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The archipelago of Zanzibar, located off the East African coast, was often called the "Spice Islands." Its cloves and other spices were world-famous. This small chain of islands, besides contributing to everyone's food being a bit more flavorful was also an important trading post. Learn about Zanzibar and its history here.

History of Zanzibar

Today, Zanzibar is most well known as a tourist destination with beautiful beaches, although it still produces many spices. However, it has a long and interesting history.

Where is Zanzibar in Africa? - Zanzibar, Tanzania

Zanzibar is an archipelago, or group of islands, that range from 25-50 kilometers off the East African coast. It is part of Tanzania today.

Many small islands are part of the chain. The two main ones, Pemba and Ungula, are often called Zanzibar. The historic city center of Stone Town is a World Heritage Site for its history.

Fun Fact!

Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, was born in Stone Town in Zanzibar.

Zanzibar Tanzania Map StudySmarterFig. 1 - Map showing the location of Zanzibar.

Meaning of Zanzibar

The name Zanzibar was derived from a Persian word that means "black coast." Persian traders called it this when they sailed there in the Middle Ages, and later Arabic traders continued to use the name, and it stuck.

According to the 16th-century chronicler Leo Africanus, Arab and Persian traders used this name to refer to the entire Coastal East Africa, and when the Sultanate of Zanzibar was established, the Arab elite chose the name for its kingdom.

Early History of Zanzibar

Zanzibar was settled by the Bantu people that migrated to East Africa by the 6th century and possibly before. From the 8th to 10th centuries, there is evidence of a drastic growth in trade between the islands and the mainland.

Merchants in Zanzibar were also responsible for providing goods to Persian and Arabic traders coming from Asia and selling cloth and other imported goods to traders from the African interior.

Portuguese Colonization

In 1498, Vasco da Gama visited Zanzibar during his voyage around the southern tip of Africa to India. A few years later, Captain Ruy Lourenço Ravasco Marques, landed on the island. He received tribute from the sultan of Zanzibar in exchange for peace and declared the island formally part of the Portuguese Empire.

The Portuguese took a mostly hands-off approach to rule Zanzibar in this period. A British ship that visited in 1591 found no fort or garrison on the island.

The Portuguese did set up a small trading post, but the sultan continued to rule the island more or less autonomously. However, in 1635, the Portuguese did establish a fort on Pemba Island after a rebellion in Mombasa, part of present-day Kenya north of Zanzibar.

Zanzibar Africa Historic Buildings StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Harem and Harbour Tower during the British protectorate period.

Sultans of Zanzibar

In Zanzibar, as well as the surrounding areas of the East African coast, the Portuguese mostly left local elites to rule autonomously. These local rulers were called sultans. Historians are unsure of the origin of the original sultans of Zanzibar, but they believe them to have originated as Swahili merchant elites.

After the Sultan of Mombasa killed Portuguese residents in 1631, the Portuguese introduced more direct rule and appointed European-born governors. The local merchants resented this and plotted to remove the Portuguese.

In 1698, the Sultan of Oman extended his control over Zanzibar at the invitation of local traders, expelling the Portuguese in the process.

In 1832, or 1840 depending on the source, Said bin Sultan, actually even moved his capital to Stone Town in Zanzibar. Arabs soon dominated the island's political and economic elite. However, the conflict between the sultan's sons ensued after his death in 1856.

The kingdom was ultimately divided between them, with the Sultanate of Zanzibar becoming separate and independent of the Sultanate of Oman. Majid bin Said became the first Sultan of Zanzibar.

Sultans of Zanzibar Majid bin Said StudySmarterFig. 3 - Majid bin Said.

Trade and Spices

After Said bin Sultan's move to Zanzibar, he encouraged the establishment of clove plantations using slave labor. Now, in addition to the island's historic status as a crucial link in the trade between Africa and Asia, it also became well-known for its spices. Ivory was another especially important good for the trade that passed through Zanzibar.

Finally, the island was home to one of the largest slave markets in the world, and Arab traders bought slaves here to take with them to Southwest Asia. Traders from the Indian subcontinent eventually came to dominate much of Zanzibar's trade.

Sultan Barghash bin Said developed the island's infrastructure and ended the slave trade, although slavery was not fully abolished until later. By the 1880s, the island's wealth in trade had allowed the sultans of Zanzibar to assert control over much of the East African Swahili coast.

History of Zanzibar Slave Market StudySmarterFig. 4 - Depiction of the slave market in Zanzibar in 1860.

