Thursday, September 6, 2012

Percy Haigh and the Shortest War in History

Frances Evans Percy Haigh joined the Royal Navy on the 29th of June 1894. Little did he know that he would be a photographic witness to the aftermath of the shortest war in history just two years later. By that time he had sailed to the Indian Ocean on HMS Bonaventure and he recorded some of his adventures with his new camera, as I showed in last week's post.
On the 13th of July 1895 my granddad transferred to the HMS Cossack, the third of six British naval vessels named after the Cossack people of Eastern Europe. This one was launched in 1886 and sold in 1905. Like the Bonaventure she too cruised in the Indian Ocean. To get the exact dates and locations of either ship I would have to get hold of the their logbooks, which I cannot do without either going to Kew and the National Archives, or maybe the naval museum in Portsmouth.  I suppose I could pay someone to dig through the millions of microfilm pages for me. Kew is in Richmond, Surrey and Portsmouth even further from London’s Heathrow, both a long way from Saskatoon.
I have searched the National Archives but had no luck. The references to HM ships named Cossack are for later reincarnations.
We do know that one of the 1886 Cossack’s stops was at Aden, and we also know that this visit occurred in April 1896 because of a fascinating tidbit about a rescue. The only reference I could find to this little event comes from the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser of 15th April that year. You can read the scratchy copy of the scanned newspaper article, just one 59-line single colum article here,  It is headlined A GALLANT OFFICER OF H.M.S. “COSSACK.” It tells how an officer on the Cossack went for a sail with a carpenter’s mate and how he saved the man’s life by tying him to a buoy with his jacket after he had fallen overboard.  The original report was written in the Times of India and obviously caught the attention of the editor in Singapore, perhaps because it was a maritime event. Was Percy that “gallant officer”?  Maybe the logbook would reveal the truth, but for now, who knows?
We know that HMS Cossack sailed into Zanzibar harbour a short time after that remarkable war had ended. Again, I have no exact date.
The war had started because of the ill-advised decision by Seyyid Khalid-bin-Barghash to declare himself Sultan after the death of his cousin H.H. Seyyid Hamed-bin-Thwain at 11.30 a.m. on Tuesday 25th August 1896. Within half an hour Barghash had seized the palace.  Consul General, Mr. A. Hardinge, Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s representative on the island, disapproved of Khalid and suggested that he “retire quietly.” He refused and must have foolishly failed to realize that Mr. Hardinge had the backing of five of Her Majesty’s Royal navy ships under the command of Rear Admiral H.H. Rawson. They were the Philomel, the Racoon, the Thrush, the Sparrow and the St. George and all were anchored in the harbor. 

This plan comes from a Wiki article I found. These next ones are also from that article. On the right are a some marines standing by one of those old cannons.  Barghash obviously had no idea how outmatched he was or what high explosive shells could do to to buildings.

The St. George and the Philomel in harbour
 The third picture comes from an Italian source and I'm not sure if it is a B&W photo that has been re-touched or a painting. Either way is shows what a mess those naval guns made of the palace.

The “new” Sultan mustered his supporters, some seven hundred in all, in the palace courtyard, where he had the ancient cannons primed and shotted. He also had a warship. This was the three-masted HHS Glasgow, which he had “inherited” from his predecessor. The Glasgow had been built near Clydebank not far from where Percy would end his career as a captain after being in charge of the torpedo factory at Greenock. She was equipped with 9-pounder guns. However, Barghash must have failed to recognize that his ship would be a sitting duck for the Royal navy’s little fleet.
Edward Rodwell, Kenya historian and long-time newspaperman, tells the story of three ladies who were eye-witnesses to the events that followed, as the whole thing became a bit of a spectacle and breakfast was being served aboard the flagship, the admiral’s wife as hostess. One of them was Mr. Hardinge’s wife.  The sultan had been warned that failure to capitulate would lead to a bombardment that would start at 9.00 am on the Thursday morning.  It did, with one minute’s grace. The cease-fire was ordered at 9.45 after the palace flag was shot down.  The Glasgow had returned some fire but her guns were quickly silenced.  By 10.45 she had sunk.  That is Rodwell’s version. There are others that differ only in minute detail.
For instance the author of an extended Wiki article states “The variation is due to confusion over what actually constitutes the start and end of a war. Some sources take the start of the war as the order to open fire at 09:00 and some with the start of actual firing at 09:02. The end of the war is usually put at 09:40 when the last shots were fired and the palace flag struck, but some sources place it at 09:45. The logbooks of the British ships also suffer from this with St George indicating that cease-fire was called and Khalid entered the German consulate at 09:35, Thrush at 09:40, Racoon at 09:41 and Philomel and Sparrow at 09:45.”
The charitable view must be that the ship’s captains did not coordinate their ships clocks or watches before the battle, as logbooks are meticulously kept in the navy.
The specific time hardly matters as the record will likely stand. The outcome was of course that Khalid became persuaded that he had made a false move and he fled to the German Consulate, whence he was removed to German East Africa.  On August 27th  Hamed-bin-Mahommed, a brother of the late Sultan, was installed as Sultan.
That same Wiki article has several interesting pictures from the war, but Percy Haigh took two that do not seem to appear anywhere else. Using that same Schoville Dry Plate camera with which he took pictures in the Indian Ocean he took two that are now in the British Naval museum in Portsmouth. Along with the ones I showed in my last blog they had lain hidden in Percy’s old tin trunk for over a hundred years. My cousin Sue Langford found them when she went though our grandmother’s treasures and at once realized their significance.
HHS Glasgow and some British naval ships off Zanzibar
The first shows the masts of the sunken HSS Glasgow. As contemporary accounts have it, “The three masts of the Sultan’s steamship Glasgow – which was sunk during the engagement – still stand up out of the water and form to this day a picturesque memorial of this revolutionary step.”
The second was captioned by Percy as being of slaves chained as they walked past the ruins of the harem and palace that the navy had so quickly reduced to rubble. 
I do wonder about this one a bit as slavery was officially abolished in Britain by Slavery Abolition Act 1833. But the Act did not do all it might have and others were passed at later dates, at least up to 1873.  It would not surprise me if these men were actually prisoners captured after the war or perhaps they had been incarcerated by the Sultan in some hell-hole and are on their way to another prison under the watchful eye of the men behind and to side of their little column. However, Zanzibar was an infamous market centre for slaves for many years and when my wife and I visited Zanzibar a hundred and one years, almost to the day, after Percy’s photos were taken we saw the horrific low-ceilinged dungeon where slaves to be sold were crammed like sardines and also the place, now inside the Christ Church Anglican cathedral where, it is alleged, slaves were chained. The altar is said to be in the exact place where the main "whipping post" of the market used to be. Chilling!

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