Monday, May 12, 2014

The Shortest War in History

It will take longer to write this post than the duration of the war.  Much longer.

The combatants were the British Empire and the Sultanate of Zanzibar.  Want to guess who won?

We will get to that, but let’s start further back.

Though I knew nothing of Zanzibar’s location on the map or its history, the very sound of its name was synonymous with “romantic and exotic” in my mind when I was a child.  Its story has proved my young imagination correct.  Its position and its protected, defensible harbor made it a base for voyaging traders from time immemorial.   Arabs, Indians, and Africans had used it as such for millennia when the Vasco Da Gama arrived and assumed control of it in 1499.   It took the Ottomans two hundred years and at least two shooting wars to unseat the Portuguese for good in 1698.

Sultan Seyyid

Afterwards, under the control of the Sultanate of Oman, the island became a center of agriculture and an important post for trading ivory and slaves.

During the 19th century Scramble for Africa, the British set their sights on Zanzibar. Its main potential uses: it would give them a leg up in their competition with the Germans for control of East Africa AND they could claim it as key to abolishing slavery.   The Empire’s progress there came in diplomatic fits and starts until 1856, when the Brits recognized Sultan Seyyid Said, who in return gave their East African ambitions his support, favoring them over their German rivals.

But… and since this is about a war, there must be a “but.”   Said’s heir, the pro-British Hamad bin Thuwaini, died on August 25th 1896, whereupon Hamad’s nephew Khalid bin Barghash took over in a coup d’etat.

The treaty between Her Majesty’s government and the Sultan Seyyid had given Britain the right to approve of who ruled Zanzibar.

The Brits saw that Khalid threatened their favored position and would play the Germans and the British off against each other.   They were most seriously  displeased.  They much preferred another heir, Hamud bin Muhammed, who would be their man.

The game was afoot.

Khalid had 2800 men with him in the fortified palace and an armed yacht anchored in the harbor.  The rest of the regular Zanzibar Army was elsewhere on the island and under the command of General Lloyd Matthews, formerly a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy.  Needless to say, Khalid was not getting any help from that quarter.

On August 26th, the Brits moved in with five cruisers.  They also landed a few platoons of Royal Marines.  They delivered an ultimatum to Khalid: Stand down and give up the palace by 9 tomorrow morning or you will be toast.  Khalid ignored the order.  Big mistake.

On August 27th, at 9:02 in the morning, Rear-Admiral Henry Rawson gave the order to open fire.  That volley set the Sultan’s palace afire and destroyed the defenders’ artillery.  The British sank the HHS Glasgow, the Zanzabari royal yacht.  Khalid’s retreating troops fired a few desperate shots at the Brits.  At 9:40 AM, a final shot from the HMS Thrush’s 12-pounder brought down the Sultan’s flag at the palace and the war was over.

Khalid absconded to the German embassy and eventually escaped to German East Africa on the mainland.  The British puppet, Sultan Hamud took the throne.

Five hundred of Khalid’s men—largely composed of civilians and slaves—were killed or injury.  One British sailor was wounded.

And the way was paved for the Brits to gain hegemony over British East Africa (now Kenya).  You can meet some of those Brits—real and fictional—in my Strange Gods, which will launch on June 24.

Annamaria - Monday


  1. Absolutely fascinating stuff, Annamaria. I'd no idea of that episode in British colonial history.

    I feel I should be apologising -- both for my ignorance and my ancestors :)

    1. Zoe, many apologies could be required. But I do not believe that the sins of the fathers should ever be visited on the likes of you.

    2. I asked my father, but he claims he's never been anywhere near Zanzibar, so I think I can safely say it wassunt'im :)

  2. I think the episode could be titled, "The Mouse That Roared Too Loudly."

    1. Jeff, equally appropriate, would be "The Mouse That Roared But Not Loud Enough." Didn't Khalid read the papers? He acted without knowing who was up against, and what the role the Germans would be willing to play. Or not play. I see WWI coming up for these folks. This incident seems like one the first rising bubbles as the pot begins to boil. The Brits finally captured Khalid in 1916, after winning their battles with German's on the mainland.

  3. Actually, I think I would title it "Sultan for a Day." It would make a great American Daytime Television show, n'est pas?

    SO much history, so little time. Thanks for sharing, AmA!

    1. EvKa, I wish I had thought of that. It would have been the perfect title for this piece. Welcome back. This blog is more fun when you are here.