Iain Walker. Islands in a Cosmopolitan Sea: A History of the Comoros. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 272 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-007130-1.
Reviewed by Stephanie Wynne-Jones (University of York)
Published on H-Africa (October, 2020)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)
Islands in a Cosmopolitan Sea is a marvelous, engaged book in which Iain Walker charts the social, religious, political, and economic context of the Comorian archipelago over the last two millennia. He does this with the assurance of a scholar deeply immersed in his subject matter, whose own engagement with the area is of long standing. The result is authoritative, comprehensive, and compelling. Walker begins with a recognition that most people have no knowledge of the archipelago; this entire book stands as a rebuke to that neglect, with the Comores emerging as a fascinating and cosmopolitan society, long a fulcrum in international networks of trade and migration.
There is no other book that offers this approach to the whole archipelago from earliest settlement onward, despite some notable works on the colonial period and on individual islands, including the author’s own study of Ngazidja. A very fine tradition of Indian Ocean history has not quite done justice to the islands, which exist at the edges of the precolonial and colonial world systems. As Walker notes, they are neither fully part of the Swahili coast of eastern Africa, nor comparable to nearby Madagascar. Islands of Cosmopolitanism demonstrates that the archipelago deserves to be discussed in its own right, and as an interconnected entity. Throughout the book, inter-island dynamics are shown to be crucial to the ways that society and economy have developed, with networks of resources and—above all—people creating a fundamentally Comorian identity that binds the islands together. In this context, the separation of Maore (Mayotte) through French colonial rule and subsequent departmentalization emerges as a “deeply symbolic and prosaically economic” fracture that shapes the archipelago’s contemporary ability to prosper (p. 232).
The history of the Comores is written here by an anthropologist and this is evident in the ways that structural themes shape the narrative. Beginning with the earliest settlers of the islands, through the maritime trading powers of 1000 CE onward, and into the period of European colonial rule, Walker points to the continuities and structural resonances between disparate historical moments. For example, Walker demonstrates the ways that a traditional matrilineal system of descent has intersected with patrilineal genealogies developed through centuries of Islam, leading to a unique set of accommodations between the two. A lovely example of this is seen in the Ngazidja and Mayotte versions of the “Shirazi” origin story found in various forms along the East African coast. This tale often refers to a set of male founding fathers for a Shirazi lineage in coastal towns. In the Comorian versions, it was instead Shirazi princesses who arrived and married locally; their descendants established a male leadership for the islands that satisfied both matrilineal and patriarchal principles (p. 39). Yet Walker cautions against searching for “pre-Islamic” and “Islamic” forms within cosmopolitan Comorian culture, preferring instead a model of long-standing tension and accommodation between local and foreign influences that has shifted and developed over time. It is the tension between these systems rather than some established syncretism that continues to shape Comorian society.
Walker also explores the āda na mila (customs and traditions) that have structured historical and contemporary interactions. Some of the best-known and prominent of these are elaborate wedding rituals, particularly on Ngazidja. These ceremonies mark the transitions between different age grades and mediate acceptance for men into public and political life. Walker shows how the current emphasis on marriage dates back to the early twentieth century and to identity negotiations that followed the abolition of slavery. Yet it seems that the provision of a community meal and the status that this conferred has long been one of the ways Comorians negotiated social capital; in this there are parallels elsewhere on the Swahili coast, both in the recent and more distant past. In the Comorian case, far from being an archaic tradition, the āda performs a crucial function today, as a lynchpin of the remittance economy and a reference point tying the broad Comorian diaspora to its homeland.
Islands of Cosmopolitanism explores these themes through eight chapters that take the reader from the origins of settlement to the present day. In doing so, it moves deftly between different forms of evidence, with an admirable summary of archaeological evidence and oral traditions for the first millennium, moving through the historically denser second millennium into the European colonial period and beyond. A Comorian eye view on this trajectory sees the coming and going of different visitors and economic players, all incorporated and exploited by Comorian society. This feature of the Comores has often been noted, as the inhabitants have been skilled at exploiting shifting international currents in the western Indian Ocean, resulting in the islands’ consistent importance as waypoints and provisioning stations for European navigators from the Portuguese onward. Ultimately, with British and then French colonialism, the Comores lost out in this system. The chapters exploring colonial exploitation of the islands are replete with neglect, underdevelopment, and downright manipulation. Walker has written on these themes before: the postcolonial history of the Comores is a devastating story in which a marginalized nation’s attempts at self-government have been hampered time and again by French intervention, internal tensions, and international indifference. It is interesting to note Walker’s point that the daily life of Comorians has been to some extent untouched by these high-level machinations of a political class. Nonetheless, they have been deeply affected by the economic marginalization and political instability they have created.
The book ends with a description of Comorian society and people. This reader enjoyed this section particularly and would have liked more detail on the social groups and practices described. This is, however, available elsewhere, whereas the strength of this volume is in the ways it draws together the history and anthropology of the Comores into a long historical narrative. It ends rather sadly, with an acknowledgement of the struggles of contemporary Comorian society and the deeply disruptive nature of the separation of Mayotte on the ability to develop as a nation. After such a journey through the history of the archipelago, with such a persuasive argument for the unique and interconnected character of the islands, the division emerges as particularly troubling. Nonetheless, this downbeat ending does not detract from the vibrancy, creativity, and endurance of Comorian culture that we see revealed in these pages. Walker has turned the more standard approach to Indian Ocean history on its head, exploring large-scale currents through a focus on a particular location often perceived as lying on the margins. The result is a model of the ways we might seek to understand large-scale histories at a human level, with all the complexity and tragedy that this brings.
. Iain Walker, Becoming the Other, Being Oneself: Constructing Identities in a Connected World (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-africa.
Stephanie Wynne-Jones. Review of Walker, Iain, Islands in a Cosmopolitan Sea: A History of the Comoros.
H-Africa, H-Net Reviews.
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