Historical Oddities: The Shortest War

European expansion in Africa during the 19th century was often done through declaring the native societies protectorates of the European country while keeping the local rulers in charge as figureheads. The French, British, Germans, and Portuguese all used this tactic in some areas of Africa. There were definite advantages to it in regards to exploiting the colony. First, the governmental and administrative infrastructure could stay in place and there would be no complications with appointing a full civil service. Also, the native populations tended to be calmer when the rulers that they considered as legitimate were kept in power. Of course, when the rulers changed say through a monarch’s death, the new monarch might not be so amenable to the colonial governors. In that case, the Europeans frequently sent gunboats or soldiers to enforce their claim over the territory and bring the rebellious monarch back in line. This was the case in Zanzibar in 1896 when the pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini died. Why is this significant? Because the resulting Anglo-Zanzibar War of August 27, 1896 lasted a record 45 minutes, making it the shortest known war in recorded history.

After Hamad bin Thuwaini’s death on August 25, 1896, there were two claimants to the succession. Khalid bin Barghash, the previous sultan’s cousin, occupied the palace and proclaimed himself sultan. However, the rule of succession at the time in Zanzibar required the sultan to be approved by the British consul. Britain’s preferred candidate was Hamud bin Muhammed. On August 26, the British sent an ultimatum to Sultan Khalid demanding that he vacate his position and leave the palace. Khalid refused, and the two sides gathered their forces. Khalid assembled 2,800 men including the palace guard in the square in front of the palace. He also commandeered several artillery pieces including a few Maxim machine guns and aimed them at the British ships anchored in the harbor. Khalid also took possession of the royal yacht HHS Glasgow, giving his forces a very small naval presence in the harbor.

Meanwhile, the British consul, Basil Cave, attempted to get Khalid to stand down or negotiate, while at the same time assembling the British forces and seeking approval from the Foreign Office in London to take military action. The British had five ships in the harbor, three cruisers and two destroyers, and 1,000 men in Zanzibar under their command. On the morning of the 27th of August, consul Cave tried one last time to get Khalid to surrender but he again refused. At 9:00 in the morning, the war began. The British ships began bombarding the palace. The explosive shells ripped through the wooden palace walls and started fires around the building. At 9:05, the yacht fired upon one of the British ships using obsolete small cannons and a Gatling gun. The return fire by the British promptly sank the yacht in the harbor. At 9:40 the shelling stopped. The palace still was on fire, but Khalid had escaped and fled and his flag was cut down from the palace square. By the afternoon, Hamud bin Muhammed was proclaimed the rightful Sultan of Zanzibar.

The total casualties were relatively heavy for the deposed Khalid. Of his 2,800 men, 500 were killed or wounded. Meanwhile, there was one casualty for the British side: a petty officer who had been wounded but later recovered. Khalid sought refuge in the German consulate in Zanzibar, and eventually made his way to German East Africa. He remained in exile there until World War I when British soldiers invading the German colony captured him. Hamud bin Muhammed ruled Zanzibar until his death in 1902, and ended slavery in the sultanate.

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