For centuries, and perhaps aided by the Monsoon trade winds, there has been trade links between the coast of East Africa and the people of Arabia, Persia, India and as far as China. The dates are not known for certain but as early as the 1st century AD, Zanzibar and other coastal settlements in East Africa had established trade links with its nothern neighbours of the Indian Ocean.
Contrary to some scholars, who allege coercion as being the norm of the time, Arabic travellers of those days had no political ambitions. They were living in harmony and some of them inter-married with their hosts hence consolidating the bonds even further. The arrival of Islam in the 8th century strengthened the relationship and brought East Africa much closer to Arabia.
While the contacts with Arabia continued unabated for many centuries after the first arrival of arabic settlers, things changed to a great extent upon the arrival of Persians (Iran) by the 10th century. The Persians, who started with Hassan bin Ali Sultan with his six sons as mentioned in the Kilwa chronicles or with Darhash bin Shah from the Pemba chronicles, settled in many coastal settlements and formed the Zenj empire. They immediately established centres of control in Kilwa and Zanzibar, the latter emerging as a powerhouse of political rule in East Africa. Much of the build-up of social institutions and political organisations happened during this period where local rulers exerted control of some settlements along the coast. The process led to the formation of independent Muslim sultanates in Zanzibar and Kilwa with mixed Persian, Arab and African populations.
After about three centuries of integration between natives, Arabs and the Shirazi immigrants, their emerged three major ethnic groups. The Watumbatu and Wahadimu who correspondingly ihabited the nothern and southern parts of Zanzibar island and Wapemba who occupied Pemba island. They all categorically regarded themselves as Shirazis and considered to be the indigenous people of Zanzibar and Pemba islands. Blatantly, they deny to have major African roots and though they accept that some of the earlier ancestors came from the mainland, they object to the claim that they must be Bantus or Africans.
Administratively, people were organized in small local chieftains owing their allegiance to the Shirizi Sultans of either Kilwa or their local siblings. The administrative centre of Zanzibar island was first located in the island of Tumbatu but later on moved to Unguja Ukuu. The settlements flourished and enjoyed cool relations with its visitors and sometimes between 15th and 17th centuries some local rulers, Mwinyimkuu in Zanzibar with his headquarter in Dunga and Mkame Ndume in Pemba centred at Pujini, assumed supremacy and ruled until the period of invasion by the Portuguese.
Portuguese and Omanis
The period between 15th and 17th century was dominated by the invasion of Portuguese, who defeated local rulers and took control of almost all the coast of East Africa. They first conquered Oman followed by falling of other coastal settlements one by one. Their rule revived strong resistance and discontent among the natives and Omanis finally succeded in evicting the Portuguese out of their land. It is claimed that, the local rulers in East Africa sought Omani's assistance in their fight against the Portuguese and it paid off towards the end of the 17th century.
The freedom from the Portuguese was however shortlived as the Omanis annexed Zanzibar and many coastal towns to their empire that was ruled from Muscat. In the 18th century, Zanzibar and Pemba were subject to the sultans of Muscat and Oman. In 1832 the Omani sultan Sayyid Said (1787-1856) established his residence on Zanzibar, where he promoted the production of cloves and palm oil and carried on an active slave trade with the interior. His domain, which included parts of the mainland, was a commercial rather than a territorial empire. Although Sayyid Said had full control of Zanzibar island as early as 1822, Pemba was to a great extent ruled by the Mazruis of Mombasa. He later on controlled the Mazruis and assumed full control of Zanzibar and Pemba islands until the time of his death.
British and German Era
The 18th century was an era where Europeans were looking for colonies throughout the world and East Africa was not an exception. Upon his death, Sayyid Said had controlled a large empire but his successors did not have a legal claim to the lands they controlled commercially, and did not have the power to keep the Germans and British from annexing them when the European nations began dividing up Africa later in the century. But realizing the extent of Sultan's control, the Germans and later British colonial agents decided to give him a special status on his territories. The partition of Africa following the Berlin Confrence of 1884 offered the Sultan a claim to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba and a coastal strip of 10 miles on the mainland of East Africa.
