The Shortest War In History: The Anglo-Zanzibar War

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The Sultan’s harem after shelling.

The Anglo-Zanzibar War that took place on the 27th of August 1896 is the world’s shortest war, lasting about 40 minutes.

On August 25th 1896 Hamad bin Thuwaini, the Sultan of Zanzibar suddenly died and his cousin Seyyid Khalid bin Barghash bin Said Al-Busaidi (who for the remainder of this article will be referred to as Khalid bin Barghash) seized the royal palace and crowned himself Sultan. Zanzibar had been a British protectorate since 1890 and according to an 1886 treaty a claimant to the throne could not become Sultan without British approval first. Britain believed that Barghash would not support their interests in Zanzibar and when he refused to abdicate, the British declared war two days later.

Khalid bin Bargash: Determined to Rule

Seyyid Khalid bin Barghash (“Seyyid” being a title carried by each member of the royal family and was prefixed to their name) was born in 1874 to the second Sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Barghash bin Said. He was first considered as a prospective Sultan in 1881 when his father requested in his will that Barghash take the throne after his death. When his father died, the British instead crowned Barghashs uncle, Seyyid Khalifa bin Said in 1888, who several years later became physically and mentally sick, ordering executions of prisoners for the first time in 25 years.

When Seyyid Khalifa died suddenly in 1890 he was succeeded by his brother Seyyid Ali bin Said who in June 1890 made Zanzibar a British protectorate and abolished slave trading, though slave ownership was still permitted in most cases. When Seyyid Ali became deathly ill, and Khalid bin Barghashs name was once again presented to the British as a prospective sultan, British Consul-General Gerald Portal described him as an arrogant character who had the “sternness of his father but none of his intelligence”. Portal saw Barghash as being aggressive to European civilization and would become a fierce and aggressive leader if he ascended to the throne.

According to British agent, Arthur Henry Hardinge, the British preferred selecting older and more experienced siblings and cousins for sultan, even if younger claimants were the direct descendants of past sultans. Barghash had also expressed his frustration to Hardinge at the British and Germans carving up and seizing territories that once belonged to the Sultan.

Following Seyyid Alis death in March 1893, Barghash was determined to become the new sultan and seized the palace before the British arrived. General Mathews, the former sultans First Minister and army commander, occupied the square of the palace, keeping in check the supporters of the rival claimants. British agent and the Consul-General at the time, Ronnell Rodd and a senior British marine officer, Captain R.N Campbell, soon advanced on the palace with 160 blue jackets and marines, convincing Barghash to leave the palace. Soon afterwards the British made Bargashs cousin, Hamad bin Thuwaini, the new sultan.

Preceding the War

Though it can not be proven for certain, many people have suspected that Barghash killed Thuwaini with poison. British representatives General Mathews and a British diplomat, Basil Cave arrived at the palace 10 minutes following Thuwainis death and a few minutes later were confronted by Barghash, who rejected their advice – to leave the palace and go home. Instead he took command of 1,200 of the late sultans soldiers and seized control of the palace.

At 3:00pm on the 25th of August 1896, Barghash crowned himself sultan – an action that Cave had previously warned him would be regarded by the British Government as an act of rebellion. The red flag over the palace, which had been lowered after Thuwainis death and during his burial, was raised again to signify the crowning of a new sultan.

Foreign consuls were sent memorandums informing them that Barghash had ascended to the throne and 21 shots were fired from the late sultans boat in the harbor to commemorate and salute the new sultan. Barghash also attempted to send a message to the Queen through the American Consul, R. Dorsey Mohun, indicating his interest to maintain the friendship with the British. However the message was intercepted by Cave who made sure that the Queen never received it.

When the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, heard of Barghash seizing power, he gave British agents in Zanzibar permission to use what ever means were necessary to remove him from the palace. So at 7am on the 27th of August, Admiral Rawson of the British flagship, The St. George, sent Barghash an ultimatum: leave the palace by 9am or Britain would declare war.

Barghash ignored the ultimatum, possibly due to soothsayers predicting that when the British open fire, only water would squirt out from their guns. However he still tried to avoid conflict, attempting to negotiate peace through foreign consuls as well as sending an envoy at 8am to Basil Cave. The British told the envoy that unless Barghash met their demands, they would declare war.

Khaleds army consisted of over 2,500 loyal followers, the royal yacht His Highness Ship (HHS) Glasgow, seven hotchkiss guns and krupp guns as well as 2 maxims and a large number of old muzzle loading cannons.

