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Vasco Da Gama's expedition from Portugal was the beginning of the establishment of Portuguese rule over East Africa and Zanzibar. The Portuguese defeated local rulers and took control of almost all the coast of East Africa. They first conquered Oman followed by the conquest of other coastal settlements one by one. Their rule provoked strong resistance and discontent among the natives and Omanis finally succeeded in evicting the Portuguese out of their land. It is claimed that, the local rulers in East Africa sought Omani's assistance in their fight against the Portuguese and it paid off towards the end of the 17th century.


In 1730 the Omanis annexed Zanzibar and many coastal towns to their empire that was ruled from Muscat. In 1832 the Omani sultan Sayyid Said (1787-1856) established his residence on Zanzibar, where he promoted the production of cloves and palm oil and carried on an active slave trade with the interior. In 1840 he made the city his capital. His domain, which included parts of the mainland, was a commercial rather than a territorial empire. Although Sayyid Said had full control of Zanzibar island as early as 1822, Pemba was to a great extent ruled by the Mazruis of Mombasa. He later on controlled the Mazruis and assumed full control of Zanzibar and Pemba islands.

            At his death in 1856, a succession dispute erupted between his surviving sons ended by the arbitration of the Earl Canning, Viceroy of India. Known as the “Canning Award”, the 1861 settlement established Zanzibar as a separate sultanate under Majid, Said's former Governor of the East African dominions. Included in the settlement was an agreement that the Sultan of Zanzibar would pay an annual subsidy to the Sultan of Oman, as compensation for loss of revenues from East Africa.


The Sultanate of Zanzibar (the Land of the Zenj) consisted of the islands of Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia, and Lamu, off the East African Coast. These territories formed part of the Omani maritime empire from the close of the seventeenth century. For a time, Zanzibar served as the capital under Sayyid Said bin Sultan the Great. At his death in 1856, a succession dispute erupted between his surviving sons, ended by the arbitration of the Earl Canning, Viceroy of India. Known as the “Canning Award”, the 1861 settlement established Zanzibar as a separate sultanate under Majid, Said's former Governor of the East African dominions. Included in the settlement, an agreement that the Sultan of Zanzibar would pay an annual subsidy to the Sultan of Oman, as compensation for loss of revenues from East Africa.


In 1886, Britain and Germany attempted to settle some aspects of their colonial rivalry by the conclusion of the, so-called, Anglo-German Agreement. Germany acquired recognition of its control over the Tanganyika territory on the mainland. In return, the Imperial British East Africa Company acquired the coastal territories lying north of the Umbu River. The Sultan learned of the secret agreement only after its conclusion, but was powerless to do anything about it. The island territories of the sultanate became a British Protectorate in 1890, and British control over the remaining coastal territories were extended to the mouth of the river Juba. On the 10th of December 1963, Zanzibar became fully independent, a member of the Commonwealth and of the United Nations. A month later, January 12, 1964, its conservative government was overthrown in a bloody revolution led by John Okello and replaced by a leftist regime under Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume (1905-72). Immediately after the revolution, Karume signed a pact with Nyerere uniting Zanzibar and Tanganyika to form The United Republic of Tanzania. [1]]





The heraldry of Zanzibar is divided between a European styled heraldry from the times of the Portuguese domination of the island, and an Islamic styled heraldry from the time of the Omani domination and the period of sovereignty.

The European styled heraldry is characterized by a symbol of the realm and the royal coat of arms. These are paralleled in Islamic heraldry by the flag and the tughra or royal cypher, in which the name and titles of the ruler are written in arabic characters. During the British protectorate a kind of mixture of Islamic and western heraldry is introduced.

The sources about the heraldry of Zanzibar are not very abundand, so here I can give but an outline of the symbols used on the Island, based on what I could gather from different sources, including the internet. This outline may give, I hope, an impetus for further study.





In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the Zanzibar was ruled as a part of the Portuguese Vice-kingdom of India from its capital Goa. This Indian vice-kingdom was a part of the kingdom of Portugal and so, the royal coat of arms of Zanzibar was the coat of arms of the Portuguese kings. This consisted of the well known socalled quinas, consisting of a cross of  five blue escutcheons, each charged with five white besants in saltire, on a white field and surrounded by a red bordure charged with seven golden castles.


Following the European tradition, each vice-roy had his own coat of arms.  As there have been about seventy-seven governors and vice-kings of Portuguese India in the period of 1500 until 1698 we can count with about as many different vice-royal coats of arms in that period.

