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Exploring the Articulation of Governmentality and Sovereignty: The Chwaka Road and the Bombardment of Zanzibar, 1895-1896
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Exploring the Articulation of Governmentality and Sovereignty:
The Chwaka Road and the Bombardment of Zanzibar, 1895–1896

In 1896, Khalid bin Barghash seized Zanzibar’s throne, and Lloyd William Matthews ordered the bombardment of the palace, killing 500 of Khalid’s followers. This article contrasts the bombardment with earlier incidents in which British-led police were threatened and attacked. The British administration attempted to avoid overt confrontation with the perpetrators of these earlier incidents. Utilizing Foucault’s and Agamben’s theories of sovereignty and governmentality, I argue that these tactics of rule were applied tandemly to different categories of colonial subjects, and served to produce and reproduce these categories. This case study reveals creative and complex relationship between colonial power and knowledge.


In 1896, upon the death of Sultan Hamid bin Thwain, his cousin Khalid bin Barghash attempted to claim the throne of the British Protectorate of Zanzibar. He and a large number of followers staged a coup d’etat against the British government’s preferred candidate, and they barricaded themselves in the Sultan’s Beit al Hukum palace, facing the Indian Ocean. Lloyd William Matthews, “First Minister to His Highness the Sultan,” ordered British naval ships stationed near Zanzibar to bombard the palace, killing 500 of Khalid’s followers and destroying the palace (Lyne 1905:202; Thompson 1984 [1961]:64).

This event has been reported by historians, and even celebrated by poets, as a contest between an encroaching colonial administration and a “pretender” to the Zanzibar throne (Lyne 1936:147; Mutafi 1957:66; Bennett 1978). Yet upon careful consideration, Matthews’ decision to resort to a naval bombardment might seem an exaggerated response. By 1896, the British had already established de facto control over the internal and external affairs of the Sultanate of Zanzibar. And this was by no means the first time a member of the royal family had tried to seize the throne. The history of the Zanzibar sultanate in the late nineteenth century had been punctuated by coup d’etat attempts, most of which had been resolved through British intervention (Lyne 1905:54; Reute 1888:108). Khalid, for whom this was the second attempt to seize the throne, was outgunned by British naval forces, and had expressed his willingness to negotiate by sending an envoy to the British Consul General (Lyne 1905:196; 200). Having established control of the military, police, revenue expenditure and other aspects of Zanzibar’s infrastructure, one might not necessarily have expected Matthews to have chosen such a decisive response to Khalid’s attempt.

Both the 1896 bombardment and the events leading up to it should be of interest because they provide a lens through which to examine the complex and seemingly paradoxical nature of colonialism as both an organized system of governance and an exercise of political will against colonized subjects. More specifically, these incidents bring into focus the creativity of colonial power in its relationship to colonial governance. A number of scholars have previously utilized Foucault’s concept of governmentality (Foucault 1991) to argue that colonialism is a kind of statecraft, whose principal aim is to generate forms of knowledge about subject peoples (Cohn 1996; Wagoner 2003), enabling colonizers to identify, register and discipline subject peoples in terms of new or preexisting European colonial constructions of domesticity (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992), morality (Stoler 1992) and “civilization” (Hall 2002).

Colonial forms of knowledge drew upon a European disposition to divide subjects into distinct races, ethnic groups or “tribes,” often conceived of as occupying geographically bound territories within a colony (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992; Ferguson and Gupta 2002). Such territorially-bound groups resembled taxonomic categories employed in the natural sciences (Pels 1997:175). With such classification came a list of qualities or traits allegedly possessed by subject people, which rarely if ever took into regard the individuality of those subjects. But colonialism was not merely artfully organizing and governing territories and their subjects. Colonialism invariably involved conquest, a violent process of subjugation of non-Western peoples that entailed a simultaneous dismembering of earlier precolonial political institutions, and their subsequent rebuilding as apolitical bureaucratic appendices of European-controlled administrations (Berman and Lonsdale 1992:21–30; Pels 1994:326–329...