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Zanzibar Courage
A longer look at the Shortest War.
Introduction: The war in 1896 between Zanzibar and Great Britain has been recorded as history's shortest and is often dismissed as a sort of comic-opera event not worthy of serious study. However, the story of this war can reveal enduring lessons, and its small scale can help bring focus to some of the larger issues present whenever political violence occurs.
Zanzibar has been conquered many times in its history, but time after time the local population would reassert themselves. Tranquility would prevail only when the people felt they could engage the rulers in a meaningful dialogue about how they were to be ruled and have a say about who should be among the leading personalities in Zanzibar. These values clashed with the "manifest destiny" values of Imperial Britain of that time. During that clash, brief as it was, Zanzibar managed to send her cry for self-determination echoing through history.
The Setting: Just before noon on August 25, 1896 Seyyid Hamid bin Thuwaini bin Said, Sultan of Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia, Lamu and all "Syidi" (the mainland "coastal strip"), died. The Omani settlers on Zanzibar, including the Royal family and the other prominent family/clans, had a long history of self-determination when it came to selecting new rulers. This tradition was rooted in the inter-clan consensus building process that developed around the selection of an Imam. As far back as the year 751 the Imam of Oman was "elected" by clan elders. This consensus/selection process was an early example of a somewhat more egalitarian system, in an age of despots. The Zanzibari dynastic succession process that was extrapolated from these earlier religious election practices could be spiced with a good deal of blood and swash. Competition among the leading personalities of the strongest coalitions might be fierce. In 1859, the system was described by the British as follows; " All male heirs were equally eligible for the succession... might, coupled with the election by the Tribe, is the only right. " Sultan Barghash, when asked about Zanzibari succession practices, put it succinctly by saying the right to inherit the crown fell to the contender with "the longest sword".
The contender with the longest sword when Seyyid Hamid died was clearly Khalid bin Barghash. A young man of 29, Seyyid Khalid had the backing of most of the large land owners and local business leaders. He was acceptable to the indigenous WaHamadi and WaTumbatu populations and he was a son of nobility. He was not however acceptable to the British. Their man was Seyyid Hamoud bin Mohamed, a nephew of the Sultan of Oman and a man much interested in modern ways. The British believed he would be easier to work with than the independent minded Khalid.
The Zanzibaris saw the British position as blatant interference in the succession, an affront to their dignity and their traditional rights. Khalid was after all a grandson of the founding father of the Country, Sayyid Said. He had passed muster with the clans. He had the loyalty of the largest military force on the island and by 4:00 pm on that Tuesday he fulfilled the final tests of inheritance, he took possession of the palace and gained control of the harbor and most of the capital city.
The British were furious. They began to prepare for war. There were already two Royal Navy warships at anchor in the harbor when the old Sultan died. The British government immediately ordered their top Admiral in the Indian Ocean to rush to Zanzibar. His flagship and two other nearby warships were vectored towards the Islands, at top speed they would all rendezvous in Zanzibar in less than 2 days. That order went out on the evening of August 25th, the Zanzibari men at the Palace compound had the next 40 hours to contemplate their fates. Was it to be fight or flight? Would they obey Seyyid Khalid’s order to stand their ground, to wait, and stare resolutely into the eyes of the huge Imperial Lion that was gathering itself to leap upon them?
The Forces: The dead Sultan had a palace guard that had been considerably strengthened and re-equipped over the last few years of his reign. These now crack companies were supplemented by artillery detachments manned by Zanzibari, Arab, Baluchi and Persian gunners (and also possibly some Egyptian artillerymen). Altogether this Royal Guard totaled almost 1000 troops. This force, to a man, went over to Khalid when the struggle for succession began. In addition, Seyyid Khalid brought with him about 300 organized and armed relatives and personal retainers when he occupied the palace. Once he held the palace and the British demands became known an additional 1,500 Zanzibari irregulars flocked to his colors. Combined, the so-called Usurpers totaled 2,800 men. These men set to fortifying Beit El-Hukm Palace and the harbor-side frontage of that compound. Many cannon were included in those hasty fortifications, along seafront square.
