The Funambulist often presents the anti-colonial struggles of what France shamelessly designates as “overseas departments.” On the contrary of what this designation suggests, each situation is significantly different from others. In the case of Mayotte, it is one of the four islands of the Comorian archipelago that has remained under French colonial occupation as Comorian French activist Dawud Bumaye explains here.
The Comoros are an archipelago located in the Indian Ocean. It is formed by four islands: Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Ndzouani), Mayotte (Maore), and Mohéli (Mwali). Since independence in 1975, France has illegally remained on the island of Mayotte. Although initially an “Overseas Territory,” Mayotte became an “Overseas Department“ in 2008 along with Reunion, Guiana, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. The four islands of the archipelago form what is officially called the Union of the Comoros, but the Union only rules over three of the four islands; Mayotte continues to be governed by the French Republic.
To understand the pernicious link between the Comoros and France, we have to look back to the 19th century. During that time, the Comoros were governed by numerous sultans who ruled over various regions of the islands. Within the archipelago, primacy was constantly disputed among these sultans. In 1841, Malagasy Sultan Andriantsoly (on Mayotte) refused annexation by the Comorian sultans. Instead, he placed Mayotte under French protectorate. In 1886, just a few years later, Sultan Saïd Ali Bin Saïd Omar (on Grande-Comore) feared being overthrown by rival Sultan Hachim Bin Ahmed (Badjini region of Grande-Comore) so he made a pact with French botanist Léon Humblot to establish a Grande-Comore as a protectorate.
In 1946, after nearly a century of protectorate rule, France emerged from the Second World War and decided to bear down on colonization of the Comoros. Administratively, the Comoros became a French Overseas Territory. Mayotte’s Dzaoudzi became not only the administrative but also the economic capital. But in 1958, France decided to move the Comoros capital to Moroni on Grande-Comore. This choice exacerbated rivalries between the two islands. Quite a few Mahorais (people of Mayotte) lost their jobs to Grande-Comorians. Inspired by the waves of African countries who gained their independence from France, the Comoros sought out to see their colonizers leave and to become masters of their own fate.
Unlike the majority of countries on the African continent (with the notable exception of the Portuguese colonies) that gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, the Comoros did not become independent until 1975. While the independence referendum proclaimed that nearly 90% of Comorians wanted independence, France continued to hold onto its colonial rule over Mayotte. France used the pretext that 60% of Mahorais would have voted in favor of remaining ties with France. As a result, France counted referendum votes by island rather than treating the ensemble of islands as a single country. Despite the United Nations’ condemnations, France did not release Mayotte from colonial rule.
In 1995, France took it even further, when Minister of the Interior Édouard Balladur imposed the requirement of a visa to travel between Mayotte and the rest of the Comoros. The many Comorians who depended on travel to Mayotte for various reasons, including healthcare and jobs, became criminalized for not having a visa. This regulation made it so Comorians had to apply for an entry visa to move across their own country. And as if that weren’t already enough, France grants very few of these visas. Out of necessity to access better healthcare and higher standards of living, many Comorians have had to make risky Indian Ocean crossings in makeshift boats known as kwasa. Since 1995, more than 10,000 Comorians have perished in the arm of the Mozambique Strait that separates Mayotte from the rest of the Comoros.
France’s cruelty and colonial horror does not end there. In its aggressive neo-colonial political logic, rather than return the island to Comorian national sovereignty, France decided to make Mayotte an overseas department. In 2008, the island of Mayotte became the 101st French department and one of the poorest alongside Guyana, a South American territory also occupied by France. Xenophobia between Comorians crystallized as France stirred rivalries by accusing Comorians of stealing work from the Mahorais. When Comorians are not being portrayed as taking jobs, they are depicted as lazy and benefiting off of state aid. This hate-based propaganda has proven effective: violent acts against Comorians are carried by the Mahorais with complicity of the police who refuse to intervene.
Despite this climate of violence, the Union of the Comoros and the Comorians are at the forefront of the long struggle to return Mayotte to the Union. Indeed, Comorian resistance against colonial power is nothing new.
136 years of resistance ///
Since 1886, the Comoros was ruled by France under a protectorate regime through the presence of Residents, or representatives. Several French Residents (and also Malagasy or Creoles from the Antilles and Reunion, island territories also occupied by France) settled on islands across the archipelago rapidly claiming ownership over Comorian land.
In 1883, French naturalist Léon Humblot was sent by the National Museum of Natural History to settle on Grande-Comore. A treaty negotiated with Sultan Said Ali bestowed him the power to plunder the island. Uprisings began in Grande-Comore. The Comorians rejected the land-grabbing foreigner. This was particularly significant as, at this time, the Comoros were mainly agricultural and land was central to the Comorian livelihoods.
