This Week in Military History: August 25th – 31st
August 27th: Anglo-Zanzibar War
By the time the forces of Sultan Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash Al-Busaid surrendered to the British and their local allies at 9:40am on August 27th, 1896, 500 of his people (soliders and civilians) lay dead or wounded. That may not sound like a huge number in the grand scheme military history, but it’s quite a few casualties when you consider the war holds the record for “shortest in recorded history.” The fighting had raged for all of 38 minutes.
British sailors and Marines posing with a disabled Zanzibarian gun
Once an independent country of several islands in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of what was then the African nation of Tanganyika (both are now parts of present-day Tanzania), Zanzibar was initially conquered by the Portuguese in 1499. After expelling the Portguese in 1698, the Sultanate of Oman ruled Zanzibar until it broke off in 1858 as the result of a contested succession between the two brothers up for the position of sultan. One brother wound up Sultan of Oman and the other, Majid bin Said Al-Busaidi, became the first Sultan of Zanzibar.
Zanzibar’s independence, recognized even by European nations, was a rare thing in Africa in the nineteenth century. On the continent’s east coast, Britain and Germany aggressively vied for greater and greater influence and territory. Throughout its early decades of independence, Zanzibar sided with Britain, even clashing with German troops in combat on several occasions. As such, the British offered assistance and advisors to the sultanate. In 1890, Germany and Britain signed the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty which officially (as far as the Europeans were concerned, at least) divided up eastern Africa into “spheres of influence” and made a protectorate Zanzibar of the latter empire.
Ceremony celebrating the signing of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty
The sultans supported (and were, in turn, supported by) the British, and the majority of locals felt the same. However, some of the populace bristled at the growing European presence. Particular points of conflict were the increase in troops and ships stationed there and the gradual abolition of slavery (which, in fairness to the British, puts them on some solid moral high ground in this particular instance of their imperialist tendencies), both of with some Zanzibarians strongly opposed.
Zanzibarian slaves, late 1800’s
Shortly before noon on August 25th, 1896 the fifth sultan, Hamad bin Thuwaini, died (possibly by assassination) and his nephew, Khalid bin Bargash (possibly his assassin), moved into the palace and began gathering soldiers and armed civilians loyal to him. By the afternoon he assembled nearly 3,000 men, took command of an artillery battery, and had control of the entire Zanzibarian Navy (a single, 210 foot wooden luxury yacht named the HHS Glasgow). British officials repeatedly warned Khalid they would not recognize his claim as legitimate (they preferred a more pro-British successor to the throne), but by 3:00pm he’d buried his uncle and proclaimed himself sultan.
Sultan Khalid bin Barghash of Zanzibar
Throughout the remainder of the 25th and the 26th, the British landed and consolidated their troops around the capital, Zanzibar City, ashore and at sea (including three cruisers and two gunboats in the harbor) while the British consul, Sir Basil Cave, waited for orders from London. He made further attempts to convince Khalid to step down, but to no avail. He eventually received a telegraph from Lord Salisbury, head of the Foreign Office (and future prime minister), ordering him to remove Khalid from power by any means possible. British civilians and merchant ships evacuated the town and harbor and the on-scene military commander, Rear Admiral (later Admiral) Sir Harry Rawson, issued an ultimatum: Khalid either lower his colors and leave the palace by 9:00am the next day or be fired upon.
British ships bombard Zanzibar City
At 9:00am sharp, Brigadier General Lloyd Matthews (the British commander of the pro-Anglo Zanzibarian troops) called for Rawson’s ships to attack. At 9:02, the cruisers and gunboats opened fire. By 9:40 Khalid’s troops surrendered, much of the palace complex (including the harem) had burned down, and the entire Zanzibarian Navy (again: just that one royal yacht) lay at the bottom of the harbor (though the British rescued her entire crew before she sank).
The palace harem after the bombardment
Khalid and some of his followers received asylum from the Germans at their consulate. Refusing to extradite him, they instead sent him to German East Africa where he remained until 1916, only to be captured by the British during the East African Campaign of WWI and exiled. They eventually allowed him to return to East Africa where he died in 1927.
British casualties of the Anglo-Zanzibar War amounted to a single wounded sailor aboard the gunboat HMS Thrush. He later recovered.
Hamoud bin Mohammed, the man Britain hoped would take over as sultan in the first place, was named the new sultan that very afternoon with even more limited powers than his predecessors (the position became a figurehead for the entirely British controlled government, a system that continued until Zanzibar gave up its protectorate status and gained independence on December 10th, 1963). One of Hamoud’s first acts was to fully abolish slavery, which is a pretty positive epilogue to any (no matter how imperialistically motivated) war. Particularly one that wrapped up in less than an hour.
Monument at the site of the slave market in Zanzibar City