Zanzibar History Facts and Timeline

(Zanzibar, Tanzania, TZ, East Africa)

Human habitation of Zanzibar is known to date back more than 50,000 years, thanks to the discovery of Stone Age tools on the main islands.

However, history records really begin in the 1st century AD, when Greco-Roman writings mention an island named Menuthias, which is today better known as Unguja.

Several centuries later, Zanzibar saw an influx of immigrants, who fled here from parts of Asia, escaping wars and looking for a new life.

Trading Routes Established

African, Arab, Indian and Persian traders started to visit Unguja and wealthy port cities soon appeared along the island's coast. By the Middle Ages, a Swahili culture was firmly established here and a large harbour was created around Zanzibar Town, complete with a defensive wall.

Many Persian traders began to use the island as a stop-off base en route to Africa, Asia and the Middle East. A number of Persians chose to settle in the Stone Town area and traded with towns along the nearby coastline of East Africa. Numerous houses were subsequently built, together with temples and mosques.

Portuguese Control

Vasco da Gama, a famed explorer from Portugal, arrived in Zanzibar in the latter years of the 15th centuries, bringing with him a taste of Europe. Just a few years later, the colony of Zanzibar joined the Portuguese Empire in an attempt to prevent war.

The Portuguese ruled from a distance and Unguja was rather left to its own devices for much of the following 200 years. An English sailing ship named the Edward Bonaventure docked in the late 16th century and reported that the Portuguese were only concerned with their trade depot, where local produce was exported to Mozambique.

In 1635, the Portuguese once again took an interest in Zanzibar and at this time in history, built extensive fortifications on the island of Pemba to quell the unrest for independent rule. Many historical ruins remain on Pemba, such as stone houses, while on Unguja, the principal settlement of Unguja Kuu offers little in the way of archaeological evidence from this period.

Sultanate History

At the end of the 17th century, the Sultanate of Oman took control of Zanzibar and roughly 130 years later, the Sultan moved his capital to Stone Town.

Much of the 19th century was spent ruling over Africa's Eastern Coast, an area which stretched all the way between Kipini (Kenya) and Cape Delgado (Mozambique). Ivory brought the sultans great wealth, along with successful spice plantations and a major slave trade.

The British Arrive

Zanzibar soon came under the rule of the British Empire and the slave trade was eventually abolished. The British rule continued through the remaining part of the 19th century and right up until 1963, when the islands of Zanzibar gained their independence and a government was formed, complete with monarch acting as head of state.

Just months later, history remembers the tragic events of the Zanzibar Revolution, when many thousands of Indians and Arabs were either slaughtered or forcibly expelled from the country.

Once tensions settled, the People's Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba came into being and the nation merged with neighbouring Tanganyika, on the mainland. This later became known as the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, and then simply as the United Republic of Tanzania, with Zanzibar functioning as a semi-autonomous region ever since.