Zanzibar's main industries are spices, raffia, and tourism. It is still sometimes referred to as the Spice Islands (a term also associated with the Maluku Islands in Indonesia), because of the significance of its production of cloves, of which it used to be the world leader, and also nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper. The ecology is of note for being the home of the endemic Zanzibar Red Colobus and the elusive Zanzibar Leopard. The word "Zanzibar" probably derives from the Persian زنگبار, Zangi-bar ("coast of the blacks"); it is known as Zanji-bar (زنجبار) in Arabic.
The presence of microlithic tools attests to 20,000 years of human occupation of Zanzibar. The islands became part of the historical record of the wider world when Arab traders discovered them and used them as a base for voyages between Arabia, India, and Africa. Unguja offered a protected and defensible harbour, so although the archipelago offered few products of value, the Arabs settled at what became Zanzibar City (Stone Town) as a convenient point from which to trade with East African coastal towns. They established garrisons on the islands and built the first mosque in the Southern hemisphere.
During the Age of Exploration, the Portuguese Empire was the first European power to gain control of Zanzibar, and kept it for nearly 200 years. In 1698, Zanzibar fell under the control of the Sultanate of Oman, which developed an economy of trade and cash crops, with a ruling Arab elite. Plantations were developed to grow spices, hence the moniker of the Spice Islands (a name also used of Dutch colony the Moluccas, now part of Indonesia). Another major trade good was ivory, the tusks of elephants killed in mainland Africa. The third pillar of the economy was slaves, giving Zanzibar an important place in the Arab slave trade, the Indian Ocean equivalent of the better-known Triangular Trade. Zanzibar City was the main trading port of the East African slave trade, with about 50,000 slaves a year passing through the city. The Sultan of Zanzibar controlled a substantial portion of the East African coast, known as Zanj, which included Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, and trading routes which extended much further inland, such as to Kindu on the Congo River.
Sometimes gradually, sometimes by fits and starts, control came into the hands of the British Empire; part of the political impetus for this was the 19th century movement for the abolition of the slave trade. The relationship between Britain and the nearest relevant colonial power, Germany, was formalized by the 1890 Helgoland-Zanzibar Treaty, in which Germany pledged not to interfere with British interests in insular Zanzibar. That year, Zanzibar became a protectorate (not a colony) of Britain. From 1890 to 1913, traditional viziers were appointed to govern as puppets, switching to a system of British residents (effectively governors) from 1913 to 1963. The death of one sultan and the succession of another of whom the British did not approve led to the Anglo-Zanzibar War. On the morning of 27 August 1896, ships of the Royal Navy destroyed the Beit al Hukum Palace; a cease fire was declared 38 minutes later, and the bombardment subsequently became known as The Shortest War in History.
The islands gained independence from Britain in December 1963 as a constitutional monarchy. A month later, the bloody Zanzibar Revolution, in which several thousand Arabs and Indians were killed in a genocide and thousands more expelled, established the Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba. That April, the republic merged with the mainland former colony of Tanganyika, or more accurately, was subsumed by the much larger entity. This United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar was soon renamed as a portmanteau, the United Republic of Tanzania, of which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region.
Zanzibar has many animal species from the African mainland who traveled from the mainland during the last ice age. These included the Zanzibar leopard, which is critically endangered and possibly extinct.
Since the early 1990s, the politics of the archipelago have been marked by repeated clashes between two political parties, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) and the Civic United Front (CUF). Contested elections in late 2000 led to a massacre in Zanzibar in January 2001, with the government shooting into crowds of protestors, killing 35 and injuring 600. Violence erupted again in 2005 after another contested election, with the CUF again claiming its rightful victory had been stolen from them. Following 2005, negotiations between the two parties aiming at the long-term resolution of the tensions as well as a power-sharing accord took place, but suffered repeated setbacks, most notably in April 2008, when the CUF walked away from the negotiating table following a CCM call for a referendum to approve of what had been presented as a done deal on the power-sharing agreement.
Stone Town is a place of winding lanes, circular towers, carved wooden doors, raised terraces and beautiful mosques. Important architectural features are the Livingstone house, the Guliani Bridge, and the House of Wonders. The town of Kidichi features the hammam (Persian baths), built by immigrants from Shiraz, Iran during the reign of Barghash bin Said.
Zanzibar was the first region in Africa to introduce colour television, in 1973. The current TV station is called TvZ The first television service on mainland Tanzania was not introduced until some twenty years later.
Zanzibar criminalised gay and lesbian sex in 2004 . In September 2006, a radical Islamic group on the archipelago, Uamsho, forced organizers to abandon plans to mark the 60th birthday of the late Freddie Mercury (born Farouk Bulsara into the Parsi community of Stone Town, who reached fame as the lead singer of the rock group Queen), saying he violated Islam with his openly bisexual lifestyle. (See Islam and homosexuality.)
Zanzibar, mainly Pemba Island, was once the world's leading clove producer, but annual clove sales have since plummeted by 80% since the 1970s. Explanations given for this is a fast-moving global market, international competition and a hangover from Tanzania’s failed experiment with socialism in the 1960s and ’70s, when the government controlled clove prices and exports. Zanzibar now ranks a distant third with Indonesia supplying 75% of the world's cloves, compared to Zanzibar's 7%.
During May and June 2008 Zanzibar suffered a major failure of its electricity system which left the island without mains electricity for nearly a month (May 21 - June 19) and entirely dependent on alternative methods of electricity generation (mainly diesel generators). This led to a serious and ongoing shock to the island's fragile economy (mainly based on international tourism).