The Anglo–Zanzibar War (of 1896)

Zanzibar came under the nominal control of the Sultans of Oman in 1698, when they expelled the Portuguese settlers who had claimed it in 1499. In 1858, Sultan Majid bin Said declared the island independent of Oman, and this was recognised by Great Britain in 1866. Seven years later, Britain forced Majid's successor, his brother Bargash bin Said, to abandon the slave trade in Zanzibar – but not slavery itself.

In 1888 the third Sultan, Khalifah bin Said, granted rights to the land of Kenya to Britain and that of Tanganyika to Germany, which resulted in the prohibition of slavery in those lands. There was unrest in Tanganyika, but this was suppressed with British help. In 1890 the fourth Sultan, Ali bin Said, banned the domestic slave trade and declared Zanzibar a British protectorate, guaranteeing Britain a veto over the appointment of future sultans.

When Ali's successor, Sultan Hamad, died suddenly at 11:40 local time on 25 August 1896, his nephew Khalid bin Bargash moved into the palace complex at Zanzibar Town – without British approval, and thus in contravention of the treaty agreed with Ali. The candidate preferred by the British government was Hamud bin Muhammed, who was more favourably disposed towards them. Khalid was warned to think carefully about his actions, but he ignored this warning. His forces began mustering in the Palace Square; by the end of the day they numbered 2,800 men, armed with rifles and muskets.

The British consul, Basil Cave, sent repeated messages to Khalid, asking him to stand down his troops, leave the palace and return home; but Khalid's only reply was that he would declare himself Sultan at 15:00. Sultan Hamad was buried at 14:30, and 30 minutes later a royal salute from the palace guns proclaimed Khalid's succession.

On 26 August, Cave received authorisation to take whatever measures he deemed necessary to remove Khalid from power. He attempted further negotiations with Khalid, but these failed. Rear–Admiral Harry Rawson, who had arrived in Zanzibar that day on board the cruiser St. George, sent an ultimatum: unless Khalid hauled down his flag and left the palace by 09:00 on 27 August, he would open fire. Besides the St. George, there were by this time four other Royal Navy ships in the harbour of Zanzibar Town: the gunboats Thrush and Sparrow, and the cruisers Philomel and Racoon.

At 08:00 on the morning of 27 August, Cave refused a request for parley from Khalid, replying that Khalid's only hope of salvation was to comply with the terms of the ultimatum. At 08:30 a further messenger from Khalid declared "We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us". Cave replied: "We do not want to open fire, but unless you do as you are told we shall certainly do so." By 08:55, no further word had been received from the palace; Rawson, aboard the St George, hoisted the signal "prepare for action".

The bombardment was ordered at 9:00, and began at 09:02. At 09:05, the Sultan's royal yacht Glasgow (built in 1878 and based on the British frigate of the same name) fired on the St George using her armament of seven nine–pounders and a Gatling gun, which had been a present from Queen Victoria. The Glasgow (which comprised the entire Zanzibari navy) was sunk by the return fire, and her crew hoisted a British flag as a token of their surrender. They were all rescued by British sailors in launches.

The shelling ceased at 09:40. By this time the palace and its harem were on fire; the Sultan's artillery (consisting of several Maxim machine guns, a Gatling gun, a 17th–century bronze cannon and two 12–pound field guns which had been a gift from the German Emperor Wilhelm II) had been silenced, and his flag cut down. Around 500 of the 3,000 people present inside the palace had been killed or wounded, but Khalid himself had escaped. The only British casualty was one Petty Officer aboard HMS Thrush, who was severely wounded (but later recovered).

Sultan Khalid and around forty followers were granted political asylum in the German consulate. Khalid was taken to Dar es Salaam in German East Africa. He was captured by British forces in 1916, and exiled to Seychelles and Saint Helena before being allowed to return to East Africa. He died at Mombasa in 1927. His supporters were forced to pay a total of 300,000 rupees, as reparation for the cost of shells fired against them and for damages caused by looting.

Sultan Hamud subsequently acted as a figurehead for an essentially British–run government. The palace, harem and lighthouse were demolished, as the bombardment had left them unsafe. The palace site became an area of gardens, while a new palace was erected on the site of the harem. The wreck of the Glasgow remained in the harbour in front of the palace, where the shallow waters ensured that her masts would remain visible for years. She was eventually broken up for scrap in 1912.

© Haydn Thompson 2017