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.”