The domination of Germans coupled with the abolition of slave trade weakened the Sultan's empire and bit by bit he lost more land to the new European colonizers. The British and Germans came into some agreement with the Sultan to sell his possession on the mainland and by the end of 19th century very little remained in his control. The Germans, who were first in colonizing Tanzania agreed with the British to exchange Zanzibar with Heligoland and though the Sultan was still ruling, it was a de facto British colony. Zanzibar was thus ruled by two colonial masters at the same time, an event political scientists call unique in history. On the one hand there was Sultan and on the other the British colonial agents. Zanzibar of that time included the islands of Zanzibar, Pemba, Latham and surrounding islets and theoretically it included the coastal strip of Kenya. Mombasa and the coastal strip of Kenya was handed to the new independent government as late as 1963.
After a period of confusing lines of control, Zanzibar was officially declared a British protectorate in 1890; the sultan was retained for ceremonial purposes, but most major decisions were made by the British resident. The British however continued to rule under cover and to the locals it appeared as if the Sultan was in control and their policies of division and rule and of exercising indirect rule created ethnic conflicts among people of Zanzibar and Pemba.
During their rule they encouraged formation of associations based on ethnic lines, which later on were the foundation for the new political parties. The ethnic based census of 1948 that categorized people into Shirazis, Arabs, Indians, and other African tribes formented ethnic tensions that have plagued Zanzibar ever since. The Arab, Indian, Shirazi and African associations that were formed in the 50s have plunged Zanzibar into political conflicts bigger than its size. During this period, the history of Zanzibar witnessed the formation of political parties all fighting for independence from Britain. The Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP), Afro Shirazi Party (ASP) and the Zanzibar and Pemba Peoples Party (ZPPP) are all products of ethnic associations. For example, the ZNP, which was launched by people considered to have no direct descendant to Arabs got a support from the Arab Association. The ASP was a merger between the African Association and the Shirazi Association. The ZPPP was an offshoot of ASP as result of disagreement of ASPs too much lineancy towards African Association. The period was marred by dirty politics and party conflicts that led to scores of politicians changing ranks from one party to another. The Umma Party, which was formed by communist members of the ZNP joined ASP in claiming full independence and became an influential partner of ASP in the days after independence.
Sultan Khalifa ibn Harub (1879-1960) used his influence to support British rule. At the time of his death, Britain was divesting itself of its African colonies, and Zanzibar, troubled by political factionalism, was granted internal self rule in June 1963 and independence in December 10, 1963. The first government was formed by a coaliton of ZNP and ZPPP. Sheikh Mohammed Shamte, of the ZPPP became the first prime minister of an independent Zanzibar. The Sultan, at the time Jamshid ibn Abdullah, remained as the head of state the move that was vehemently protested by ASP. A few weeks later, January 12, 1964, its conservative government was overthrown in a bloody revolution led by John Okello and replaced by a leftist regime under Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume (1905-72). Immediately after the revolution, Karume signed a pact with Nyerere uniting Zanzibar and Tanganyika to form The United Republic of Tanzania.
Abeid A. Karume, The First President of Zanzibar
The government following the revolution of Zanzibar of 1964 leaned more towards the claim of Africans being the true natives and at the beginning of its rule it abolished all claims of the Shirazis. Although one could still claim to be a Shirazi, he/she had to accept being an African first and Shirazi underneath. Its first president, Abeid Amani Karume whose birth place has been a subject of intense discussion, proudly presented himself as an African. He went on to institute forced marriages where ASP leaders were ordered to marry Arabic and Indian women against their will. This was an attempt to re-write history and was met with pockets of resistance but were ruthlessly dealt with by Karume and his dictatorial regime.
