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Zanzibar Island

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Zanzibar Island

Zanzibar is the collective name for two islands in Tanzania: Unguja and Pemba. The capital of Zanzibar, located on the island of Unguja, is Zanzibar City. The city's old quarter, known as Stone Town, is a World Heritage Site. Although Zanzibar enjoys a high degree of autonomy, it is not a sovereign state: it remains part of Tanzania. The population of Zanzibar was 981,754 in the 2002 census, and its area is 1,651 km² (637 mi²).


Photo by Kai Keller

Photo by Kai Keller

Zanzibar's main industries are spices (which include cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper), raffia, and tourism. Zanzibar is also the home of the endemic Zanzibar Red Colobus.

The word "Zanzibar" probably derives from the Persian Zangi-bar ("coast of the blacks"). However, the name could also have been derived from the Arabic Zayn Z'al Barr ("fair is this land"). "Zanzibar" often refers especially to Unguja Island and is sometimes referred to as the "Spice Islands," though this term is more commonly associated with the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. Pemba Island is the only island apart of Zanzibar that still produces cloves on a major basis which is the primary source of spice income for the islands.


The first permanent residents of Zanzibar seem to have been the ancestors of the Hadimu and Tumbatu, who began arriving from the East African mainland around AD 1000. They had belonged to various mainland ethnic groups, and on Zanzibar they lived in small villages and did not coalesce to form larger political units. Because they lacked central organization, they were easily subjugated by outsiders.

Ancient pottery demonstrates existing trade routes with Zanzibar as far back as the ancient Assyrians. Traders from Arabia, the Persian Gulf region of modern-day Iran (especially Shiraz), and west India probably visited Zanzibar as early as the 1st century. They used the monsoon winds to sail across the Indian Ocean and landed at the sheltered harbor located on the site of present-day Zanzibar Town. Although the islands had few resources of interest to the traders, they offered a good point from which to make contact with the towns of the East African coast.

Traders from the Persian Gulf region began to settle in small numbers on Zanzibar in the late 11th or 12th century; they intermarried with the indigenous Africans and eventually a hereditary ruler (known as the Mwenyi Mkuu or Jumbe), emerged among the Hadimu. A similar ruler, called the Sheha, was set up among the Tumbatu. Neither ruler had much power, but they helped solidify the ethnic identity of their respective peoples.

Da Gama's visit in 1499 marks the beginning of European influence. The Portuguese established control over the island in 1503. In August 1505 it became part of the Portuguese Empire when captain John (João) Homere of de Almeida's fleet captured the island and claimed it for Portugal. It was to remain a possession of Portugal until 1698.

In 1698, Zanzibar became part of the overseas holdings of Oman, falling under the control of the Sultan of Oman.

Sayyid Said bin Sultan al-Busaid moved his capital from Muscat in Oman to Stone Town in 1840. After his death in 1856, his sons struggled over the succession. On April 6, 1861, Zanzibar and Oman were divided into two separate principalities. Sayyid Majid bin Said Al-Busaid (1834/5–1870), his sixth son, became the Sultan of Zanzibar, while his brother, the third son Sayyid Thuwaini bin Said al-Said became the Sultan of Oman.

During this period, the Sultan of Zanzibar also controlled a substantial portion of the east African coast, known as Zanj, including Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, and trading routes extended much further into Africa, such as to Kindu on the Congo river. In November 1886, a German-British border commission established the Zanj as a ten-nautical mile (19 km) wide strip along the coast from Cape Delgado (now in Mozambique) to Kipini (now in Kenya) including all offshore islands and several towns in what is now Somalia. However, from 1887 to 1892, all of these mainland possessions were subsequently lost to the colonial powers of Britain, Germany, and Italy although some were not formally sold or ceded until the 20th century (Mogadishu to Italy in 1905 and Mombasa to Kenya in 1963).

The British Empire gradually took over, and Zanzibar and the British position was formalized by the 1890 Helgoland-Zanzibar Treaty, in which Germany pledged not to interfere with British interests in insular Zanzibar. Zanzibar became a protectorate of the United Kingdom that year. The British appointed first Viziers from 1890 to 1913, and then British Residents from 1913 to 1963.

On August 27, 1896, the Anglo-Zanzibar War broke out over the succession of Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini and ended with the accession of British client Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed. It was the shortest war in history; Zanzibar surrendered after 45 minutes [1]. Acquiescing to British demands, Hamoud brought an end to Zanzibar's role as a centre for the eastern slave trade that had begun under Omani rule in 17th Century by banning slavery and freeing the slaves of Zanzibar with compensation in 1897.

On December 10, 1963, Zanzibar received its independence from the United Kingdom as a constitutional monarchy under the Sultan. This state of affairs was short-lived, as the Sultan was overthrown on January 12, 1964, and on April 26 of that year Zanzibar merged with the mainland state of Tanganyika to form Tanzania, a part of which it remains to this day.

