Imperialist Propaganda 102, or: How to Downplay the Deaths of Hundreds of People Your Empire Killed

- Articles

First Published: Newsletter 16/08/2020
Author: Alexandria Thurnherr

The nation of Zanzibar is most likely at least a little unfamiliar to most of you. Some amongst you might perhaps be able to say that it is an island micronation which is semi-autonomous from Tanzania, that it has three official languages (namely Swahili, Arabic and English), or that its current president is Ali Mohamed Shein. Anyone amongst you able to say much more is probably either interested in East Africa or has a personal connection of some description to the country. However, Zanzibar is also known for one other honour (if that is indeed the word): namely being one of the two participants in what is generally considered to be the shortest war in history: The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896.

So that all might be on an even footing in terms of knowledge, it is proper and comradely that we first lay down a rough explanation of the war in addition to its background. Some years prior to the 27thof August, 1896 (the day on which the war was fought), the British and German empires had been disputing the divisions of African land around Tanzania (on the middle section of the east coast of Africa), and by extension of the islands which constituted Zanzibar. Whilst the exact divisions are beyond the scope of this article, it is sufficient to note that the British empire had recognised the sovereignty of Zanzibar in 1886, though later turned the country into a protectorate with the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty of 1890 between the German and British empires (as ever, the populations of the lands directly affected by this slicing-up of Africa were not given a seat at the table). One of the legal measures introduced therein was that Britain was to have veto power over who was to become sultan at any given point. Following the death of Hamad bin Thuwaini, a puppet of the government in Britain who had been growing unpopular with the population on account of his failure to prevent an encroachment of the British over all parts of the government, his cousin (Khalid bin Barghash, whom some accused of having had Hamad poisoned) then took over as sultan, and was more hostile to the British than was his predecessor. The result of this (Britain having used its veto over the sultanate) was that an ultimatum was issued to Khalid by Basil Cave (the most senior of the relevant diplomats in the region) consisting of a single demand: Step down before 1896-08-27 0900, or else (this is, you understand, a paraphrasing). To avoid speaking longer than necessary, Khaliddid not step down, instead amassing his soldiers and choosing to call the British bluff. There were two primary difficulties with this strategy: That his forces were hopelessly outgunned, and that the British were not bluffing.

On the twenty-seventh of August, eighteen-ninety-six Anno Domini, at two minutes past nine ante meridian, the British forces opened fire on the Sultan’s palace. Thirty-eight minutes later, the guns stopped and the war was won. Khalid himself escaped, but the defeat was both decisive and humiliating, with 500 Zanzibari fatalities (of a force of ~3,700) and no permanent losses to the empire.1

Now that the historical foundations have been firmly laid, we can move on to the point at hand: the deeply duplicitous manner in which the events are given by Historic UK, a “Horrible Histories for Adults” which serves to cover “all of those weird, gruesome and interesting bits of history that were often left out of the school curriculum”. One might think this would be rather innocuous, but, alas, the only curriculum on offer is a curriculum of chicanery and propaganda. Of course, no propaganda is so effective as that which has truthful fondant over a deceitful filling. As such, the article makes certain confessions, such as the fact that Hamad was a mere imperial puppet, accurately reports the telegrams between Cave and his leash-holders in Whitehall, and makes no attempt to disguise the fact that Khalid’s successor, Hamud bin Mohammed, was as much of a puppet as was Hamad. Nevertheless, crucial details are removed from the article, the cumulative result of which is to make the empire seem far more righteous than any honest reading of the facts could support. For example, there is no shortage of mention that slavery was officially abolished in Zanzibar following the British victory. However, absent is the point that abolishing something in the eyes of the law and actually abolishing that thing are not the same thing. To put this point intodry arithmetic, in 1891 (five years prior to the war) there were an estimated 60,000 slaves in Zanzibar2. Ten years after slavery was legally struck down, only 17,293 slaves had been registered for freedom – slaves having to first appear at a government office before their freedom was real in any proper sense.

But why should we stop at only the most egregious omission of pertinent facts? In our feast of treachery, there’s plenty for all to gorge themselves. Consider, as an appetiser, our previous statement that it some had accused Khalid of poisoning Hamad, which Historic UK chooses to render as “it is widely believed that his cousin, Khalid bin Barghash... had him poisoned”. Nowhere in the article are we presented with evidence that this was a widespread belief, let alone evidence that such a belief (if it was indeed widely held) had any basis whatsoever in fact, other than opportunism on Khalid’s part in his immediate seizure of the throne, which is not in and of itself proof of murder. Moving on to the ultimata given by Cave, it is said that “Khalid ignored these warnings [to step down from the position of sultan]”, as though the military retribution which would go on to occur was some Act of G-d, some force majeure, some inevitable calamity ordained by the fates to be evaded and prepared for, and not what it truly was: a conscious decision with the express approval of more than one government official in general accordance with policy, that could have been averted had different choices been made by those officials. The exact reading of the telegram received by Cave read:

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.”

