Anglo Zanzibar War – Background, Aftermath, Duration and More

The Anglo Zanzibar War of 1896 – Background, Aftermath, Duration and More

We can define Anglo Zanzibar war as a military battle between the UK and the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which began on the 27th of August 1896. However, it is called the shortest war ever recorded in the world because it lasted between 38 to 45 minutes of fighting. The passing away of the British supporter Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini on the 25th of August 1896, coupled with the crowning of the next of kin Sultan Khalid bin Barghash was the sudden and primary reason for the conflict. Hamoud bin Mohammed, a sultan, showed more support to the British interest, making the British authorities choose him as the ruler. A candidate for sultanate extension must get the authorization of the British consul, as stipulated in the agreement of the 14th of June 1890 establishing a British territory over Zanzibar, and Khalid had not done so. The British saw this as a call to arms and issued an injunction with a severe warning to Khalid, requesting that he direct his soldiers to disperse and evacuate the Palace. Khalid retaliated by summoning his royal guard and hiding in a secret place within the Palace.

For the Anglo Zanzibar war, the British decided to gather 150 marines together with sailors, 3 cruisers, 900 Zanzibaris, and 2 gunboats in the port area immediately when the ultimatum got expired on the 27th of August at 09:00 East African Time (EAT). Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson of the Royal Navy led the Royal Navy force. At the same time, Brigadier-General Lloyd Mathews of the Zanzibar army (also known as the First Minister of Zanzibar) led the pro-Anglo Zanzibaris. About 2,800 Zanzibaris guarded the Palace. The majority of them were civilians; however, there were also the Sultan’s palace guards and almost a thousand of his employees, slaves, and servants. Many machine guns were stationed just at the front of the Palace together with vital artillery pieces by the defender, pointing towards the British ships. The Palace was caught on fire, and the defending artillery was crippled by an attack that started at 09:02 a.m. The British sank the Zanzibari royal yacht HHS Glasgow and two smaller vessels in a short naval action. Also, when the pro-British Zanzibari troops moved toward the Palace, some bullets were fired never got to them; that is, they were not harmed in any way during the attack. By 9:46, the palace flag was brought down, and the fire was put out.

Only one was affected among the British sailors, but more than half a thousand casualties of Sultan’s soldiers were discovered after the attack. German embassy stepped in and decided to protect Sultan Khalid, which he later flees to German East Africa (presently known as the mainland of Tanzania). Sultan Hamoud was swiftly installed immediately as the British’s head of a puppet administration. The Anglo Zanzibar war signaled the end of the Sultanate of Zanzibar as an independent state and the beginning of a period of intense British involvement.

Khalid bin Barghash
Khalid bin Barghash

The Anglo Zanzibar War Facts and Background

A small part of Tanzania was an island off the coast of Tanganyika in the Indian ocean, which was known as Zanzibar. Since 1698, when the Sultans of Oman ejected the Portuguese settlers who had claimed it in 1499, the main island Zanzibar had been nominally under their jurisdiction. The 2nd Sultan, together with Khalid’s father, were threatened and forced by the British request to end the slave trade, Said Bin Barghash in June 1873. However, it was realized later that directions from Britain would have prevented the Anglo Zanzibar war, any battle or war decision from being taken immediately after the warning had been rejected.

What finally happened was, Zanzibar city became the capital, having a seat in the government house, and an exquisite beautiful palace was built just beside the seafront by the successive Sultan. During 1896, this beautiful Palace had people like the Beit al-Ajaib, also known as “House of Wonders,” and the Beit al-Hukm, an attached harem. Furthermore, this Palace made history by becoming the first and only structure or building in the East of Africa to be equipped with electricity. Actually, the Palace was not arranged for protection, but only local wood was used during construction. Strong wooden bridges were created above street level, linking the three-palace complex buildings as they stay close to each other.

What really made Britain acknowledge Zanzibar’s jurisdiction and its sultanate in the year 1886 was a continuous long and peaceful relationship that Britain had established with the country and its sultans. The fact that Germany also wanted East of Africa for herself during the period of the nineteenth century created tension. This led to a battle between 2 great countries to gain territorial states and trade rights. But eventually, Sultan Khalifah decided to sign an agreement with Britain government granting them the land of Kenya and gave another granting right to Germany to own Tanganyika, which literately led to the abolition of the slave trade in these regions. This action disrupted vital trading activities, making many of the Arab governing elites irritated, thus resulting in a controversy. In addition to that, there were conflicts of interest (more like a battle) between the locals and the German forces when the German jurisdiction stationed in Tanganyika denied hanging the Zanzibar sultanate’s flag in the air.