 from Le Journal Illustre. Sept. 2, 1896
The Government troops On the other side, the Zanzibar regular-army (government) troops numbered about 900 men. They were organized in two battalions (plus a band) and were led by British officers on loan to the old Sultan. The leader of this force was a onetime British naval lieutenant who had risen to the rank of General of the Army of the Sultan of Zanzibar. His name was Lloyd Mathews. Mathews drilled his troops rigorously and they had demonstrated discipline and good fighting spirit during the occasional punitive expeditions on the coast, which they undertook at the behest of the Sultan (and/or the British Resident). They were an infantry force, well equipped, but with no heavy guns. Serious concerns arose among some of the British diplomats as to the loyalty to these "loyalist troops". The troops apparently showed little sympathy for foreign meddling in local politics. However, they were professionals and General Mathews correctly asserted that 'his' men would follow any orders he gave them. Mathews and his outnumbered force took up defensive positions within the town. They dug-in most strongly around the diplomatic quarter of the city, just south of the Palace held by the usurpers. Mathews also made some efforts to block the approaches to town, this in an effort to prevent people in the countryside from joining the fray. Then they waited for reinforcements.
Most rapidly promoted man in British military history.
The Royal Navy Reinforcements to support the Zanzibar government infantry came almost immediately, from the Royal Navy. Anchored in the Harbor at the time of the old Sultans death were the British Light Cruiser H.M.S. Philomel and the gunboat H.M.S. Thrush. By 5:30 that same evening they were joined by the Thrush's sister ship, the H.M.S. Sparrow. After nightfall on that Tuesday small contingents of British marines from those 3 vessels landed in town, near Shangani point, and joined with the government troops there. The marines brought with them some naval gunners, at least one field piece and two large machine-guns (Maxim guns). These were promptly entrenched around the British Embassy. Then the additional naval forces also began to assemble. Next to appear at about 9:00 the next morning was the large Cruiser, H.M.S. Raccoon. Then at mid-day on August 26, 1896 the huge Fleet Flagship, H.M.S. St. George dropped anchor in Zanzibar Harbor. Together these five vessels mounted 78 major guns of seven different classes, ranging in size from 3-pounder cannons to 9.2-inch precision rifled guns. The ships also carried many heavy machine- guns and each had several small gigs and launches by which the scores of additional marines they carried could be landed. The ships moved in-shore, maneuvering very close to the fortified compound. The H.M.S. Sparrow ended that second day of the confrontation anchored directly in front of the Palace, the H.M.S. Thrush was just a bit to the north but even closer to the shore, a mere 200 yards from the sea wall. All in all, this was the most formidable force ever assembled to that time in East Africa.
Admiral Rawson's Flagship.
Existential Moments: The Zanzibari response to this marshaling of forces was continued defiance on the one hand and diplomatic maneuvering on the other. The British issued a written ultimatum. Sultan Khalid was told that he must quit the palace and disperse his forces or the British would attack. He was further advised by the British that "having usurped the Sultanate of Zanzibar without consulting the Protecting Power he had "committed an act of open rebellion against the government of her Britannic Majesty." After that ultimatum, the British refused to negotiate and would not communicate further with the rebel forces. Sayyid Khalid replied that he would not attack the Europeans and wished only for peace between them. However, he also said that he could not abandon the Palace, "his house and the house of his father." He contacted the French, American and German governments to seek their intercession. All refused; these countries each had treaty agreements with the British that in one way or another deferred to the British on all matters within 'their' protectorate. The Sultan asked the American Ambassador to deliver a message to the English Queen. It read: "Queen Victoria, London. Hamed bin Thuweni is dead. I have succeeded to the throne of my forefathers. I hope friendly relations will continue as before. Khalid bin Barghash, Sultan." This message was never delivered. Some have suggested that these efforts to engage in a long distance diplomatic campaign indicates that the Zanzibari were unaware of the immediate risks and were foolish in not realizing how lethal the British guns were and how willing the Navy was to use them. This is clearly wrong. There can be no doubt that the Zanzibari leadership knew exactly how lethal the British forces could be. Since as far back as his Grandfathers' reign some of Khalid's Ministers had traveled to Europe and visited the massive armament factories of the Industrial revolution. They also had among themselves years of experience with naval gunnery and had watched the recent British military operations in the Indian Ocean with a keen eye. Regarding the seriousness of British threats, they had to know that the British showed no compunction about the use of force against those who opposed them. They all knew of the example made of the city of Alexandria when in 1882, this other Eastern City was bombarded for six hours without pause by the Royal Navy. There may even been a few grizzled veterans among the Sultans' foreign artillery men who had seen action against the British in that battle some 14 years earlier. After Alexandria, the willingness of British ships to fire on densely populated cities was never again in doubt in Africa. The Zanzibaris knew full well what their defiant stance might cost them, but still they waited. Not one person abandoned fortified Palace. As night fell Khalid went out to a public Mosque to pray and to show he was not afraid to walk the streets. Then as the night deepened an eerie silence fell over the City. Some witnesses said that "never had they know a quieter night." Another wrote that "the silence was deep and uncanny.....the noises of the endless shuffle of feet and the clattering and rustling made by thousands of human beings as they eat, work, play and move about: all these were stilled, as though the town was breathless with fear and tension."
Anniversary of the coronation of the Sultan 1894. From La Monde Illustre
The Battle: The morning of the 27th was clear and grew hot early as many citizens assembled on the roof tops to see what would happen. The Zanzibari leaders again sent a letter to the Americans asking that they forward a telegraph to London. The American representative refused, saying that "as Khalid had not been recognized as Sultan by the protecting power, neither could he be by me." With such diplomatic language was the last, lost chance for peace disposed of. The British ultimatum had set 9:00 am as the time for the war to begin. Just before that hour an amazing scene occurred. A small launch left the Zanzibari compound and rowed slowly past three of towering British ships. Its mission was to deliver the Sultans' Captain to his only armed vessel, a small Corvette, named after the shipyard from which it was purchased, the H.H.S. Glasgow. That wooden-sided ship, more a war-yacht than a war ship, lay in the harbor, surrounded by the 5 heavily armored Royal Navy ships. For two days, the men on board the Glasgow had made no move to hoist anchor and escape. When their Captain arrived they solemnly began the final preparations needed to fire their elderly muzzle- loading cannon. The British saw, by this act of defiance, that no flag would be lowered by the Zanzibari that morning. The Imperial British Fleet fired precisely on time and directly at the massed Zanzibari men on shore. The Zanzibari guns immediately fired back. At 9:05, despite it's impossible position, the H.H.S. Glasgow opened fire on the British ships. The British fleet then directed heavy fire from both sides onto the Glasgow. Holed near the waterline she immediately started to settle by the stern, firing all the time, as she slid lower into the water. Most Spectators fled the rooftops as misdirected shells landed well beyond the fortified compound, setting fires in several places within the City. Those observers left aloft could, for a short time, see the smoke from the guns on both sides firing constantly but soon more smoke from the fires touched off by explosions, obliterated the palace compound from view. Still the British ships fired on. It has been estimated that close to a thousand shells were fired into Zanzibar city that day. That indicates that an explosive shell landed about every three seconds, for the best part of an hour. Because of the obscured view, many first-hand accounts focus more on the sounds of the battle rather than its sights. One witness tells us that "for forty-five minutes the awful noise continued: dull roars, punctuated with the crack crack of the maxims and the snap of one-pounders, the shells shrieking through the air with splinters of them dropping about in an indiscriminate manner." By 9:30 the brave Glasgow was silent, all guns destroyed, water pouring in and many of the crew dead or injured. Those who could swam to shore while the ship settled gently onto the shallow seabed, her masts still showing above the waterline. Fire from the Zanzibari guns on shore had also slackened, as one outclassed gun after another was put out of action. Even the British fire lessened, as gunners sought targets in vain amidst the heavy smoke. Officers began to look for signs of surrender. From the sea, it could be seen that the Harem building (Beit Al Saleh) was burning fiercely, as were the warehouses next to the water. Then a breeze blew the smoke aside for a moment allowing a clear view of the large Palace flagstaff; with the bright red flag of Zanzibar still flying. The British renewed their shelling with new zeal and again the scene was soon shrouded in smoke. After another 15 minutes of Bombardment the defensive fire from the shore had completely ceased. All Zanzibari guns were out of action. The British firing slowed and again the flagstaff came into view. The top was missing, the flag shot away. Admiral Rawson, in charge of the Naval squadron, took this to mean surrender and therefore ordered his ships to cease fire. A somewhat fictional account of the final action was provided by a Englishman writing only a year after the battle. "Right gallantly the Askaris and Zanzibaris who man the guns of the usurper stick to their task, and blaze away at the mailed sides of the gunboats without producing the faintest impression, until one by one the field pieces are dismounted or scattered in fragments." The Royal Marines were then ordered in, to seize the remains of palace at bayonet point. "From behind each sheltering ironclad heavily laden boats shoot out...but the landing of the blue-jackets is not to be entirely without argument on the other side. Here and there a gun cracks, and while most of the leaden pellets splash harmlessly in the blue water of the harbor, a few find lodgment among the occupants the boats."
