Nephi’s Voyage & The Harbor of Moroni

By George D. Potter

Text Box:  
Cove near Moroni Harbor on Grand Comoro Island
In response to a question sent to us by Merilyn Pare’ Daggett of northern Idaho.

Published by The Nephi Project, Bear River City, Utah. Copyright by The Nephi Project, November 2002

I have been asked if there is some relationship between the Book of Mormon name Moroni and the city and port known as Moroni the capital of the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean.  The Comoros Islands are found just north of Madagascar off the East African coast.  For now, the answer to your question is “we do not know”, and if I had to guess, I would side with those who believe there is probably no relationship.  Even so, there exist interesting hints that there might be some relationship, so please don’t tune out after the next paragraph.

First, the name “Moroni” in the Comoros Islands is a name from the native Comoros language, a tongue that is of Malay-Polynesian origin.  If the Lehites acquired this name while they were in the Indian Ocean, and brought it to the Americas, it would have been transferred with its sixth century B.C. pronunciation to the New World.  However, word pronunciations change over time.  After Lehi’s theoretical visit to the Comoros Islands, the Arabs ruled the islands for over a thousand years.  The Arabic language would have brought new changes in the pronunciations of local words.   Following the Arabs, the French colonized the Islands until 1975.  According to a French language expert I know, the impact of French, on the native language of the Comoros was significant.  Of course, during the same long period the name’s pronunciation would have evolved independently in the New World.  Thus the likelihood that the name Moroni would have retained the same pronunciation in the Comoros Islands and the Americas for nearly 2400 years is quite remote.  Second, it is generally believed that the Comoros Islands were uninhabited in Lehi’s time.  If no one were there, how would they pick up a local name? 

That said, let’s consider the limited evidence that there could be some relationship.  The most obvious question is, “could the Lehites have visited the Comoros Islands.” If they reached the America’s by circling Africa and then crossing the Atlantic, then the Comoros Islands would have been a possible stopping point.  However, most Book of Mormon scholars believe that they crossed the Pacific Ocean.  If this is the case, the Comoros Islands would appear to be far off course to the west.  However, the Book of Mormon provides one possible clue as to how they could have reached the Comoros – the “great and terrible tempest” Nephi described.

The secret of sailing the Indian Ocean is that the southwest monsoon winds blow between June and September, and it is only during these months that a ship can sail from southern Arabia toward the southern tip of India in route to the Pacific.

To sail around India, the Lehites would have needed to set sail before the end of October.  It would make sense that they would have waited until the Fall to harvest their crops and gather seeds. 

Nephi recorded that after they sailed for many days toward the promised land before they encountered a “great and terrible tempest”.  A tempest according to Webster’s dictionary is “an extensive violent wind especially when accompanied by rain”.  The monsoons of the Arabian Sea are associated with very heavy rains, but not tempest winds.  The fact that the Lehites had traveled for “many days” before encountering the terrible tempest implies that they had traveled some weeks and some distance.  It might have been early Winter by the time they sailed into the equatorial waters off the south of India.  This would bring Nephi’s ship into the Indian Ocean cyclone zone at just the right season.  The cyclones of the Indian Ocean drift west in the direction of Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, and carry violent winds and heavy rains.  Like a hurricane, a cyclone rotates around an eye.

The tempest Nephi wrote about became so intense that his brothers believed that the “judgment of God” was upon them, and that they would “perish” in the sea (1 Nephi 18:15).  Before they entered the storm, Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael had bound Nephi and taken command of the ship.  The Liahona ceased to function, and it seems the mutineers steered the ship directly into the course of the storm.   Nephi wrote that they were driven “back” by the storm for “four days” which became “exceeding sore” (1 Nephi 18:13-14)

On a course toward the Pacific Ocean, this would mean that they were driven back to the west toward Africa and the Comoros Islands.  If the Lehites found themselves in a cyclone, their ship could have moved back (west) at a speed of 20 to 30 miles per hour.  Since they were in the storm for four days, it appears that the confused elder brothers sailed the ship with the tempest, and not out of it.  Driven by the cyclone, they could have traveled west 1,760 to 2,880 miles in four days!  Not only is this consistent with the direction the cyclones travel in the Indian Ocean, it also provides an explanation for the next weather pattern they found themselves in, a “great calm” (1 Nephi 18:21).  Nephi does not record how long the calm persisted, but we can assume that it took many days before a new weather pattern formed.  It was not just a calm, but a “great calm”.  A cyclone funnels in all the moisture from hundreds of miles around into its huge bands of towering clouds.  In the immediate areas surrounding the storm there are perfectly clear skies and no wind.  After the storm finally passed, there would have been no wind, and their ship would have drifted in the Indian Ocean current.  Along the eastern side of Africa the current flows south in the direction of the Comoros Islands.

