Great Britain Defeats Sultanate of Zanzibar, Prosecuting War in 38 Minutes

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Great Britain Defeats Sultanate of Zanzibar, Prosecuting War in 38 Minutes

Today in Military History: August 27, 1896

This is another example of the "little wars" which Great Britain fought to expand or protect its imperial holdings in Africa. It was surely the shortest war in history.


The island of Zanzibar – which today is part of the nation of Tanzania – declared its independence from the Sultans of Oman in 1858, which used the island in the lucrative East African slave trade. Great Britain recognized Zanzibar as a sovereign nation in 1886. In 1890 Ali Bin Said became sultan, declared Zanzibar a British protectorate, and appointed a British First Minister to head his cabinet. The British were also guaranteed a veto over future appointments to the sultanate.

By 1896, Britain and Germany – entering late into the colonial scramble for Africa – had demarcated their respective zones of interest. Britain had Zanzibar and British East Africa (the latter would become Kenya) while the Germans controlled the area later to be known as Tanganyika. Both European nations sought to suppress the slave trade, which did not set well with the many of the locals. British officials authorized the sultan – since 1893 a gentleman by the name of Hamad bin Thuwaini [see below] – to raise a 1000-strong palace guard to deal with any local dissent. These guardsmen, however, clashed with the British–led police. Other local European residents also complained of the palace guard's activities.

Hamad bin Thuwaini, Sultan of Zanzibar (1893-1896)

On August 25, 1896 at 11:40 am local time, Sultan Hamad died suddenly in his palace. Suspicion immediately fell upon his 29-year old nephew, Khalid bin Bargash, who moved into the palace complex shortly after the old sultan's death and prepared to declare himself the new ruler of Zanzibar. The British consul to Zanzibar, Basil Cave, warned Khalid about his precipitate action, stating that his actions were not consistent with the Anglo-Zanzibar agreement in place since 1890.

Khalid ignored Cave's warning and immediately began mustering his forces. By the end of the day, he had 2800 men of the palace guard and other locals armed with rifles and muskets. They also had a moderately impressive artillery park, which included several Maxim machine guns, a Gatling gun, two 12-pounder field guns (gifts to the sultanate from German emperor Wilhelm II), and a 17th century bronze cannon. All of these guns were trained on the British ships that were currently anchored in the city's harbor. The new sultan's troops also took control of the "Zanzibari Navy," which consisted solely of the HHS Glasgow, a wooden sloop built in 1878 as a royal yacht for the sultan. [Despite the vessel's armament of seven rifled muzzle-loading nine-pound cannon and a nine-barreled Gatling gun, HHS Glasgow did not impress the sultan and it had lain at anchor for 18 years.]

HHS Glasgow, 1890

Two Royal Navy vessels were currently anchored in the harbor: the protected cruiser HMS Philomel (whose main armament was eight breech-loading [BL] 4.7 inch quick-firing guns) and the gunboat HMS Thrush (armed with six BL 4 in. 25-pound guns). Later that day, the gunboat HMS Sparrow sailed into Zanzibar Town's harbor, anchoring opposite the sultan's palace next to Thrush. This last vessel's main armament consisted of six BL 4 in. 25-pounders.

HMS Philomel

HMS Sparrow

The British officials also began to muster their land forces, primarily 900 British-trained Zanzibari askaris, as well as Royal Marines and sailors from the Philomel and Thrush. The askaris also had two Maxim guns and a nine-pounder cannon, and were stationed at the nearby customs quarter. The marines and sailors were placed to guard the British consulate, where local British citizens were encourage to gather for their own protection.

Consul Cave sent a frantic telegram to the Foreign Office (the British equivalent of the U.S. State Department) in London, asking, "Are we authorised in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?" He sent further messages to Khalid, urging him not to continue on his chosen path. Instead, Khalid declared himself the new sultan at 3:00 pm, half an hour after the official funeral for his predecessor. Cave contacted all the other foreign consuls in the capital, asking them not to recognize Khalid.

Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson (1843-1910)

The next day at 10:00 am the torpedo cruiser HMS Racoon entered the harbor, followed four hours later by cruiser HMS St. George, the flagship of the Cape and East Asia Station. The latter vessel also had on board Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, becoming the highest ranking military leader present. At about the same time, a telegram arrived in the British consulate from the Foreign Office, saying, "You are authorised to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty's Government. Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully."

Cave sent more messages to Khalid, still attempting to negotiate with him. However, shortly after his arrival, Admiral Rawson sent an ultimatum to Khalid, demanding that he lower his flag flying over the royal palace and surrender to British authority by 9:00 am the next day. All merchant ships left the harbor during the afternoon, anticipating the worst.

The Thirty-Eight Minute War

At 8:00 am on August 27, Khalid sent a messenger to Cave asking for a parley. Cave replied that the usurper could only hope for a peaceful resolution if he obeyed Rawson's ultimatum. At about 8:30, Khalid sent a final reply, "We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us." Cave replied that they did not wish to fire on the palace, "but unless you do as you are told, we shall certainly do so." When no further communication came from the palace, Admiral Rawson sent the signal, "Prepare for action" at 8:55 am.

At 9:02 am, Her Majesty's Ships Racoon, Sparrow, and Thrush all opened fire simultaneously at the royal palace. The first shot from the Thrush dismounted one of the 12-pound cannons outside the palace. The mostly-wooden structure was crowded with over 3000 soldiers, servants, and slaves. There were high casualties among the palace's occupants from the naval barrage. A news correspondent for Reuters reported that Khalid and about 40 followers fled the palace at the first shots, fleeing to the nearby German consulate.

In the harbor, a short naval battle also occurred. At 9:05 the HHS Glasgow began firing on the St. George. Return fire quickly holed the Glasgow, and the crew raised a British flag as their sign of surrender. Survivors were picked up by British steam launches. In addition, Zanzibari steam launches – probably from the harbor – fired on the Thrush with rifles. These were quickly sunk by the gun crews of the Thrush.

At the beginning of the shelling, the British-training askaris moved to engage the defenders of the royal palace, and were fired upon by Khalid's men with no effect. At around 9:40 am, all the Zanzibari artillery had been silenced, the palace and attached harem were in flames, and Khalid's red flag had been cut down by shellfire. The bombardment then ceased, ending the short-lived Anglo-Zanzibari War. The British ships and their crews had fired some 500 shells, 4100 machine gun rounds, and 1000 rifle rounds during the "war."


Sultan's palace after the British bombardment

Approximately 500 Zanzibari men and women were killed or wounded in the bombardment, while British casualties amounted to one petty officer severely wounded, who later recovered. British sailors from several of the ships were organized into fire brigades to fight fires that had spread to the customs warehouses near the palace. Later in the day, a Zanzibari more acceptable to the British consul was installed as the new sultan. The sultanate was also required to pay reparations to reimburse the Royal Navy for the cost of munitions used, as well as to reimburse merchants in the Indian quarter of the city for looting which took place during the three-day succession crisis.

Footnote #1: Khalid remained as a "guest" of the German consulate until October 2, when a steam launch from the German cruiser Seeadler arrived. Khalid stepped directly from the dock of the consulate directly onto the launch, thus avoiding British forces seeking to arrest him if he left the German consulate grounds by any other route. He was then transported to Dar es Salaam in German East Africa. Khalid was captured by British forces in 1916, sent into exile first in the Seychelles, then St. Helena, before he was allowed to return to Zanzibar, dying in 1927.

Footnote #2: The wreck of the Glasgow remained in the shallow waters of Zanzibar Town's harbor, with just the tips of the two masts and the funnel protruding above the water. It was eventually broken up for scrap by underwater demolition in 1912. 

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