Growth of British and German Influence

With the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, Germany and Britain eyed the East African coast for themselves. The German East Africa Company began operating in the area in 1885 and the Imperial British East African Company soon followed suit.

Scramble for Africa

While European trade and slave colonies had been established on the African coasts earlier, there had been little penetration or formal settlement of the interior of Africa before the late 1800s. Only about 10% of Africa was under formal European control in 1870.

The next few decades saw the drastic expansion of European control, though. This period was known as the Scramble for Africa, with the main European powers, especially Britain, France, and Germany, racing to take control of different areas and carving the continent up between them. The 1884-5 Berlin Conference established rules that kept them from going to war with one another, however, colonial tensions did play a role in the road to World War One, a few decades later.

By the time of the start of World War One in 1914, almost 90% of Africa was under European control. Only Liberia and Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) remained independent.

In 1886, the British and Germans met secretly and divided the area into two spheres of influence, with the British set to acquire the area of modern-day Kenya and Germany modern-day mainland Tanzania. By 1888, they had essentially taken control over the mainland territories of Zanzibar.

In 1890, the British and Germans signed a treaty that gave Britain colonial control over Zanzibar, making it a formal British protectorate.

Zanzibar Sultanate War

In 1896, a dispute arose between the British and Zanzibar over the succession of a new sultan. The British favored the succession of Hamoud bin Muhammed, but Khalid bin Barghash seized the throne and assembled a small army to fight the British.

The British attacked the palace, forcing Barghash to flee into exile. Muhammed then became the sultan. Informal British rule with Zanzibar as a protectorate continued until 1963.

Fun Fact

The Zanzibar Sultanate War, also called the Anglo-Zanzibar War, is the shortest recorded war in history, lasting just 38 minutes.

Zanzibar Sultanate War Damaged Palace StudySmarterFig. 5 - Damaged palace after the British attack.

Post-British Rule

With the movement for global decolonization after World War Two, the British formally ended the protectorate status of Zanzibar in 1963. With the protectorate ended, Zanzibar was now an independent monarchy. However, just a month later, the Zanzibar Revolution overthrew the sultan and established a socialist People's Republic of Zanzibar.

This too was short-lived, and, in April 1864, a union between Tanganyika established the Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. This nation changed its name to Tanzania six months later.

Did You Know?

Tanzania was chosen as the name based on combining the first three letters of Tanganyika (tan-) and Zanzibar (-zan-) and adding -ia.

Zanzibar - Key takeaways

  • Zanzibar is a chain of islands off the east coast of Africa.
  • It was an important link for trade between Africa and Asia, and its name came from the Persian and Arab traders that visited. Ivory and spices grown on the island were especially important trade goods.
  • In 1503, the Portuguese established control over the islands, but they were thrown out and replaced by the Sultan of Oman in 1698.
  • Zanzibar was split into a separate sultanate in 1856.
  • The British established a protectorate over the islands in 1890, and the island eventually unified with Tanzania after British rule ended in 1963.

Frequently Asked Questions about Zanzibar

Zanzibar was famous for its spices, especially cloves, grown on plantations and traded around the world.

The Portuguese claimed Zanzibar in 1503, then the Sultan of Oman took control in 1698, and finally, the British took control in 1890.

Majid bin Said established the Zanzibar Sultanate, splitting it off from the Oman Sultanate.

The British wanted Zanzibar for its location near its colonial holdings in modern-day Kenya and for its trade and spice production.

Slaves sold in the slave markets in Zanzibar usually went to Arab countries in Asia or the Indian subcontinent.

Final Zanzibar Quiz

Zanzibar Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


The islands of Zanzibar were often called the ______________ due to their most famous product.

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Spice Islands

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Zanzibar is located off the coast of and is part of what country?

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The name Zanzibar originated from traders from ________ calling this area of Africa a word which meant _________.

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Persia; "black coast"

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Zanzibar became important for trade between the East African coast and what other area(s)?

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Southwest Asia and the Indian subcontinent

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True or False: The Portuguese had a very direct form of control over Zanzibar.

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After 1698, the sultan of what place acquired control over Zanzibar?

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Why was the Sultanate of Zanzibar split from the Sultanate of Oman?

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A dispute over succession between the sons of the sultan.

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Which of the following was not an important good for the trading on Zanzibar?

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________ and ________ established colonial control over the East African coast in the 1880s, with Zanzibar becoming a protectorate of ________.

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Britain; Germany; Britain 

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When did the British protectorate over Zanzibar end?

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