Zanzibar, an island state in the Indian Ocean, lies about 30 miles off the coast of East Africa. Long an Arab stronghold, it became a British colony in the late 1800s. Zanzibar gained its independence in 1963 and the next year joined Tanganyika in forming the United Republic of TANZANIA.
Zanzibar consists of two main islands, Unguja (also called Zanzibar Island) and Pemba, and several smaller ones. Unguja, the largest, covers an area of 637 square miles. Made of limestone, coral, and sandstone, the islands are fairly flat—the highest point on Unguja is 390 feet above sea level. At one time the islands supported dense forests, but human activity long ago destroyed all but small patches of the original tree cover. Today, mangrove swamps line their eastern shores.
Zanzibar has two rainy seasons, from March to May and from October to December, and receives about 70 inches of rain each year. The tropical climate and the deep, well-drained soil are ideal for growing clove trees. Cloves, a spice, are one of Zanzibar's major exports. Farmers also raise coconuts and rice, an important local food.
Located within reach of Africa, Arabia, and India, Zanzibar attracted colonists from several continents. The earliest inhabitants were BANTU PEOPLES from sub-Saharan Africa. Migrants from Arabia arrived in the 900s and blended with the African population. Later, Arabs—mostly from Oman, on the Arabian peninsula—colonized the islands.
The Arabs used Zanzibar both as a commercial port and as a base for slave trading expeditions to the African mainland. In the 1500s the Portuguese began conquering many East African coastal settlements, including Zanzibar. However, in 1698 the Omanis drove them out of the region. Under Omani rule, Zanzibar became a center of the IVORY TRADE and the SLAVE TRADE.
In 1832 SA'ID IBN SULTAN, the Omani ruler, moved his capital from Muscat in Oman to Zanzibar. He established a loosely organized state, allowing local groups some freedom to govern themselves. He promoted the development of Zanzibar's clove industry, which depended on slave labor. Meanwhile, he extended the Omani trading network deep into the African mainland. To strengthen the islands' commercial relationships, Sa'id signed trade agreements with the United States, Britain, and France. The merchants of Zanzibar grew wealthy on exports of cloves, ivory, and slaves.
After Sa'id's death in 1856, Zanzibar separated from Oman and became an independent sultanate. In 1890 Britain took control of the islands and abolished the slave trade. Zanzibar became an independent nation within the British commonwealth in 1963. The following year the islanders revolted against the Arab-dominated government, and the sultans' rule came to an end. The uprising led to Zanzibar's union with Tanganyika in the United Republic of Tanzania. Within the republic, Zanzibar maintains some autonomy concerning education, immigration, and other policy areas. The president of Zanzibar serves as one of Tanzania's two vice presidents.
Peoples and Economy
Today's Zanzibaris are a mixture of African, Omani, and other Middle Eastern peoples. Most consider themselves as either Arab or SWAHILI. The language of the islands is Swahili, a Bantu language that has borrowed many words from Arabic, but some recent immigrants from Oman speak Arabic. The great majority of the population is Muslim.
Rural Zanzibaris support themselves through farming, fishing, picking cloves for wages, and small businesses. In the towns, trade is the main economic activity. Merchants sell imported items and locally produced goods in open-air marketplaces. In addition, TOURISM is gaining importance and has brought modern hotels, shops, and restaurants to Zanzibar Town, the islands' capital. Zanzibar Town has two parts: Stone Town and Ng'ambo. Stone Town is a maze of narrow, stone-paved lanes and historic buildings, including the former sultan's palace and a church founded by missionary-explorer David LIVINGSTONE. Ng'ambo is the newer, more sprawling side of the city.