The Anglo-Zanzibar war was a war fought in 1896 between the United Kingdom and the former Sultanate of Zanzibar: an island in the Indian ocean located off the east African coast, and now part of modern day Tanzania. Nearby parts of the east African mainland were, at various times, also part of the territory of the Sultanate of Zanzibar. Lasting all of 38 minutes, the Anglo-Zanzibar war has the dubious distinction of being the shortest war in recorded history.
Previous to this, the Sultanate of Zanzibar, a British protectorate, had been ruled by Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaiti. His leadership and his willingness to preserve British interests in the region found favour with the then British government, but his death on the 25th of August, 1896 marked a change that far from met with the approval of the British government.
Two days later, on the 27th of August, 1896, the late Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaiti was succeeded by his nephew Sultan Kalid bin Barghash, a leader for whom British interests were far from being a priority. Details of the succession are unclear, but it remains a topic of speculation that Sultan Kalid bin Barghash had assassinated his uncle in order to take over the throne for himself. Whether true or not, the British government was highly concerned and displeased with this turn of events and took immediate steps to remedy the situation.
Britain, instead, wanted Hamoud bin Mohammed Al-Said to be installed as the new ruler of the Sultanate of Zanzibar. He was a man whom they could trust to safeguard British interests on the island and basically do what he was told. They formally demanded that Sultan Kalid bin Barghash relinquish his claim to the throne on the grounds that it wasn’t valid. Part of the treaty governing the Sultanate of Zanzibar as a British protectorate stipulated that any new ruler must first be approved by the British consul. The consul’s approval was never granted, and in fact, Sultan Kalid bin Barghash had been warned by the British consul against any such course of action as it would almost certainly have drastic consequences. He was right. The British government used the Sultan’s attempted succession to the throne in spite of the consul’s lack of approval as justification for declaring war.
Rather than relinquish his claim to the throne as demanded, the new ruler allowed the deadline he had been given by the British to expire. He barricaded himself in his palace, protected by his Palace Guard, his servants, slaves, around 700 Zanzibari soldiers and almost three thousand civilian volunteers. The war had officially begun and the first shots were fired. On the attacking side, with several warships and hundreds of sailors, marines and still loyal Zanzibari soldiers, British forces met with little opposition. The sultan, his Palace Guard, his staff and his army of volunteer civilians were no match for the overpowering artillery and fire-power of the British.
Just thirty eight minutes later, the last shots were fired. The war had ended. The palace had been burned and seriously damaged, its cannons were put out of action, the flagpole symbolically snapped, and around five hundred casualties on the Sultan’s side lay dead or injured. At some point during the battle, Sultan Kalid bin Bhargash, himself, escaped the palace and sought refuge in the German consulate, where he was granted political asylum.
With their superior arsenal and trained and armed manpower, the British side suffered no fatalities and only one injury during the conflict. Britain had won easily, and their preferred successor, Hamoud bin Mohammed Al-Said, was promptly appointed Sultan and ruler of the Sultanate of Zanzibar. The shortest war in history was over.
At which point during the thirty-eight minute battle Sultan Kalid bin Bargash escaped is unknown, but, again, there is wide speculation that he escaped as soon as the fighting started, leaving his guards, slaves, servants and supporters with the impossible task of defending the palace from greatly superior British forces. He eventually escaped to mainland east Africa with the help of German consular officials who had refused Britain’s request to extradite him into their custody. Germany’s refusal to comply was based on the extradition treaty existing between the UK and Germany not extending to political asylum seekers.
The new British-approved leader, Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed Al-Said, safeguarded British interests well and is remembered for his abolition of slavery within the sultanate. He remained in favour with the British government until his death six years later in 1902.