The 38-Minute Anglo-Zanzibar War: The Fastest War in History

In 1896, the tiny African sultanate of Zanzibar entered into a war with the British Empire. It was the shortest war in history.

Sep 22, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
anglo zanzibar war

 

On August 25, 1896, the Sultan of Zanzibar died. As a British protectorate, this tiny island off the coast of East Africa had a clause that required Zanzibari candidates for the throne of the sultanate to gain permission from the British before declaring themselves the ruler. The new sultan, Khalid bin Barghash, failed to do so. Upon being informed of his mistake, he still refused to do so and barricaded himself in the palace in an act of dangerous belligerence. So, the British declared war on the tiny island sultanate of Zanzibar. Thirty-eight minutes later, the Anglo-Zanzibar War would end becoming the shortest war in history.

 

Background to the Anglo-Zanzibar War

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The location of the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa. Image supplied by the author using Google Earth.

 

Today, the island of Zanzibar forms part of Tanzania. In December 1961, the mainland territory of Tanganyika gained its independence from Britain. In April 1964, Tanganyika merged with Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which was later renamed Tanzania. For geographic reasons, it made sense to merge the two entities. Zanzibar also needed the protection of its bigger neighbor. Zanzibar, however, wasn’t always considered an African entity.

 

In 1698, the Sultanate of Oman took control of Zanzibar from the Portuguese, who had claimed the island in 1499. In 1858, Sultan Majid bin Said declared independence from Oman. This independence was recognized and enforced by the British Empire. For British protection, however, Zanzibar was forced to abandon the slave trade upon receiving a British ultimatum in 1873. The second Sultan, Barghash bin Said, complied, and there were generally friendly relations between Britain and the tiny sultanate.

 

Problems with colonial powers, however, were not unseen. Britain and Germany had both been involved. Trade rights to Kenya had been granted to Britain, while Tanganyika, Kenya’s southern neighbor, had been granted to Germany. Apart from many slave traders being upset with the new developments in the edicts outlawing their business, German authorities gained the ire of the Sultanate of Zanzibar by refusing to fly the sultanate’s flag. This act of belligerence even led to clashes between the local population and German troops stationed in Tanganyika.

 

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Khalid bin Barghash, the sixth sultan of Zanzibar and the ruler who led Zanzibar into war with the British Empire, via RTVE

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The clashes worsened, with significant loss of life and a cycle of reprisals that would leave hundreds dead. One such incident saw German troops massacre 150 people in the coastal town of Bagamoyo. Realizing the severe nature of the situation, Sultan Khalifa, the third Sultan of Zanzibar, dispatched Zanzibari troops to the mainland to restore order. The deployment was successful, and the violence ended. To ensure the slave trade ended, the British and the Germans enforced a naval blockade, strangling the flow of ships carrying enslaved people.

 

The fourth sultan, Ali Bin Said, ascended the throne in 1890 and immediately declared the sultanate a British Protectorate, giving the British the right to veto the appointment of sultans.

 

In 1893, Zanzibar appointed its fifth monarch, Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini. He continued to support growing British power and interest in Zanzibar despite significant pushback from the Zanzibari people over the British attempt to eradicate the slave trade and also the fact that the British now led Zanzibar’s army. Violent clashes erupted in Zanzibar and began to spiral out of control.

 

The Prelude to War

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Sir Basil Shillito Cave, British consul and diplomatic agent to Zanzibar (and first-class cricketer for Marylebone Cricket Club), via Stephen Liddell

 

On August 25, 1896, Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini died. His death was sudden and unexpected, and although the nature of his death is unknown to this day, it is suspected that he was assassinated by his nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, who then moved into the palace and took up the mantle of the Sultan of Zanzibar, although without officially declaring it. This was in contravention to the agreement with the British, which demanded that the British had to approve any candidate for the throne. And at this time, they had another candidate in mind who was more conducive to British control.

 

Despite British warnings, Khalid continued barreling toward disaster. He mobilized the palace guard and had his small number of artillery pieces aimed at British ships in the harbor. The Sultan took control of Zanzibar’s navy, the entirety of which was a single sloop, the HHS Glasgow.

 

The British responded by mustering forces of their own. Lieutenant Arthur Edward Harington Raikes took charge of the British forces in Zanzibar. He gathered hundreds of Zanzibari troops under British control, bolstered by marines dispatched from the military vessels in the harbor. The largest of these vessels was the cruiser, HMS Philomel, accompanied by two gunboats, HMS Thrush and HMS Sparrow.

