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.
Article published in The Funambulist 33 (January-February 2021) Spaces of Labor. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
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.