The Shortest War In History Lasted Just For 38 Minutes

by hridika ahire
The Shortest War In History Lasted Just For 38 Minutes

February 5, 2021

You ever heard of a war that lasted merely for 38 minutes? The Anglo- Zanzibar war of 1896 is recorded as the shortest war in the world's history. Here's the story of how the shortest war ever took place.

As we all know, the British expanded and captured much of the world when they began their colonial enterprise to fulfil the “white man’s burden”. And as part of their enterprise, they abolished the slave trade in 1833 in Great Britain, and aspired to abolish it worldwide (when they introduced the world to slavery in the first place-hypocrisy much?) using their massive military and naval force.

Britain would target small islands and practice “gunship diplomacy” to enforce the ban on slavery in these remote nations. Even though these countries banned the slave trade on the face, they continued it on a small scale to avoid suspicion (textbook definition of cartel formation).

An illustration showing gunship diplomacy.

Zanzibar- Key to the 38 Minute War

Up until the early 19th century, Zanzibar was a part of Oman. However, in the year 1858, it became independent. During their initial independent years, Zanzibarians engaged in the slave trade in Africa. Britain was one of the first countries to recognise the Sultan of Zanzibar. They wanted to create a good relationship with the land. Germany too wanted to be a part of it.

A Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty was signed on 1st July 1890 between the three interested parties mentioned above. It effectively laid out Britain and Germany’s influence over the region. The treaty had a clause that Germany was not allowed to influence the island of Zanzibar, which had an asserted British dominance over it. The British were in control of Zanzibar, whilst the mainland Tanzania was under the control of Germany.

Zanzibar islands are islands present in region of Tanzania.

Britain Doing What It Knew Best

Britain declared Zanzibar a protectorate of the British Empire. The then Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini became a follower of the British. He soon acted as their puppet. Britain wanted a Sultan just like Hamad bin Thuwaini – an easily manipulatable stooge who could get their work done without any defiance.

However, after three years of successful reign over Zanzibar, the Sultan died under suspicious circumstances on 25th August 1896 in his palace,  inadvertently setting the stage for a bloody war. The throne was left to be split between Hamad bin Thuwaini’s two legitimate heirs at the time.

First was Khalid bin Barghash, the nephew- he wished to see his country independent from any foreign rule. The second heir was Hamoud bin Mohammed- he had no problem in being under British influence and following into his predecessor’s footsteps.

Hamad Bin Thuwaini of Zanzibar with British.

Initiation of War Settings

After the death of Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini, the nephew, Khalid acted quickly. He took the palace’s power as a move stating that he was to become the new Sultan of Zanzibar. Khalid’s move led the people to believe that he killed sultan Hamad to become the new Sultan and rid Zanzibar of the British rule.

This angered the British significantly. They had plans for Hamoud to become the next Sultan as he was more pro-British and more gullible. They thought he would be the best replacement for Sultan Hamad. Khalid’s takeover threatened the Royal Palace and put the British influence at stake. They knew Khalid was determined to get rid of them and become the sole ruler of Zanzibar.

To protect himself from the British wrath, he assembled a small army of around 3,000 locals. He also called a naval fleet of a few fishing boats at the port and his yacht, the HHS Glasgow.

The HHS Glassgow navy fleet of Khalid.

Starts the Time Count

Britain did not take this action well and responded to it by surrounding Sultan’s Palace on 25th August, 1896. The vice-counsel of British East Africa, Basil Cave, led the fleet. Cave requested backup from a British ship, HMS Sparrow which entered the harbour in the same evening.

Khalid declared himself the Sultan at 15:00 on the same day against the will of the British throne. Cave gave him the chance to surrender, but Khalid declined. The very next day, Cave was authorised by the British Parliament via a telegraph which read:

You are authorised to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty's Government. Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish.

- Telegram by the British Parliament For Basil Cave

Two more British warships were sent to the harbour namely, HMS Racoon and HMS St. George.

The Ultimatum - Deciding Moment

The Sultan received an ultimatum by Cave on the 26Th to take his flag down and surrender. He was told to leave the palace by 9:00 the next morning, or they will open fire.

The day went by, and Cave received no response from Khalid. The next morning at 8:30, Khalid sent a messenger with the message, “We have no intention of hauling down our flag, and we do not believe you would open fire on us.”

The aftermath of Anglo-Zanzibar war.

Khalid was proven wrong at exactly 9:02 when Cave ordered the British ships to open fire on the palace, decimating it. Khalid fought back or tried to send out his yacht with a 7-pounder cannon and a Gatling gun.

The yacht could not take the cannon’s weight, and soon after it was fired, the vessel sank. The war ended at around 9:40 when the palace caught fire. This made the war of a mere 38 minutes, making it the shortest war in history.


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