On the other hand, Sultan Khalifah came up with a solution to maintain peace in Tanganyika by dispatching all the Zanzibari forces led by a formal Royal Navy lieutenant, General Lloyd Mathews, a brigadier. Although sultan Khalifah succeeded in sending away the Zanzibari troops out of Tanganyika, thereby maintaining peace in the land, Zanzibaris never loved the Germans; thus, the anti-German sentiments were huge. Many clashes broke out in the land of Bagamoyo, and natives of about one hundred and fifty were murdered by German military troops but surprisingly, in Ketwa, most of the German staff and executives were killed as well. The Imperial British East Africa Company [IBEAC] was later granted significant trading rights by Khalifah, who used a naval barricade with German support to put an end to the ongoing internal slave trade. After the death of Khalifah in 1890, a man called Ali bin Said took over as the new sultanate. After taking over as the new sultanate, Ali made Zanzibar a British territory and named Lloyd Mathews the First Minister in history to command his own cabinet.

Sultan Ali did not stop there, he went ahead to outlaw and abolished the slave trade, but the locals had the rights to slave ownership. Britain benefited a lot during this period; however, one of the most important benefits for them was having guaranteed veto rights over the decisions of a new sultan.

In the year of Ali’s ascension, many historical moments occurred, and one of them was the successful signing of the Heligoland Zanzibar treaty, which took place between Germany and Britain. The treaty was significant because it defined the domains of interest in East Africa and eventually took away Germany’s rights in Zanzibar and gave them to the United Kingdom. This agreement gave the British administration additional power in Zanzibar, which they planned to abolish slavery in the land, a goal they had set for themselves since 1804. The next sultanate that took control after Sultan Ali in 1893 was Hamad bin Thuwaini. Although Hamad kept a good friendly relationship with the British, there happened to be a disagreement among his people on the decision of the country’s expanding British authority, the British recruiting army, and finally, the elimination of the lucrative slave trade business. Unfortunately, this disagreement between the new Sultan Hamad and his subjects made the British officials authorize Hamad to recruit one thousand men as a bodyguard. Still, these men later went into battle (the Anglo Zanzibar war) with the British Commander in charge. Also, some groups of European residents in the land of Zanzibar expressed their criticism about the bodyguard’s actions.

Heligoland Zanzibar Treaty – Terms, Consequences and More

25th August 1896 of the Anglo-Zanzibar War

Sadly, on the 25th of August 1896, sultan Hamad died a sudden death at around 8:40UTC (11:40 EAT).  Meanwhile, a 29-year-old Ali’s nephew called Khalid bin Bargash was accused of plotting and killing in the land. He decided to replace Ali without the British authority, thereby violating the agreement Ali took during his reign with the British officials. The British administration obviously rejected Khalid and instead selected Hamoud bin Muhammed, an alternative candidate who definitely had the interest of the British. Some officials like the consul, executives, General Mathews, Basil Cave as well as diplomatic agents to Zanzibar advised Khalid to reconsider his actions. Khalid started a successful fight for power to become a sultanate 3 years after Ali’s death. Still, a British consul-general known as Rennel Rodd warned and reminded him of the calamities coming his way for going contrary to the British decision.

Cave’s warning was rejected, and Khalid gathered his soldiers to rally at the Royal Square under the command of the palace bodyguard’s Captain Saleh. Surprisingly, they increased by two thousand eight hundred men with muskets, weapons, firearms, and guns before the end of that day. Since the highest population were locals, Khalid decided to add seven hundred Zanzibar Askari forces who had always supported him from the beginning. Khalid introduced many solid weapons for the Anglo Zanzibar war, including two twelve-pounder field guns, 6 Maxim machine guns, a seventh-century bronze cannon, and a Gatling gun to the Sultan’s armament and commanded them to focus and attack the British ships in the harbor. There was a German dictator called Wilhelm ll who first handed the strong twelve-pounders to the Sultan as a gift. The Zanzibari Navy made up of the HHS Glasgow, one wooden sloop based on the British frigate Glasgow and built as a royal yacht for the Sultan in the year 1878 also taken over by the Sultan’s army.

