Unguja and Pemba, the two main islands of Zanzibar
|Commanders and leaders|
|John Okello||Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah|
|600–800 men||Zanzibar Police Force|
|Casualties and losses|
|At least 80 killed and 200 injured during revolution (the majority were Arabs)
Up to 20,000 civilians killed in the aftermath
The Zanzibar Revolution by local African revolutionaries in 1964 overthrew the Sultan of Zanzibar and his mainly Arab government. An ethnically diverse state consisting of a number of islands off the east coast of Tanganyika, Zanzibar had been granted independence by Britain in 1963. Thereafter a series of parliamentary elections resulted in the Arab minority retaining the hold on power it had inherited from Zanzibar's former existence as an overseas territory of Oman. Frustrated by under-representation in Parliament despite winning 54% of the vote in the July 1963 election, the mainly African Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) allied itself with the left-wing Umma Party, and early on the morning of 12 January 1964 ASP member John Okello mobilised around 600–800 revolutionaries on the main island of Unguja (Zanzibar Island). Having overrun the country's police force and appropriated their weaponry, the insurgents proceeded to Zanzibar Town where they overthrew the Sultan and his government. Reprisals against Arab and South Asian civilians on the island followed; the resulting death toll is disputed, with estimates ranging from several hundred to 20,000. The moderate ASP leader Abeid Karume became the country's new president and head of state, and positions of power were granted to Umma party members.
The new government's apparent communist ties concerned Western governments, and as Zanzibar lay within the British sphere of influence, the British government drew up a number of intervention plans. However, the feared communist government never materialised, and British and United States citizens were successfully evacuated, so these plans were not put into effect. Meanwhile, the communist bloc powers of P. R. China, East Germany and the Soviet Union established friendly relations with the new government by recognising the country and sending advisors. Karume negotiated a merger of Zanzibar with Tanganyika, forming the new nation of Tanzania; an act judged by contemporary media to be an attempt to prevent communist subversion of Zanzibar. The revolution ended 200 years of Arab dominance in Zanzibar, and is commemorated on the island each year with anniversary celebrations and a public holiday.
The Zanzibar Archipelago, now part of the East African republic of Tanzania, is a group of islands lying in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanganyika. It comprises the main southern island of Unguja (also known as Zanzibar), the smaller northern island of Pemba, and numerous surrounding islets. With a long history of Arab rule dating back to 1698, Zanzibar was an overseas territory of Oman until it achieved independence in 1858 under its own Sultanate. In 1890 during Ali ibn Sa'id's reign, Zanzibar became a British protectorate, and although never formally under direct rule was considered part of the British Empire.
By 1964, the country was a constitutional monarchy ruled by Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah. Zanzibar had a population of around 230,000 Africans—some of whom claimed Persian ancestry and were known locally as Shirazis—and also contained significant minorities in the 50,000 Arabs and 20,000 South Asians who were prominent in business and trade. The various ethnic groups were becoming mixed and the distinctions between them had blurred; according to one historian, an important reason for the general support for Sultan Jamshid was his family's ethnic diversity. However, the island's Arab inhabitants, as the major landowners, were generally wealthier than the Africans; the major political parties were organised largely along ethnic lines, with Arabs dominating the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) and Africans the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP).
In January 1961, as part of the process of decolonisation, the island's British authorities drew up constituencies and held democratic elections. Both the ASP and the ZNP won 11 of the available 22 seats in Zanzibar's Parliament, so further elections were held in June with the number of seats increased to 23. The ZNP entered into a coalition with the Zanzibar and Pemba People's Party (ZPPP) and this time took 13 seats, while the ASP, despite receiving the most votes, won just 10. Electoral fraud was suspected by the ASP and civil disorder broke out, resulting in 68 deaths. To maintain control, the coalition government banned the more radical opposition parties, filled the civil service with its own appointees, and politicised the police.
In 1963, with the number of parliamentary seats increased to 31, another election saw a repeat of the 1961 votes. Due to the layout of the constituencies the ASP, led by Abeid Amani Karume, won 54 percent of the popular vote but only 13 seats, while the ZNP/ZPPP won the rest and set about strengthening its hold on power. The Umma Party, formed that year by disaffected radical Arab socialist supporters of the ZNP, was banned, and all policemen of African mainland origin were dismissed. This removed a large portion of the only security force on the island, and created an angry group of paramilitary-trained men with knowledge of police buildings, equipment and procedures.
Complete independence from British rule was granted on 10 December 1963, with the ZNP/ZPPP coalition as the governing body. The government requested a defence agreement from the United Kingdom, asking for a battalion of British troops to be stationed on the island for internal security duties, but this was rejected as it was deemed inappropriate for British troops to be involved in the maintenance of law and order so soon after independence. British intelligence reports predicted that a civil disturbance, accompanied by increasing communist activity, was likely in the near future and that the arrival of British troops might cause the situation to deteriorate further. However, many foreign nationals remained on the island, including 130 Britons who were direct employees of the Zanzibar government.
