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The Shortest War In History: The Anglo-Zanzibar War

Ishaan Busireddy

The Anglo-Zanzibar war was fought on August 27, 1896 between the British Empire and the Sultanate of Zanzibar (an island off the coast of Tanzania that was under British dominance) that lasted for only 38-45 minutes, making the war the shortest one ever recorded.

The war was a result of a crisis that stemmed from the death of the Sultan of Zanzibar, Hamad bin Thuwaini, who suddenly died at 11:40 AM, on August 25, 1896. Hamad’s cousin, Khalid bin Barghash, succeeded to the Zanzibari throne on the day of Hamad’s death. The quick succession drew suspicion from the people of Zanzibar; some people even theorized that Khalid had poisoned the food and/or drink of Hamad. Nevertheless, there was not any internal resistance to Khalid’s accession.

Although Khalid’s accession had not stirred serious discontent within Zanzibar itself, it was problematic to Zanzibar’s overlord, Britain. In 1886, the British and the Zanzibaris signed a treaty stating that any successor to the Zanzibari throne required approval of the British consul. In that way, the British protected their interests in Zanzibar. Therefore, when Khalid proclaimed himself the Sultan of Zanzibar without their permission, the British were furious and demanded that Khalid and his forces leave the Sultan’s palace immediately, or they would be removed by force. Khalid rejected the British ultimatum and ordered his royal guards to prepare for the palace’s defense.

On August 26, the British gathered a small invasion force to dethrone Khalid. British Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson led a force of three cruisers, two gunboats, and 150 marines and sailors into the harbor area of Zanzibar. This naval force was accompanied by a ground force of 900 pro-British Zanzibaris led by Brigadier-General Lloyd Matthews. When the British forces appeared in the distance, Sultan Khalid attempted to negotiate. Unsurprisingly, the consul told Khalid that the British were willing to negotiate only if Khalid agreed to the terms of the ultimatum; he once again refused.

At 9:00 AM, August 27, the British ultimatum expired, and Brigadier-General Lloyd ordered the small fleet to bombard the shore of Zanzibar. The 2,800 men that Khalid had gathered were unable to fend off the fierce shore-bombardment of the British. The explosive shells of the British destroyed the Zanzibari artillery and inflicted heavy casualties, thus rendering the Zanzibari palace defenseless. However, the battle was not yet over. A British-style ship appeared right out of the blue: it was the Zanzibari royal yacht, the HHS Glasgow. A group of Zanzibari soldiers had mounted machine guns and artillery on the yacht. The HHS Glasgow fired at the HMS St. George, a British cruiser, whose return fire sank the yacht. Within a few minutes, the British had almost completely destroyed the Zanzibari palace, and the Zanzibaris surrendered, thus ending the very short war.

During the battle, Khalid managed to escape and take refuge in German East Africa (Khalid was later captured in 1916 during WWI and forced into exile on the Seychelles and St. Helena before finally returning to Tanzania.). Upon Khalid’s defeat, the British installed Hamud bin Muhammed, a pro-British Omani as the Sultan of Zanzibar and a vassal of the British Crown. Overall, the war was extremely insignificant except for it being the “Shortest War Ever Recorded.”

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