Unlike mainland Tanzania, Zanzibar has no tribal hierarchy. Rather it is a fusion of the different ethnic groups who have settled here over the ages. Indeed, while Europe was still bogged down in the Dark Ages, Zanzibar was already part of a lively oriental mercantile tradition. The first Muslim influence was probably established around AD 700, as Arab colonists – mainly Omanis – arrived, and began to integrate with the original Bantu population, to lay the foundations of the Swahili people.
In 1498 the Portuguese took control of the island, keeping this control for nearly 200 years, until the Omani Arabs took it back again. Under the Sultan of Oman, Zanzibar developed as a centre of the Spice Trade, together with a flourishing trade in ivory. It also became the main trading port for the East African Slave Trade, with around 50,000 slaves being shipped through each year.
Then, as a political impetus for the abolition of slavery developed, Zanzibar ended up as a British Protectorate, in 1890. The succession of a Sultan of whom the British disapproved then led to the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 – known as ‘The Shortest War in History’ – when the Royal Palace was destroyed in a naval bombardment lasting just 38 minutes, before the Sultan capitulated.
Independence from Britain was gained in 1963, followed almost immediately by a bloody revolution in which the Sultan was overthrown, following which the Republic of Zanzibar (and Pemba) was established. Shortly afterwards the new republic became subsumed by the mainland former colony of Tanganyika, the two together becoming modern-day Tanzania.
Hopefully too many sensibilities won't be offended if we conclude this section by telling you how Zanzibar got its name: it comes from a combination of two Arabic words, 'Zinj', meaning black, and 'barr', being the Arabic word for land, the result meaning 'Land of the Blacks'.
‘Zanzibar’ is actually a series of many islands, the main ones being Unguja and Pemba. The more populated of the two main islands, Unguja, is more usually known as Zanzibar Island itself and is home to the historic city of Stone Town (also known as Zanzibar Town or Zanzibar City).
The island lies in the Indian Ocean about 40 km east of the Tanzanian mainland. The slightly hilly island itself is about 85 km long and is a maximum of around 20 – 30 km wide. Most of the population lives in the more fertile regions of the north and west. The eastern part of the island is arid and covered in coral rag (rock made of coral) making it unattractive for farming, but the beaches and the reefs on the eastern coasts make these ideal for fishing villages, tourist hotels, and resorts.
Pemba, on the other hand, which is located about 50 km north of the main island, is far less populated. Pemba is covered in steep hills full of palms, clove and rubber trees, rice paddies and the Ngezi Forest in the north. There are many pure, beautiful beaches in and around the numerous inlets and coves. Tourism is not as developed on Pemba as it is on the main island, but an increasing number of resorts are being built, which may, or may not, be regarded as desirable progress!
Zanzibar is a few degrees south of the equator and enjoys a tropical climate that is largely dominated by the Indian Ocean monsoons. The kasikazi winds are from the north and occur in the winter months bringing the short rains. The long rains, known as mwaka, arrive in March and last until late May or June.
Zanzibar's Eastern Coast is perhaps its finest such, still largely undeveloped and pristine. Now Zanzibar's government is proposing the development of several big hotels along these shores. Their idea is to transform Zanzibar from a high-value, low-volume, destination to one focusing on (cheap) mass tourism. You only need to look at the horrendous holiday resorts to be found along Kenya's Mombasa coast (and, to a lesser extent, on Mauritius) to see how this going to transform tourism here.
We hope that this will never come about, but, rest assured, there will always be delightful spots along Zanzibar's coast that will remain unspoilt (and cheap) - and it is our job to remain aware of these, and to take you there.
For many people, Zanzibar is most famous of all for being the birthplace of Freddie Mercury, of the phenomenally successful pop group, Queen. We can't really ignore this fact, but couldn't see quite where to include mention of it. So it ended up here!
Born Farok Bulsara on September 5, 1946 of a Parsee family, Freddie Mercury succeeded in becoming one of, if not the, most famous Asian pop star in the UK and America. At the age of seven Freddie was sent to India to boarding school and from there he went to London, attended University, and started his rock 'n' roll career as the lead singer of the pop group, Queen. In 1964 the Bulsaras moved to the UK to avoid the pending revolution in Zanzibar.
A trace of Freddie's Zanzibari roots is said to be heard in one of the most famous of Queen's songs, "Bohemian Rhapsody" which contains the Arabic word "Bismallah". This word had special political significance in Zanzibar for a brief period for a group who used it to express discontent. The word itself is used all the time at the commencement of anything. However in actual fact Queen's use of 'Bismallah' was most likely unrelated to the political usage in Zanzibar which itself was accidental.
Freddie Mercury’s fans came from all genders, age groups, and nationalities. He kept in touch with his family including weekly visits to his parents. On November 24, 1991, Freddie Mercury died in London of bronchial pneumonia brought on by AIDS.