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The shortest war in history.

The conflict between the British Empire and the Zanzibar Sultanate in 1896 is most notable for being the shortest war in recorded history, lasting less than three-quarters of an hour. The engagement was provoked when the pro-British Sultan of Zanzibar, Ali bin Said, died. Immediately subsequent to Ali bin Said’s death his nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, proclaimed himself Sultan and moved into the palace. Khalid had become the symbol of resistance against European interference, so his actions gained the support of a portion of the population.

At 9am on 27 August 1896, following an ultimatum, five ships of the Royal Navy began a bombardment of the Royal Palace and Harem in Zanzibar.

Thirty-eight, or 40, or 43 minutes later, depending on which source you believe, the bombardment stopped when the white flag of surrender was raised over what was left of the palace. Over 500 defenders died, compared to one British marine who was injured. Thus ended what is widely regarded as the ‘shortest war in history.’

The immediate cause of the war was the death of the Sultan of Zanzibar, Hamad bin Thuwaini on the 25 August. His nephew, Khalid bin Bargash, seized power, but he was regarded by the British as far too independent. They preferred Hamud bin Muhammed. To this end around 3000 Zanzibari people, including 700 soldiers, rallied to support Khalid bin Barghash against European influence in Zanzibar. The source of this conflict was mostly due to the colonisation of Kenya and Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania) by Britain and Germany respectively. Zanzibar had controlled this territory until pressure from the European powers had forced the Sultan to give it up. Concerns amongst the Zanzibari were heightened by Germany’s mistreatment of Africans in Tanganyika, and by an increase of British interference in Zanzibar’s trade, culture and politics. Consequently, many Zanzibari were eager to have a Sultan who would resist this encroachment, and Khalid represented that hope.

The British imperial presence also threatened to put an end to the lucrative slave trade in Zanzibar, causing tensions with the wealthy Arab ruling class.[ii] Britain opposed Khalid’s claim and demanded that he cede the throne to his cousin Hamoud bin Muhammed, and gathered British ships and troops on the 26th of August 1896 to enforce the demand. An ultimatum was delivered, giving the Sultan until nine o’clock the following morning to vacate the palace or face a declaration of war. Khalid refused and when the ultimatum expired the British ships opened fire on the palace, destroying the defensive guns and killing or wounding around 500 of the Sultan’s men. In the best tradition of gunboat diplomacy, an ultimatum was issued at 8am, giving Khalid an hour to surrender and leave the palace. When the ultimatum expired the bombardment began, and a force of marines was landed on the shore. As the shells landed, Khalid bin Bargash fled the palace seeking safety in the German consulate, from which he was quickly and in secret shipped out of the country. Order was restored and Britain’s preferred ruler Hamud bin Muhammed was installed as Sultan of Zanzibar where he ruled, with British assistance, until his death in 1902.

To this end, Zanzibar effectively became a British-run colony, maintaining independence in name only. Slavery in Zanzibar was abolished in 1897 and although only a small proportion of enslaved people were freed, the slave trade-dependent economy of Zanzibar was badly damaged. Britain continued to control Zanzibar as a Protectorate until Zanzibar’s independence in 1963.

Reference :

Alf Wilkinson (2014-11-19), “The shortest war in history: The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896″، www.history.org.uk

The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896″, www.sahistory.org.za,

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