The Escape: With all but their handguns destroyed, and with British marines coming ashore in droves, Sultan Khalid finally gave the order to abandon the field of battle. Leaving some 500 men dead in and around the Palace, the Sultan ordered his Zanzibari irregulars to take up the wounded and melt back into the city suburbs from whence they came. He then lead his remaining relatives and the surviving palace guards, on a dangerous march through the city, towards the German Embassy. (And towards General Mathews loyalist troops who were entrenched throughout the diplomatic quarter.) A witness who was near that area describes this scene: "What was my utter astonishment when I reached the consulate to see a large number of Arabs and their followers, headed by Khalid, all of them covered with dust and blood, coming toward me and making for the German consulate." When the bombardment started General Mathews had detached more men to again try to block access routes into the city. The most notable action occurred at Darajani Bridge. There a sortie platoon, commanded by Captain (later General) Arthur Raikes, marched out and seized that important bridge across the tidal creek separating Stone Town from its sprawling suburbs to the east. Gunfire soon broke out when a number of Khalid’s supporters attempted to move towards the sounds of the guns, across the bridge and into the city. Raikes held the bridge and repelled their advance. His men also reportedly shot several usurpers who tried to get around the bridge by wading across the creek. While those Zanzibar government soldiers were displaced to the Bridge, Sayyid Khalid was able to bluff his way past a group of British marines, who had taken up their defensive positions near the German embassy, but who did not recognize the putative Sultan. Khalid thereby reached the German compound and immediately requested diplomatic sanctuary. The Germans had reasons for helping an opponent of the British and so they welcomed him inside, along with and a small number of his senior companions. Khalid’s other soldiers were disarmed (their weapons were later looted) and then released. They were able to fade into the interior of the island while the government troops and British marines were distracted by the need to control the fires near the harbor that blazed so fiercely that they threatened to envelop the city. Seyyid Khalid remained for 36 days a guest at the German Consulate. The British demanded he be turned over to them and surrounded the consulate with agents and soldiers so that he could not escape. After weeks of diplomatic wrangling between the two European powers on Oct. 2nd, the morning of an especially high tide when the sea lapped up against the wall of the German building, Khalid bin Barghash stepped directly from the German consulate in to a small boat, never touching British controlled Zanzibar soil. From there he was conveyed to Dar es Salaam where he lived as a Prince in exile for more than 15 years. Then World War 1 brought him again into conflict with the British Empire. As for the damaged city, the Beit El-Hukm palace was destroyed completely and never rebuilt. The Harem building next door was devastated by explosions and fire, but a truncated replacement building, using much of the original frame, was soon put up. The damage to the lighthouse in front of the House of Wonders was irreparable. The Beit el Ajaib (House of Wonders) itself was severely damaged but it was deemed repairable. Therefore, the beautiful old light house was torn down and a new clock-tower/lighthouse addition was added to the House of Wonders during its restoration.
Note the 3 small cannon, on each side, amidships. Photo from the Zanzibar Archives Photo from the Zanzibar Archives Photo from the Zanzibar Archives Photo from the Zanzibar Archives  Photo c.1903
The day after Sayyid Khalid left the Islands a new Sultan, Seyyid Hamoud bin Mohamed, was invested. He promptly distributed medals to the British and loyalist troops who had had supported his cause. Among them was General Lloyd Mathews, who was awarded the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar.
From the Black and White newspaper April, 17 1897.
In the 1896 war a committed band of Zanzibari residents faced down the massed guns of a foreign fleet, many of them died rather than give up their cause. Theirs is a story that should not be forgotten
Sources Unknown Armies vol.1 Peter Abbot. 1988 Zanzibar the Shortest War in History Kevin Patience. 1994 In Africa: Victoria Nyanza E Benadir E. A. Dalbertis. 1906 Bombardment of Zanzibar R. Dorsey Mohun. 1900 Omani Sultans in Zanzibar Ahmed H. Al-Maamiry 1988 Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash, three days as a Sultan-thirty years in exile Heinz Schneppen. 1999 A Guide to Zanzibar G. H. Shelswell-White. 1932 A. C. and P. F. Gomes, selected Photography 1880-1910