Zanzibar's first two stamp issues in 1896 and 1899 were printed in an unusual mixture of recess and letterpress. Their other claim to fame is being interspersed by the shortest war in history
1899 Zanzibar 2r depicting Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed, from the second series recess-printed but with a second colour added by letterpress
The British Empire was always alert to developments in Zanzibar in the 19th century, because of its strategic importance for trade along the east coast of Africa.
Imperial influence was clear from the fact that an Indian post office was opened there in 1868, and the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty of 1890 formally established a British protectorate over the island.
Initially Indian and later British East African stamps overprinted with the word ‘Zanzibar’ were used. And even when these were replaced by the first proper issue of Zanzibar in 1896, there was no doubting that Britain remained the power behind the throne. Or was there?
Produced by De La Rue, the first definitive series comprised 10 low values from ½a to 8a and five larger-format high values from 1r to 5r. They were quite magnificent and unconventional, recess-printed in a range of colours but with the distinctive draped red flags of Zanzibar added by letterpress.
By the time they appeared, however, the local potentate they depicted, Sultan Hamad bin Thwaini was no more. He died suddenly, almost certainly poisoned, on August 25, 1896, sparking a brief but bitter struggle for succession.
The British favoured a candidate called Hamoud bin Mohammed, who was quietly sympathetic to their interests. But the contender with the sharpest sword generally won the day in Zanzibar, and the colonial power was in for something of a shock.
Supported by a posse of 60 armed men, Thwaini’s cousin, Khalid bin Barghash, slammed the gates of the Beit el Sahel palace shut in the face of the British and proclaimed himself Sultan, rallying 2,000 more supporters.
The British were furious, and issued an ultimatum for Khalid to disarm and surrender by 9am the following day, August 26. When he declined, he felt the full force of the Royal Navy.
At 9.02am, five British ships anchored in the harbour and opened fire on the palace, cheered on by foreign visitors who had gathered on the roof of the English Club to spectate. Within half an hour Beit el Sahel was badly damaged, the old lighthouse set ablaze and 500 people killed or wounded.
At 9.40am Khalid duly surrendered, before escaping through the narrow streets of Zanzibar City to be offered asylum in the German consulate.
The Anglo-Zanzibar War had been the shortest war in history, all over in 38 minutes. And when a fine second issue of stamps appeared in June 1899, to the same design, it was Sultan Hamoud whose portrait they bore.
Where the first issue offered some interesting collectables in the form of permanent flaws and rare bisects of the 5a on cover, the second appeared to have no outstanding features – until some stamps had to be locally surcharged in 1904.
This process created several varieties, most strikingly the ‘Two & Hlaf’ error which can be found on the 2½a on 8a and 2½a on 7½a values.
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