 

The British continued to appeal to Khalid bin Barghash to stand down his forces, but they were ignored. Barghash responded by proclaiming that his accession would take place at 15:00. At 14:30, his uncle was buried, and exactly thirty minutes later, he followed through with his announcement. At the sound of cannons announcing the accession, Britain knew their warnings had gone unheeded.

 

The entire situation happened very quickly and unexpectedly.

 

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The palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar, from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, via History Today

 

The British consul to Zanzibar, Basil Cave, immediately telegraphed London and awaited approval for the use of force.

 

The next day, August 26, the three British ships in the harbor were joined by two more ships – the gunboat HMS Racoon and the cruiser HMS St. George. The latter carried Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, who would take charge of all the British forces. Around the same time, Cave received a response from London, giving him the authorization he needed. He tried to negotiate further with Khalid bin Barghash but received no response. Rawson then sent an ultimatum to Khalid bin Barghash demanding that he stand down or the Royal Navy would open fire at 09:00 the following morning. This, too, was ignored.

 

That evening, instead of the usual sounds of drums and the bustle of people in the street, an eerie silence hung over Zanzibar.

 

The War Begins

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The ruined palace in Zanzibar, from Pump Park Vintage Photography / Alamy, via Forces

 

The Anglo-Zanzibar War began at exactly 09:02 when the British opened fire. The three gunboats all opened fire simultaneously, aiming for the Sultan’s palace. High explosive shells rained down on the sultan’s palace, which was constructed mostly out of wood, causing major destruction and severe casualties. One report claims that Khalid bin Barghash fled the palace immediately, while other reports claimed that he stayed in the palace for longer.

 

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An illustration of the British cruiser HMS St. George firing upon Zanzibar by Donald Fetherstone, from Victorian Colonial Warfare, 1992, via Atlas Obscura

 

Meanwhile, off the coast, a small naval battle was happening. At 9:05, the sultan’s yacht, HHS Glasgow, opened fire on HMS St. George. Given the fact that the Glasgow was in the immediate presence of five British warships, this was an extremely reckless decision. The St. George returned fire, sinking the Zanzibari vessel in short order. As the ship sank, its crew hoisted the British Flag as a sign of surrender, and they were all rescued. Two small steam launches were also sent against HMS Thrush, which responded by sinking them. With the entirety of Zanzibar’s navy underwater, the British could draw the war to a close.

 

On land, a skirmish occurred between forces under British control and those still loyal to the proclaimed sultan. The British moved to occupy the grounds around the palace and were shot at but with little effect.

 

The sultan’s flag flying above the place was cut down, and at 9:40, the shelling stopped.

 

The Aftermath of the Anglo-Zanzibar War

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British Marines posing next to a captured artillery piece, via All That’s Interesting

 

During the shelling of the sultan’s palace, approximately 500 people died. Amid the destruction, there were fires and looting, but these were brought under control. There was a major concern that the fire would spread to the magazine housed on the island, but thankfully, disaster was avoided as the flames petered out.

 

In the afternoon of August 27, a new sultan who was much more amenable to British demands, Hamoud bin Muhammed, was installed.

 

Khalid bin Barghash sought refuge in the German consulate. The Anglo-German extradition treaty forbade the Germans from surrendering political prisoners, and thus, Khalid bin Barghash was safe. However, he needed to reach German East Africa without setting foot on Zanzibar’s soil. To do this, a German boat, at high tide, managed to sail right up to the consulate’s garden gate, and Khalid bin Bargash was transferred to the African mainland without incident.

 

He would not go unpunished, though. In 1916, during the First World War, he was captured during Britain’s East Africa Campaign and sent into exile in the Seychelles and St. Helena before being allowed to return to East Africa, where he died in 1927.

 

The British command was highly decorated after the incident, and despite the fact that an actual war had occurred, the episode was a favorable exposition of Britain’s power, which was useful from a geopolitical standpoint.

 

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A panoramic image from 1902 of Zanzibar. The top of the masts of the HHS Glasgow protrude from the water of the shallow harbor, via dic.academic.ru

 

The Anglo-Zanzibar War is not just an example of an extremely short war but an example of the effectiveness of overwhelming power against a petty dictator and an insane decision to go to war with the most powerful empire on the planet.

 

Today, the war is regarded as more of an interesting oddity rather than a serious conflict. It did, after all, only last 38 minutes.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.