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The Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 between Great Britain and the German Empire can probably be deemed ridiculous for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it has to be one of the silliest names for a treaty in existence, probably because it’s named after two of the silliest named places in the world. Secondly, its main concerns were over two of the tiniest islands in the world. Thirdly, it was considered a very silly idea by many people at the time, described by Sir Henry Stanley as Germany,

"Giving a suit for an old trouser button."

Despite its seemingly ridiculous nature, strategically, and symbolically, it was an extremely important treaty to show the nature of British Foreign Policy at the time, and in Germany’s ambitions for an empire in Africa.

The Terms.

The German Reich renounced its claim to Uganda, Bechuanaland, the Somali coast and Wituland, which was a small Sultanate in modern day Kenya.

The British Empire allows access to the Zambizi River, via the Caprivi Strip

The German Reich recognises Zanzibar as a British protectorate.

The British Empire recognises the borders of German East Africa

The British Empire cedes the possession of Heligoland to Germany.

The Tiny Little Places Involved and why they were so important.

Heligoland is a small island (literally; it’s 4.2 km²) off the coast of the south of Danish Jutland and the North West of Germany. The British had owned it since 1807, when it had seized it during the Napoleonic Wars. Kaiser Wilhelm II had ambitions of making himself ‘the Admiral of the Atlantic’ (he was a bit mad), but the only way Germany could really have any naval influence at all was if a canal was built between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, basically hacking a straight line through the bottom of Denmark. Construction on the Kiel Canal had started back in 1887 and was finally completed in 1895. A British owned Heligoland stood directly in the way of this. In 1890, the British had no real reason to distrust Germany, as it had clearly decided in the Naval Defence Act in 1889 that the main naval threat lay with France and Russia, not Germany. Britain was quite content to let its more natural ally, Germany, have some form of navy, as its current policy of isolationism meant it really wasn’t bothered either way.

Zanzibar, apart from being made famous by a certain Tenacious D song which will remain nameless, was a rebellious Sultanate off the coast of Tanganyika in 1890, now Tanzania, which many countries had tried to lay claim to in the Scramble for Africa. The Sultan of Zanzibar, up until 1887, had owned large amounts of land in East Africa, including Dar Es Salaam, Mogadishu and Mombasa, but between 1887 and 1892, these were slowly taken into the hands of European Empires. This meant that control of Zanzibar itself was of great importance to most European powers, especially as it had become a centre for illegal slave trading, as well as providing good access to most of East Africa and having a wide range of spices to be traded, which followed in the Imperial tradition of invading other countries and taking their stuff. The people of Zanzibar were not too happy about this and when the British objected to a new Sultan in 1896, tensions caused the Anglo-Zanzibari War, otherwise known as ‘The Shortest War in History’, as it only lasted 45 minutes before the Zanzibari surrender.

From that, it does seem like Germany got trouser buttons in return for a suit, which to some extent is true, as far as territories go, Germany did get the raw end of the deal, although it is important to remember that Germany also gained security for its East African colonies and use of the Zambizi River.

What the Germans intended to get out of the treaty was a strengthening of their friendship with Britain, in order to bring them into the Triple Alliance and tip the balance of power in their favour. This plan fell flat on its face when Britain rebuffed the attempts at an official alliance in 1900 and Anglo-German relations took a turn for the worse. They did, however, get a very nice canal that proved very useful in WWI out if it.

Where are they now? Heligoland and Zanzibar.

Heligoland is now a part of the Schleswig-Holstein region of Germany, and is part of the European Union, but enjoys a similar tax-exempt status as the British Channel Islands.

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania and elects its own President to decide on internal matters. Not to mention, it was the first place in Africa to have colour TV and Freddie Mercury was born there too.


Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, 1890






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