The Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted less than an hour. Here's the story behind the shortest war in history.
This is a tale of conflict the scale of which is unprecedented in the annals of history: an infamous tale of hope, bravery, and murder—kind of. It is the story of a war. But not just any war. It is the most one-sided, shortest war ever. The grand, memorable, unfortunate, and utterly incredible Anglo-Zanzibar war.
The prelude to conflict
Our story begins in 1890, back when the world was green and the conquering empires of Europe (unethically) owned most of the world. One fine day of that fateful year, Britain and Germany signed the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty, an agreement meant to divide territorial control between the colonizing powers in East Africa. Germany gained control over Tanzania, and Britain retained influence over the island-state of Zanzibar, a relatively small territory off Tanzania's coast.
The British had maintained friendly relationships with the country and its Sultans over the past several years, and had even acknowledged Zanzibar's sovereignty in 1886. But Germany was a threatening power in the region; so, after signing the treaty, Britain quickly declared Zanzibar a protectorate of the mighty British Empire. Soon enough, in 1893, the Empire installed a pro-British Sultan there, Hamad bin Thuwaini, effectively securing their hold over the small island-state.
Hamad ruled peacefully for three prospering years. But then something terrible happened. On August 25, 1896, Hamad suddenly died. Nobody saw it coming—except, as it seems, his own cousin, Khalid bin Barghash, who was suspiciously ready to seize the throne immediately. Rumors didn't wait to make their way across the whole nation and beyond, with many people believing Khalid had poisoned the Sultan in order to steal his crown.
Preparing for war
You see, Khalid opposed Britain colonial rule, and thus disagreed with his cousin's pro-British attitude. He yearned for Zanzibar's true sovereignty, its freedom, autonomy, and complete independence. We can all sympathize with that. What we can't sympathize with, however, was Khalid's supposed true purpose behind seeking independence. He wanted to profit from the lucrative slave trade that was rampant in Africa during this time. But slavery had been illegal in Britain for decades by this point, ever since the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Khalid was reportedly unhappy about that.
Upon hearing of Hamad's death, the British Empire hoped to install Hamuod bin Muhammad, another pro-British character, as the new Sultan. But Khalid had secured his position inside the royal palace, surrounding himself with loyal soldiers and plenty of artillery. He was determined to face the Empire and demand autonomy.
His preparations were complete by the end of the day, before the British had time to react. These included around 3,000 men placed around the sea-front palace, many artillery guns, and even a weaponized yacht in Zanzibar's harbor, ready to wage war if needed. Ironically, practically all the guns, weapons, and the yacht itself had all been British gifts.
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A warning unheeded
But if Britain was known for something, it was their dominion over the seas. Their navy was arguably the strongest in the world, and they would not be threatened by a small garrison in a tiny wooden palace. The British already had two warships anchored in the island's harbor, and they had dispatched trained troops ashore to protect the British Consulate.
Three more British warships joined them soon after. Despite being outnumbered 3-to-1, the British certainly had the upper hand in terms of equipment and training. At this point, the odds were overwhelmingly against Khalid's valiant—though stubborn—resistance.
Consul Basil Cave, with the British navy, attempted to persuade Khalid to stand down on several occasions. He did not have the authority to take military action without the government's approval, so he quickly sent the following message:
“Are we authorised in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?”
The following day, a telegraph from Whitehall arrived, which read:
“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.”
So, on August 26, Cave issued a final ultimatum to Khalid. The usurper had until 9 am the next day to lay down his arms and surrender. One hour before his deadline, Khalid sent a reply, stating:
“We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us.”
All attempts at diplomacy had failed, and by 9 am, as promised, war was officially declared. The Anglo-Zanzibar War had begun.
38 minutes later, the Anglo-Zanzibar War had ended. Anticlimactic, I know.
By 9:02 am, after bombardment had just started, most of Khalid's artillery had been destroyed. The palace's wooden structure had also taken severe damage, and began to collapse on top of the 3,000 soldiers in Khalid's tiny army. The Glasgow, Khalid's small yacht in the harbor, was also rapidly sunk and its crew rescued. As soon as the British opened fire, Khalid knew he was lost, so he escaped not five minutes into the war through a back exit and ran to the Germans, leaving his people to fend for themselves.
At 9:40 am, the barrage stopped, the Sultan's flag was pulled down, and the war officially was brought to an end. The final toll: 500 dead or hurt on Khalid's side, and only one wounded British soldier.
With Khalid on the run, the British Empire was free to install their preferred candidate on the throne of Zanzibar, and effectively outlawed slavery there a year later. Britain's control over the island-state would last for another 67 years.
The whole affair sounds like something out of a comedy. But remember that comedy is tragedy plus time. This was, in fact, a tragic event: a signal—and symbol—of a sad time in human history. The horrific effects of colonization still run deep throughout the world, and many wounds are yet to heal. Zanzibar would not gain its freedom until 1963.
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