Firstly, I would like to introduce myself. As you probably gather from my accent, I hail from that land-locked country which I prefer to call Rhodesia. I came to Perth with my family 30 years ago to start a new life as I could see what was going to befall that country with the likes of Robert Mugabe gaining power. You are also probably wondering why a blow-in who has come from an African country with no direct access to the sea and therefore no navy would be interested in naval matters. Since retiring three years ago, I decided to research my family history as this had been a bit of a mystery to me. As a family we had always been involved in ‘Serving King and Country’ and through my research I discovered that three members had achieved the exalted rank of Admiral in the Royal Navy. I shall now summarise the results of my research into their careers, some of the noteworthy ships in which they sailed and incidents that changed the course of history. I have called this presentation ‘Admirable Ancestors’ – a play on words.
William Stockes Rees
The first member is William Stokes Rees who was to lead an interesting life during the latter years of Victorian gunboat diplomacy. He joined the Senior Service at the age of 13 and served in the penultimate Royal Oak as a midshipman. Progressing up the commissioned ranks to captain, he was in HMS St George when one of the most remarkable events in naval history took place in Zanzibar, which was a British Protectorate at the time.
The Arab sultans of Zanzibar had been involved for centuries in the trade of ivory, spices and slaves. Despite the abolition of slave trading in East Africa by the British in 1873, slavery was still being practised by Arab merchants on the island, who sent their human cargoes to various Arab states in the Persian Gulf area. It is estimated that over three decades of British gunboat activity off the coast of East Africa, some one thousand dhows were captured and 12,000 Africans saved by the Royal Navy from the horrors of enslavement.
On 23rd August 1896 the Sultan of Zanzibar died and his cousin, Hamoud, was declared by the British as his successor. However this did not meet with the approval of another cousin, Khalid, who considered that he had the rightful claim. Khalid gained access to the Sultan’s palace through a broken window and, along with 2,000 odd supporters, declared himself the new sultan by raising the Zanzibar flag. The British authorities refused to recognise Khalid’s claim and tension rose as a potentially explosive standoff ensued.
Five Royal Navy ships including the cruiser St George, flagship of the Cape of Good Hope Station, arrived at the island. Khalid was given 40 hours to contemplate his fate. He assembled his force and re-commissioned an ancient bronze muzzle-loading cannon which had not been fired in anger for over two hundred years! The night passed without incident, but at dawn Khalid was issued with an ultimatum – either surrender by walking out of the palace by 9.00 am or the Royal Navy would open fire. At 8.00 am Khalid sent a message requesting talks, but his request was curtly turned down. At precisely 9.02 am the ships opened fire on the palace and the Sultan’s yacht moored in the harbour. With the yacht settling in the water and the palace falling around him, he had the Zanzibar flag lowered on the ramparts at 9.40 am and the bombardment ceased. Royal Marines landed onshore and took the citadel at bayonet point with Khalid somehow making his way to the German consulate where he sought sanctuary.
So ended the shortest war in history – 38 minutes! If you don’t believe me, it is in the Guinness Book of Records and would make a good question in a quiz show. As a sequel to this episode, the Germans spirited Khalid away to Dar-es-Salaam in German East Africa (now Tanzania). The British demanded payment from the Zanzibar authorities for the cost of the shells fired!