When we think of wars, we imagine them to last for a long time, even decades or centuries. In fact, the longest war that lasted for 781 years was the Reconquista, where the Spanish fought to expel Moorish invaders from Spain. But have you heard about the shortest war in history?

Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896

Zanzibar. Sultan’s palace on the seafront. Matson Collection / Wikimedia Commons

The story began in 1890 when Britain and Germany signed the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty to resolve colonial issues arising between the two countries. Zanzibar was under British Administration, while Germany controlled mainland Tanzania. In 1893, Britain then installed Hamad bin Thuwaini as their “puppet” Sultan to look after the Zanzibar region, which was totally okay with him as he was an avid supporter of the British. He ruled the protectorate for over three years until he died unexpectedly in 1896. They say that he was poisoned by his cousin, Khalid bin Barghash, who immediately took over the position as the new Sultan without the British’s signing off on it first.

Big mistake.

The British were not happy

The local British diplomats were not pleased with the sudden turn of events. Basil Cave, their chief diplomat, demanded Barghash abandon his assumed position, to which Barghash responded by gathering almost 3000 supporters around the palace and barricading himself inside. They were armed with guns and even cannons that were given to the former Sultan as diplomatic gifts. Two British warships riding anchor in the harbor served to put some iron in the glove of Ambassador’s Cave’s demands, and he continued giving ultimatums to Barghash to step down or else.

He also requested backup from HMS Sparrow, which was another nearby British ship.

That evening of August 25th, he sent a telegram to the Foreign Office asking, “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?”

He received approval the next day, saying, “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.”

On August 26th, Cave sent out a final ultimatum for Barghash that he had until 9 am the next morning to give up the palace and step down, or he would be removed.    The tense hours rolled by without any response until just one hour before the deadline.

Barghash sent a reply stating, “We have no intention of hauling down our flag, and we do not believe you would open fire on us.”

Time is Up

British marines pose with a captured Zanzibari gun following the capture of the Sultan’s palace in Zanzibar Town. Richard Dorsey Mohun / Wikimedia Commons

At 9 am, the British made a believer out of Barghash as the warships in the harbor began bombarding the palace. By 9:02 am, Barghash’s artillery had been devastated, and the wooden palace caught fire and then collapsed, with the Sultan’s 3000 defenders inside. Barghash fled through the back of the palace, leaving his followers to defend the palace on their own. By 9:40 am, the shelling ceased, leaving 500 casualties on the Sultan’s side— killed or wounded. All in all, it took 38 minutes for the war to remove Barghash from power to start and end, making it the shortest war in history.

Destroyed Palace and other buildings after the attack in the Anglo-Zanzibar War. Richard Dorsey Mohun / Wikimedia Commons

As for the fate of Barghash, he managed to escape and was smuggled out and taken to Tanganyika (now called the United Republic of Tanzania) on October 2nd by the German navy, who could get away with thumbing their noses at the British. Barghash continued to claim that he was the true ruler of the tiny island and agitated for insurrection against British rule. He was finally captured by British forces in East Africa in 1916 and taken to Saint Helena for exile. Later on, he was allowed to return to East Africa, where he died in 1927.