Slave and ivory trade

From the earliest days of trade on the East African coast, slaves had been taken for export overseas. For many centuries the slaves were captured by neighbouring inland tribes and taken to the coast for sale to Persian traders. It was the Nyamwezi people who dominated the interior side of this slave trade, opening up caravan routes from their lands in West Tanzania to the coast and subjugating native Bantu tribes over a wide area.

On the trek to the coast, slaves were made to carry other trade goods from the interior, most notably ivory, with which the Nyamwesi would barter for knives, cloth, cotton and foodstuffs.

Over the years the slave and ivory trades were to become the main sources of income to the merchants of Mombasa and Zanzibar. The ivory was the softest and largest in the world (some tusks requiring four men to lift them) and much in demand as far away as China, whilst the demand for slaves came mainly from India. But it was during the 18th century that the slave trade really boomed, as new demand was generated on the plantations of Mauritius and Réunion. By 1750 over 3000 slaves were passing through the markets of Zanzibar alone.

As the demand grew, so did the competition between Arab traders, who started venturing into the interior themselves in search of ever more slaves and it wasn't long before regular caravan routes and inland stations were established. These stations and their networks of native trade were held in allegiance to the Sultan of the city from which the caravans originated and soon enough the Sultan of Zanzibar had started to build up a considerable sphere of influence on the African mainland.

By the 1770's the caravans had reached Lake Nyasa and established a station at Ujiji and by 1800 over 8000 slaves passed annually through the Zanzibar market. By then Sultan Majid bin Said had taken control in Zanzibar and he soon made the move that would guarantee his dominance of the trade with the interior. By encouraging Indian businessmen, or 'banya's' or 'bania's', to move to Zanzibar he not only ensured the availability of adequate financial backing for the caravans, but also the skilled workforce to carry out the administration and book-keeping on his behalf. The improved financing enabled caravans to offer better trade goods to the tribes of the interior, most notably guns, by which means their loyalty could be relied upon. By 1860 there were 6000 banya's in Zanzibar.

Now the Arabs could organise massive caravans. Up to 1000 men would be assembled at Zanzibar, paid an advance on their wages and put aboard ship for the mainland. The column then marched inland along the established routes, headed by an Arab merchant, mounted on a horse and resplendent in his turban, white robes and silver daggers. Caravans would disappear 'up country' for months, travelling between stations, trading with local tribes and collecting great stores of slaves and ivory. The dirty work of actually catching slaves and hunting elephant could be carried out remotely. By making alliances with tribes such as the Nyamwesi and arming them with guns to ensure their superiority, the goods were brought to them.

Terrible stories abound of the treatment of slaves by the Arabs. They were tied together with chains and yokes around their necks and loaded with great tusks to be whipped along the trails back to the coast. If they were too weak to continue, they would be left for dead. If a woman had a child, then she would carry it on her back as well as her load and if she tired, the child would be pulled off her back and killed. The caravan routes were said to be lined with the corpses of those that fell. On board ship for Zanzibar the slaves were packed so tightly below decks that some would suffocate. If disease broke out, the sick would be thrown overboard. They were fed a handful of rice each day and many starved. On reaching port the Arabs had to pay import duty, so any slaves who looked like they might not survive were also thrown overboard.

On reaching the slave market, the slaves were cleaned up and prepared for sale, wiped with oil and dressed. Owners would then parade them around the market, announcing their price and buyers would inspect their muscles, eyes and teeth for imperfection. Once sold, many of the slaves would again find themselves thrown into the hold of a ship, this time bound for Arabia, India or China.

By 1820, at a time when the west coast slave trade was being closed down by European powers, the trade in Zanzibar was still growing. The Nyamwesi had pushed even further west, into the kingdoms of Katanga, Lunda, and Kazembe in modern Zambia and Zaire.

The most famous of the Zanzibar traders was Tippu Tib, a respected Swahili and close confidante of Sultan Majid bin Said. It was he who was largely responsible for the extension of the Sultan's sphere of influence. Whilst the Sultan managed affairs in Zanzibar, ensuring its security and defending Arab interests from especially British interference, Tippu Tib created a vast empire. Ultimately Said's African dominions covered a staggering two million square kilometres and it was famously said that "when the flute plays in Zanzibar, the whole of Africa dances". Many of the native tribes that had been in league with the Arabs for centuries were by now well-armed and Said considered his hold on the continent and the trade to be impregnable.

Following the death of Said, Tippu continued to work the interior on behalf of his successors. Increasingly though he seems to have been working more for his own personal interests than those of the Sultan. He built himself an empire around the upper Congo, with headquarters at Stanley Falls, where he ruled like a great chief and when American explorer Henry Morton Stanley was attempting his crossing of the continent, it was with Tippu that he had to negotiate his passage.

