the CCM to win the elections.In total, the CCM won 34 of the 50 seats in the Zanzibar House of Representatives and Amani Karume won almost 70% of the votes in the presidential elections.

In order to appease CUF supporters, some leaders detained in 1998 were released. But this was vain hope, because a few days later, several bombs exploded on the island. The police accused the CUF, the CUF maintained that it was a government stunt to arrest some CUF leaders again. In January 2001, there were more protests, but this time the police intervened very violently; between 20 and 70 protesters and one policeman were killed. Other protesters were imprisoned and allegedly tortured.

In October, Tanzania's President Mkapa organised talks to iron out the problems. Eventually, both parties signed an agreement, the wrangling over the election results ended and a period of calm set in.

The current president of Zanzibar is Dr Ali Mohamed Shein who was put forward as a presidential candidate by the CCM party in July 2010. He was elected by parliament on 31 October as president, also the first president from the neighbouring island of Pemba. He will be re-elected in October 2015.

See also the history of Tanzania.


Else, D. / Zanzibar

Finke, J. / Tanzania
Rough Guides

Fitzpatrick, M. / Tanzania
Lonely Planet

Heale, J. / Tanzania
Marshall Cavendish

Skinner, A. / Tanzania & Zanzibar

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
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