THE ANGLO-ZANZIBAR WAR: HISTORY’S SHORTEST CONFLICT
By Chris Hall
Wars have varied in duration throughout history. The Chechen-Russian Conflict has been ongoing since the 18th Century. The Hundred Years’ War lasted 116 years. In comparison, the deadliest war in history, World War II, seems incredibly short, having only lasted just over 6 years. Some wars have even been comically short, such as the four-day Football War between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. However, this seems far longer when compared to the 1896 War between Britain and the Sultanate of Zanzibar, a conflict with two wildly different power levels. This imbalance led to the war only taking 38 minutes to complete, with a British landslide victory.
Zanzibar has changed hands numerous times throughout history, having been under Portuguese, Omani and German control. In the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890, Germany gave control of a region in East Africa to Britain in exchange for the Heligoland Archipelago in the North Sea. Britain had long had some level of influence along the Indian Ocean coast, but this Treaty formally established Zanzibar as a British protectorate, meaning it had internal autonomy with its own Sultan as a leader.
After the death of the Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini in 1896, the British chose to support Hamoud bin Mohammed as his replacement. However, before the British were able to act, the former Sultan’s cousin believed himself to be the rightful successor and took control of the Sultan’s Palace. Many suspected him of being the Sultan’s assassin, but regardless of this claim’s accuracy, the British weren’t happy. The British had specifically chosen a successor who would be more open to British influence, and now their authority was being undermined. An ultimatum was then given to Khalid bin Barghash, demanding that he leave the palace and make way for the ‘rightful’ successor. While the threat of British military action loomed, the self-proclaimed Sultan refused to give in to their demands, prompting the beginning of the Anglo-Zanzibar War.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that an empire as large as Britain’s wouldn’t take long to defeat a small Sultanate in Africa. Already in possession of Canada, Australia, India and multiple regions in Africa, Britain was used to international military intervention. Sending in three cruisers and two gunboats, including the HMS St. George and HMS Philomel, the British prepared over 1,000 soldiers for the conflict. While the British were still awaiting the response to their ultimatum, the Zanzibari prepared their weaponry, including a 17th Century cannon. The primitive coastal defences seemed like playthings in comparison to the naval might of the Empire. At 9 a.m. of that day, the boats were ordered to fire on the Central Palace.
The technological superiority of the British fleet proved destructive, causing heavy casualties for the 3,000 people inside the palace at the start of the conflict. Some reports suggest that the Zanzibari leaders, including Khalid, fled the palace immediately and sought refuge in the German Consulate. The largest ship in the Zanzibari navy was an armed yacht named the HHS Glasgow, which tried to shoot at British ships in vain. This vessel was not meant for battle, and so it sank fairly quickly, raising the British flag in surrender. The other two boats in the Zanzibari navy were just open-topped motorboats, and when the crews fired on the HMS Thrush, the counter-fire sank them both. This would not be a shock upset for the Zanzibari, who surrendered after just 38 minutes. The palace was destroyed and on fire, and 500 people were killed and wounded. The British suffered just one injury, a man who soon made a full recovery. They were able to install Hamoud as head of the puppet government as they increased their control over the archipelago.
This war is a true testament to the disparity between the military strength of areas in Africa and their colonial rulers. It would be just under 70 years until the Protectorate ended, to be replaced briefly by a communist state and finally as part of the Republic of Tanzania in April 1964, merging with territory controlled by Germany at the time of the Anglo-Zanzibar War known as Tanganyika.