Wars can drag on forever. History tells of the Hundred Years’ War, the Eighty Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War. The 2001-2014 Afghanistan War is considered America’s longest conflict.
Yet sometimes, wars wrap up with surprising swiftness. Take history’s shortest war. How long do you think it lasted? A year? A month? A week?
Not even close.
Get ready to learn what took place during all 38 minutes of the Anglo-Zanzibar War, the briefest conflict ever.
It was fought on a single Thursday morning (from 9:02 to 9:40, to be precise) on Aug. 27, 1896. Here’s how it happened.
Africa was a colonial grab bag in the closing days of the 19th century. Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and even little Belgium were snatching up big chunks of that continent. The Brits especially had grand plans. They dreamed of an unbroken string of colonies on the eastern side of the continent stretching from Egypt down to South Africa.
However, the Germans (always the Germans!) were blocking their way. They wanted to make sure the British dream never came true. So they decided to make things interesting.
The Sultanate of Zanzibar was an island nation in the Indian Ocean near modern Tanzania. The British recognized its sovereignty in 1886, and for 10 years, everyone played well together. Then the Germans started meddling, hoping to turn Zanzibar against the Brits.
Sheikh Hamad bin Thuwaini ruled the country as Sultan for four years. He liked the British. But some members of his inner circle didn’t. And wouldn’t you know it, the Sheik died suddenly at age 39 on Aug. 25. It’s widely believed he was poisoned by his cousin, Sheikh Khalid bin Barghash, who immediately proclaimed himself the new Sultan.
Then the fun started.
The Brits hauled out a 30-year-old treaty that said a sultan could only take power with British approval, and the Brits very much disapproved of the new guy, who was pro-German. (Surprise, surprise.)
All day on the 26th, diplomats talked back and forth. It was rapidly becoming obvious negotiations wouldn’t settle the mounting crisis.
British officials decided to snuff the new royal regime in its cradle and began planning accordingly. The Sultan responded by barricading himself inside his palace and turning it into a fortress.
Say what you will about the British, but they don’t fool around when you make them mad. And the new Sultan had royally ticked them off.
So, four heavily armed British warships steamed into Zanzibar Harbor and pointed their powerful guns at the palace.
By the morning of the 27th, Brits’ patience had run out. They sent the traditional demand that the palace surrender. The Sultan replied, “We have no intention of hauling down our flag, and we do not believe you would open fire on us.” The British quickly answered, “We do not want to open fire, but unless you do as you are told, we shall certainly do so.”
They waited 30 minutes and heard nothing. Rear Adm. Harry Rawson raised the signal flag instructing the warships, “Prepare for action.”
Five minutes later, the order was changed to “commence bombardment.” At exactly 9:02, the firing began. When the guns fell silent at 9:40, the palace and adjoining harem were piles of rubble.
As for the new Sultan, he and his closest advisers took off when the first shells hit, running to the nearby German consulate. They were smuggled to German East Africa and granted asylum. British troops later captured the ex-sultan during World War I and exiled him to St. Helena, the same barren island where the deposed Napoleon Bonaparte had spent his last days.
And so the Anglo-Zanzibar War was over almost as soon as it began. A British sailor was slightly injured; his side’s only casualty.
But if this farce sounds like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, think again. Some 3,000 defenders, servants and slaves were barricaded inside the palace. More than 500 of them, one of six, were killed or seriously wounded.
Thus ended history’s shortest war. It may not be the most bizarre conflict in the annals of warfare, but it sure comes close.
Holy Cow! History is written by novelist, former TV journalist and diehard history buff J. Mark Powell. Have a historic mystery that needs solving? A forgotten moment worth remembering? Please send it to [email protected].