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The World’s Shortest War

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For a war that definitively ended the sovereignty of Zanzibar, it is a bit woeful that the Anglo-Zanzibar War barely registers a blip on the annals of wars fought in the late 19th century, save for the record that it claims to this day, as the shortest (recorded) war in history.

How brief, you wonder?

Suppose you were in an anachronistic dimension in which you started watching an episode of the Game of Thrones at the same time as the orders to engage were issued from the British warships which had set their sights on the Sultan’s palace in Zanzibar town.

The war would have ended while you still had at least five minutes of TV time.

This real life Game of Thrones was after all a heavily lopsided contest in which the British sought to remind the sultanate about who really called the shots in the Sultan’s Palace.

The immediate cause of the war was British displeasure at the ascension of Khalid bin Bargash at the expense of Hamud bin Muhammed, who the British believed to be more amenable to their interests, just as the previous sultan, Hamad bin Thuwaini, had been.

Hamoud_bin_mhamed Kalid_bin_Barghash

Hamud bin Muhammed, left, and Khalid bin Bargash, right.

But Hamad bin Thuwaini had died suddenly on 25th August 1896. It is speculated that Khalid bin Bargash, his nephew, had a hand in his death.

Half an hour following the burial of bin Thuwaini the same day, bin Bargash was proclaimed sultan. This was an affront to the British, who had been influencing affairs in Zanzibar long before it was created as an independent principality from Oman in 1856(which the British had encouraged, only to end up with Sayyid Majid Said Busaid who expanded the slave trade, against British wishes).

Since 1886, succession in the palace had to be vetted by the British Consul in Zanzibar and bin Bargash hadn’t done that, leading to a fierce war of words between the self-declared sultan and the British consul-general at the time, Mr. Basil Cave; only three years earlier, he (bin Bargash) had relinquished his claim to the throne after Sultan Ali bin Said died, leaving the way clear for Hamad bin Thuwaini to succeed. And all it took for him to relinquish his claim was a warning from the then British consul general about the folly of such a move.

But this time around, he wouldn’t relent; he responded to the first request for him to give up the throne by gathering an army in the Beit al-Hukm, as the sultan’s seafront palace was called. He had an estimated 2,800 men with him, mostly armed with muskets. What would pass as artillery on his side included 2 cannons, a few Maxims, and a Gatling. His ‘navy’ had a grand total of three vessels, a royal yacht that had 7 cannons and a Gatling, and two other boats with sailors who would fire from their muskets.

This was the HHS Glasgow, Khalid's modestly armed yacht

This was the HHS Glasgow, Khalid’s modestly armed yacht

From the onset, the British had the advantage; since Zanzibar had been declared a protectorate in 1890, they had a greater sway in the running of Zanzibar, its most obvious manifestation being in the presence of the First Minister, who headed the Zanzibari government. He was appointed by the British government, couldn’t be removed by the sultan, and had the last say in who ran government departments.

The first First Minister, appointed in 1891, was Mr. Lloyd Mathews, a navy general who since 1877 had been tasked with transforming the sultan’s army. He was opposed to bin Bargash’s succession, as was the then British commander of the sultan’s army, Brig-Gen. Arthur Raikes; they managed to get 900 Zanzibari soldiers to side with them, while the sultan remained with 700. The other ‘soldiers’ fighting for the sultan were actually civilians.

Two British warships and a cruiser lined up on the harbor next to the palace, ostensibly to remind bin Bargash of his folly. But they couldn’t resort to force just yet, they had to get approval from London.

This was still on the 25th of August.

The next day, the consul-general got the approval he was seeking while in the harbor, two more British cruisers had steamed in; a stab at a diplomatic resolution was attempted once again, but when this wasn’t forthcoming, an ultimatum was issued that bin Bargash vacate the palace the next day, by 9am, or else he would be fired upon.

The formations before shelling began. Wikimedia image

The formations before shelling began. Wikimedia image

Messengers were sent between the two sides on the morning of 27th August, but bin Bargash wouldn’t relent, or as he put it, “we have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us.”

Bin Bargash had underestimated the extent to which the British followed through with their gunboat diplomacy.

38 Minutes

At 9 o’clock, the command to fire was issued, and by 9:02 the British warships had struck the palace, and three minutes later a brief marine skirmish occurred, resulting in the prompt sinking of the sultan’s three vessels.

The sultan’s artillery was the first to be dismantled, but in short order the shelling set the palace ablaze, taking more than 500 victims. The British reported only one injury.

The castle complex was heavily damaged by the brief shelling.

The castle complex was heavily damaged by the brief shelling.

The shelling, and hence the war, ended at 9:40am; bin Bargash had long fled the palace, securing refuge with the German consul in Zanzibar. A warship took him to Dar Es Salaam on the mainland, which is where the British found him 20 years later as they ransacked Dar during WWI. And then they deported him.

Yes, the war was over in 38 minutes. It would have probably lasted longer if he had resorted to guerilla warfare, instead of barricading himself in a largely wooden castle highly vulnerable to attacks from the sea. All that tinder.

Hamud bin Muhammed was promptly installed as sultan, ruling until 1902.

Under British insistence, he abolished all forms of slavery, putting an end to the East African slave trade that had persisted for some 12 centuries, with Zanzibar serving as its bastion in its last years.