Over in 38 Minutes — Britain’s Brief Battle With Zanzibar is History’s Shortest War

The British inflicted 500 casualties on the forces of Zanzibar in 1896, defeating the African nation in about 38 minutes. One Royal Navy sailor was injured in the war. The conflict has gone down in history as the shortest war ever recorded.

“At 9 a.m. local time Aug. 27, 1896, Great Britain declared war on the East African island nation of Zanzibar. Thirty-eight minutes later it was all over.”

KING FOR A DAY: His Highness Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash, Sultan of Zanzibar... at least that was his title until British gunboats arrived. (Image source: WikiCommons)

KING FOR A DAY: His Highness Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash, Sultan of Zanzibar… at least that was his title until British gunboats arrived. (Image source: WikiCommons)

THE SHORTEST WAR in history didn’t take long to play out. In fact it lasted slightly longer than an episode of your favourite sitcom.

At 9 a.m. local time Aug. 27, 1896, Great Britain declared hostilities against the tiny East African island nation of Zanzibar. Thirty-eight minutes later it was all over.

The fighting broke out as a result of an internal power struggle following the sudden death of the country’s pro-British ruler Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini just two days earlier.

The Sultan’s nephew, Khalid bin Bargash, quickly seized power, outmaneuvering London’s preferred heir to the throne, Hamud bin Muhammed. Many suspected that Bargash had actually poisoned his royal uncle as part of a planned coup d’état.

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Click to Enlarge (Image source: Google Maps)

Britain was determined to maintain its influence over the small but strategically important island, which sits just a few kilometres off the coast of Tanzinia (a German colony at the time). Bargash’s power play put those plans at risk. Interestingly, a treaty dating back to 1866 stipulated that London had final say over the succession of sultans on Zanzibar.

In a classic example of gunboat diplomacy, the British ordered five warships led by the cruisers HMS Philomel and HMS St George into the island’s harbour on the morning of Aug. 27 to issue an ultimatum to Bargash: Cede power to Muhammed by 9 a.m…. or else.

The 2,700-ton warship Philomel was one of five British vessels dispatched to crush the renegade Bargash. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The 2,700-ton warship Philomel was one of five British vessels dispatched to crush the renegade Bargash. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Instead of giving in, the self-appointed ruler fortified his palace overlooking the bay and tried to buy some time with the British via a U.S. diplomat on the island.

The fleet’s commander, Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson, ignored the appeals and within moments of the deadline, ordered his ships to begin firing directly into the palace.

As casualties neared 500 and with his own royal yacht holed by Anglo shells, Bargash fled to the German consulate and his remaining forces surrendered. Only one British sailor was wounded in the action.

The 38-minute cannonade devastated the royal palace on Zanzibar. Britain later demanded the tiny nation reimburse it for the shells.

The 38-minute cannonade devastated the royal palace on Zanzibar. Britain later demanded the tiny nation reimburse it for the shells.

Peace was quickly restored, Britain installed its preferred man to the throne, and London sought compensation from Zanzibar — it demanded to be reimbursed for the cost of the shells the Royal Navy fired in the brief clash.

Bargash hid in the German consulate and managed to escape to Dar es Salaam weeks later. He was captured in 1916 and briefly exiled to St. Helena. He died in 1927 at the age of 53.

(Originally published on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on May 14, 2012)

SOURCES

http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/battleswars1800s/p/anglozanzibar.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Zanzibar_War

5 comments for “Over in 38 Minutes — Britain’s Brief Battle With Zanzibar is History’s Shortest War

  1. Bazza
    27 June, 2013 at 3:26 am

    1986??

  2. 1 July, 2013 at 11:05 am

    “Tanzinia”? Shurely you mean the Tanganyika bit of German East Africa? The “ganyika” bit was only replaced with “zania” in 1964 when Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika after independence, the modern name is a portmanteau of the two.

    • 1 July, 2013 at 1:24 pm

      I didn’t realize that. Thanks.

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