Wars could drag on for years. History is full of them. But no wars ended in a flash like the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896. It took just 38 minutes, becoming the shortest ever.
It all began like this. Britain and Germany signed Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty in 1890. Both the imperial powers drew up spheres of their influence in East Africa. Based on it, Zanzibar came under British influence, Germany gained Tanzania.
Declaring Zanzibar its territory, British Empire put in power Hamad bin Thuwaini, a ‘puppet Sultan’. Hamad ruled the peaceful province for 3 years. He died suddenly on 25 August, 1896; causes of death were unknown. His cousin Khalid bin Barghash believed to have poisoned him. Within hours after his death, Khalid assumed to be the Sultan. That too without British approval.
The British were unhappy, especially chief diplomat in the area, Basil Cave. He ordered Khalid to step down. Khalid ignored British diktat and began to gather forces around the Palace. His forces were surprisingly well armed. Much of their guns and cannons were British gifts to former Sultan. By the end of 25th August, Khalid had almost 3,000 men, several artillery guns and a modestly armed Royal Yacht in the nearby harbour. The British already had two warships HMS Philomel and the HMS Rush anchored in the harbour. Cave requested more backup. Another British ship, HMS Sparrow also entered the harbour on 25 th August. Despite armed to the teeth, Cave had no authority to declare war. He sent a telegram to the Foreign Office that evening stating: “Are we authorised in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?”
Waiting for reply, meanwhile he went on issuing ultimatums to Khalid. He didn’t budge. Two more British warships, HMS Racoon and HMS St George entered harbour the next day. One of them carried Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, commander of British fleet in the area.
A telegraph authorized Cave to take suitable measures. Also, it warned him against taking unsuccessful actions. On 26 th August, Khalid received the final ultimatum. It wanted him to leave Palace by 9 am the next day. At 8am the next morning, Khalid in reply to Cave stated that he wouldn’t haul down his flag and believed that Cave wouldn’t open fire.
At 9 am, the British ships bombarded the palace. By 09:02 the majority of Khalid’s artillery had been destroyed, and the palaces wooden structure collapsed with 3,000 defenders inside. Two minutes into the bombardment, Khalid escaped through a back exit of the palace. By 09:40 the shelling ceased, the Sultan’s flag was pulled down. The war officially ended after only 38 minutes.
The shortest war left over 500 of Khalid’s fighters killed or wounded. The UK then placed the pro-British Sultan Hamud on the throne of Zanzibar, and he ruled for the next six years.
Khalid sought refuge in the local German Consulate. Despite British’s efforts for his extradition, German navy smuggled him out of the country, to modern day Tanzania. When British forces invaded East African in 1916, Khalid was finally captured and exiled to Saint Helena. After ‘serving time’, he returned to East Africa where he died in 1927.