Cave and Mathews started to build a powerful army. They were leading an already strategized team of nine hundred Zanzibar askaris controlled by Lieutenant Arthur Edward Harington Raikes of Wiltshire Regiment. He had always been the next in the power of the Zanzibar Army; he carried one of the most many ranks in the force known as brigadier-general. An additional marine and one hundred and fifty sailors arrived at the pearl-class protected cruiser Philomel. Together with the gunboat Thrush, both strategized to a station in the harbor to battle. An official of the naval contingent under Captain O’Callaghan’s leadership arrived at the dock about 15 minutes after he was authorized to handle whatever disturbances made by the general public. Another part of the contingent of sailors led by Lieutenant Watson of Thrush was assigned to stay at the harbor to protect the British consulate and most British residents. They were advised to gather at the dock to be saved. To survive, HMS and one of the warships eventually arrived and moved to the port in order to attach firmly close to Thrush, making sure that is directly facing the Palace.

British officials questioned the credibility of Raikes’ askaris, but they gave enough reasons to be trusted again as a reliable and professional force that had been toughened by military exercise and repeated missions to East Africa. They were not powerful enough to manage the conflict, and as a result, they were the only land forces or troops targeted by their opponents during the Anglo Zanzibar war. To be able to achieve victory, the Raikes’ forces decided to arm themselves with 2 Maxim guns and a 9-pounder cannon to a station near the customs houses. The Sultan tried to get Richard Dorsey Mohun, the US consul, to acknowledge his accession, but the messenger was told:

….. It is impossible to respond at the moment because his ascension has yet to be confirmed by Her Majesty’s government.

Khalid obviously continued to reject Cave’s numerous warnings to dispatch his forces, vacate the Palace, surrender and return home. And finally, Khalid responded to Cave, saying he was declaring himself Sultan at 15:00 EAT with or without the British support. According to Cave, the British government had decided not to accept the sultanate of Khalid as a result of this act of revolt in the land of Zanzibar. Sultan Hamad was laid to rest at precisely 14:30 (EAT), and Khalid’s succession was announced 30 minutes later, and he was given a special royal salute from the palace guns. As a good leader, Cave could not start fighting without permission from the government, so he telegraphed the following message to Lord Salisbury’s Foreign Office in London:

Is it legal for us to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war if all attempts to try and maintain peace in the land fail?

In the meantime, Cave notified the other foreign consuls that all flags should be flown at half-mast in order to honor Hamad for the last time. A giant crimson flag flying from Khalid’s Palace was the only one that didn’t respect Cave’s order. Cave also told the consuls that they should not accept nor recognize Khalid as Sultan, and of course, they agreed to it.

HMS Thrush
HMS Thrush

26th of August

Racoon, a protected cruiser of the Archer class, arrived in Zanzibar Town on the 26th of August around 10:00 (EAT] and was anchored alongside Sparrow and Thrush. The flagship of the Cape of Good Hope and West Africa Station, the Edgar-class protected cruiser St George, arrived at the harbor at 14:00 (EAT). The commander-in-chief, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, and other British marines and sailors were also on board. After waiting for some time on a reply, Lord Salisbury responded to Cave and Rawson first on the issue of Khalid, granting permission to utilize whatever means they had to depose Khalid, take him out of the Palace, and make him powerless. “You are permitted to take whatever majors you may feel important, and Her Majesty’s Government will back and support you in your action. For whatever reason, never try any activity that you are not sure it will be completed effectively to maintain success”. The telegram stated.

After Cave had forwarded several negotiations to Khalid, which he never accepted any of it, however, Rawson sent a warning to Khalid, demanding him to take down his flag and evacuate the Palace latest the 27th of August around 09:00 (EAT) or he would definitely go in for war.  All commerce vessels were cleared from the harbor in the afternoon, and the British women and children were taken to St George and a British-India Steam Navigation Company vessel for safety reasons. During that same night, consul Mohun stated, “Zanzibar was awful since you could not hear any noise or sound coming from the land. Normally, drums would be thumping, or babies would cry, but there was no sound that night.” These actions did kick-off the Anglo Zanzibar war into action.


27th of August

Most people wonder how long was the Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896 exactly as there are so many versions of the durations of the war. Here is a sequence of events that went down from the beginning to the end.

