Islands in a Cosmopolitan Sea

A History of the Comoros

July 2019 9781787381469 296pp


Many people today have never heard of the Comoros, but these islands were once part of a prosperous economic system that stretched halfway around the world. A key node 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. 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 chronic mismanagement and relies on foreign aid and remittances from a diasporic community in France. Nonetheless, the Comoros are largely peaceful and culturally vibrant—connected to the outside world in the internet age, but, at the same time, still slightly apart.

Iain Walker traces the history and unique culture of these enigmatic 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​.


‘A marvelous, engaged book.’ — H-Net

‘Walker has produced a tightly organized, straightforward chronological history. […] This book would be a great acquisition for anyone interested in filling in gaps in knowledge of the western Indian Ocean world.’ — African Studies Review

‘Comprehensive, compelling, and engagingly written, Iain Walker’s history is a major work and an indispensable and impressive contribution to the scarce scholarly literature in English on the Comoros.’ — Michael Lambek, Professor of Anthropology, University of Toronto Scarborough, and author of Island in the Stream: An Ethnographic History of Mayotte

‘This detailed and authoritative history of the Comoros is long overdue. At last, with their richly documented past and their numerous traditional histories, these islands can be better understood as lying at the very centre of the maritime economy and culture of the western Indian Ocean.’ — Malyn Newitt, author of A Short History of Mozambique

‘A much-needed and wide-ranging study of the complex history of the Comoros. Walker reveals how these islands of luxuriant jungles and the fragrance of ylang ylang became the site for violent contention, and offers a comprehensive case study of the long-term legacies of colonialism.’ — Robert Aldrich, Professor of European History, University of Sydney

‘It is a particular strength of Iain Walker’s deeply researched history of the Comoros that he both locates the islands in their wider regional and global contexts and deftly explains their very complex social system.’ — Edward Alpers, Research Professor of History, UCLA, and author of The Indian Ocean in World History



Iain Walker has a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Sydney and has held positions at the University of New South Wales, Macquarie University, and the University of Oxford. He is currently Research Officer at Martin Luther University and Research Associate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, both in Halle, Germany.

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