The Shortest War in History–The Anglo-Zanzibar War

The Sultan's harem after shelling.

The Sultan’s harem after shelling.

Wars are horrific, drawn out affairs that often last for years. The American Civil War lasted for four years and caused some 600,000 casualties. World War I lasted four years while World War II lasted six, costing 20 million and 60 million lives, respectively. Surprisingly enough, while those are some of the bloodiest wars in history, they are not the longest. The recent war in Iraq, for example, was easily ten years long. America was involved in Vietnam for ten years as well.

But wars need not always be long. Strangely enough, the shortest war in history is one of the most overlooked. Fought between the British Empire and Zanzibar, it lasted a grand total of 38 minutes.

 

Growing tensions

The brief war was rooted in the tangled mess that the colonial powers made of Africa late in the 19th century. European nations viewed Africa as a land wide open for colonization (never mind the fact that people already lived there), and they quickly began to jockey for position on the continent. This particular conflict was rooted in the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890, between Germany and Great Britain. The treaty basically defined British and German spheres of influence; Britain got Zanzibar–a small island country situated in the Indian Ocean, off the eastern coast of Africa–while Germany got Tanzania. Britain declared Zanzibar a protectorate and installed their very own sultan, Hamad bin Thuwaini.

All was well for three years, until Hamad died on August 25, 1896. The exact circumstances of the death are not known, but many believe his cousin, Khalid bin Barghash was responsible, especially since Khalid took the throne only a few hours later. The British were none too pleased with this turn of events, and diplomats stationed near the palace ordered Khalid to stand down. This order was promptly ignored; Khalid began to gather troops and fortify the palace. Soon, the rogue sultan managed to gather 3,000 well armed men, several cannons, and even a Royal Yacht turned mini warship. Khalid, it seemed, was looking for a fight.

For their part, the British had two warships anchored in the harbor–the HMS Philomet and the HMS Rush–and ground forces were being rushed ashore to protect British interests in the city. The consul and diplomatic envoy to Zanzibar, Basil Cave, requested assistance from another warship in the area. With his troops in place, Cave found himself in a bit of a lurch because he actually had no authority to initiate hostilities. He sent a telegram to his superiors and issued ultimatums to Khalid, all of which were promptly ignored. Two more warships joined the growing force the next day, while Cave heard back from his superiors, giving him the “ok” to fight, provided he didn’t “attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully.”

Palace after bombardment.

Palace after bombardment.

With that rousing bit of confidence from the British government, on August 26th Cave issued one last ultimatum to the obstinate sultan, demanding he leave the palace by 9am the next morning. The night passed without a reply, but an hour before the deadline Kalid replied: “We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us.” Cave replied that he had no desire to fire upon Khalid, “but unless you do as you are told, we shall certainly do so.”

Khalid never replied. So it would be war.

 

War breaks out…for 38 minutes

At 9am, British ships began to bombard the palace. Two minutes later, the sultan’s artillery was obliterated, and the palace was already beginning to collapse. Khalid had already beat a hasty retreat through a back exit, leaving his men to fend for themselves. The shelling ended at about 9:40, and the Sultan’s flag was pulled down. The shortest war in history was over. Khalid’s men suffered 500 casualties, most killed or injured by the shrapnel produced as high explosive rounds blew apart the wooden palace. The British suffered one petty officer severely wounded, but he survived and recovered in a hospital.

The British replaced Khalid with a pro-British sultan, who ruled for six years. Khalid escaped to the German Consulate with some loyal henchmen. He wound up in Tanzania, where he stayed until British forces invaded the country in 1916. The former sultan was exiled to St. Helena. When his exile ended, he returned to his former homeland, where he died in 1927, ending one of the stranger chapters in British military history.

 

Sources:
Johnson, Ben. “The Shortest War in History.” historic-uk.com. Historic UK. June 30, 2014. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/The-Shortest-War-in-History/