It may have been the shortest war in recorded history but the Anglo-Zanzibar War which began and ended in the space of three quarters of an hour on August 17, 1896 was still plenty brutal and a testament of the power and arrogance of the British Empire at its height. Not that the defeated Sultan of Zanzibar, Khalid bin Bargash was any prize either.
The island of Zanzibar, the largest of the Spice Islands off of the east coast of southern Africa was, as the European name for the archipelago suggests a rich trading plumb specializing in the production of spices including cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper. It was ruled by the Swahili kingdoms of East Africa which grew wealthy trading with Persians, Arabs, and traders from the Indian Sub-Continent.
The Portuguese, the dominant European power in the Indian Ocean, achieved control of Zanzibar and neighboring islands in 1504 ruling through puppet Sultans of African—Swahili--origins. After the local Sultan massacred Portuguese traders on the islands in 1631, they finally garrisoned the island and ruled more directly through a Governor General. Contemptuous of the polyglot local population of long established Arabs, Blacks, and mixed race decedents of Persian traders, the Portuguese ruled with typical brutality.
Around 1690 the local Arabs, who had no political connection to the Arabian empires for centuries, appealed to the Sultan of Oman for aid. The Sultan and his naval forces drove out the Portuguese, already a fading power, and added Zanzibar to the Sultanate formally in 1698. They ruled prosperously for more than 100 years. Indians came into control of much of the spice growing and large numbers of laborers were imported to tend the valuable crops.
But even more valuable was the slave trade, of which Zanzibar became a center. Arab traders and Swahili mercenaries raided tribes in the interior of the African continent and shipped them from the island to meet demand throughout the Muslim world, and increasingly to the insatiable demands of Europeans in South America, especially Brazil, and the sugar islands of the Caribbean. English merchant seamen were among the most active in transporting the valuable human cargo to the New World.
The wealth of Zanzibar became so great that around 1840 Said bin Sultan moved his capital from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town in Zanzibar City. After the Sultan’s death in 1856 his two sons quarreled over succession. To avoid civil war they appealed to Lord Charles Canning, Viceroy and Governor-General of India, by then the islands main trading partner, to settle the dispute. He divided the Sultanate making one brother Sultan of Oman and creating Majid bin Said first Sultan of Zanzibar. Just in case the arrangement was not to the liking of both, the British Navy was on hand to dissuade any armed dissent.
Thus, although still independent Zanzibar fell within the realm of British influence and interest. A formal treaty even gave the British final approval of any successors to the Sultan.
The Sultanate also controlled vast areas of East Africa around Dar es Salaam and the slave trade routes stretching as deep into the continent as the Congo. Over the next 40 years they lost most of their continental possessions, particularly to the aggressive Germans who were trying to catch up as a colonial power. The British, meanwhile, abolished the slave trade and had a sudden Victorian moral scruple about allowing its client state to continue in the trade. The wealth from the spice trade and the increasing presence of a large, prosperous Indian community also piqued their interests.
In 1896 the Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini died and Sultan Khalid bin Barghash succeeded him. The new Sultan had grown wealthy in the slave trade and in the trade for ivory from the continent, both of which were threatened by the new colony of German East Africa. The British suspected Khalid would strike a deal with the Germans. They exercised their veto of the succession instead the British Consul named Hamud bin Muhammad as Sultan.
Khalid refused to give up the throne. The British declared that failure to do so would be a casus belli and sent the Sultan an ultimatum to vacate the palace by 9 a.m. August 27.
Khalid called up his palace guard, about 700 British trained Zanzibar Askari, rallied more forces from the local population, and armed his household, including his slaves. Most were lightly armed with obsolete muskets. He fortified the place grounds and set up Maxim machine guns, a Gatling gun, a 17th century bronze cannon and two 12 pounder field guns trained on a British flotilla in the Zanzibar Town harbor. The sultan’s troops also took possession of the Zanzibar Navy which consisted of one wooden sloop, the HHS Glasgow, built as a royal yacht in 1878 based on the British frigate Glasgow and two small boats.
The British had 900 loyal Askari troops, plus sailors and Marines under the command of Lieutenant Arthur Edward Harington Raikes of the Wiltshire Regiment who was in command of the Zanzibar Army with the rank of Brigadier General. Another contingent of sailors and Marines was landed to guard the British Consulate, where Imperial citizens were gathered for protection.
Promptly at the expiration of the ultimatum deadline the fleet of two modern heavily armored cruisers and two gun boats opened deadly fire. The Royal Yacht was quickly sunk. The Sultan’s artillery attempted to return fire, but the batteries were quickly blasted into oblivion. The naval guns then turned their relentless fire on to the Palace itself. The largely wooden palace was quickly destroyed and set on fire. The masonry Harem was reduced to rubble, most of its inhabitants and defenders killed.
As the bombardment continued British Askari troops under Raikes briefly came under fire as they advanced on the palace then returned withering rifle vollies.
At 9:40 the flag over the Palace was either shot away or struck. Firing from the compound ceased. Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson in command of British forces ordered his guns to go silent. The war was officially over.
Khalid and most of his top Arab supporters managed to escape the palace sometime during the bombardment and found refuge in the German Consulate. His loyal troops and members of his household, however, took heavy losses. British ships and troops had fired around 500 shells, 4,100 machine gun rounds and 1,000 rifle rounds during the engagement killing or wounding over 500, more than a quarter of all Khalid’s troops.
By contrast the British incurred one wounded petty officer aboard the gunboat HMS Thrush.
By mid-afternoon Hamud bin Muhammad was installed as Sultan with much reduced powers. He was a virtual puppet figure head.
Meanwhile the fire at palace spread into the city, engulfing nearly a quarter in flame. British sailors were landed to help fight the fires. Rioting also broke out aimed at the Indian community. Eventually 150 British Sikh troops were transferred from Mombasa to patrol the streets to restore order.
The Germans refused British demands that Khalid be handed over to them. Despite an extradition treaty between the two powers the Germans maintained that political prisoners were excluded from its terms. After menacing the Consulate, the Germans promised the British that Khalid would not depart for East Africa via British controlled Zanzibar soil.
They waited for a high tide a night which enabled a boat to dock at the Consulate. Khalid was picked up and taken safely to East Africa. He would be captured during colonial fighting during World War I and sent to exile on the Seychelles and Saint Helena before being allowed to return to East Africa, where he died at Mombasa in 1927. Khalid’s supporters were forced to pay reparations to cover the cost of shells fired and for damages caused by the looting which amounted to 300,000 Rupees, a sum that impoverished most of the once loyal leadership.
For his part the new Sultan promptly satisfied British demands by abolishing slavery. But he made the process of obtaining manumission documents so cumbersome that after a decade only about 16,000 of an estimated 90,000 slaves on the island were at liberty. The British turned a blind eye to this circumvention of their supposed ideals.
Today we may look back and scorn the arrogance and brutality of the British Empire. But the unofficial American Empire which has succeeded it continues on in the same tradition. Of course we prefer to do our dirty work behind a curtain, using the CIA and covert means to overthrow governments of which we disapprove, witness Iran in 1953, Vietnam in the ‘60’s, Chile in 1973, and the long brutal war of the Contras against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the ‘80’s.
But some time a country is weak enough and the temptation is too great so we just land troops and say to hell with it, witness Grenada and Panama. Just like Perfidious Albion.