The attack on the Sultanate of Zanzibar by the British Navy in 1896 has always been referred to as the “shortest war” in human history. This is a misnomer because it was not a WAR but a brutal aggression against a sovereign state in order to force a regime change.
A similar act of aggression was waged against Zanzibar during the reign of Sayyid Barghash bin Said. Germany seized his mainland dominions with the connivance of the British Government. When he strongly protested this unlawful seizure, the Germans sent five warships to Zanzibar and gave the Sultan a 24 hours ultimatum either to accept their demand or be bombed to submission. He had no choice but to agree.
We have to realize that these events started to take place in mid-1800 when most of European nations displayed their imperialistic and colonial desires in Africa. This was to be followed, in 1880, by the carving up of Africa among European nations, known as “Scramble for Africa”.
Hence, the following is a very brief history of events that took place on that fateful day in August of 1896:
In October 1856, Sayyid Said bin Sultan died at sea on his way back to Zanzibar from Oman. The ship had just passed the islands of Seychelles when this happened. The ship was hardly moving because there was no wind. On board was his son Sayyid Barghash who did not want to commit his body to sea in case his brothers accuse him of murdering their father. No one knew of the passing away of this great Sultan except those on board.
Sayyid Barghash had enough time to plan that as soon as they arrive in Zanzibar he would declare himself the next Sultan. Things did not go according to his plan. His claim to the throne was thwarted by his brother Majid who was supported militarily by the British. When the news reached Muscat, Sayyid Thuwainy, who was their eldest brother, decided to sail to Zanzibar with his navy to claim the throne of both Oman and Zanzibar. The British, who had close relationship with Sayyid Said bin Sultan, intervened as arbitrators.
In short, the outcome meant that Oman was now severed from her African dominions. Sayyid Thuwainy became the ruler of Oman and Sayyid Majid of Zanzibar and all the African dominions. Henceforth the British started to play a major role in the affairs of the Sultanate. This division among the brothers played very well in the hands of the British, the French and the Germans who foresaw great opportunities and financial benefit flowing from Africa. The “Scramble for Africa” was now in full swing.
When Sayyid Majid died in 1870, Sayyid Barghash became the next ruler. The British tried to interfere in his rule but he was strong and exercised independence. As mentioned above in the preamble, during the last years of his reign, Sayyid Barghash was bitterly humiliated by the Germans. This dastardly act meant that the Sultanate was now emasculated and the Imperial Europeans powers could now dictate and impose their will.
To add insult to injury, Britain, France and Germany formed a commission to determine the Sultanate’s boundaries and the Sultan’s authority. The commission did NOT include Sultan Barghash or his representative. When he protested, they simply ignored him. The commission completed their deliberations in December 1886 and published their agreement known as Delimination Treaty. Sayyid Barghash was forced to sign the agreement at a cost of losing all his dominions. Sayyid Barghash died in 1888 at the age of 55 a very bitter and distraught monarch.
The British and the Germans had already agreed that when Sayyid Barghash dies, they would appoint his brother Sayyid Khalifa bin Said to be the next ruler. He was young and had no experience in running the affairs of the state. During his reign, the Italians claimed that he had insulted the Italian King by ignoring to reply to a letter the King sent him two weeks earlier. The Italians demanded that retribution for this insult was to hand over the Port of Kismayu to Italy!
The Germans and the British intervened and told Italy that this was not the right time. (Kismayu was eventually given to the Italians during the reign of Sayyid Hamed bin Thuwainy under a different pretext). Sayyid Khalifa bin Said’s rule was very short. He died in 1890 at the age of 36.
He was succeeded by Sayyid Ali bin Said, who was the last son of Sayyid Said bin Sultan’s children in Zanzibar. Shortly after he became the ruler, the British told Sayyid Ali that the Germans were plotting to take over Zanzibar. They advised him, and he agreed, to make Zanzibar a British Protectorate.
This was the last nail in the coffin of Zanzibar as an Independent Nation. Zanzibar became a British Protectorate and all affairs of the State were now in the hands of the British Colonial Office. There was a lot of discontent and opposition among the population against both the British and the Germans. Sayyid Ali bin Said died in 1893. The British had already placed her warships and marines in case of any trouble.
When Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash learnt of his uncle’s death, he took steps to declare himself the next ruler. However, the British resolutely opposed his claim and had him escorted back to his house. The British were considering installing either Sayyid Hamed bin Thuwainy or Sayyid Hamoud bin Muhammed to be the next ruler depending who will accept their terms and conditions. (Sayyid Hamoud had an older brother called Kahlid; he was kept out of the picture). They decided to install Sayyid Hamed after he had agreed to sign and abide by certain conditions laid down by the British.
As soon as the British knew that Sayyid Hamed was gravely ill, they had three warships anchored at the harbor, HMS Philomel, Thrush and Sparrow. These were soon joined by HMS St. George and Racoon. They also had the marines stationed on the ground.
Sayyid Hamed bin Thuwainy died on 25th August 1896. This time Sayyid Khalid was much more prepared and organized to take the throne, with or without the British consent. He went to Beit Hukum with his followers and declared himself the next Sultan.
On 27th August 1896, the British gave Sayyid Khalid an ultimatum to vacate the ‘palace’ by 9 am or face the consequences. Sayyid Khalid ignored the ultimatum and barricaded himself in Beit Hukum together with his supporters. At exactly 9 am the British warships started to bombard both Beit Hukum and Beit Sahel.
Sayyid Khalid and his followers was no match to the British fire power. By 9:40 am the offensive was over. Beit Hukum and the front part of Beit Sahel were totally destroyed and the rest was severely damaged. The Light House Tower in front of Bait Al Ajaib was badly damaged. Part of Bait Al Ajaib where the Throne room was located was also damaged.
Over 500 supporters of Sayyid Khalid who were outside Beit Hukum and who were visible from the warship decks, and many more who were in Beit Sahel were killed and many others injured. ….and so on 27th August 1896 the British bombarded Zanzibar not only to get rid of the son of Sayyid Barghash bin Said but to put everyone on notice that they are now in control of the Sultanate of Zanzibar.
Beit Hukum and Beit Sahel were among the first ‘Stone Town’ houses that were built by Sayyid Said bin Sultan towards the end of 1829. They belonged to a cluster of royal residences for the wives and children of Sayyid Said bin Sultan. The front part of Beit Hukum was the office of the Sultan and the subsequent Sultans. All the furniture and documents perished when the building was bombarded.
Beit Sahel housed the bulk of the royal family members and their household staff. Apart from the living quarters, Beit Sahel had an extension built at the front known as “The Pavilion”. The Pavilion was richly decorated with many valuable carpets and other precious items. Many of the gifts received by Sayyid Said were displayed here. Sayyid Said had a large collection of beautifully decorated sabers and swords many of which he had received as gift from other monarchs or heads of state. Most of these items were destroyed and those that survived were looted by the ‘conquerors’.
As mentioned above, due to the damage it sustained, the Light House Tower had to be demolished. The Beit Al Ajaib Throne Room was also damaged. The Chandeliers that survived the assault were later installed at Beit Serkal (the Palace Museum). However, many other precious items disappeared.