Anglo-Zanzibar War

Anglo-Zanzibar War: The Shortest War in History

Anglo-Zanzibar War: British-Zanzibar history [1896]

Anglo-Zanzibar War
Anglo-Zanzibar War (The Sultan’s harem after the bombardment)

Date: 09:00–09:37 EAT (06:00–06:37UTC), 27 August 1896 (38 minutes)

Location: Zanzibar Town, Zanzibar Sultanate

Result: British victory

Anglo-Zanzibar War: This is, perhaps, a stereotypical scene of a pre-modern era war. Cannons firing, men charging into battle, horses wildly flailing their legs… all of these are what you probably think of when you hear the term “nineteenth-century war”. You also probably think that war lasts a while — maybe a year or two, and if it’s long, maybe up to ten. Probably not 38 minutes… right?

Because then it’s barely even called a war… right? Wrong. Because there most definitely was a war that lasted thirty-eight minutes, and it was between England and the Zanzibar Sultanate, a sultanate that ruled an area in modern-day Kenya. What happened to it?

This is the British Empire at the close of the nineteenth century. An empire on which “the sun never set”, the British Empire was at one point the largest empire in history. How did they get so big? Wars. They’d fight the locals, win, and add the newly acquired land to their ever-growing empire. One of these wars was the Anglo-Zanzibar war.

Anglo-Zanzibar War 25 August 1896

The Shortest War in History Anglo Zanzibar War
The Shortest War in History – The Anglo-Zanzibar War

Anglo-Zanzibar War was also the shortest recorded war in history! Depending on who you ask, it lasted anywhere from 38 to 45 minutes, but more on that later. What was going on there? Well, Britain basically had control over the Zanzibar Sultanate, since the previous ruler, or sultan, was basically the British’s puppet. He’d do whatever they asked for, and, when he died, the British wanted a sultan who would do what they wanted — basically, another puppet.

On August 25, 1896, the sultan who was a puppet for the Brits, Sultan Sayyid Hamad bin Thuwaini Al-Busaid, died. Have fun laughing at my pronunciation. But Sultan Sayyid Hamad… I’ll just call him Hamad. Sultan Hamad was suspected to have been poisoned. Who poisoned him? It was probably his cousin, Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash Al-Busa’id. Again, feel free to laugh at my pronunciation. Now, his cousin, Khalid, claimed the sultanship becoming Sultan Khalid.

The British didn’t like this. They bought up an old treaty that said that Zanzibar couldn’t pick a new sultan without approval from the Brits. The British Consul told him that the British wouldn’t approve of him being the sultan. Sultan Khalid didn’t care. He started amassing his army, which was like a speck of dust before the British Army. Or the British Navy. Or any branch of the military for that matter.

The Sultan was basically inviting war with the British Empire. Remember, all of this happened in one day — August 25, 1896. The day after, August 26, was relatively quiet. That’s not to say, though, that nothing happened. Just no fighting. The British bought in some of their cruisers, which are basically big ships. Powerful big ships. They have really big guns. And can launch torpedoes. Also on the 26th, the British gave an ultimatum to Sultan Khalid. Either Sultan Khalid would step down and leave the palace by 9 AM on the 27th or the British would attack the city.

The next day, on the 27th, at 8 AM, an hour before the ultimatum expired, the Sultan sent a messenger to the British. The messenger wanted to see if there was a way out of the whole situation. The British replied that the only way that Sultan Khalid would live would be to agree and step down. The messenger went back to the Sultan, and the sultan had another message for the British: he wouldn’t agree. Furthermore, he said that the British were making empty threats, and wouldn’t actually fire on the city.

The British replied, quote, “We do not want to open fire, but unless you do as you are told we shall certainly do so.” At 8:55 AM, the British still hadn’t heard any news. And so, the Brits prepared to fire. At 9:00 AM, the British readied their guns. At 9:02 AM, the British started firing on the town of Zanzibar, where the palace was located.

The sultan fled. At 9:40 AM, the British stopped firing, since the sultans’ guns had all been silenced (read: destroyed) and Sultan Khalid’s flag on the palace was no longer waving. Later that day, the British installed Hamoud bin Muhammed as the sultan, since he was pro-British. What happened to Sultan Khalid? He fled to the German Embassy, and they sent him to German East Africa.

In 1917, he was captured by the British, since they were fighting Germany in WW1, and he was then exiled again to St. Helena. Incidentally, that’s the same island where Napoleon was exiled. He was then transferred to Seychelles, and then to Mombasa, where he died in 1927. As for the aftermath of the war? About 500 Zanzibaris died, including civilians. Why is the number so high? Because the Zanzibari palace was made out of wood, which meant that it burned really easily. Oh, and another thing. Why you may ask, did the Brits even let the Sultanate continue? Why didn’t they just take over Zanzibar?

The answer was that with preserving the sultanate, the British Empire could save some money, and not have to worry about the welfare of its citizens. Not that the British Empire really cared about all that, but… Another thing that might be on your mind is that I said previously that the war lasted anywhere from 38 to 45 minutes. Why’s that? Well, some people count the war as beginning at 8:55 AM, when the British started preparing their guns, which would make the war 45 minutes long. Some also count the war as beginning at 9:02 AM, when the guns started firing, which would make the war 38 minutes long. So, that’s the 38-minute war.

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