The World's Shortest War Lasted Just 38 Minutes

By: Dave Roos  | 

HMS "Thrush,"
HMS Thrush, a British 1st-class gunboat, saw action in the brief Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896. The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

It's generous to call the Anglo-Zanzibar War a "war." The entire conflict lasted less than an hour and the victory was ludicrously one-sided, yet this 1896 standoff between the British Royal Navy and a stubborn sultan is commonly cited as the shortest war on record.

Today, Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous island nation off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean, but in the 19th century the Sultanate of Zanzibar was a powerful trading empire in East Africa. From the ports of Zanzibar, ships departed with ivory and spices from the African mainland and returned with textiles and guns. But the most lucrative trade in Zanzibar was enslaved Africans.

An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 enslaved people were sold and shipped out of Zanzibar as late as the 1880s, according to The Historian magazine. And the Sultan of Zanzibar, who ruled from the royal palace, grew rich from the slave trade, even as the British tried to end the practice by raiding suspected slave ships in the Indian Ocean.

In 1890, Britain signed a treaty with Germany that carved out separate "zones of influence" for the two imperial nations in Africa and Zanzibar became a British "protectorate" — not quite a colony, but still under the thumb of the British government and military.

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'Gunboat Diplomacy'

Khalid bin Barghash
Khalid bin Barghash, sixth sultan of Zanzibar, who opposed the British.
Walther Dobbertin/CC-BY-SA 3.0/Wikipedia

After claiming Zanzibar as a protectorate (not that the locals had any say), the British wanted to install a sultan to put an end to the Zanzibar slave trade and generally do Britain's bidding in the region. Their choice was Hamad bin Thuwaini, a pro-British "puppet" who became the fifth Sultan of Zanzibar in 1893.

Thuwaini ruled for three years but died unexpectedly Aug. 25, 1896. Rumor has it that he was poisoned by his nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, who immediately installed himself in the palace as the next Sultan of Zanzibar.

The British didn't like Barghash. He was too independent and not willing to roll over to their demands. So, the British government engaged in a popular 19th-century practice called "gunboat diplomacy." They pointed the canons of three naval warships at the palace and politely asked the new sultan to leave by 9 a.m. the following day.

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Why the War Was Just 38 (or 42) Minutes

Barghash wasn't going anywhere. He rolled out heavy artillery guns and posted thousands of defenders (mostly civilians and slaves) around the palace walls. At 8 a.m. on August 26, he informed Basil Cave, the British consul, "We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us."

Cave, ever polite, replied that the British would prefer not to attack, "but unless you do as you are told, we shall certainly do so."

When the clock struck 9 a.m., the British made good on their promise. The warships opened fire, relentlessly shelling the palace. It took just 38 minutes (or 42 or 45 by some accounts), for the sultan's defenses to be completely destroyed. By that time, Barghash himself was long gone. Two minutes after the start of the bombardment, he fled the palace and sought refuge at the German consulate. (Khalid was later smuggled out by the German navy and taken to what is now Tanzania.)

British forces stand in front of the sultan's palace
British forces stand in front of the sultan's palace after its bombardment during the 1896 Anglo-Zanzibar War.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

For such a short war, there were a large, if lopsided, number of casualties. Roughly 500 Zanzibarian fighters lost their lives in the shelling, yet just one British sailor was wounded.

With Barghash gone, the British installed a new sultan who immediately outlawed the slave trade in Zanzibar in 1897. Apparently, he saw what happened to the last guy.

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