zanzibar historyHuman settlement in Zanzibar history goes back as far as 20,000 years ago. Today’s Zanzibar, however, is shaped by the archipelago’s unique geographic location which made it the centre of trade and culture along the Swahili Coast of east Africa.

The first evidence of exploration to Zanzibar is of Persian traders who sailed through the Indian Ocean monsoon winds in Dhow sail boats and established trading posts here. Although lacking in natural resources, Zanzibar’s location offered an easily defended and navigable hub from which to trade along the Swahili Coast. This Persian (or Shirazi) influence significantly shaped the indigenous culture and ethnicity of Zanzibari people before the later arrival of Arab influence. The first mosque in Zanzibar was built around 1107 AD by Arabic Yemeni muslims but it was the later arrival of the Omani Sultanate that reinforced Islam as what is still the dominant religion in Zanzibar and shaped its modern history.

After two centuries of Portuguese colonial rule beginning in the early 16h Century, Zanzibar became an oversees holding of the Sultan of Oman who kicked out the Portuguese and established a lucrative trade in cloves, ivory, and slaves. Zanzibar served as the key trading post for Arab slavery and was so successful that Sultan Seyyid Said actually moved his capital from Muscat in Oman to Stone Town, Zanzibar in 1840. While establishing an Arabic elite based on the trade of cloves, and slavery of the African population, the Sultan also oversaw an influx of traders from the Indian subcontinent who came to dominate commercial trade on the islands.

In 1890, the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty established Zanzibar as a Protectorate of the British Empire to remain under the governance of the Sultan. This Treaty also agreed to non-interference of Germany who had established mainland Tanganyika as a colony. In 1896 the death of Sultan Barghash led to a contention of the Sultanate’s succession that resulted in the “shortest war in history” where the British Royal Navy shelled the Sultan’s palace, ceasing the conflict after no longer than 45 minutes. After the short conflict the new Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed, under pressure from the British, ended Zanzibar’s centuries old slave trade. Although the Sultan continued to rule, the British appointed their own resident governors and essentially shaped the modern administration and system of government that remains to this day.

However, with the departure of the British in 1963 the Sultan was overthrown in a violent 1964 revolution that saw the uprising of the Afro-Shirazi local population against the Arab elite and Indian commercial class. A massacre, led by a Ugandan revolutionary called John Okello, took place of between 5,000 and 20,000 Arabic and Indian Zanzibaris. Effectively ending nearly three centuries of Arab rule, the Sultan went in to exile and was replaced by the government of Abeid Karume, whose party still holds democratic power in Zanzibar today.

A few months after the revolution, Zanzibar and mainland Tanganyika united under a Republic which became known as Tanzania. This union still exists but allows Zanzibar to remain a semi-autonomous region with its own government and President.

Today, Zanzibar’s history can be explored through the ruins of palaces, forts, and houses of former rulers dotted throughout the Islands or walking through the streets of Stone Town which itself is a monument to its seat at the centre of Swahili and Zanzibar history.

Share This

Share this page