The marxist revolutionary government confiscated all the major private property and went on to re-destribute the land to the poor by offering each individual a 3-acre plot. Karume's vision was to build a country where all people will have free housing, free medical care, and live under subsidized supplies of food, clothing and energy. Private enterprises were abolished and the state assumed full control of importation and eventual reselling of commodities. For those who could not work, a Welfare department was established to their care. Karume ordered free education to all but he was not happy with many of his intellectuals and it is believed that he ordered their liquidation. Much happened during the first decade of its rule and, to say the least, it was an era of grave human rights violation where people feared for their life on every minute of every day. Beginning with the aftermath of murders committed during revolution, people fled Zanzibar in search of safe havens on the mainland of Tanzania and Kenya and some sought refuge in other countries of the world.
There was also a period when the government stopped importation of food and encouraged self reliance. Some allege that the govermnent used foreign currency to import large arsenals of weapon in preparation for the eventual pull out of Nyerere's support. It is claimed that the union was originally planned for only 10 years and was to end in 1974. Security agents, the army and the ASP volunteers hunted those who attempted to smuggle food into the islands. Stories from people who experienced this ordeal would make you shed tears. Life was hard and unbearable and another wave of emigrants left the islands in search of lush pastures elsewhere. There were however those who could not take it anymore and on April 7 1972, they attempted to overthrow the revolutionary government but only managed to kill the president. Ironically, Karume was killed by his Arabic brother-in-law to what many believe is a revenge for the formers role in his father's death.
Apparently, it is believed that the people who planned the revolution were supported by Nyerere and their leader, Abdulrahman Babu, was a staunch supporter of establishing communist oriented government in Zanzibar in line with Nyerere's plan. The death of Karume was again followed by serious violations of human rights and not only that the ASP government hunted and shot those accused to have masterminded the revolution but also they went on to treat their bodies in some humiliating manner. There were others, mainly of arabic descent, who were just arrested and kept behind bars for apparently no solid evidence. The spill overs of the death of Karume spread to the island of Pemba where scores of people were arrested. I have heard stories of boys who played football and got arrested because it was assumed that they were celebrating the death of Karume. The regime was based on barbaric and dictatorial socialist policies!
Post Karume Era
Aboud Jumbe took over after Karume's death and the public hoped for an end to the past. His administration was a little bit softer than that of his predecessor but being under the leadership of the Revolutionary Council, he had to adopt some hardline policies, when it mattered, at the request of his colleagues. His decade in power was characterized by too much leaning to the mainland and in 1977 he championed the union between ASP and the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) of the mainland to form the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), a party that continue to rule until now.
Aboud Jumbe Mwinyi, The Second President of Zanzibar
On the social side, people had some freedom and could travel freely to the outer world. Jumbe also opened up mainland educational institutions for Zanzibaris wishing to pursue higher education. This move created many possibilities for Zanzibaris to go beyond the teaching career that was the only available option for many. In the past, government positions were offered to people along party lines and apart from teaching there were not many possibilites for the high school graduates. In 1979, Jumbe made history by launching the first democratic institution, the House of Representatives but members were mainly appointed instead of being elected by the people at large. He also opened up his administration for people, who could otherwise have been kept out if the strict revolutionary principles were followed. This move, which he later seemed to regret, was the source of his downfall. He was at odds with, the so called, the committe of fourteen (view historical pictures) who included most of the people who participated in the revolution. Their influence began to decline and their powers, at times, questioned. In an attempt to remedy the damage he droped most of these new elements in his government and made a radical move of attempting to back down from his support towards one central government for the whole of Tanzania. In 1984, he was forced to resign by the CCM's central committe and Ali Hassan Mwinyi was appointed the new President of Zanzibar.
The government of Ali Hassan Mwinyi and his Chief Minister Seif Sharif Hamad was warmly welcomed by the public as it quickly eased down many of the problems left behind by the previous government. However, it was short lived and in 1985 Mwinyi became the President of the United Republic of Tanzania and Idris Abdul Wakil was elected the new President of Zanzibar. In that election, Wakil became the president by scoring about 60% of the votes. This was very odd under the one party system and the aftershocks of the political turmoil that followed has left an unrepairable damage to the stability of Zanzibar and Pemba islands.