Around 3:00 am on 12 January 1964, 600–800 poorly armed, mainly African insurgents, aided by some of the recently dismissed ex-policemen, attacked Unguja's police stations, both of its police armouries, and the radio station. The Arab police replacements had received almost no training and, despite responding with a mobile force, were soon overcome. Arming themselves with hundreds of captured automatic rifles, submachine guns and Bren guns, the insurgents took control of strategic buildings in the capital, Zanzibar Town. Within six hours of the outbreak of hostilities, the town's telegraph office and main government buildings were under revolutionary control, and the island's only airstrip was captured at 2:18 pm. The Sultan, together with Prime Minister Muhammad Shamte Hamadi and members of the cabinet, fled the island on the royal yacht Seyyid Khalifa, and the Sultan's palace and other property was seized by the revolutionary government. At least 80 people were killed and 200 injured, the majority of whom were Arabs, during the 12 hours of street fighting that followed. Sixty-one American citizens, including 16 men staffing a NASA satellite tracking station, sought sanctuary in the English Club in Zanzibar Town, and four US journalists were detained by the island's new government.
According to the official Zanzibari history, the revolution was planned and headed by the ASP leader Abeid Amani Karume. However, at the time Karume was on the African mainland as was the leader of the banned Umma Party, Abdulrahman Muhammad Babu. The ASP branch secretary for Pemba, Ugandan-born ex-policeman John Okello, had sent Karume to the mainland to ensure his safety. Okello had arrived in Zanzibar from Kenya in 1959, claiming to have been a field marshal for the Kenyan rebels during the Mau Mau Uprising, although he actually had no military experience. He maintained that he heard a voice commanding him, as a Christian, to free the Zanzibari people from the Arabs, and it was Okello who led the revolutionaries—mainly unemployed members of the Afro-Shirazi Youth League—on 12 January. One commentator has further speculated that it was probably Okello, with the Youth League, who planned the revolution.
A Revolutionary Council was established by the ASP and Umma parties to act as an interim government, with Karume heading the council as President and Babu serving as the Minister of External Affairs. The country was renamed the People's Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba; the new government's first acts were to permanently banish the Sultan and to ban the ZNP and ZPPP. Seeking to distance himself from the volatile Okello, Karume quietly sidelined him from the political scene, although he was allowed to retain his self-bestowed title of field marshal. However, Okello's revolutionaries soon began reprisals against the Arab and Asian population of Unguja, carrying out beatings, rapes, murders, and attacks on property. He claimed in radio speeches to have killed or imprisoned tens of thousands of his "enemies and stooges", but actual estimates of the number of deaths vary greatly, from "hundreds" to 20,000. Some Western newspapers give figures of 2,000–4,000; the higher numbers may be inflated by Okello's own broadcasts and exaggerated reports in some Western and Arab news media. The killing of Arab prisoners and their burial in mass graves was documented by an Italian film crew, filming from a helicopter, for Africa Addio and this sequence of film comprises the only known visual document of the killings. Many Arabs fled to safety in Oman, although by Okello's order no Europeans were harmed. The post-revolution violence did not spread to Pemba.
By 3 February Zanzibar was finally returning to normality, and Karume had been widely accepted by the people as their president. A police presence was back on the streets, looted shops were re-opening, and unlicensed arms were being surrendered by the civilian populace. The revolutionary government announced that its political prisoners, numbering 500, would be tried by special courts. Okello formed the Freedom Military Force (FMF), a paramilitary unit made up of his own supporters, which patrolled the streets and looted Arab property. The behaviour of Okello's supporters, his violent rhetoric, Ugandan accent, and Christian beliefs were alienating many in the largely moderate Zanzibari and Muslim ASP, and by March many members of his FMF had been disarmed by Karume's supporters and the Umma Party militia. On 11 March Okello was officially stripped of his rank of Field Marshal, and was denied entry when trying to return to Zanzibar from a trip to the mainland. He was deported to Tanganyika and then to Kenya, before returning destitute to his native Uganda.
In April the government formed the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and completed the disarmament of Okello's remaining FMF militia. On 26 April Karume announced that a union had been negotiated with Tanganyika to form the new country of Tanzania. The merger was seen by contemporary media as a means of preventing communist subversion of Zanzibar; at least one historian states that it may have been an attempt by Karume, a moderate socialist, to limit the influence of the radically left-wing Umma Party. However, many of the Umma Party's socialist policies on health, education and social welfare were adopted by the government.
