A Short History of Zanzibar

The Zanzibar archipelago consists of the islands of Unguja (known as Zanzibar) and Pemba, along with a number of small islets. The archipelago is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania and is separated from the mainland by a channel, which is approximately 36 kilometres wide at its narrowest point.

The name Zanzibar refers to the archipelago, the island of Unguja and also the urban centre. The origin of the name is thought to have Persian or Arabic origin. In Persian the name is believed to have derived from the words ‘Zangh Bar’, meaning ‘the Negro Coast’. In Arabic the name is thought to come from the words ‘Zayn Z’al Barr’, meaning ‘Fair Is This Land’.

Zanzibar has a very rich history and was once one of the most important areas in East Africa. Following Vasco de Gama’s visit in 1499, Zanzibar was ruled by the Portuguese and remained this way for almost two centuries.

In 1698 Zanzibar became part of the overseas holdings of Oman and was ruled by the Sultan of Oman. It became the main slave market of the east African Coast, ivory trades thrived and there was an expanding plantation economy centred on cloves. In 1840 then Sultan of Muscat and Oman, Sayyid Said bin Sultan, moved his main place of residence from Muscat to Stone Town in Zanzibar. He encouraged the development of the plantations (including cloves, indigo and sugar) using slave labour. He established close relations with Britain and opened diplomatic relations with the US and France as well as building a great trading empire and establishing naval supremacy over the Persians in the Gulf.

Following the death of Sayyid Said bin Sultan in 1856, his six sons fought over the succession. For five years territories and trade were lost as two brothers competed for power. Eventually, Lord Canning, the British Viceroy of India, negotiated a compromise splitting the domains between the sons. Sayyid Thuwaini   was recognised as Sultan of Muscat and Oman, while Sayyid Majid became Sultan of Zanzibar and its dependencies.

In 1870 Sayyid Majid died and was succeeded by his brother, Sayyid Barghash. By this time the British were increasingly involved in the prosperous island. They had appointed a consul, John Kirk, to Zanzibar with the primary task of ending the notorious slave trade. In 1873 Barghash signed a treaty to end the slave trade. The year the treaty was signed was particularly significant as it was also the year in which great anti-slavery explorer, David Livingstone died in the African interior. His embalmed corpse was transported to Zanzibar to be delivered to Kirk, not only as the consul but also as one of Livingstone’s intimate friends.

By 1885 Zanzibar had a thriving export trade in ivory and rubber, brought from the interior of the continent, where the Sultan wields loose authority through Tabora and on to Ujiji. In August, however, news arrived that the Germans were claiming a protectorate in this inland region. Five German warships arrived in the lagoon of Zanzibar and trained their guns on the Sultan’s palace, demanding that Barghash cede to the German emperor his mainland territories.

Under pressure from Britain (wishing to find a compromise and to avoid offending Germany) the consul persuaded Barghash to sign an agreement to cede the majority of his mainland territory with the details still to be decided. A joint Anglo-Germany boundary commission worked to redistribute the Sultan’s inland territories, leaving Barghash with a ten nautical-mile wide strip along the coast, stretching from Cape Delgado (now in Mozambique) to Kipini (now in Kenya), including Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, all offshore islands and several towns in what is now Somalia. Behind that a line was drawn from Mount Kilimanjaro and to Lake Victoria. Above the line was to be the British sphere of influence and below the line was to be the German sphere of influence. To this day this line remains the border between Tanzania and Kenya.

CRUISE:  Silversea‘s Silver Cloud from Mombasa to Cape Town.


  • http://www.zanzinet.org/zanzibar/visiwa.html
  • http://www.zanzinet.org/zanzibar/people/people.html
  • http://www.royalark.net/Oman/oman.htm
  • http://realhistoryww.com/world_history/ancient/Misc/True_Negros/Assorted/Oman_Zanzibar_Sultanate.htm
  • http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ad52

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A Short History of Zanzibar

by Uncover Travel time to read: 3 min
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