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The World’s Shortest War

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Except for the loss of life, a 38-minute war in East Africa had many of the elements of a comic opera. The mighty British Empire took on the puny forces of the Sultan of Zanzibar, with predictable results.

Zanzibar's Sultan's Palace after taking fire from British warships.

Zanzibar's Sultan's Palace after taking fire from British warships.

Colonial Power

Late in the 19th century, European powers bestrode the world, imposing their will on darker-skinned people. Great Britain and Germany had been squabbling over parts of East Africa when they decided to sit down and settle competing claims. The result was the Anglo-German Agreement of 1890.

What is now Tanzania became an area of German influence, while Britain scored the island of Zanzibar. Germany also agreed to stop trying to pinch parts of Kenya. Of course, none of the people who lived in these regions were involved in these negotiations: “No need to bother the natives, old chap. They wouldn’t understand the complexities of geopolitics. Anyway, it’s for their own good don’t you know.”

At the time, Zanzibar was still a centre of the slave trade despite its having been banned. The victims were Africans and the traders were Arabs, and the slavers formed much of Zanzibar’s elites.

The Sultan Is Dead, Hail to the Sultan

The Brits installed a figurehead sultan, Hamad bin Thuwaini, to do their bidding. Peace and harmony ensued until 1896, when the sultan up and died suddenly; harvested, it is whispered, by the Grim Reaper carrying a bottle of poison.

Hamad bin Thuwaini was still warm when his cousin, Khalid bin Barghash, assumed the throne. The British Foreign Office took a very dim view of events on the grounds that it wasn’t proper for the Zanzibaris to have leaders who weren’t first approved by London.

This is where we meet Sir Basil Shillito Cave KCMG CB FRGS, Vice-Consul of British East Africa; although much of that alphabet soup of honours was to come later. It fell to Cave to visit Khalid and advise him the Her Britannic Majesty’s government required him to stand down.

Khalid declined Cave’s advice and weaponed up. He positioned artillery pieces and machine guns around his palace. Some of the weapons that had been gifts from Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, despite his country’s promise in the 1890 agreement to make nice with the British in East Africa. Other weapons had been presented to the former sultan by Queen Victoria.

Khalid also massed an army of 3,000 men, civilians, servants, and slaves, to defend him.

Prelude to War

Khalid continued to ignore demands to step down so the British began mustering a fleet of five warships in the harbour of Zanzibar Town. Ordering military action was above Cave’s pay grade so he sent a telegram to London asking for permission to open fire.

The message came back: “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.”

Cave was well schooled in the arcane language of his trade so he no doubt understood that he’d better be triumphant or he was on his own.

On August 26, 1896, Cave sent Khalid a warning to vacate the palace by 9 a.m. the following day, or else. The wannabe sultan replied “We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us.” That was a miscalculation.

HMS St. George at Zanzibar Town, bristling with guns aimed at the sultan’s palace.

HMS St. George at Zanzibar Town, bristling with guns aimed at the sultan’s palace.

Let Battle Commence

At 9:02 a.m. the Royal Navy received the order to start firing on the palace. Within two minutes, Khalid’s artillery had been disabled and the palace started to collapse. The defiant presumptive sultan nipped out through a back exit and left his followers to take the brunt of the attack.

The 9:40 a.m. Khalid’s flag was hauled down and the briefest war in world history was over. What the war lacked in longevity it made up for in casualties. In the short barrage, more than 500 of Khalid’s people were killed or wounded. On the British side, a single petty officer was wounded; he recovered in hospital.

Khalid made his way to the German consulate, where he was welcomed with open arms. He was whisked off to German East Africa. But, World War I reached that area of Africa and Khalid was captured by the British in 1916. After a spell in exile, he died in East Africa in 1927.

The Brit-friendly Hamud bin Muhammed was installed as sultan: “Zanzibar effectively became a British-run colony, maintaining independence in name only” (South African History Online). The whole affair was a textbook example of what came to be called “gunboat diplomacy.”

British sailors alongside a crippled Zanzibari cannon.

British sailors alongside a crippled Zanzibari cannon.

Bonus Factoids

  • Shortly after the war, Sultan Hamud abolished slavery in Zanzibar. The process of emancipation was slow. After ten years, only a little more than 17,000 of the island’s estimated 60,000 slaves had been freed.
  • A variety of gongs were handed out to the victors. Basil Cave became a Companion of the Order of the Bath. Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, commander of the British warships, was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. In addition, Rawson also was handed the Order of the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar, and the Order of Hamondieh.
  • In December 1963, Zanzibar became an independent constitutional monarchy. A month later, a revolution overthrew the sultan and several Zanzibaris of Arab descent were killed. A couple of months after that, Zanzibar formed a union with Tanganyika to form what was to become Tanzania.
  • The longest war in history was fought in the Iberian Peninsular as the Spanish and Portuguese tried to defeat the Arab occupiers. Conflict began in about 711 CE and ended in 1492, spanning 781 years.

A Rather Cringe Worthy Documentary About Pre-Independent Zanzibar

Sources

  • “Historical Dictionary of European Imperialism.” James Stuart Olson, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1991.
  • “The Shortest War in History.” Ben Johnson, history-uk.com, undated.
  • “The Anglo-Zanzibar War.” Justin and Stephanie Pollard, History Today, August 2018.
  • “The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896.” South African History Online, August 27, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 27, 2021:

Thanks Shauna and for your comments in the forum. An interesting anecdote is that since that best writer thread started my views have gone down. Proof that no good deed goes unpunished.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 27, 2021:

I love your writing style, Rupert!

Too bad all wars can't end in 38 minutes. The casualties were pretty hefty, though. I'll have to come back later to watch the video.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 26, 2021:

You make learning history so fascinating! What a contrast between the world's shortest war and the longest! I enjoyed watching the video at the end of your post.

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