The Anglo-Zanzibar War: The Shortest War in History

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Lasting for a grand total of 38 minutes, the Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896 is generally considered to be shortest war in history. How and why did it happen? Believe it or not, it actually all started with a treaty.

When Britain and Germany signed the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty in 1890, they divvied up portions of East Africa between the two empires. Germany gained control over Tanzania while Zanzibar fell under British influence.

With newly gained control, Britain declared Zanzibar a protectorate of the British Empire and appointed a ‘puppet’ sultan named Hamad bin Thuwaini to look over the region.

Hamad had long been a supporter of British operations in Zanzibar and was given the position in 1893.

Khalid bin Barghash

Rising tensions

Hamad ruled Zanzibar benevolently for over 3 years until his sudden, unexpected death on August 25, 1896. While historians could not find concrete evidence of a cause of death, they suspect that Hamad’s cousin, Khalid bin Barghash (pictured above), had him poisoned.

Why? Because mere hours after his cousin’s death, Khalid assumed the position of Sultan and moved into the palace.

British diplomats were outraged at the removal of their appointed Sultan and chief diplomat Basil Cave quickly commanded Khalid to stand down and remove himself from the palace.

Khalid ignored Cave and began to rally his forces in and around the palace. Armed with guns and cannons that were provided as diplomatic gifts from the British, the new Sultan’s forces were surprisingly well prepared and equipped.

By the end of the day (still August 25th), Khalid had almost 3,000 troops guarding the palace, several artillery pieces, and even a royal yacht fitted with cannons in the harbor.

In that same harbor, however, two British warships quickly deployed soldiers ashore to prevent rioting and protect the British Consulate.

Later that evening, another warship named the HMS Sparrow entered the harbor at the request of chief diplomat Basil Cave.

Cave, faced with a quickly deteriorating situation, sent a telegram back to Britain stating, “Are we authorized in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?”

A response would not come until the next day, “You are authorised to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty’s Government. Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully.”

At the same time another two British warships entered the harbor, the HMS Racoon and the HMS St. George, carrying the commander of the British fleet in that area, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson.

On August 26th, Cave appealed to Khalid yet again. This time delivering an ultimatum. Khalid was to leave the palace by 9 am the next morning or suffer the wrath of the British Empire.

The next morning at 8am, just an hour before the deadline, Khalid replied, “We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us.”

Cave responded with a threat in the most British way possible, stating that he had did not intend to fire upon the palace, “but unless you do as you are told, we shall certainly do so”

Placement of ships in the harbor at 9:00 am

Fighting begins

At 9 am sharp, without a minute to spare, British ships were given the order to bombard the palace. At 9:02, the first shots landed and Khalid’s artillery pieces were utterly destroyed.

With 3,000 defenders inside, the palace’s fragile wooden structure began to collapse. Khalid fled through a back exit of the palace, leaving his forces and servants behind.

At 9:40 the shelling stopped, the Sultan’s flag was removed, and the war had come to an end after only 38 minutes.

The Sultan’s harem (a section of the palace reserved for women) after the bombardment.

Aftermath

Despite being the shortest war in history, the casualty rate of Khalid’s forces was very high.

500 of his 3,000 men were killed or wounded, mainly due to high explosive shells. On the British side, one petty officer was wounded but recovered in the hospital.

With Khalid deposed, the British installed Sultan Hamud on the throne, another supporter of Britain’s efforts in Zanzibar. He ruled for the next six years.

Khalid managed to escape with a small group of retainers to the local German Consulate. Despite numerous telegrams from the British demanding his extradition, he was smuggled out of the country by the German navy on October 2nd and taken to modern day Tanzania.

He wasn’t discovered until WW1 when British forces invaded East Africa in 1916. Khalid was finally captured and exiled to Saint Helena, a minuscule island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Eventually the British allowed him to return to East Africa, where he died in 1927.

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