A short history of Zanzibar

Zanzibar consists of a series of small tropical islands off the coast of Tanzania in the southern waters of the Indian Ocean. There are in fact two main islands - Unguja (commonly known simply as ‘Zanzibar’) and Pemba. Now part of the United Republic of Tanzania, Zanzibar was once a separate state and has a long trading history with the Arab world. The country has lured traders, adventurers, plunderers and explorers – and now discerning tourists - to its shores for centuries.

The capital of Zanzibar is ‘the’ Stone Town, for centuries the centre of traditional coastal trade up and down the east coast of Africa. It is a bustling city with fine buildings constructed by prosperous Arabs, British administrators and Indian businessmen made rich with the expansion of trade in cloves and other spices in 19th Century.

ZAP’s work is based in Jambiani, in the south-eastern part of Zanzibar island which is particularly arid and covered in coral, making it unattractive for farming. It is home to one of the world’s poorest populations, struggling to live at subsistence level with a local economy based on fishing and seaweed farming. With its long white sandy beaches, fringed with palm trees, and the friendly and welcoming charm of its local inhabitants, it is slowly developing its tourism potential.

Zanzibar history begins when the island became a base for Arab traders voyaging between Arabia, India, and Africa and by the 15th Century Zanzibar was its own Sultanate. The Portuguese Empire was the first European power to gain control of Zanzibar and kept it for nearly 200 years until the country fell under the control of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698. The Omanis developed a thriving economy of cash crops and trade in ivory and slaves. By the mid 19th Century, Zanzibar was the main trading port of the East African Slave trade (a reported 25,000 slaves passed through Zanzibar each year) as well as the world’s leading clove exporter. Over time, other spices such as cinnamon, ginger, pepper and cardamom were introduced.

Gradually, 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 slave trade. In 1890 Zanzibar became a protectorate of Britain and by 1913 a system of British residents governed until 1963 when the island gained independence from Britain as a constitutional monarchy. However, just a month later, the bloody Zanzibar Revolution in which several thousand Arabs and Indians were killed, resulted in the emergence of the Republic of Zanzibar. That April the Republic merged with mainland Tanzania and became the United Republic of Tanzania, of which Zanzibar remains a semi autonomous region.

Only in the late 1980s was Zanzibar opened as a free market and it then started taking advantage of the tourism potential. Today, Zanzibar is led by Amani Karume. The ruling party is CCM and democratic elections are held to elect the president and ruling party. The people of Zanzibar are predominantly Muslim and Swahili is the native language.


ZANZIBAR ACTION PROJECT is a Registered Charity in the UK No. 1108030