It should be noted that almost any action is permitted by this diktatif it is read literally, and so Cave could have committed any atrocity, any conceivable brutal deed without losing the favour of Whitehall, so long as he had succeeded in doing so. Even if one brings to attention that this was in response to Cave’s own telegram reading

“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?”

and so the obvious interpretation of the message would be that Cave had full authority to fire on the palace, it is plain that the lives of the Zanzibar populace was not a thing of worth to Whitehall, only a thing of value.

Other examples abound, but we shall content ourselves by offering only one further example of slanted framing on the part of Historic UK, and that is the glossing-over of the mismatched military strengths of the two sides in the war. On the Zanzibari side was, in addition to the 2.800 Zanzibari civilians, a few hundred professional Zanzibari soldiers and a small selection of artillery, the Royal Yacht HHS Glasgow. By contrast, at the empire’s disposal were five warships (three of which had been called in for the sake of the war).3What happened in those few days was nothing short of a textbook case of gunboat diplomacy, for which half a thousand people perished, and the decision to treat it as a whitewashed historical curiosity is evident of a deep contempt for the little people swept aside for the glory of the empire.

One might, as this point, feel justified in offering a challenge to the effect of: Who cares? So some site is embroiled in a spot of one-sided retelling of a war (if that is even an applicable term) of moderate consequence at most. Why should anyone care? The answer to that question is twofold. Firstly, revisionism of this kind is seldom a solitary beast. Secondly, such smoke and mirrors are never placed without purpose. If the individuals hired by the organisation are willing to engage in such techniques for the empire, it is wholly within expectation – indeed within prediction – that they would do the same for the empire’s masters, so as to better legitimise both the empire and its rulers all at once. Case in point: their charming article on Vicountess Nancy Astor, which mentions little of her support for the NSDAP, touting it in letters to U.S. ambassador to the UK Joseph P. Kennedy as a solution to the “world problem of Jewry”, her complaints that The Observer was “full of homosexuals and Jews”, or her refusal to employ Catholics in her staff (something the campaign site for her statue freely admits, although it insists  - on the same page, no less – that she was not anti-Catholic. The reader is invited to make sense of this at their own leisure). Whilst we could take the time to pick apart the notion that “Her voice and position as an MP was important.” and all its implications that women are best served by soft faces in high places, even when those faces belong to members whose financial interests are in direct opposition to the vast majority of British women at the time, this is not an article about Madame Astor nor any articles that might happen to have been written about her. Rather, the pointof this is to better illustrate how history and its telling can come to be manipulated by choices of frame and certain underlying assumptions, and especially so when the tale told is one of war, where truth is forever the first casualty. In the case of the article on the Anglo-Zanzibar war, the critical unspoken assumptions are firstly that all British military action is taken only begrudgingly, at least when its effects are primarily destructive(here evidenced by uncritically repeating Cave’s assertion that “he had no desire to fire upon the palace” andsecondly by taking only the slightest notice that more than 500 people died in those fateful 38 minutes4). Almost as much space is dedicated to the single petty officer on the British side to suffer so much as injury. There is no suggestion that the lives of these people (itself evidence that the imposition of a ruler favourable to the British was not so popular as might be assumed from the breezy tone in which we are told that “...the UK was free to place the pro-British Sultan Hamud on the throne of Zanzibar...”) were of importance, nor any hint that with more restraint some or all of them might have lived. Finally, there is the imposition of a standard wherein the interests and beliefs of the British government are treated as necessarily more legitimate, more valuable, more important than those of the citizens in the country wherein the war occurs. When Khalid bin Barghash imposes himself as ruler following the death of his cousin, it is “widely believed” that poison was used and the emphasis is placed upon the disapproval of the British diplomats (“Needless to say the local British diplomats were not at all happy with this turn of events...”)

It is the last of these that is the most important to us. Similarly to how the primary concern of our article on the Anglo-Zanzibar war is to what extent the actors involved acted in accordance with or counter to the British desire, much reporting of our foreign affairs is written with the unspoken belief that our own interests are necessarily more worthy than those of they who have been declared, be it by their own will or not, our enemies. Every person wishing to form an accurate picture of the world, bothas it was and as it ismust be aware of these ingrained axioms, and be prepared to counter-act accordingly. The empire has changed since 1896, but the attitudes of its masters and those who would be will not until the very position of mastery over empire is abolished.

1 No fatalities on the British side and only one casualty, to be precise.

2 According to Mohammed Ali Bakari’s The Democratisation Process in Zanzibar: A Retarded Transition

3 It is worthwhile here to elaborate on just how one-sided the sea battle was here: Royal Yachts are not designed for combat, and the Glasgow had actually been a gift to Khalid’s predecessor. One might as well attach a machine-gun to a Ford Mondeo and send it into battle against a tank. A fight between five active military devices and a luxury present is not a fight, it is glorified accountancy.

4 For a clearer understanding, consider that that is a person killed every five seconds for more than half an hour.