History’s Shortest Recorded War: Anglo-Zanzibar War

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The bombing of Stone Town in an 1896 British newspaper

The Anglo-Zanzibar War was an infamous military conflict between the Zanzibar Sultanate and the United Kingdom on 27 August 1896. The battle lasted between 38 and 45 minutes, making it the shortest recorded war in history.

Background

Zanzibar was an island nation in the Indian Ocean, off the Tanganyika coast; today, it forms a portion of Tanzania. The central island, Zanzibar (or Unguja Island), had been under the formal control of the Sultans of Oman since 1698 CE when they ousted the Portuguese settlers who had claimed it in 1499 CE. Sultan Majid bin Said announced the island independent of Oman in 1858 CE, which the United Kingdom recognized and split the sultanate from that of Oman. Barghash bin Said, the second sultan and Khalid’s father, had been driven by British ultimatum and a threat of blockade to end the slave trade in June 1873 CE, though researchers later discovered that directions from London would have prevented aggressive action being taken immediately if that request had been rejected.

The following sultans built their capital and seat of administration at Zanzibar Town, where they established a palace complex on the seafront.

25 August 1896 – Death of Sultan

Sultan Hamad, a friend of Britain, died abruptly on 25 August 1896 CE. His nephew Khalid bin Bargash, who was speculated by some of his assassinations, moved into the palace at Zanzibar Town without any formal British approval in contravention of the treaty recognized by Ali.

The British government favored an alternative candidate, Hamud bin Muhammed, who was more amiably inclined towards them. Khalid was warned by the diplomatic agent and consul to Zanzibar, Basil Cave, and General Mathews to think thoroughly about his actions. This course of action was previously successful when Khalid had tried to claim the kingdom after the death of Ali, and the British consul-general, Rennell Rodd, had convinced him of the dangers of such an act.

Khalid snubbed Cave’s warning, and his army began gathering in the Palace Square, the battle lines were drawn.

The War

At exactly 09:00 am, General Lloyd Mathews directed the British ships to start the bombardment. At 09:02 am, Her Majesty’s Ships Racoon, Thrush, and Sparrow opened fire at the palace simultaneously; Thrush’s first shot immediately removed an Arab 12-pounder cannon. Three thousand servants, defenders, and slaves were present in the essentially wooden palace, and even with barricades of bales, crates, and rubber, there were many fatalities from the high explosive shells.

The British crews and ships had fired around 4,100 machine gun rounds, 500 shells, and 1,000 rifle rounds during the engagement, and the war ended in 38 to 45 minutes.

Approximately 500 Zanzibari women and men were wounded or killed during the bombardment, most of the dead a result of the fire that engulfed the palace. After taking over the palace, the British ordered 150 British Sikh troops to patrol the streets in order to bring law and order and avoid looting after the fall of the kingdom.

Aftermath

Hamud bin Muhammed, an Arab favorable to the British, was ultimately stalled as a sultan with much-reduced powers. The kingdom essentially became a British puppet state.

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