Writing about the war’s first anniversary in Ukraine made me wonder: What was the shortest war ever fought? A little research revealed that it was the Anglo-Zanzibar War, a conflict in 1896 that lasted between 38 and 45 minutes long, depending on who you ask. That makes the active fighting phase of the first Gulf War seem like an eternity.

The war was fought on August 27th, 1896, from 09:00 East Africa Time (EAT) to 09:37 (EAT). The belligerents were the British Empire and the Zanzibar Sultanate. Spoiler alert: The British won. Handily.

The Royal Navy totally destroyed Sultan’s Harem. Image from Wikimedia Commons

A Little Background

It all started with the sudden death of Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini on August 25th. Following the ruler’s death, Hamad’s 29-year-old nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, stepped in and declared himself the new Sultan. Kind of like when Al Haig stepped in and said, “I’m in control here,” after President Reagan had been shot in 1981. Kind of. The problem was that this violated a treaty when Great Britain and Zanzibar stipulated that the British consul-general in Zanzibar had to approve any new sultan. There was also the troubling fact that some believed Khalid to be his uncle’s assassin.

British consul and diplomatic agent to Zanzibar, Basil Cave, had warned Khalid to think carefully of the ramifications of his actions. However, Khalid ignored Cave’s warning and began amassing soldiers in Palace Square. By the end of the day, almost 3,000 men had gathered with rifles and muskets. A majority of them were civilians. The entirety of the Zanzibari Navy, consisting of one wooden sloop, the HHS Glasgow, sat in the harbor surrounded by five Royal Navy ships.

The self-proclaimed Sultan ordered all of his artillery (several Maxim machine guns, a Gatling gun, a 17th-century bronze cannon, and two 12-pounder field guns) to be aimed at British Naval Forces in the harbor. Cave continued to try to de-escalate the situation, but Khalid refused to back down. Finally, unable to launch military action against the nation on his own, Cave sent a telegraph to London. It read:

“Are we authorized in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?”

A reply came mid-morning on the next day.

“You are authorized to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty’s Government. Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully.”

The harbor was cleared of all non-military vessels, and British women and children were whisked off to places of safety. Cave issued an ultimatum to Khalid. He was told to haul down his flag and leave the palace by 9:00 on the morning of the 27th, or the British would open fire.

Khalid replied at 8:30 AM, “We have no intention of hauling down our flag, and we do not believe you would open fire on us.” That was his final message to the British government.

At 8:55 AM, Rear Admiral Harry Rawson, aboard HMS St. George, hoisted the signal to prepare for action. At precisely 9:00 AM, the Royal Navy opened fire. The palace and other key buildings were the main targets. The shelling lasted until 9:37 AM. The reason that some historians extend the duration of the war to 45 minutes is the fact that some ground shots were fired after the naval bombardment.

The brief conflict killed roughly 500 Zanzibaris, both citizens and soldiers. Only one British sailor was injured. However, all the Zanzibari defenses had been destroyed, and the Brits quickly claimed victory.

The islands comprise the archipelago of Zanzibar and their relative positions to the coast of Africa. Image from Wikimedia Commons

At this point, you might ask yourself, “Was this really a war?” Yes, it was.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster define war as “A state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state.” This military action was most certainly an armed conflict between two nations, so it meets the definition of war.

A map showing the locations of naval forces at 0900, the onset of the conflict. Fun fact: The “House of Wonders” you see adjacent to the Harem was called that because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity and the first in East Africa to have an elevator. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Future of Zanzibar

When the shelling ended, the Brits quickly installed a new sultan who was, shall we say, more in tune with their interests. Zanzibar became a British protectorate and maintained that status until its independence in 1963. British protectorates in those days were states that were protected by the armed forces of the British Empire and represented by British diplomats in international affairs. Local indigenous rulers maintained control over the state’s internal affairs while keeping British interests in mind. The Emirate of Afghanistan was a British protectorate, as was the Sultanate of Egypt.

The Anglo-Zanzibar War is often cited as an example of the imperialistic tendencies of European powers in Africa during the late 19th century. However, the conflict’s brevity highlights the British Empire’s military superiority during this period.