The British had approximately 330 seamen and 120 marines onshore, reinforced by 500 or more native Askari troops from the Zanzibar military who were led by General Raikes. They also had five maxims and one 7-pounder cannon. At the brunt of the British forces were 5 warships, The Philomel, The Racoon, The Thrush, The Sparrow and The St. George which were docked in Zanzibars harbor and as 9am approached the ships artillery were locking their sights on the Royal Palace.

The War

Sure enough, Britain declared war at 9:00 and by 9:02, The Thrush, Sparrow and Racoon, opened fire on the royal palace Beit al-Hukum, ultimately destroying it. Another palace Beit al-Sahel was severely damaged by the shelling and the Beit Al-Ajaib (House of Wonders), a ceremonial palace (which is now the National Zanzibar Museum of History and Culture) received minor damage, though a lighthouse in front of the palace was totally destroyed.

In Zanzibars harbor, The HSS Glasgow, a gift from Queen Victoria to Thuwaini, engaged the warships. Armed with seven small artillery pieces and a Gatling gun, the Glasgow was no match for the British navy and was soon sunk by the St. George after warning shots failed to influence the Glasgow to cease its attack. There is some inconsistency in historical reports on the fate of the crew. Some say that all the crew members were rescued by the St. George and that there were no casualties, while other accounts mention that 8 or 9 crew members died.

At some point during the fighting Barghash fled with some of his senior officers, rushing through the towns by-streets, where he was stopped by British soldiers. Not knowing who he was they simply disarmed him and allowed him to proceed to the German embassy where he received asylum.

The Aftermath

When the shelling ended by 9:40-9:45, Beit Al-Hukum was destroyed and there were approximately 500 casualties amongst the locals, many of them slaves who were crushed and burned by the falling debris in the Biet Al-Hukum, as a result of the attacks from the British warships.

The Gazette for Zanzibar and East Africa described the destruction of the palace as follows: “To describe the interior is impossible. To produce a similar effect take chairs, tables, cabinets, clocks, vases, bookcases, an orchestra, an armory, a manuscript library, a wardrobe, an instrument makers, an electricians and an opticians store; lamp and perfume seller shops; spread the floor with choicest carpets; add all scraps of royal insignia procurable; put dynamite here and there, explode ad lib. and there you have it”.

According to another witness, Reverent J.P Farler, the palace ruins were sacked of all valuables and the palace itself was “an awful sight, with dead bodies lying everywhere and such ruin and destruction”.

The Thrush, which had reportedly been shot over 100 times, had one sailor who was badly wounded in the thigh. Many sources report that the soldier recovered to full health, but some insist that he died shortly after.

A New Sultan and the End of Slavery

Khalid had been popular amongst many Arabs in Zanzibar who recognised him as the rightful heir to the throne and were growing tired of Britains interference in the governing of their country which had existed over the century. Britains insistence on abolishing the slave trade since 1822 was particularly troubling to many locals, who believed slave ownership to be important to their culture and without free labor their national economy would collapse.

However after the shelling, Britain encountered little resistance amongst the locals and selected a new Sultan, Barghashs cousin Hamud bin-Mohamed who became a puppet to the British and was required to reimburse the British military for every shell and bullet that their army fired during the conflict. On April 5 1897, Mohamed signed a treaty to abolish the legal status of slave ownership in Zanzibar.

Barghashs Fate

After the war Germany refused to hand Bergash over to the British and on October 2nd 1896 Bargash was smuggled out of Zanzibar on the German warship Seeadler and into Dar-Es-Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, which was under German rule at the time. He was detained by British forces when they took control of the city in 1916. He was then exiled to St. Helena until 1921 when he was sent to Seychelles. He was soon sent to Mombasa, Kenya where he lived until his death in 1927.

Comparing Duration With Other Wars and Reigns

The second shortest international conflict, after The Anglo-Zanzibar War, was The Soccer War (14–18 July 1969) between El Salvador and Honduras, which as the name suggests was sparked by the results of a soccer game, though hostilities had been rising between the two countries over economic and migration issues prior to the soccer match between their national teams. There were an estimated 2,000 deaths as a result of the conflict.

The Dauphin Louis Antoine, or King Louis XIX also had shorter reign than Barghash, having ruled France for a world record duration of 15-20 minutes in 1830 before abdicating his throne to Henry V.

On the other end of the scale the longest running monarch in history was Sobhuza II of Swaziland whose reign began when he was four months old and lasted over 82 years.

The war with the longest duration is believed to be The 335-Years War, which began in 1651 when the Netherlands declared war on the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago which consists of approximately 200 hundred islands, including Bryher, Tresco, St Martins, St Marys, St Agnes and Gugh. Though they never really engaged in battle since, the Dutch and the Isle were still technically at war for nearly three and a half centuries until they signed a peace treaty in 1986.