Stanley was working on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium and had been sent to ask Tippu to cede the area of the upper Congo to Leopold's Congo Free State and to cease from slave trading in return for the position of governor and a salary of £30 per month. Allegedly, Tippu was insulted by the offer and concerned about the increasing influence of the Europeans on the mainland, fearful of the future of his slave trade. When he went to Barghash (Said's son) for consultation, he was told to do the deal, take the salary, but to carry on with his business as usual. Despite this alleged European concern for slavery, Leopold managed to run the 'Belgian Congo' as a slave camp, resulting in the attentions of anti-slavery campaigner Roger Casement.

Political status

Although Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, it elects its own president who is head of government for matters internal to the island. Amani Abeid Karume was re-elected to that office on October 30, 2005 under criticism from opposition candidate Seif Shariff Hamad [2]. Earlier, the fairness of his election on October 2000 was queried, and in January 2001 at least 27 protestors were killed by the police.

Zanzibar also has its own House of Representatives (with 50 seats, directly elected by universal suffrage to serve five-year terms) to make laws especially for it.

The Island of Zanzibar comprises of three administrative regions Zanzibar Central/South, Zanzibar North and Zanzibar Urban/West. On the Island of Pemba are the two regions Pemba North and Pemba South.

Sultans of Zanzibar

   1. Majid bin Said (1856–1870)
   2. Barghash bin Said (1870–1888)
   3. Khalifah bin Said (1888–1890)
   4. Ali bin Said (1890–1893)
   5. Hamad bin Thuwaini (1893–1896)
   6. Khalid bin Barghash (1896)
   7. Hamud bin Muhammed (1896–1902)
   8. Ali bin Hamud (1902–1911) (abdicated)
   9. Khalifa bin Harub (1911–1960)
  10. Abdullah bin Khalifa (1960–1963)
  11. Jamshid bin Abdullah (1963–1964)


   1. Sir Lloyd William Matthews, (1890 to 1901)
   2. A.S. Rogers, (1901 to 1906)
   3. Arthue Raikes, (1906 to 1908)
   4. Francis Barton, (1906 to 1913)

British residents

   1. Francis Pearce, (1913 to 1922)
   2. John Sinclair, (1922 to 1923)
   3. Alfred Hollis, (1923 to 1929)
   4. Richard Rankine, (1929 to 1937)
   5. John Hall, (1937 to 1940)
   6. Henry Pilling, (1940 to 1946)
   7. Vincent Glenday, 1946 to 1951)
   8. John Sinclair, (1952 to 1954)
   9. Henry Potter, (1954 to 1959)
  10. Arthur Mooring, (1959 to 1963)


Zanzibar's history was influenced by the British, Persians, Arabs, Indians, Portuguese and the African mainland. Stone Town is a place of winding lanes, circular towers, carved wooden doors, raised terraces and beautiful mosques. Important architectural features are the Livingstone house, the Guliani Bridge, and the House of Wonders, a palace constructed by Sultan Barghash in 1883. The town of Kidichi features the Hammam Persian Baths, built by immigrants from Shiraz, Iran during the reign of Sultan Barghash bin Said.


Pemba Island is the leading world clove producer. It also exports spices and fine raffia.


  • Zanzibar was the first region in Africa to introduce colour television, in 1973. The current tv-station is called TvZ. The first television service in mainland Tanzania was not introduced until some twenty years later.
  • Gonzo the Great, the famous Muppet, frequently mentions "going to Zanzibar to fight the Zanzibarbarians!" in more recent appearances, especially Muppet Treasure Island. Zanzibar residents do not normally call themselves "Zanzibarbarians".
  • The musician Farrokh Bulsara (a.k.a Freddie Mercury) of Queen was born in Unguja, Zanzibar on September 5, 1946 to Indian parents who were employed by the British colonial administration. There is also a restaurant named 'Mercurys' on the beachfront of Stone Town. In September 2006, a radical Islamic group on the archipelago, Uamsho, forced organizers to abandon plans to mark his 60th birthday, saying he violated Islam with his openly gay lifestyle.
  • Zanzibar criminalized gay and lesbian sex in 2004.


  • Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, Emily Ruete, 1888. (Many reprints). Author (1844-1924) was born Princess Salme of Zanzibar and Oman and was a daughter of Sayyid Said.
  • Banani: the Transition from Slavery to Freedom in Zanzibar and Pemba, H. S. Newman, (London, 1898)
  • Travels in the Coastlands of British East Africa, W. W. A. FitzGerald, (London, 1898)
  • Zanzibar in Contemporary Times, R. N. Lyne, (London, 1905)
  • Pemba: The Spice Island of Zanzibar, J. E. E. Craster, (London, 1913)


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