Khalid decided to send a messenger demanding parley from Cave at around 08:00 (EAT) on the morning of the 27th of August. Still, consul Cave’s reply was clear and said he would only be saved if he accepted the negotiation terms. “We have no intention of bringing down our flag, and we do not believe you will open fire on us,” a new messenger from Khalid said at 08:30 (EAT), to which Cave answered, “We do not want to start a fire, but until you do as you are ordered, we will certainly do so.” After receiving no more word from the Palace, the signal “ready for action” was hoisted by the crew of St George Rawson at 08:55 (EAT). General Lloyd Mathews gave the order for the bombardment to begin at precisely 09:00 a.m. (EAT). Her Majesty’s Ships Sparrow, Racoon, and Thrush all began to fire on the Palace almost the same time at exactly 09:02 a.m. (EAT). An Arab 12-pounder cannon was dismounted by Thrush’s first fire. The primarily wooden Palace housed 3,000 defenders, slaves, staff, and servants, and even with barricades of crates, rubber, and bales, the high explosive shells claimed so many lives while partially bringing down the Palace as well. Sultan Khalid fled from the Palace despite initial claims that he had been apprehended and was about to be deported to India. The sultan “fled at the first shot with all the prominent Arabs, who abandoned their followers, slaves, and properties to continue the struggle to survive,” according to a Reuters news correspondent, but other journalists claimed he stayed in the Palace for a long time before escaping.

By the time the firing stopped precisely 09:40 a.m. (EAT), the Palace and its attached harem had caught fire, the Sultan’s cannon had been silenced, and his flag had been brought down to mark the end of Khalid’s reign in Zanzibar.

A short naval action occurred during the bombardment when, at 09:05 a.m. (EAT), the outdated Glasgow fired on St George with her armament of seven nine-pounder guns and a Gatling gun had been a gift from Queen Victoria to the Sultan. Glasgow sank as a result of the return fire, and her remaining masts eventually stayed above the water because of the narrow harbor. Looking for a way to survive, Glasgow’s crew raised a British flag as a sign of surrender, which made the British sailors stop firing at them, and they were all rescued and saved. One of the Majesty’s ships called Thrush sank 2 new launches when the Zanzibari seamen shot fired at her with just rifles. When Raikes’ askaris were approaching the Palace, Khalid’s men on the land fired at them, but they were never seriously injured, and no one was killed. Finally, the Anglo Zanzibar war came to an end when the firing and bombarding stopped. By the afternoon, the British had taken possession of the town and the Palace, and Hamoud bin Muhammed, an Arab ally of the British, had been installed as Sultan with minimal powers. Over five hundred shells, one thousand rifle rounds, and four thousand one hundred machine gun rounds were fired by British ships and sailors during the Anglo Zanzibar war.

The Anglo Zanzibar War Deaths and the Aftermath in General

1896 British newspaper depicting the bombing of Stone Town
1896 British newspaper depicting the bombing of Stone Town

During the bombing, around 500 Zanzibari men and women were killed or injured, and most of them died as a result of the Anglo Zanzibar war palace fire. The exact number of combatants killed is unknown, but Khalid’s gun crews were stated to be “decimated.” On Thrush, there was one British casualty, a petty officer who was seriously wounded but later recovered. Despite the fact that most of the Zanzibari citizens supported the British, the town’s Indian quarter was victimized by opportunistic looting, and roughly 20 people died as a result of the uproar. One hundred and fifty British Sikh forces were moved from Mombasa to patrol the streets in an attempt to restore order. But a fire had spread from the Palace to the adjoining customs sheds, and sailors from Philomel and St George arrived to organize a fire brigade to put out the fire. At a certain point, the fire at the customs sheds caused some alarm because they housed a large number of explosives, but there was no explosion.

Following their retreat from the Palace, Sultan Khalid, Captain Saleh, and roughly 40 of their followers found sanctuary in the German embassy, where they were guarded by 10 armed German marines and sailors, with Mathew’s stationing troops outside to arrest them if they attempted to flee. Although they requested extradition, the German consul, Albrecht von Rechenberg, subsequently Governor of German East Africa, rejected the order to hand Khalid to the British, citing the fact that his country’s extradition treaty with Britain expressly excluded political detainees. However, the German consul vowed to transport Khalid to German East Africa without allowing him to “step foot on Zanzibar territory.” The Imperial German Navy’s SMS Seeadler arrived in port at 10:00 a.m. (EAT), and on the 2nd of October;

At high tide, one of Seeadler’s boats consisted of many consulates’ garden gates, and Khalid walked right from the beginning of consulate grounds to a German war vessel, thus avoiding capture. Later, he was carried from the boat to the Seeadler and then flown to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in German East Africa. During the East African Campaign of World War I, Khalid was arrested by British forces in 1916 and was exiled to Saint Helena, Seychelles, before being permitted to return back to East Africa, where he died in the year 1927 at Mombasa. The British administration penalized Khalid’s supporters, who forcefully made sure the supporters paid about 300,000 rupees in compensation for shells fired at them and damages caused by looting during the Anglo Zanzibar war.

