The Shortest War in History
The Anglo-Zanzibar War 1896
by Nick Brazil
The Scramble for Africa
The nineteenth century saw the major European powers in strong competition with one another for Africa’s land, minerals and resources. This was a very intense contest which was appropriately called The Scramble for Africa by the historian Thomas Packenham. Many small and large African states were sucked into this struggle for imperial possession. Sometimes this was by force of arms, but often it was by agreement between one power or another. Invariably, in any such arrangement, the interests of the colonial powers took precedence over the local African population.
The Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty
In 1890 the two colonial rivals Britain and Germany signed one of these accords. It was called the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty and gave Germany an island in the North Sea called Heligoland. It lay at the entrance to the new Kiel Canal. So, whoever controlled it, controlled this important waterway. The treaty also gave the Germans a narrow corridor of land that extended far into central Africa from the Colony of German South West Africa. This was the brainchild of Baron George Leo Graf Van Caprivi who had visions of it being a routeway connecting the Zambezi River and German South West Africa. However, his plans were confounded by the unexpected obstacle of The Victoria Falls. Today, this former German colonial possession still bears the name The Caprivi Strip.
The Sultan dies suddenly...poisoned?
In return, Zanzibar became a British Protectorate. Lying twenty miles out in the Indian Ocean, this island was a languid backwater whose main business was slavery and spices. Nominally under the rule of the Sultanate of Oman, Zanzibar had its own Sultan running local affairs. It had been this way since the Omanis had edged the ruling Portuguese out in 1698. At this time, the ruling Sultan was the pro-British Hamad bin Thuwaini.
In August 1896, Hamad died suddenly in his palace. Nobody could be sure, but many thought that the late Sultan’s ambitious cousin Khalid bin Barghash had poisoned him. These suspicions were reinforced when Barghash seized the throne without reference to the British. Within hours of the former ruler’s death, he had installed himself as Sultan in the Palace. Ignoring angry demands by the British diplomats that he stand down, Barghash rapidly gathered an army of 3000 men in the palace.
Working to abolish slavery in Zanzibar
Up until the coup, the British had been working with the old sultan to abolish slavery in Zanzibar. They were now concerned that if Barghash remained in power he would reverse this threat to a very lucrative business. With this in mind, they gave him an ultimatum to step down by 9 a.m. on 27th August or face the wrath the British military forces. These were not inconsiderable.
In the port harbour were five Royal Navy warships, HMS Philomel, HMS St George, the Raccoon, Rush and Sparrow. On board these vessels were 150 marines and sailors commanded by Rear Admiral Harry Rawson; In addition to this, there were 900 loyal Zanzibari askaris commanded by Brigadier-General Lloyd Mathews in the port itself.
At eight o’clock on the morning of 27th August, Sir Basil Cave, the British consul received a message from Khalifa asking that the two sides talk. Cave refused this. After a period of thirty minutes, a new message came from the Sultan:
A barrage of shells hit the Palace
“We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us”;
“We do not want to open fire, but unless you do as you are told we shall certainly do so.” Cave replied.
With no further messages, the British ordered their ships to prepare to fire. It was exactly five minutes to nine. At nine o’clock, the order to open fire was given and the shortest war in history began. At 9:02 a.m., the Royal Navy warships laid down a barrage of explosive shells on the Palace. This cut into Khalifa’s three thousand men leaving many casualties.
The Sultan's royal yacht opens fire
Meanwhile, the Sultan’s royal yacht The Glasgow which had been a gift from Queen Victoria, opened fire on HMS St George. The withering return fire from HMS St George sank The Glasgow within minutes. Two Zanzibari steam launches suffered a similar fate when they fired upon HMS Thrush. Their crews survived and surrendered to the British.
By approximately thirty-eight minutes past nine, the guns fell silent having discharged five hundred shells, 4,100 machine-gun and 1000 rifle rounds. With Khalid bin Barghash’s flag shot from its mast, the British declared victory. Five hundred Zanzibari men, women and children lay dead or injured in the ruined precincts of the Palace. Of Khalid, the self appointed Sultan, there was no sign. Apparently, at some stage during the fighting, he had fled with his loyal second in command Captain Saleh and forty followers to seek sanctuary in the German Consulate.
The Germans offer an ingenious way out
Troops led by Brigadier General Matthews soon surrounded the consulate. However, as long as Barghash remained behind the walls of the diplomatic compound he was technically on foreign soil and could not be touched. The Germans also refused to hand him over. However they promised that were he to leave their diplomatic mission, he would not set foot on Zanzibari soil. It seemed to be an insoluble situation.
The Germans eventually came up with an ingenious way out of this impasse which broke no diplomatic rules. On the morning of 2nd October, the Imperial Navy warship the Seeadler arrived in Zanzibar’s harbour. Under the curious gaze of the British and locals, a detachment of seamen of the Imperial German Navy emerged from the ship carrying one of her boats. They then marched through the port to the German Consulate. At its garden gate, Khalid bin Barghash stepped into the boat to be carried back to the Seeadler. The British could do nothing since, at no stage had he set foot on Zanzibari soil, just as his German hosts had promised.
The British install a new Sultan
Khalid made it to German East Africa under the protection of the German government. With the outbreak of the First World War, the British finally caught up with him. Robbed of German diplomatic protection he was arrested in the German colony in 1916 by invading British troops. After periods of exile in the Seychelles and St Helena, he was finally allowed to return to East Africa. His colourful lifetime came to an end in Mombasa in 1927.
By the end of 27th August 1896, the British had installed another Sultan in Zanzibar. He was Hamud bin Muhammed, a local Zanzibari Arab with pro-British leanings. He would go on to co-operate with the British in eradicating slavery in Zanzibar.
© Nick Brazil 2023
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