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The Anglo-Zanzibar War: The Shortest War in Recorded History

It was over in less than an hour.

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  • British marines with a captured cannon outside the sultan's palace.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Anglo-Zanzibar War is remembered as the shortest war in history, taking place entirely over a period of about 40 minutes on the morning of August 27, 1896. Even though it was over quickly, it had wide-ranging consequences, resulting in hundreds of deaths and changing the face of the Zanzibari government. 

The island of Zanzibar, which is now part of Tanzania, was by 1896 a small nation of its own. It had won its independence from Oman in 1858, and was thereafter ruled by a sultanate from a large palace complex in its capital city of Zanzibar Town. Despite its recognition of Zanzibar’s independence, the United Kingdom disapproved of the continued legality of slavery there. In 1873, they used threat of force to convince Zanzibar’s second sultan, Barghash bin Said al-Busaidi, to abolish the slave trade—although slave ownership remained commonplace. 

At the same time, European governments and commercial enterprises alike were scrambling for control of Africa. Rich in not only useful natural resources like rubber, tin, and tea, but also luxury goods like ivory and diamonds, Africa’s coastal cities could serve as profitable trading posts for the squabbling European merchants. The United Kingdom already controlled large swathes of Africa by the late 1800s, but Germany, too, was interested in claiming Zanzibar for its own. 

In 1890, this dispute ended with the signing of the Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty and the ascension of Sultan Ali bin Said. Per the treaty, Britain granted Germany some small territories and the right to conquer the coastal city of Dar es Salaam undisturbed by the British. In turn, Britain received the protectorate of a region called Wituland along Kenya’s coast, and Germany’s promise not to interfere in British actions in Zanzibar. The newly appointed sultan was soon made to accept the British protectorate over Zanzibar. 

When Sultan Ali bin Said died in 1893, the British considered Barghash’s son Khalid for the sultanate. Amid concerns over Khalid’s quick temper, they chose the level-headed, pro-British Hamad bin Thuwaini instead. Khalid, believing he had been denied his birthright, attempted to storm the palace and take the sultanate for his own. He was immediately arrested, but his ambition would not end there. 

Sultan Hamad ceded further control to the British over his three-year reign, allowing them direct control over the Zanzibari military and police force. This proved an unpopular decision, so Hamad worried for his safety. The British government made provisions for Zanzibari sultans to establish a bodyguard force of 1,000 men. Although they protected Hamad, his bodyguards provoked further violence, often getting into scrapes with the British-appointed police. 

The sultan died without warning on August 25, 1896. Although it can’t be proven, many suspect he was poisoned by the envious Khalid. The British nominated Hamoud bin Mohammed, the son of an Omani sultan, for the Zanzibari sultan’s throne. Khalid, likely still bitter from his failed 1893 coup, made his move. He strode boldly into the palace complex, and announced that he was to declare himself sultan. 

Immediately, Khalid received warnings from two British officials. Basil Cave, the British Consul to Zanzibar, and Lloyd Mathews, Brigadier-General and First Minister of Zanzibar, advised him to take back his proclamation. Undeterred, Khalid began mustering his forces. He banded together some 2,800 supporters, drawing from the palace guard and sympathetic civilians. Khalid holed himself up in the palace complex, armed with a handful of machine guns, field guns, and one antique cannon, most of which had been diplomatic gifts. He also commandeered the Zanzibari navy, which consisted of a single sloop: the HHS Glasgow

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  • Destroyed palace in Stone Town after the Anglo-Zanzibar War.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Cave and Mathews responded in kind. Their fighting force was smaller: just 900 locals on the ground, 150 British sailors and marines in the harbor, and a handful of smaller contingents scattered around the town, charged with guarding the British consulate and harbor. Their greatest strength would prove to be their access to more ships than Khalid, including two cruisers and three armed-to-the-teeth gunboats. 

