The Anglo-Zanzibar War was a colonial conflict fought by the British during the late 19th century as part of the Scramble for Africa, the divvying-up of the continent carried out by European powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While countless wars were fought in the name of imperialism, the Anglo-Zanzibar War stands out thanks to one detail: it is the shortest war in recorded history. Estimates vary as to its actual length, but what is clear is that the war lasted less than an hour (no longer than 45 minutes) before the surrender of Zanzibar, starting and ending on the 27th August, 1896.
The crisis stemmed from the illegal succession of Sultan Khalid bin Barghash to the throne of the Zanzibar Sultanate following the death in suspicious circumstances of his cousin. Kalid declared himself Sultan without first consulting the British, who had been protecting Zanzibar. A treaty had been signed that gave the British the right to approve or veto any Sultanate candidates, and Kalid’s decision to ignore this protocol, combined with his subsequent refusal to abdicate caused a spiral that resulted in a naval task force being assembled to depose him.
The war didn’t last long enough to have any blanket coverage attached to it, so the reportage that we have is all after the fact. There are however, several newspapers that speculated on how long the Sultan could hold power before he was deposed. The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer speculated that, given the naval force he would face, the Sultan had no choice but to surrender to the British military might that had been mobilised to depose him.
Although Kalid’s forces had at least 2 modern German field guns and a number of Maxim and Gatling machine guns, they were also reliant on 17th century cannon and mainly armed civilians to defend the Palace. On the other hand, the British could draw not only on the Marines stationed aboard the Royal Naval warships, but also the 900 or so Zanzibari levies they maintained in the colony to help govern it. The new Sultan may not have been outnumbered, but he was most certainly outgunned. Added to this, he was politically isolated, with the many consulates on the island refusing to recognise him as legitimate in the absence of the same declaration from London.
Despite this, the Sultan refused to stand down his men or surrender to the British, and so when the British ultimatum – abdicate or war is declared – expired at 9am East African Time on 27th August 1896, the order was given to the Royal Navy to commence firing on the Palace. It took around 40 minutes for the Sultan to give in, but not before he had fled to the German consulate and claimed asylum, leaving the palace to be demolished by British shellfire. The Yorkshire Evening Post carried this editorial on the events in Zanzibar.
The steamer that the Post mentions was the HHS Glasgow, the former Sultan’s Royal Yacht, an outdated paddle-steamer armed with little more than swivel-guns that attempted to engage nearly 6 times her number of modern steam warships. She was sunk quickly by HMS Thrush, and wasn’t recovered until 1912. A photograph of Zanzibar harbour in 1902 – 6 years after the end of the war – still has Glasgow’s masts visible sticking out of the water.
With the war over, and an approved Sultan installed as the head of a puppet administration in Zanzibar, the Dover Express carried this report on the state of Zanzibar about a week after the war started and finished.
The shortest war in history is well documented in our newspaper archives. Why not look and see what you can find, and let us know in the comments below?