The elections of 1990 that brought Dr. Salmin Amour Juma to power were marred by poor turn out and rather than seeking for a solution, the incumbent went on to suspend most civil servants who were known to have caused that poor showing. Dr. Salmin or "Komandoo, as popularly referred, ruled with an iron fist and terrorized his opponents with arrests and even torture. But the voices of the opposition were difficult to silence and after strong pressure from both internal and external sources, Tanzania allowed multi-party politics to operate for the first time since independence.
Dr. Salmin Amour Juma, The Fifth President of Zanzibar
Zanzibar under Multi-party politics
When Tanzania introduced multi-party politics, Zanzibaris were already polarized into those supporting the status quo and supporters of the opposition, who had already gathered under the KAMAHURU banner. What was missing in the opposition camp was the official name of a legitimate political party and when the law was changed, the Civic United Front (CUF) was launched without any hitch. Other political parties with their bases on the mainland attempted to solicit support in Zanzibar but they have never gone beyond the level required by law of having some members on both sides of the union in an attempt to curb the suppress cessationists. Most of the leaders of CUF were once high ranking officers in CCM and knew the system quite well. They also enjoyed the popularity of Seif Sharif Hamad, whose charisma has been a constant scare to CCM and its supporters.
Seif Sharif Hamad, The Secretary of Civic United Front (CUF)
The 1995 elections in Zanzibar were marked by irregularities and CCM was accused of having rigged it for its own benefit. Election observers agreed the claims by the leading opposition party on the islands, the Civic United Front (CUF) and did not recognize the election results. CUF organised series of public protests and important donors for Zanzibar suspended their cooperation with Dr. Salmin's government. Dr. Salmin continued his acts of torture and harrasment of the opposition and above all, he came with a policy of segregating people who supported CUF mainly from the island of Pemba. Pembans were denied positions in government, deprived of higher education opportunities, and wherever possible their businesses were constrained by his government. His era might be over but the injustices he committed are hard to forget and for many opposition supporters in Zanzibar, it is hard to forgive him.
The 2000 elections cannot be distanced from the past elections in Zanzibar and acts of irregularities and rigging were rampant. State organs took all the measures to ensure a CCM win and it is believed by many that the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC) purposely spoiled the elections. ZEC poorly organized the elections and later on announced a re-run in 16 constituencies in Zanzibar Urban District. CUF went on to boycot the whole election giving what CCM called "Ushindi wa Kishindo", which literally translates to "overwhelming victory" but the oppostion framed it as "forceful victory". It was clear that Zanzibaris would have to wait longer to witness peaceful elections as police continued to harrass the opposition months before and after the election day (view police brutality pictures). Commonwealth election observers called the 2000 elections as "shambles" and opposition supporters brought forward their protests to the goverment of Amani Abeid Karume.
Amani Abeid Karume, The Sixth President of Zanzibar
In January 26-27 of 2001, Zanzibar witnessed yet another bloodshed in her troubled history when security organs murdered scores of people who staged an outlawed demonstration. At first, the CCM government played down the significance of such killings but when it became obvious that the image of Tanzania has been tarnished the Union government directed its party (CCM) to talk to the leading political party on the isles, the CUF.
After months of negotiations the CCM-CUF political accord was reached that among other things aimed at cooling down the tension that had risen to a very high proportion. A Joint Presidential Committee was formed by members from both parties and the new Zanzibar Election Commission (ZEC) has representatives from the two parties. Until now, things seems to be going on well despite few skermishes between party supporters and somehow championed by the state organs.
While we are waiting for the developments toward the 2005 election, Zanzibaris from all over the world are praying for peace and stability. However, much remains to be seen particularly from the Revolutionary government who continue to suppress the media and appear to be preparing ground for a new kind of confrontation.
This is a tip of Zanzibar's long history. By no means that this account has covered all what has happened in the past but we hope the reader will get a glimpse of the important events in its history. Much of the history is not written and media censoring has contributed to this debacle. To remind our readers, there were at times when history as a subject was banned altogether and removed from the curriculum.
This is Zanzibar you see today!
Zanzibar Historical Pictures
To complete your reading of Zanzibar history, please view some historical pictures on this website. Among other things, you can see the pictures of ivory trade, Bububu Railway, the revolutionaries, and many more.