Foreign reaction 
British military forces in Kenya were made aware of the revolution at 4:45 am on 12 January, and following a request from the Sultan were put on 15 minutes' standby to conduct an assault on Zanzibar's airfield. However, the British High Commissioner in Zanzibar, Timothy Crosthwait, reported no instances of British nationals being attacked and advised against intervention. As a result, the British troops in Kenya were reduced to four hours' standby later that evening. Crosthwait decided not to approve an immediate evacuation of British citizens, as many held key government positions and their sudden removal would further disrupt the country's economy and government. To avoid possible bloodshed, the British agreed a timetable with Karume for an organised evacuation.
Within hours of the revolution, the American ambassador had authorised the withdrawal of US citizens on the island, and a US Navy destroyer, the USS Manley, arrived on 13 January. The Manley docked at Zanzibar Town harbour, but the US had not sought the Revolutionary Council's permission for the evacuation, and the ship was met by a group of armed men. Permission was eventually granted on 15 January, but the British considered this confrontation to be the cause of much subsequent ill will against the Western powers in Zanzibar.
Western intelligence agencies believed that the revolution had been organised by communists supplied with weapons by the Warsaw Pact countries. This suspicion was strengthened by the appointment of Babu as Minister for External Affairs and Abdullah Kassim Hanga as Prime Minister, both known leftists with possible communist ties. Britain believed that these two were close associates of Oscar Kambona, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Tanganyika, and that former members of the Tanganyika Rifles had been made available to assist with the revolution. Some members of the Umma Party wore Cuban military fatigues and beards in the style of Fidel Castro, which was taken as an indication of Cuban support for the revolution. However this practice was started by those members who had staffed a ZNP branch office in Cuba and it became a common means of dress amongst opposition party members in the months leading up to the revolution. The new Zanzibar government's recognition of the German Democratic Republic (the first African government to do so), and of North Korea, was further evidence to the Western Powers that Zanzibar was aligning itself closely with the communist bloc. Just six days after the revolution the New York Times stated that Zanzibar was "on the verge of becoming the Cuba of Africa", but on 26 January denied that there was active communist involvement. Zanzibar continued to receive support from communist countries and by February was known to be receiving advisers from USSR, East Germany and China. Cuba also lent its support with Che Guevara stating on 15 August that "Zanzibar is our friend and we gave them our small bit of assistance, our fraternal assistance, our revolutionary assistance at the moment when it was necessary" but denying there were Cuban troops present during the revolution. At the same time, western influence was diminishing and by July 1964 just one Briton, a dentist, remained in the employ of the Zanzibari government. It has been alleged that Israeli spymaster David Kimche was a backer of the revolution with Kimche in Zanzibar on the day of the Revolution.
The deposed Sultan made an unsuccessful appeal to Kenya and Tanganyika for military assistance, although Tanganyika sent 100 paramilitary police officers to Zanzibar to contain rioting. Other than the Tanganyika Rifles (formerly the colonial King's African Rifles), the police were the only armed force in Tanganyika, and on 20 January the police absence led the entire Rifles regiment to mutiny. Dissatisfied with their low pay rates and with the slow progress of the replacement of their British officers with Africans, the soldiers' mutiny sparked similar uprisings in both Uganda and Kenya. However, order on the African mainland was rapidly restored without serious incident by the British Army and Royal Marines.
The possible emergence of an African communist state remained a source of disquiet in the West. In February, the British Defence and Overseas Policy Committee said that, while British commercial interests in Zanzibar were "minute" and the revolution by itself was "not important", the possibility of intervention must be maintained. The committee was concerned that Zanzibar could become a centre for the promotion of communism in Africa, much like Cuba had in the Americas. Britain, most of the Commonwealth, and the USA withheld recognition of the new regime until 23 February, by which time it had already been recognised by much of the communist bloc. In Crosthwait's opinion, this contributed to Zanzibar aligning itself with the Soviet Union; Crosthwait and his staff were expelled from the country on 20 February and were only allowed to return once recognition had been agreed.
British military response 
Following the evacuation of its citizens on 13 January, the US government stated that it recognised that Zanzibar lay within Britain's sphere of influence, and would not intervene. The US did, however, urge that Britain cooperate with other East African countries to restore order. The first British military vessel on the scene was the survey ship HMS Owen, which was diverted from the Kenyan coast and arrived on the evening of 12 January. Owen was joined on 15 January by the frigate Rhyl and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Hebe. While the lightly armed Owen had been able to provide the revolutionaries with an unobtrusive reminder of Britain's military power, the Hebe and Rhyl were different matters. Due to inaccurate reports that the situation in Zanzibar was deteriorating, the Rhyl was carrying a company of troops of the first battalion of the Staffordshire Regiment from Kenya, the embarkation of which was widely reported in the Kenyan media, and would hinder British negotiations with Zanzibar. The Hebe had just finished removing stores from the naval depot at Mombasa and was loaded with weapons and explosives. Although the Revolutionary Council was unaware of the nature of Hebe's cargo, the Royal Navy's refusal to allow a search of the ship created suspicion ashore and rumours circulated that she was an amphibious assault ship.
