The islands of Zanzibar and Pemba lie 25 kilometres off the east coast of Africa. At the last census before the war in 1910, the islands had a population of 200,000 with 35,000 living in the town of Zanzibar. The population was composed of Swahili, Indian and Arab people. In 1890, the islands were declared a British Protectorate and were presided over by the Sultan of Zanzibar.

Land forces

CAB 45/11 (4)

Train on Uganda Railway, showing a truck in front of the engine because of German mines CAB 45/11 (4)

Following the declaration of war with Germany, the Sultan of Zanzibar issued a statement supporting British actions. Similar decrees were subsequently issued against Austria, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. In 1914, the garrison at Zanzibar consisted of one company of the 3rd King’s African Rifles.

This force was supplemented by the Town Guard which was formed under a declaration made by the British Resident, Major Francis Pearce. Its primary role was to guard against a surprise raid by a German landing party. In 1915, the Town Guard was enlarged into the Zanzibar Volunteer Defence Force under the command of Captain John Sinclair. Almost every member of the British community volunteered for service. Zanzibaris were recruited into the Carrier Corps. In 1916, a force of 600 was sent to the mainland with 4,000 serving in the port of Zanzibar and other naval facilities (WO 329/2342).

Naval forces

ADM 137/704

SMS Koenigsberg, Rufiji Delta, July 1916. ADM 137/704

Zanzibar was used as a base and coaling station by the Navy during operations in German East Africa and acted as a naval workshop. A small naval detachment was also stationed on the island under the command of Commander J Ingles, the captain of the ship Pegasus.

The Public Works Department were also employed on the construction of defences, artillery positions and aerodromes for the Royal Naval Air Service. Two steamers belonging to the Zanzibar government were placed at the disposal of the navy and used as patrol vessels and troops carriers.

On 20 September 1914, the German ship Königsberg entered the southern end of the Zanzibar approaches and opened fire on the Pegasus which had put into Zanzibar for repairs to its boiler. The Pegasus was at anchor, helpless and outgunned by the German ship. Pegasus was holed near her waterline and began to list. The order to abandon ship was given. Pegasus sank later that day having lost 38 members of crew (ADM 137/10).

Key figures

Sultan Khalifa bin Harub

Sultan of Zanzibar

Sir Henry Conway Belfield

High Commissioner (1912-1917)

Major Francis Pearce

British Resident (1914-1917)

Captain John Ingles

Captain of the Pegasus

Key documents

ADM 137/901 (49)

SMS Koenigsberg at Zanzibar, 21 March 1915. ADM 137/901 (49)