The Nine Hour Revolution
Zanzibar is well known for it's "Shortest War in History". A 19th Century battle that lasted only about 45 minutes but served to demonstrate for all time the Iron fist beneath the pre-colonial European domination of East Africa.
What is less well known is the 20th Century record Zanzibar set for similar brevity in the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964. In this Revolution a government with over a century of continuity was toppled in less than a day. Essentially a Settler Society, with well defined Arabic, Indian, Swahili, Comoran and indigenous elements, and ruled by an Hereditary Sultan, the newly independent Nation of Zanzibar vanished in astounding suddenness.
That night was full of suspense and surprise, courage and despair. It began at 3 am on the day just before a large religious Holiday. The holiday prompted large numbers of people to congregate in and around Stone Town. They set up tents or just sleep under the palms while awaiting the opening of the festivities in the morning. Among the crowds were large numbers of young men, some of these men were followers of a minor politician named John Okello. Just how many men actually followed Okello into revolutionary battle is of some dispute.
It is clear that by the end of that fateful day thousands had joined the revolutionaries but this was after the results were known. It's also true that Field Marshal Okello talked of having had 4 "battalions" in the field against the government forces that night, but how men many were really there when it counted?
Okello reported that the revolution began when he marched in the dead of night on the Ziwani Police Barracks (and Armory) at the head of the 250 men of his "4th Battalion". At 3:00 am he ordered his men to cut the wire surrounding this fortified compound. That was the first real revolutionary act and it served to "separate the men from the boys". Okello said of his men at the time, "The enormity of our predicament was suddenly obvious to them: we, armed with pangas, spears and a few motor car springs were going to face the risk of close combat with men armed with automatic rifles... ". All but 40 men deserted or refused to crawl through the wire.
These 40 men seized the Island of Zanzibar and toppled a dynasty that had ruled the islands through 12 Sultans for over 133 years.
The revolutionaries crawled to within 25 meters of the Barracks building. Inside, asleep were scores of paramilitary police. However like most sensible people on Zanzibar they slept on the upper floors of the building, where cooling ocean breeze could ventilate the hot tropical nights. Only two men were awake and on guard duty below.
John Okello and his men rushed at these guards. Automatic fire rang out and three of the 4th battalion men went down. However one of sentries also fell, downed by an arrow shot by a revolutionary named Albert. By then Okello had closed on the remaining sentry. It was here that the deciding moment of the revolution occurred. The two crashed together, the Field Marshall tells us that "I got hold of the gun, we fought and I managed to hit him in the cheek with the gun butt". The firing stopped.
His men were now at the gates of the armory where hundreds of modern weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition were locked up. The police above, who were unarmed, (in keeping with standard peacetime practice, all weapons were locked away "for safekeeping" when the officers were off duty), attempted to storm down the single exterior staircase and enter the fray. However the 4th Battalion men unleashed a rain of spears, arrows and stones on the stunned troops and they piled up upon themselves on the narrow staircase. Okello's liberated rifle, which had only three bullets left, decided the issue with a short burst of fire. The police retreated back upstairs to look for ropes to lower men out of the windows.
It was too late. The doors of the armory gave way and the 4th Battalion rushed in. Soon every man was armed with a modern automatic rifle. The "Freedom Fighters" who had started the night armed with sharpened automobile springs now were the best equipped force on the Island. They poured a fuselage of fire into the upstairs rooms and very shortly the surviving police surrendered.
The Sultan's forces made one serious attempt to counter attack the rebels. The "flying squad" arrived on the scene about an hour after the defeat of the Ziwani garrison. These 75 or so men had only light duty firearms and were no match for the now heavily armed Battalion ensconced in the fortified Armory. The rebels allowed the Sultans' paramilitary police to approach and then poured an overwhelming storm of fire into them. The firing was so intense that the surrounding bush caught fire and the police retreated in despair.
With their new base secure, guns were distributed to the other three Battalions (who had encircled but not yet attacked other key sites). In short order the few other police posts and the communications centers were overrun and captured. The most serious resistance was offered by the Malindi Police Station, where firing could still be heard in the late hours of the morning. However by noon the Sultan had fled, the rest is history.