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he colonial influence of each world power during the 19th century was a subject over which many countries fought over. Many wars were started over colonial claims due to the large amount of money that could be made from these overseas possessions. Such was the case for most of Africa, where many of Europe’s colonial powers fought for dominance over the region’s plentiful natural resources.

To truly gain dominance over these regions, the European empires had to placate the locals of each region, something which each empire did with varying success. Due to the technological and tactical differences of each region, conflicts would either last days, weeks, or years but no conflict ended as quickly as the Anglo-Zanzibar War.

Short-lived independence

Zanzibar became independent in 1858 after breaking apart from the country of Oman. During their brief years of independence, Zanzibar would make a fortune off the slave trade in Africa, an endeavor which the British Empire disagreed with. After banning the slave trade in their country in 1833, Great Britain sought to abolish it worldwide, using their large merchant navy to enforce the ban.

Britain would catch up with the small island leading to a blockade being created by the Royal Navy in 1873, where Britain used their policy of “gunship diplomacy” to enforce their ban on the small nation. Although officially the blockade worked and the country banned the trade, they still continued to sell slaves but at a decreased rate so as to not create suspicion.

Handover ceremony on the German island of Heligoland, 10 August 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Britain would become increasingly interested in the region leading to them being one of the first countries to recognize the Sultan of Zanzibar to gain good relations with the country. Germany also wanted in on the action which led to the signing of the Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty on July 1, 1890, which laid out Britain and Germany’s spheres of influence over the region.

Another clause of the treaty was that Germany was not allowed to influence the island of Zanzibar, which was made a British protectorate the same year, cementing British dominance over the region and the island.

The Sultan’s wish

Hamoud bin Mohammed on the left and Khalid bin Barghash on the right. Source: Collage using Wikimedia Commons

Sultan حمد بن ثويني البوسعيد (Anglicised: Hamad bin Thuwaini) was sympathetic to the British and ruled the country as a British puppet until his death in 1896, leaving the country in turmoil.

There were two legitimate heirs to the throne at the time of Hamad’s death: خالد بن برغش البوسعيد (Anglicised: Khalid bin Barghash), the previous Sultan’s nephew who wished to see his country independent from foreign influence and حمود بن محمد (Anglicised: Hamoud bin Mohammed) who was more pro-British.

At the time of Hamad’s death, his nephew Khalid acted quickly to gain power, moving into the Sultan’s Palace without British permission soon after his uncle’s death, angering many of the British representatives on the island, especially the British consul who asked the new Sultan to reconsider his actions.

The British planned to have Hamoud as the next Sultan, and Khalid’s takeover of the Royal Palace put this at risk. Khalid was determined and waivered the threat of British retaliation, assembling a small militia of locals numbering around 3,000 as well as assembling a navy of a few fishing boats and his yacht, the HHS Glasgow.

Basil Cave. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Navy quickly responded to the threat, surrounding the Sultan’s Palace on 25 August 1896. The fleet was led by Basil Cave, the Vice-Consul of British East Africa.

Khalid proclaimed himself Sultan at 15:00 on the same day, denying the requests of surrender sent by the captain of the growing fleet of ships outside of his palace. The next day Cave received authorization from the British parliament to take control of the island using any means necessary.

On the 26th, Cave sent an ultimatum to the Sultan requesting him to take down his flag and leave the palace by 09:00 the next day, or he would open fire. Cave would receive no response until the next morning at 08:30 when Khalid sent over a messenger with the message:

“We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us”

Cave would prove the Sultan wrong in his assumption as at exactly 9:02, the British ships started firing on the Sultan’s Palace, decimating it. The Sultan tried to retaliate in many forms, even sending out his yacht with a 7-pounder cannon and a Gatling gun to fire upon the British battleships, an affair that did not last long as the yacht was sunk nearly as soon as it opened fire.

The bombardment ended at around 9:40 as the Sultan’s Palace caught on fire marking the end of the short-lived war, meaning that this conflict only lasted for 38 minutes! Only one casualty was suffered on the British side, with the other side suffering around 500 casualties. Khalid would escape the battle and seek refuge in the German consulate, after which he would be taken by a German ship to German East Africa on 2 October 1896.

British marines next to a captured cannon used by the Zanzibar forces to fight back the British ships. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The pro-British Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed would be left to take over control of the island, although his powers were greatly placated by his British overlords making him more of a figurehead rather than a ruler. The island would remain under British control for another 67 years, during which no other rebellion sprung up on the island.

Rule Britannia

Such events give us an insight into why Britain managed to conquer 1/3 of the world during their Golden Era. With a naval doctrine like no other country, the Royal Navy ensured that all of the British expansion could be fueled with constant supplies and manpower no matter where on the globe a conflict took place.

This dominance on the sea allowed Britain to use their doctrine of “gunboat diplomacy” to make anything go their way, as highlighted in this story. No one really wanted to face down the might of the British battleships with their heavily trained crewmembers and as such, sometimes just the presence of a British cruiser or battleship could swing the attitude of people. We can say with great certainty that the saying “Britania rules the waves” was not baseless.

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