As for the coat of arms of the Empire of Portugal, this seems tot have been parted per pale Gules and Argent, an armillary sphere Or, the earth Azure. (Illustration,) [2]]

In this coat of arms the armillary sphere is the symbol of the empire. It was developed from the personal badge of Dom Manuel I (1495-1521). (See also: Portugal, Goa)

A flag for the Portuguese possessions on the East-African coast around Mombasa (Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar and Kilwa)  is documented by Diogo Homem on his map of  the Indian Ocean, 1555. It consists of the quinas and the cross of the Order of Christ. (ill.) This flag seems to have been flown also from the mizzen of  15th  and 16th  century Portuguese caravels sailing around Cape of Good Hope to India



After the conquest of Zanzibar by the Omani’s in 1730, the flag of the Omani Ya’rubi dynasty was flown over the island. This flag is documented by a Dutch flag chart of about the middle of the 18th century called Nieuwe Tafel van alle de Zee-varende VLAGGE des Werelds, op nieuws van alle voorgaande Fouten gesuyverd. under the name of Pav: de Sangrian. It was a flag of 13 stripes red-white-green-yellow-red-green-yellow-red-green-yellow-re-white and green, the yellow stripes charged with green crescents 3,2,3, like this:



After the extinction of the Ya'rubi dynasty in 1744, the new Al-Busaid dynasty, to which all later Omani sultans belonged, flew their own flag which was red  without any other symbol.





In 1876 it was suggested by A. Maximilian Gritzner that the 18th century flag of the Ya’rubi dynasty was re-adopted for independent Zanzibar but, as usual, he does not give his source. [3]]


H.H. al-Haj Sultan Sayyid Said bin Sultan, Sultan of Muscat and Oman

1806 - 1856


Tughra of Sultan Sayyid Said bin Sultan

dated ١٢٣٦ = 1816 AD


H.H. Sultan Sayyid Majid bin Sa'id

1856 - 1870


Tughra of Sultan Sayyid Majid bin Sa’id

dated ١٢٨٣ = 1863 AD



The Order of the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar (Wisam al-Kawkab al-Durri al-Zanzibari): founded by Sultan Sayyid Majid bin Said in 1865, modified and extended by Sultan Sayyid Barghash bin Said on 22nd December 1875, and modified again by Sultan Sayyid Khalifa II bin Harub on 5th August 1918. In base of the Tughra of a new type, the date of independence: ١٢٨١ = 1861 AD



1890 - 1963



It is said, that not long after the establishment of the British protectorate in 1890, a flag of 12 stripes appeared that, however, was soon abandoned for the all red flag of the Al-Bahaid dynasty. [4]]


H.H. Sultan Sayyid Hamad bin Thuwaini

1893 - 1896




Achievement of Sultan Sayyid Hamad bin Thuwaini.

Shield with tughra, supported by two lions and two national flags etc. Dated ١٣١٤ = 1894 AD



Badge of the British Resident in Zanzibar,

placed in the middle of the Union Jack.


H.H. Sultan Sayyid 'Ali II bin Hamud  

1902 - 1911


Copyright© V&A Image Library, Kensington

Sultan Sayyid 'Ali II bin Hamud.

On the back of his throne his “smaller achievement”.


Tughra of  Sultan Sayyid 'Ali II bin Hamud.

On pieces of 1, 10 and 20 cents, 1908.





Flag of the independent sultanate of Zanzibar adopted 10.12.1963.

The cloves are for the main trade crop of the sultanate.






Flag of the Republic of Zanzibar adopted 12.01 1964

Flag of the Republic of Zanzibar adopted 29.01 1964, abandoned 30.06.1964


Today Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania. It has its own president.


The arms are:

Picture Roberto Breschi


Arms: Zanzibar Channel between the shores of Africa with a palm tree and of Zanzibar with a fir, proper. In chief the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, Vert.

Crest: A yellow ribbon with the cypher SMZ.

Supporters: An axe and a machete proper

Motto: SERIKALI YA MAPINDUZI ZANZIBAR (Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar).


Its flag, known from 2004 is:



Which is the flag of 1964 augmented with a canton of the flag of Tanzania.


Presidential seal


The presidential seal consists of the arms augmented with a crest of the letter ‘R’ (of ‘rais) within a crown of laurel, surrounded by a ring inscribed with the legend RAIS WA ZANZIBAR. (president of Zanzibar.

The presidential flag shows the presidential seal in the middle of a green cloth:


Presidential flag of Zanzibar (2004)



For explanation see Roberto Breschi



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© Hubert de Vries, 15.12.2006. Updated 22.12.2006; 16.03.2013.




[1] For this chapter I owe much to http://4dw/royalark/, including the achievement of 1894.

[2] The Port of Lisbon in th Early 16th Century. Crónica do rei D. Afonso Henriques. Duarte Calvão. Illuminated manuscript on parchment. Frontispiece, lower margin  of an early 16th cent. manuscript. Showing the arms of the Portuguese Empire and the achievement of the Portuguese government. Early 16th century 41.5 x 29.5 x 9 cm. Cascais, M.B.C.C.G. Inv. 14.  The silver corroded to black

[3] Flaggen und Banner Taf. 65, 2 p. 18: Sultanat Zanzibar.

[4] Hesmer, K.-H.: Flaggen . Wappen . Daten. Gütersloh, 1975.