We Get By with a Little Help from Our Friends

One of the delights of being part of the University of Oxford is discovering the sheer breadth as well as the depth of the collective knowledge of individuals here. We were recently reminded how great this range is when we came across this image in the HEIR Project archive from the Plant Science Collection of the Radcliffe Science Library:


Its label only told us it was part of a collection of “Various Scenes from Zanzibar,” and it appeared to be a Royal Naval boat. On closer inspection, the vessel seemed to be flying a royal standard, the rowers seemed to be in dress uniforms and in a formal pose, and there appeared to be a dignitary beneath the canopy in the stern. Although this looked very like a British royal barge, a quick check on the Internet failed to turn up any trace of a royal visit to Zanzibar that might account for this image.

After a discussion about the picture in our office, the suggestion was made to forward it to Giles Richardson, Administrative Assistant at the Beazley Archive – who also happens to be a maritime archaeologist and an expert on identifying boats. His reply to our request asking if he might be able to tell us more about the picture was brilliant and is reproduced here:


Many thanks for your message! You are quite right about importance of the boat in the picture – after doing some digging online I can confirm it is in fact the royal barge of the Sultans of Zanzibar.

The image seems to show the barge coming alongside the ornate gangway of a small warship or admiral’s yacht (just visible on the right with a coiled rope on the top step) as part of an official welcoming ceremony. The oarsmen have just raised their oars in the traditional Naval greeting. Their uniform appears to be the standard Royal Navy design of the late 19th Century with the addition of black turban-like headdress, which confirms they are the Sultan’s own crew. The Sultan himself is sitting at the stern on the left, dressed in black, while the passenger in white is probably a British Admiral in Victorian tropical uniform.

The barge itself was commissioned by Queen Victoria from the famous Isle of Wight boat builders ‘J.Samuel White and Co.’ to convey Sayyid Barghash Bin Said on the Thames during his visit to London in 1875. The Sultan was so impressed with the vessel that the Queen presented it to him at the end of his state visit, and it was then shipped out to Zanzibar. It was used by many of his successors until it was put into storage sometime during the early 20th Century. Remarkably it has recently been rediscovered at the back of a warehouse and is now being preserved.

The National Archives have a similar image in their collection, which is identified as “Sultan Hamed bin Mohammed disembarks from his barge after a meeting with an Admiral, Zanzibar

Although it is not certain, from the look and feel of the two images I would be tempted to say they depict the same event – the occupants of the barge, the flags and the weather look the same, and admirals yacht in the background of the NA image even looks the right height to be the vantage point for the image taken by your photographer. If so the image must be dated to 1896-99.

Sultan Hamed bin Mohammed is an interesting historical figure thanks to his connection to the Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896, (the shortest war in history!)

We are truly grateful to Giles for this brilliant addition to the research resource that is the HEIR Project archive.

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