It is also likely that after the storm Nephi found himself in command of a crippled ship.  After the calm, winds returned and Nephi was able to steer the boat toward the Promised Land (1 Nephi 18:22).  But did he sail directly toward the Promised Land, or did he first seek a harbor to regroup and repair his ship?  It is highly probable that the ship and its sails sustain heavy damage during the tempest.  We know the ship nearly sank (1 Nephi 18:13).  The family must have suffered terribly during the great storm.  Extreme seasickness would have been likely during such a storm.  Nephi wrote that the reckless behavior of Laman and Lemuel had led to the sickness of Lehi, Sariah, Jacob and Joseph (1 Nephi 18:17,19).  Surely such a storm would have soaked  the precious cargo of provisions and seeds.  Though Nephi engraved no further entries on the gold plates of their sea voyage, it would seem probably that a few weeks on land would have been necessary to recover from the great and terrible tempest.

Grand Comoro Island would have been a good place for Nephi to have repaired his ship.  The Comoros Islands were permanently inhabited no earlier that 100 B.C., when they were colonized by Malay-Polynesians[i]  Grand Comoro Island has a natural harbor (today called Moroni), and is a paradise for fauna and flora.  Thus at the time of Lehi, these uninhabited islands could have provided Lehi with a natural harbor, no unfriendly natives, an ample supply of native fruits, small animals and water.  The Comoros Islands are located along the ancient trade routes of the Arab mariners  who frequented the islands for their coconuts, cloves, vanilla and pepper.  It was perhaps during one of these routine visits that Arab mariners discovered Lehi’s party camped in their tents in the islands harbor.  As reported on the Comoros Islands in the Saudi Gazette (October 9, 1995, p. 8) “An old legend tells how the islands were first inhabited by two Arabs and their wives, children and servants.”  The legend’s reference to the “first” group implies that the party must have eventually left, i.e., the Malay-Polynesians re-colonizing the islands around 100 B.C.  The time frame between Lehi and the Malay-Polynesians make it unlikely, however there is a possible match between the Lehi’s party of “two Arabs”, Lehi and Ishmael’s oldest son, their children and the servants, including Zoram.  In our book, Richard Wellington and I argue that it is probable that Lehi took “servants” with him to the Land of Promise.

Had Arabs discovered Lehi’s party on the Comoros Islands, they might have considered the Lehites Arabs.  Lehi seems to have considered himself a non-Jew (1 Nephi 1:20).  His fathers’ tongue was reformed Egyptian (1 Nephi 1:2) which included some Arabic (JSH 1:64), and during the many years they lived in Arabia, they probably mastered the local dialects of early Arabic.  Lehi’s party even had Arabic names: sons of “Ismhael”, “Sam”, “Joseph” and Jacob are all traditional Arab names.  Modern maps of Saudi Arabia list towns called “Lihin” meaning people of Lihi, “Nifi” and “Alma”.  Even the name “Moumen” pronounced “Mormon” by the Arabs is the Arabic name for true believer, which in turn makes perfect contextual sense in the Book of Mormon (those who “believe” is used four time in the five verses that introduce the place-name “Mormon” (Mosiah 18:3-7)). 

Following our thin path of speculative reasoning, we would have to assume that the Lehites created the name Moroni, and called their camp on the Comoros Islands by that name.  We would also have to assume that the Arabs mariners who discovered the Lehites camped on the islands continued thereafter calling the harbor Moroni  for the next five hundred years.  That would have allowed the Malay-Polynesians the opportunity to adopt the name from the Arabs.  But is this feasible?  Perhaps.  Consider the meaning of the word Moroni in the Comoro’s language.  It is named after the volcanoes on the island and means “in the heart of the fire”.  A close match to “a burning in the heart” of the Holy Ghost.  There is probably no prophet who is associated with the power of the Holy Ghost more than Moroni.  It was he who besought mankind to pray with all “energy of heart” (Moroni 7:48).  

Of course, Moroni is associated with the Hill Cumorah.  Cumorah sounds somewhat like Comoro, which means “the moon” in Arabic.  Moroni buried the plates in the Hill Cumorah to come forth in the due “time” of the Lord (1 Nephi 14:26).  The Nephites measured time in “moons” (Omni 29).  Finally, Arabic words, like the Latin words, have genders.  Comoro is masculine for moon, while a feminine moon would be Comora.  The hills south of the Salalah plain, where I believe Bountiful was located, are named the hills (jabels) Comoro.  The Comoros Islands are so name because of the shape of its hills – dare we suggest “hills of comora”. 

At this point, the evidence supporting the notion that the name Moroni of the Comoros Islands is related to the Moroni of the Book of Mormon is tentative at best.  Before a more definitive conclusion can be reached one would need to 1) study the use of the name Moroni in other Malay-Polynesian languages, and 2) find and date the legendary camp in the Comoros Islands of the two Arabs and their families who settled there.

At this point all we can conclude is that the name of Moroni, in the heart of the fire, is an appropriate name for the capital city and harbor of these beautiful volcanic islands, and that the name “Comoros”, islands of the moon is a suitable name for this Indian Ocean paradise.  Deanna Swaney writes of the Comoros Islands:

Once you’ve arrived, it won’t take long to discover the inspiration for the name.  The moon hangs brilliantly behind the palm trees, turning crumbling and labyrinthine old Swahili towns and waterfronts into images conjured up by Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights.

 

At sunset, Moroni Harbour must be one of the most beautiful sights in the Indian Ocean.[ii]

 

[i] Swaney, Deanna & Robert Wilcox, “Madagascar & Comoros”, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorn, Australia, 1994.

[ii] Ibid, 292,337)

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