The new Sultan Hamoud was a faithful British supporter who served as a figurehead for a basically British-run government. The sultanate only remained in place to save the costs of operating Zanzibar as a crown colony. With British encouragement, Hamoud outlawed slavery in all its forms a few months after the Anglo Zanzibar war ended. For peace to reign, slave emancipation was proposed where a slave only needed to submit themselves to a government office, though it was a long process—only 17,293 slaves were freed in 10 years, out of a population of 60,000 in 1891.

The conflict severely altered the critically damaged palace complex. Furthermore, the bombing made the Palace, harem, and lighthouse unsafe, which made them completely destroy it. The site of the Palace was turned into a garden, while the harem was replaced quickly by a new complex building. They realized that the House of Wonders was never affected during the Anglo Zanzibar war; it was later made the secretariat headquarter for the British regulatory authorities in Zanzibar. A clocktower was built to the House of Wonders’ facade during rehabilitation work in 1897 to replace the lighthouse that had been lost due to bombardment. The wreck of the Glasgow maintained its position in the port, and it was facing the Palace for many years, with the shallow seas ensuring that her masts stay visible; it was eventually broken up to pieces in the year 1912.

For their services leading up to and during the Anglo Zanzibar war, the British protagonists were highly valued by the governments in London and Zanzibar, and many were recognized with appointments and honors. General Raikes, the leader of the askaris, was made a 1st Class (2nd Grade) member of Zanzibar’s Order of the Brilliant Star on the 24th of September, 1896, and a 1st Class member of the Zanzibari Order of Hamondieh on the 25th of August, 1897, before being promoted to Commander of the Zanzibar forces. On the 25th of August, 1897, General Mathews, the Zanzibari army commander, with so much respect, was made a member of the Grand Order of Hamondieh and named the 1st minister and Treasurer of the Zanzibari government. On the 1st of January 1897, the consul, Basil Cave, was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath, and on the 9th of July 1903, he was advanced to consul-general for during an excellent work. For his service in Zanzibar, Harry Rawson was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, and he would subsequently become Governor of New South Wales in Australia. On the 8th of February, 1897, Rawson was inducted into the Order of the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar as a first-class member, and following the next year: that is the 18th of June, 1898, he was promoted into the Order of Hamondieh. During the remaining 67 years of the protectorate, the British had full right over Zanzibar, and there were no other conflicts or rebellions against British influence.

Why Was the Anglo Zanzibar War So Short?

Anglo Zanzibar War Duration

How long did the Ango Zanzibar war last? The conflict was the shortest in recorded history of Zanzibar, lasting not more than three-quarters of an hour (less than an hour). Sources mention a variety of times, including 45, 40, and 30 minutes, although the 38-minute time is the most commonly stated. The disparity stems from a misunderstanding of what defines the start and end of a Anglo Zanzibar war in order to get the exact duration of the battle. Many sources place the start of the Anglo Zanzibar war at 09:00 a.m. (EAT) with the mandate to fire, while others put the start of actual firing at 09:02 a.m. (EAT). The conflict officially ended at 09:40 a.m. (EAT), when the last bullets were fired, and the palace flag was raised, but some news outlets say it ended at 09:45 a.m. (EAT). The British ships’ logbooks also recorded different time duration of when the Anglo Zanzibar war ended: with St George reporting a cease-fire and Khalid entering the German consulate at 09:35 a.m. (EAT), Thrush at 09:40 a.m. (EAT), Racoon at 09:41 a.m. (EAT), and Philomel and Sparrow at 09:45 a.m. (EAT).

In conclusion, if you would like to read more about the war you can visit the Anglo Zanzibar War Wikipedia page, it has more detailed aspects of the whole war.

If you would like to find more articles about The People Republic of Zanzibar, click here!

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