Before Zanzibar would eventually merge with Tanganyika to form Tanzania, the region had been under British control. For decades, Zanzibar, located off the coast of East Africa, was the hub of the slave trade in the Indian Ocean.
Zanzibar’s Arab and South Asian minority would hold dominion over the majority African population by way of wealth. The natives, outnumbering the Arabs, served as slaves under their control. People were sold as slaves and shipped to Arabia, India and the Americas. But since Africa was not only a slave exporter but also imported slaves, it is believed that inner-African slave trade thrived on the island even before European and Arabian businessmen arrived there. Slaves were not only sent to other continents. Some ended up in South Africa.
By the late 1800s, Zanzibar was benefiting so much from the slave trade. It boosted its economy as thousands of enslaved people also passed through their slave market each year. It was therefore not ready to abandon the inhumane practice even when the British asked it to. So the British resorted to force, leading to the shortest war recorded in history in 1896 that ended the slave trade in Zanzibar.
At the time, trouble was already brewing between the British Empire and the Zanzibar Sultanate. The war did not even last for a day or an hour; it lasted only between 38 and 45 minutes. Zanzibar was then in the sphere of influence of the British Empire and was declared a protectorate, according to the treaty signed by Britain and Germany in 1890.
The conflict between the British Empire and the Zanzibar Sultanate, however, began when the pro-British Sultan of Zanzibar, Hamad bin Thuwaini, died. Right after his death, his nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, seized power, proclaimed himself Sultan and moved into the palace. Khalid had then been resisting European interference, so his action received support from a section of the population.
History says around 3000 Zanzibari people, including 700 soldiers, rallied to support Khalid against European influence in Zanzibar. But the British Empire did not want him as the new Sultan; they preferred Hamoud bin Muhammad. What’s more, they wanted Zanzibar to put an end to slavery, according to researchers. They subsequently gave Khalid an ultimatum to cede the throne by 9 am local time on August 27 or to prepare himself for an attack.
Khalid, who refused to step down, barricaded himself in the palace and gathered his forces around him. The British gathered ships, including the HMS Philomel, the HMS Rush, and the HMS St George, as well as, troops to enforce the demand. Khalid still refused to step down on the morning of August 27. Just as the British had warned, they opened fire when the 9 am ultimatum expired.
Their warships destroyed the entire palace, killing over 500 people within a few minutes. Khalid managed to flee to the German consulate for asylum. About 38 minutes after the war began, the Sultan’s flag was pulled down, bringing an end to the shortest war recorded in history. Slavery in Zanzibar also came to an end.
Hamoud bin Muhammad, who was seen by the British as much more cooperative, was later proclaimed the Sultan of Zanzibar. Britain continued to control the East African island as a Protectorate until its independence in 1963.
Today, Zanzibar has a mix of inhabitants from several countries thanks to slavery. A report says that after slavery was abolished on the island, the British colonial rulers built a church on the site of the former slave market in Zanzibar. Christopher Faraji, a descendant of slaves, told reporters what happened at the site of the former slave market.
“Yes, so this is the place where the slaves were sold and the market was just an open air market. So there was a big tree in the middle and that big tree was used as a whipping post. So it was the place where the slaves were taken from their chambers. Coming to the market, before being auctioned, their health was tested. Whether they were strong or weak they would be whipped under that big tree. So anyone who cries the price goes down because he is weak. The one who does not cry would seem strong so the price goes up.”
There is also a memorial to remind people of the pain and suffering their ancestors went through.