A partial evacuation of British citizens was completed by 17 January, when the army riots in East Africa prompted Rhyl's diversion to Tanganyika so the troops she was carrying could assist in quelling the mutiny. In replacement, a company of the Gordon Highlanders was loaded aboard Owen so an intervention could still be made if necessary. The aircraft carriers Centaur and Victorious were also transferred to the region as part of Operation Parthenon. Although never enacted, Parthenon was intended as a precaution should Okello or the Umma party radicals attempt to seize power from the more moderate ASP. In addition to the two carriers, the plan involved three destroyers, Owen, 13 helicopters, 21 transport and reconnaissance aircraft, the second battalion of the Scots Guards, 45 Commando of the Royal Marines and one company of the second battalion of the Parachute Regiment. The island of Unguja, and its airport, were to be seized by parachute and helicopter assault, followed up by the occupation of Pemba. Parthenon would have been the largest British airborne and amphibious operation since the Suez Crisis.
Following the revelation that the revolutionaries may have received communist bloc training, Operation Parthenon was replaced by Operation Boris. This called for a parachute assault on Unguja from Kenya, but was later abandoned due to poor security in Kenya and the Kenyan government's opposition to the use of its airfields. Instead Operation Finery was drawn up, which would involve a helicopter assault by Royal Marines from HMS Bulwark, a commando carrier then stationed in the Middle East. As Bulwark was outside the region, Finery's launch would require 14 days' notice, so in the event that a more immediate response was necessary, suitable forces were placed on 24 hours' notice to launch a smaller scale operation to protect British citizens.
With the merger of Tanganyika and Zanzibar on 23 April, there were concerns that the Umma Party would stage a coup; Operation Shed was designed to provide for intervention should this happen. Shed would have required a battalion of troops, with scout cars, to be airlifted to the island to seize the airfield and protect Karume's government. However, the danger of a revolt over unification soon passed, and on 29 April the troops earmarked for Shed were reduced to 24 hours' notice. Operation Finery was cancelled the same day. Concern over a possible coup remained though, and around 23 September Shed was replaced with Plan Giralda, involving the use of British troops from Aden and the Far East, to be enacted if the Umma Party attempted to overthrow President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. An infantry battalion, tactical headquarters unit and elements of the Royal Marines would have been shipped to Zanzibar to launch an amphibious assault, supported by follow-on troops from British bases in Kenya or Aden to maintain law and order. Giralda was scrapped in December, ending British plans for military intervention in the country.
One of the main impacts of the revolution in Zanzibar was to break the power of the Arab/Asian ruling class, who had held it for around 200 years. Despite the merger with Tanganyika, Zanzibar retained a Revolutionary Council and House of Representatives which was, until 1992, run on a one party system and has power over domestic matters. The domestic government is led by the President of Zanzibar, Karume being the first holder of this office. This government used the success of the revolution to implement reforms across the island. Many of these involved the removal of power from Arabs. The Zanzibar civil service, for example, became an almost entirely African organisation, and land was redistributed from Arabs to Africans. The revolutionary government also instituted social reforms such as free healthcare and opening up the education system to African students (who had occupied only 12% of secondary school places before the revolution).
The government sought help from the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and P. R. China for funding for several projects and military advice. The failure of several GDR-led projects including the New Zanzibar Project, a 1968 urban redevelopment scheme to provide new apartments for all Zanzibaris, led to Zanzibar focussing on Chinese aid. The post-revolution Zanzibar government was accused of draconian controls on personal freedoms and travel and exercised nepotism in appointments to political and industrial offices, the new Tanzanian government being powerless to intervene. Dissatisfaction with the government came to a head with the assassination of Karume on 7 April 1972, which was followed by weeks of fighting between pro and anti-government forces. A multi-party system was eventually established in 1992, but Zanzibar remains dogged by allegations of corruption and vote-rigging, though the 2010 general election was seen to be a considerable improvement.
The revolution itself remains an event of interest for Zanzibaris and academics. Historians have analysed the revolution as having a racial and a social basis with some stating that the African revolutionaries represent the proletariat rebelling against the ruling and trading classes, represented by the Arabs and South Asians. Others discount this theory and present it as a racial revolution that was exacerbated by economic disparity between races.
Within Zanzibar, the revolution is a key cultural event, marked by the release of 545 prisoners on its tenth anniversary and by a military parade on its 40th. Zanzibar Revolution Day has been designated as a public holiday by the government of Tanzania; it is celebrated on 12 January each year.
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Further reading 
- Glassman, Jonathon (2011), War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, ISBN 978-0-253-22280-0.