Ancient History

The Shortest War in History: The Anglo-Zanzibar War

At its height, the British Empire was the largest empire in history. The United Kingdom had territories stretching across the globe, including every continent on the planet—even Antarctica. At one point, the United Kingdom included Canada, parts of South America, and many territories in Africa, India, Iraq, and Australia. In 1913, the British Empire contained 23 percent of the world’s population. One of those territories was Zanzibar in Africa. The Anglo-Zanzibar War began and ended on August 27, 1896. It lasted for just 38 minutes, making it the shortest war in recorded history.

History of Zanzibar

Zanzibar is a collection of three islands just off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. It is just south of the southern tip of Kenya and north of Mozambique and Madagascar. Located between the African Great Lakes, Iran, the Somali Peninsula, and the Arabian Peninsula, Zanzibar became a base for traders voyaging through the region.

The first European power to take control of Zanzibar was the Portuguese Empire during the Age of Exploration, a time in history when extensive overseas exploration was happening throughout Europe. The Portuguese Empire held control of Zanzibar for almost 200 years before the Sultanate of Oman, part of the Arabian Peninsula, took over the islands in 1698.

The Arab elite ruled the islands, which were inhabited by a Bantu population. Oman created an economy of cash crops and built plantations to grow spices, leading to the name Spice Islands. Cash crops were one of three major economic contributors to the islands, the other two being slave trade and ivory trade from elephant tusks killed in Tanganyika.

The “Mwenyi Mkuu,” the last of the old kings of Zanzibar

Britain Takes Over Control of Zanzibar

Gradually, the British Empire made inroads on Zanzibar. During the late 19th century, Britain had extended its influence in East Africa and Zanzibar in particular. Sayyid ibn Sultan ruled Muscat, Oman, and Zanzibar from 1806 to 1856 and expanded the country’s regional territory and trading importance. But his successor Barghash was not as successful. Barghash was forced to cede power to Britain and Germany, and later, sultans followed a similar path.

By 1890, Zanzibar came under control by the United Kingdom and became a British protectorate. Protectorate states retain their autonomous control but recognize a greater sovereign state. In exchange, the sovereign state receives something of value, which can vary in each situation.

Zanzibar officially came under British control after the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty between Germany and Britain. The treaty separated out spheres of influence between the imperial powers of East Africa. Zanzibar was ceded to the British, while Germany gained control of mainland Tanzania. Britain went on to find a puppet sultan to put in place, and in 1893, Hamad ibn Thuwaini became the newest Sultan of Zanzibar.

What Started the Anglo-Zanzibar War?

Hamad ruled peacefully for three years. But on August 25, 1896, Sultan Hamad ibn Thuwaini suddenly died. The cause of death was never fully discovered, but the general consensus has been that his cousin Khalid ibn Barghash had Hamad poisoned.

Just a few hours after Hamad’s death, Khalid ibn Barghash had already made himself comfortable in the palace and declared himself ruler. Prince Khalid refused to accept the successor preferred by the British Empire, which angered the local British diplomats.

The British consul to Zanzibar, Basil Cave, reminded Prince Khalid that the appointment of any new ruler was subject to British approval under the terms of their protection treaty. Instead of decorously backing down, Prince Khalid called in 2,800 soldiers to protect him as he bunkered down in the palace.

Cave held a substantial armed presence in the area, including the HMS rush and HMS Philomel, but he knew that he could not open fire without the British government’s approval. So he sent a telegram to the Foreign Office asking, “Are we authorized in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the palace from the men-of-war?”

The next day, the British set out to deploy what is known as gunboat diplomacy, a foreign policy that is carried out by a show of force, or threat to use military power. Britain sent an ultimatum to Khalid, telling him to resign or face the might of the British Navy. As the ultimatum was sent out, two gunboats, three cruisers, 900 Zanzibari soldiers, and 150 marines gathered in the Zanzibar harbor.