Cave sent a second warning to Khalid, who responded by swearing to declare himself sultan by 3:00 PM. When Khalid made good on that promise, Cave telegraphed London, requesting permission to use force if diplomatic negotiations failed. He received it on August 26, 1896, and sent Sultan Khalid an ultimatum: his flags must come down and he and his men vacate the palace by 9:00 AM the following morning, or the British ships would open fire. 

At 8:00 AM on the morning of August 27, Khalid sent a messenger to Cave asking to resume negotiations. Cave refused unless Khalid agreed to honor his terms, which Khalid would not. 

The moment the clock struck nine, Brigadier-General Mathews gave the order to fire. The ships in harbor waited an additional two minutes to see if Khalid would emerge but, when he didn’t, rained hell upon the palace complex. With the very first shot from the gunboat HMS Thrush, one of Khalid’s sparse cannons was destroyed. Khalid fled the palace early in the fighting—some sources say at the first shot. Soon the palace, which was occupied by some 3,000 servants, bodyguards, and slaves, began to burn. 

Some of Khalid’s men struck at the British land forces, but to little avail. The HHS Glasgow engaged the HMS St George in the harbor, but return fire from the St George almost instantly wrecked the Glasgow. Since the water off the harbor was so shallow, the Glasgow only sank halfway. Her crew was able to survive by climbing the masts and awaiting rescue. 

Khalid arrived safely at the German consulate, which agreed to shelter him. As Germany’s sole sphere of influence in the British protectorate of Zanzibar, Cave and Mathews had no jurisdiction there. However, Mathews posted men just outside the consulate’s grounds so he could arrest Khalid the moment he stepped on Zanzibari soil.

Khalid never did, however. The Imperial German Navy dispatched the SMS Seeadler to Zanzibar Town, instructing her crew to pull in close to the consulate grounds during high tide. Khalid managed to step directly from German territory onto a German ship, so he never again set foot in Zanzibar and couldn’t be arrested for his coup. He fled to Dar es Salaam, by then the capital of German East Africa, where he lived until he was captured by British troops during World War I and exiled from the continent. Khalid spent the rest of his life petitioning the British government to allow his return. In 1927, Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State to the Colonies, granted his wish and allowed him to live out his remaining days in Mombasa. 

When Khalid fled, his supporters in Zanzibar were left to foot the bill, to the tune of 300,000 rupees in reparations. 500 died from the heavy shelling, most of them in the ensuing palace fire. The destruction of the palace’s fortifications led to opportunistic looting; a further 20 were killed by the British troops sent to deter this. 

Shortly after the war, Britain officially crowned Hamoud bin Muhammed the sultan of Zanzibar. Zanzibar would remain a protectorate, although Britain had more control over its government than ever. It was less expensive that way; allowing Zanzibar to remain nominally independent meant that Britain wouldn’t have to fund it as they would a colony. Shortly after his coronation, Hamoud finally abolished slavery in Zanzibar. 

While many in Zanzibar were punished, Basil Cave and Lloyd Mathews benefited greatly from their actions in the 40 minutes’ war. Cave was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath, and soon promoted to consul-general. Sultan Hamoud appointed Mathews to Zanzibar’s Grand Order of Hamondieh, and went on to become the nation’s First Minister and Treasurer. 

There would never be another rebellion against British rule in Zanzibar—they quietly ended the protectorate in 1963. The following year, Zanzibar’s majority Black African population rose up to overthrow the majority Arab ruling class. The revolutionaries deposed the final sultan, Jamshid bin Abdullah, establishing the People's Republic of Zanzibar. Within the year, Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to form the nation of Tanzania, of which it remains part today. 

The Anglo-Zanzibar War was caused by one man’s unchecked ambition butting up against colonialist entitlement. It lasted just 40 short minutes, but directly caused an end to slavery in Zanzibar. It also resulted in Britain tightening its grip on the small island nation—only now it was hidden behind a puppet regime. The Anglo-Zanzibar War was brief and bloody, but its effects would be felt for generations to come.