Zanzibar is an archipelago made up of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands, and several islets. It is located in the Indian Ocean, about 25 miles from the Tanzanian coast, and 6° south of the equator.
Zanzibar Island (known locally as Unguja, but as Zanzibar internationally) is 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, occupying a total area of approximately 650 square miles. It is characterized by beautiful sandy pristine coastline with fringing coral reefs, and the magic of historic Stone Town with its winding cobbled streets and Omani style architecture said to be the only functioning ancient town in East Africa.
The capital city, Zanzibar, is divided into two sections: Stone Town, a World Heritage site, and Ngambo. The buildings are predominantly white coral stone with a noticeable Arab architectural style. Balconies in Stone Town surround central courtyards and open-arched rooms to ensure that the interiors are always cool. The exterior doors are intricately carved and inlaid with brass.
Narrow roads meander between buildings some over a century old, leading you to picturesque bazaars with carpenters, jewellers, hawkers, tailors and coffee sellers. Along the island’s eastern shore runs a protective reef, which is as beautiful as it is functional.
Zanzibar is a conservative, Sunni Muslim society. Its history was influenced by the Arabs, Persians, Indians, Portuguese, British 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. The town of Kidichi features the hammam (Persian baths), built by immigrants from Shiraz, Iran during the reign of Barghash bin Said.
Zanzibar, mainly Pemba Island, was once the world’s leading clove producer, but annual clove sales have since plummeted by 80% since the 1970s. Explanations given for this is a fast-moving global market, international competition and a hangover from Tanzania’s failed experiment with socialism in the 1960s and ’70s, when the government controlled clove prices and exports. Zanzibar now ranks a distant third with Indonesia supplying 75% of theworld’s cloves, compared to Zanzibar’s 7%.
Zanzibar exports spices, seaweed and fine raffia. It also has a large fishing and dugout canoe production. Tourism is a major foreign currency earner.
The presence of microlithic tools attests to 20,000 years of human occupation of Zanzibar. The islands became part of the historical record of the wider world when Arab traders discovered them and used them as a base for voyages between Arabia, India, and Africa. Unguja offered a protected and defensible harbour, so although the archipelago offered few products of value, the Arabs settled at what became Zanzibar City (Stone Town) as a convenient point from which to trade with East African coastal towns. They established garrisons on the islands and built the first mosque in the Southern hemisphere.
During the Age of Exploration, the Portuguese Empire was the first European power to gain control of Zanzibar, and kept it for nearly 200 years. In 1698, Zanzibar fell under the control of the Sultanate of Oman, which developed an economy of trade and cash crops, with a ruling Arab elite. Plantations were developed to grow spices, hence the moniker of the Spice Islands (a name also used of Dutch colony the Moluccas, now part of Indonesia). Another major trade good was ivory, the tusks of elephants killed in mainland Africa. The third pillar of the economy was slaves, giving Zanzibar an important place in the Arab slave trade, the Indian Ocean equivalent of the better-known Triangular Trade. Zanzibar City was the main trading port of the East African slave trade, with about 50,000 slaves a year passing through the city. The Sultan of Zanzibar controlled a substantial portion of the East African coast, known as Zanj, which included Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, and trading routes which extended much further inland, such as to Kindu on the Congo River.
Sometimes gradually, sometimes by fits and starts, control came into the hands of the British Empire; part of the political impetus for this was the 19th century movement for the abolition of the slave trade. The relationship between Britain and the nearest relevant colonial power, Germany, was formalized by the 1890 Helgoland-Zanzibar Treaty, in which Germany pledged not to interfere with British interests in insular Zanzibar. That year, Zanzibar became a protectorate (not a colony) of Britain. From 1890 to 1913, traditional viziers were appointed to govern as puppets, switching to a system of British residents (effectively governors) from 1913 to 1963. The death of one sultan and the succession of another of whom the British did not approve led to the Anglo-Zanzibar War. On the morning of 27 August 1896, ships of the Royal Navy destroyed the Beit al Hukum Palace; a cease fire was declared 38 minutes later, and the bombardment subsequently became known as The Shortest War in History.
The islands gained independence from Britain in December 1963 as a constitutional monarchy. A month later, the bloody Zanzibar Revolution, in which thousands of Arabs and Indians were killed in a genocide and thousands more expelled, established the Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba. That April, the republic merged with the mainland former colony of Tanganyika, or more accurately, was subsumed by the much larger entity. This United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar was soon renamed as a portmanteau, the United Republic of Tanzania, of which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region.