As the new ships arrived, Cave received a reply from Britain stating, “You are authorized 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 successfully.”

To the surprise of the British, Khalid had no intention of backing down. Instead, he brought out all the major artillery he could muster, which consisted of several Maxim guns (a canon considered the weapon most associated with British imperial conquest), two 12-pound field guns, a 17-century bronze cannon, and a Gatling gun. Khalid had the guns all trained on the British forces in the harbor and waited.

The 38 Minute War

The apparent stalemate lasted until the morning of August 27. From the palace at 8 am, Prince Khalid sent a message to the British asking for a parley, a meeting between the two sides to discuss an armistice. The British replied that the only way a parley would happen was if the prince agreed to the ultimatum. Prince Khalid replied, saying that he did not believe the British would open fire on the palace.

“We have no intention of hauling down our flag, and we do not believe you would open fire on us.”

After two hours and two minutes had passed, the British opened fire on Khalid’s artillery, completing wiping it out. The palace began to crumble along with the 2,800 soldiers inside. At the same time, the Royal Navy opened fire on the Zanzibari navy. One of the ships was the Glasgow, a royal yacht built for a previous sultan. The ship was sunk, and its crew was rescued. The masts of the ship were visible in the harbor for the next two decades.

After beginning at 8:02 am, the firing stopped at 9:40, and Khalid surrendered. Of those who supported him, 500 had died or were wounded. One member of the British side was wounded, and there were zero casualties.

The Aftermath of the Anglo-Zanzibar War

Prince Khalid fled the country immediately for the German consulate and went into exile. By the afternoon, a new sultan, Hamud ibn Mohammed, had been put in place by the British. Despite repeatedly calling for his extradition, Khalid was smuggled out of Germany on October 2 by the German navy and was taken to Tanzania.

When the British invaded East Africa in 1916, Khalid was captured and taken to Saint Helena to live in exile. After serving a proper amount of time, Khalid was returned to East Africa. He died there in 1927.

When Did Zanzibar Gain Its Independence?

There were no new uprisings in Zanzibar after the Anglo-Zanzibar War. In 1963, Britain relieved Zanzibar of its protectorate status, and Zanzibar became a free state. In 1964, Zanzibar joined with Pemba Island and a few smaller islands and came together with Tanganyika to create the United Republic of Tanzania.

Modern Day Zanzibar

The United Republic of Tanzania is bordered by Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. Its capital is Dodoma, with a population of 410,956. Zanzibar town is the third-largest city in the republic with a population of 501,459.

The country includes incredible wildlife, beginning with the Serengeti National Park. In addition is Ngorogoro Park and its steep mountain walls built from a volcanic crater, which provides natural protection for wildlife. Despite protective measures from the government, rhinos and elephant populations continue to be depleted from poachers looking to trade their ivory tusks.

In 1967, the United Republic of Tanzania joined with Kenya and Uganda to form the East African Community. The three countries shared many services, including a common market, but the union collapsed in 1977. In 1993, the three countries again tried to develop cooperation for mutual benefit and brought about progressive standards and policies.

A new East African Community was formed in January 2001, and the East African Customs Union was formed in January 2005. In 2007, Rwanda and Burundi also became members.

While a member of the East African Community, life in modern-day Zanzibar is vastly different from that on the mainland. Despite being a part of Tanzania, those living in Zanzibar consider themselves Zanzibari. They have their own leaders and governing bodies. In addition to politics, culture, food, and religion are all different on the island than on the mainland. After being ruled by the Sultanate of Oman for many centuries, the vast majority of those on the island are Muslim.

Swahili Time

If you are ever visiting Zanzibar, be aware of Swahili time. People there begin counting time when the sun rises, so what would normally be 7 am is now 1 am, while 7 pm is 1 pm. This way of keeping track of time works because, as close to the equator as Zanzibar is, the sun sets and rises at nearly the same time year-round.

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