The archipelago’s history stretches back at least to the start of the first millennium, when Bantu-speaking peoples from the mainland first travelled across the Zanzibar and Pemba channels. The islands were likely to have been visited at an even earlier date by traders and sailors from Arabia. From around the 8th century Shirazi traders from Persia also began to make their way to East Africa, where they established settlements on Pemba and probably also at Zanzibar’s Unguja Ukuu.
Between the 12th and 15th centuries the archipelago came into its own, as trade links with Arabia and the Persian Gulf blossomed. Zanzibar became a powerful city-state, supplying slaves, gold, ivory and wood to places as distant as India and Asia, while importing spices, glassware and textiles. Along with the trade from the east came Islam and the Arabic architecture that still characterises the archipelago today.
The arrival of the Portuguese in the early 16th century temporarily interrupted this golden age, as Zanzibar and then Pemba fell under Portuguese control. Yet Portuguese dominance didn’t last long. It was challenged first by the British and then by Omani Arabs. By the early 19th century Oman had gained the upper hand on Zanzibar, and trade on the island again flourished, centred on slaves, ivory and cloves. Caravans set out for the interior, and trade reached such a point that in the 1840s the Sultan of Oman relocated his court here from the Persian Gulf.
From the mid-19th century, with increasing European interest in East Africa and the end of the slave trade, Omani rule over Zanzibar began to weaken, and in 1862 the sultanate was formally partitioned. Zanzibar became independent from Oman, with Omani sultans ruling under a British protectorate. This arrangement lasted until Zanzibari independence on 10 December 1963. In January 1964 the sultans were overthrown in a bloody revolution instigated by the ASP, which then assumed power. On 12 April 1964 Abeid Karume, president of the ASP, signed a declaration of unity with Tanganyika (mainland Tanzania) and the union, fragile from the outset, became known as the United Republic of Tanzania.
Karume was assassinated in 1972, and Aboud Jumbe assumed the presidency of Zanzibar until resigning in 1984. A succession of leaders followed, culminating in 2000 with the controversial election of Aman Abeid Karume, son of the first president.
Today the archipelago’s two major parties are CCM and the opposition CUF, which has its stronghold on Pemba. Tensions between the two peaked in the disputed 1995 national elections, and have been simmering ever since. While efforts at dialogue between the CCM and CUF have restored a fragile calm, this has been broken several times, and little progress has been made at resolving the underlying issues.