Labeling the Anglo-Zanzibar War as a “war” might be a tad generous. Clocking in at less than 60 minutes, this 1896 face-off between the British Royal Navy and a defiant sultan holds the title for the shortest recorded war.
Zanzibar today stands as a semi-independent island state near Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. However, during the 19th century, the Sultanate of Zanzibar was a formidable trading powerhouse in East Africa.
Vessels sailed from Zanzibar harbors laden with African ivory and spices and made their return with fabric and firearms. But the most profitable commodity in Zanzibar? Enslaved Africans.
The Historian magazine notes that as late as the 1880s, 25,000 to 30,000 slaves were traded and transported from Zanzibar. The Sultan of Zanzibar, governing from his regal residence, amassed wealth from this trade, even as the British aimed to intercept and stop slave vessels in the Indian Ocean.
By 1890, a treaty was inked between Britain and Germany, delineating distinct “influence areas” in Africa for both colonial powers, positioning Zanzibar as a British “protectorate” — not fully a colony, but dominated by British administrative and military forces.
Having marked Zanzibar as their protectorate (without consulting the inhabitants), the British aimed to position a sultan to cease the Zanzibar slave trade and broadly serve British interests. Their pick was Hamad bin Thuwaini, a British-leaning figure who ascended as the fifth Sultan of Zanzibar in 1893.
Thuwaini’s reign lasted till Aug. 25, 1896, when he met an untimely demise. Whispers suggested his nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, poisoned him and swiftly declared himself the succeeding Sultan of Zanzibar. The British weren’t fans of Barghash.
Viewing him as too autonomous and resistant, they resorted to “gunboat diplomacy,” a tactic common in the 19th century. Anchoring three naval ships towards the palace, they courteously gave the sultan until 9 a.m. the next morning to vacate.
Defiantly, Barghash deployed artillery and stationed thousands (mainly commoners and slaves) for defense. At 8 a.m. on August 26, he told Basil Cave, the British envoy, “We don’t plan to lower our flag, nor do we anticipate you’ll attack.”
Cave responded with restrained civility, stating that while they’d rather avoid aggression, “if you neglect our directive, we’ll have no choice.” As 9 a.m. chimed, the British upheld their word.
The naval ships initiated their assault, battering the palace. In a mere 38 (or 42 or 45, as some say) minutes, the sultan’s stronghold crumbled. Barghash had already evaded the scene just two minutes into the attack, finding sanctuary at the German consulate.
He was subsequently secreted away to present-day Tanzania by the German navy. The brief conflict yielded a staggering casualty imbalance.
Approximately 500 Zanzibari combatants perished, while only one British sailor was injured. With Barghash ousted, a British-backed sultan ascended, who promptly declared the Zanzibar slave trade illegal in 1897. Clearly, he noted his predecessor’s fate.