Sultan Saïd Hachim, who ruled over the southern region of Grande-Comore called Badjini, led a rebellion across the island. Greedy to maintain power against his rival, Saïd Ali signed over what would be the beginning of the end for the Comorians: he asked for the protection of France to defeat Sultan Saïd Hachim. Duped by the French, Sultan Saïd Ali failed to protect his people. The rebels were massacred, a French protectorate was established in 1886, and Léon Humblot replaced Sultan Saïd Ali as ruler of the island.
First, Humblot established a colonial company in his name. Then, he imported slaves from Mozambique, the Makois, on his ship. The enslaved Makois were forced to work on the Humblot company’s railroad yard. After work on the construction site, the enslaved Makois had to cultivate Humblot’s land and feed his animals. The slavery practiced by Léon Humblot had already been integrated into the customs of the Comorian sultans. Indeed, the Comoros, like the Zanzibar archipelago, were a slavery hub in which Arabs captured Africans from East Africa as property of the slave trade. The Comorian people are therefore the result of the eastern slave trade that lasted until 1904 in Grande-Comore.
Following the abolition of slavery the French Residents set up a similar system under a new name: indentured labor. The residents enlisted the local workforce as “volunteers.” The workers cultivated the plantations and agricultural land under a five-year employment contract. These workers, former slaves, were made to work for the residents by the force of violence. In most cases, they were captured — as slaves are — drugged, threatened, or deceived to accept an underpaid labor contract, if they even had access to their salary at all. Tax collection in Grande-Comore has always posed a problem for Comorians. In fact, they categorically refuse to pay them. In 1905, the entire northern part of the Grande-Comorian island rose up against the French Residents. Not only had the French administrators appropriated their land, but they were now demanding a tax on that very same land even as it was being cultivated by the Comorians to France’s benefit. On December 13, the French residents locked up nearly a hundred Comorians, but that did not affect the large majority who still refused to comply. In 1914, the revolt intensified, especially in Iconi where the insurgents were deported to Kanaky (New Caledonia) in order to squash the rebellion. But the insurrections did not stop. The opposite occurred.
July 1915 marks the most important Comorian uprising against colonial power. Nearly 1,200 Comorians were involved in the struggle. At war in Europe, France mobilized its colonies: a hundred Comorians were forced into the French army under the battalion of Malagasy riflemen. In addition to the mobilization of human resources, France also relied upon the Comoros for food and economic resources. As a result, taxes were increased. But when Resident Teyssandier came to collect taxes in the village of Djomani, he was violently chased away by the insurgents. They seized weapons of the administrator’s militia and took the town under seige. This struggle brought together nearly 1,200 Comorians and resulted in the suspension of the tax: a major victory.
In August 1915, the uprisings resumed in the Washili region of Grande-Comore. The struggle had two aims: to refuse to pay the high taxes and to drive out Malagasy Resident Ratolojanahary. The rebels managed to drive out the Resident. Nearly 250 rebels seized the village of Sidjou where Resident Teyssandier was dispatched to the scene and was greeted by stone throwing. Both the Resident and his militiamen were wounded. The militiamen responded by opening fire. This resulted in several wounded and two dead on the rebellion’s side. This colonial retaliation was painful and the month of September resulted in the insurgents’ arrest and deportation.
In 1940 the revolts resurfaced, this time on the island of Anjouan against Vichy government representatives. In the midst of the Second World War, residents wanted to requisition labor for farms. Those being forced to work went on strike and were soon joined by plantation laborers. The resident’s militias violently repressed peaceful strikers who were then left no choice but to take up arms.
In the French collective imagination, colonial subjects would have remained passive throughout colonization up until the moment independence was bestowed as a “gift” from the colonists. The lack of transmission of the historical accounts from the perspective of the colonized contributes greatly to this incomprehensive understanding of history. A large number of insurgents were deported to distant lands (also colonized places) and unable to ever return. Records of their testimonies are often non-existent. Violence, humiliation, and pain also prevented many of the survivors of these episodes of resistance from speaking out. How do you explain to your son that you are Makois, captured from the continent to be sold and enslaved? How do you explain to your daughter that you were raped in colonial jails when you were fighting for her freedom?
From the protectorate to colonization, the Comorians never stopped fighting for freedom and independence against the abuses and violence of the colonialists. Through the development of a number of strategies, such as the instrumentalization of the question of taxation and violence, the Comorians have been persistent in their commitment to drive out settlers on their land.
Today, Comorians continue the struggle. Even though Mayotte is occupied by France, Comorians continue to chant “Mayotte is Comorian and will remain so forever.” A monumental sign with this phrase is also plastered on a wall at the port of Moroni. Despite the filthy methods used by the colonizers to “divide and rule,” the Comorian people will always resist colonial domination and continue the fight to the end for reunification of the country. ■
Dawud Bumaye is an Afro-feminist activist. Her research focuses on articulating social relationships in terms of race, class, gender, and sexualities. Comitted to the struggle for Black and diaspora lives, as well as the anti-racist, decolonial, feminist, and queer of color fight, she is a member of the Coordination Action Autonome Noire (CAAN) in France. She also has been a publisher in the recent past. Read more on her contributor page.