Chapwani Island, Zanzibar

I asked around. I wanted to get to Grave Island. No one seemed to know. Perhaps had I given it its real name, Chapwani, I might have had more luck.

A Goan friend came to the rescue. He once took care of the Grave Island Cemetery, a Commonwealth War Cemetery, with its 24 war graves from World War I. It’s the resting place of some of the 31 crew members of the HMS Pegasus, which met its end by the guns from SMS Königsberg on 20 September 1914. The Königsberg‘s original posting was as a personal escort to the Kaiser’s yacht but then the war came. During the Battle of Zanzibar in 1914, she was taking on coal at the delta of Rufiji when she spotted the unfortunate Pegasus. The rest is history.

Memorial to HMS pegasus sailors Grave Island Zanzibar

Memorial to HMS pegasus sailors Grave Island Zanzibar

Memorial to HMS pegasus sailors Grave Island Zanzibar

The island is leased by Maria, an engineer from Italy who built many roads in Tanzania. She has a resort there – Chapwani Private Island Resort – with about 10 villas. Guests share the island with the graves of sailors who met their death on various ships. [Blogger Andrew Smyth writes about his encounter with Maria.]

Grave of sailor from HMS Conquest Grave Island Zanzibar

Grave of sailor from HMS Great Northern Grave Island Zanzibar

Causes of death varied but all the residents share a common history – they were all once sailors. The only SS Great Northern I could find was older than the one Charles Sadler crewed; it was an American passenger ship. That left me wondering if ships names are recycled and reused. The same for the HMS Spartan. But the HMS Philomel has a history I could find:

For six years, Philomel served on station, intercepting slave traders along the coast of Africa. In 1896, she participated in the Anglo-Zanzibar War, during which rebels murdered the Sultan of Zanzibar and seized his palace. Along with the three gunboats and HMS St George, she bombarded the palace fortress and the only ship of the Zanzibar Navy, HHS Glasgow. This action lasted less than an hour and resulted in the routing of the rebels.

And to see sailors from the Glasgow in the same cemetery gave me pause for thought.

Grave of sailor from HMS Great Northern Grave Island Zanzibar

Grave of sailor from HMS Philomel Grave Island Zanzibar

Grave of sailor from HMS Glasgow Grave Island Zanzibar

I found the grave of one German – enemies and friends lying together. And one woman, Elizabeth Mary Cuff. Apart from their listing on the records of those buried on the island, I could find no more information. I found one interesting record for an Elizabeth Cuff from that era but it seems she died in New Zealand.

It’s quite the spot. We got there by boat and had to wade in amongst the starfish and sea urchins – treacherous wading if you don’t have boat shoes – be sure to pack a pair if you’re headed to Zanzibar. Tides come in fast and the seabed is full of rocks and coral and all sorts of creatures. With crystal clear waters, you have a great view even in the shallows.

As we were leaving, a boat anchored offshore with the lovely name – Just for Today. Quite the lesson for living life as you find it.


  • Kevin Patience

    Hi Mary,
    I first visited the cemetery in 1975 and have written the history of the Konigsberg / Pegasus action in a book. I knew John de Souza who took care of the Pegasus graves and cleaned and painted the grave with him a while back. However your mention of Glasgow is not quite correct. There was a Royal Navy sailing warship p HMS Glasgow and Sultan Bargash’s steam yacht HHS Glasgow. The latter was sunk in 1896. The grave with HMS Glasgow is off the RN ship.

    • A

      Thanks for this, Kevin. Don’t know why my comments disappeared from the site and notifications stopped. Will check into it.

  • Gareth Parles

    Hi, great post. I’ve always wanted to visit as I’m related to George Edwin Rowberry who is buried here. I can see his grave next to J. Smith in the photo above (service number 221187). Please, has this photo been cropped? Do you have a copy where I could see his name please. Many thanks and kind regards.

Leave your comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Other Posts: