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  • Writer's pictureInge BB

Interesting facts about the History of Zanzibar - Part 1

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

Zanzibar has a rich and captivating history of diplomatic relations with various countries. In the 19th century, during the reign of Sayyid Said bin Sultan, Zanzibar's strategic location and robust economy allowed it to maintain positive ties with the global powers of the time. This article explores Zanzibar's diplomatic achievements, its relationship with European powers, and the intriguing tale of the shortest war of the world history that unfolded on its shores.

1. The Diplomacy of Sayyid Said bin Sultan
In the early 19th century, Sayyid Said bin Sultan ascended the throne of Zanzibar, aiming to create an economically strong empire with harmonious relations with all nations. At the time, the Indian Ocean was bustling with European and American merchant and navy ships. Despite the Napoleonic War raging in Europe, which had spilled into the Indian Ocean, Sayyid Said pursued a policy of neutrality, avoiding favoritism towards any particular nation. He maintained a strong navy to protect his empire and deter potential threats.
Sayyid Said cultivated strong ties with the British, who held significant influence in India. Together, they cooperated to combat pirates in the Sea of Oman. The Sultan's navy engaged in extensive trade with countries as far as China and as south as Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Reunion. Zanzibar's strategic location and excellent harbors made it a pivotal entrepôt for merchants from around the world.
Sayyid Said also encouraged European merchants to settle in Zanzibar, entering into commercial treaties with various countries, including the United States. Notably, the voyage of the ship 'The Sultanah' to New York City in 1840, bearing gifts to the U.S. President, highlighted the strong diplomatic ties forged by the Sultan.
2. Portuguese Arrival in Zanzibar
In the early 16th century, the Portuguese arrived in Zanzibar, leaving a lasting impact on the island's history. The Portuguese commander Ruy Lourenco Ravasco's unprovoked attack in 1503 created bitterness among the local inhabitants, leading to a series of conflicts and opposition against the Portuguese presence. Despite initial resistance, the Portuguese influence in the region persisted for some time.
3. The Shortest War in History
In the late 19th century, after the death of Sayyid Ali bin Said, Zanzibar faced a succession dispute among three contenders for the throne. The British played a significant role in influencing the outcome, ultimately placing Sayyid Hamed bin Thuwainy as the Sultan of Zanzibar under certain conditions.
In 1896, when Sayyid Hamed passed away, Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash, one of the contenders for the throne, declared himself the new Sultan. However, the British, anticipating this move, demanded his surrender. Refusing to comply, Sayyid Khalid and his followers barricaded themselves in the Bait al Hukum.
The British warships, positioned and prepared, gave Sayyid Khalid an ultimatum to vacate the palace. When he refused, the warships unleashed a devastating bombardment on the palace and the Sultan's forces. In just 40 minutes, the war ended with over 500 supporters of Sayyid Khalid killed or injured.
Fleeing to the German Embassy, Sayyid Khalid was eventually taken to German East Africa, where he remained a thorn in the side of the British for years. The incident further complicated relations between the British and the Germans, leading to the breaking of the 1890 agreement between the two governments.
Zanzibar's history is interwoven with its diplomatic relations with various countries, especially during the reign of Sayyid Said bin Sultan in the 19th century. The island's strategic location and flourishing trade made it a valuable player in the Indian Ocean basin. While its relations with other nations brought prosperity and cultural exchange, it was also marred by occasional conflicts and territorial disputes. The shorter war on Zanzibar's shores stands as a reminder of the complex geopolitical dynamics that have shaped the island's history. Today, Zanzibar remains a melting pot of cultures and a popular destination for travelers seeking to immerse themselves in its vibrant past and present.
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