The shortest war in history lasted 38 minutes and occurred between the United Kingdom and Zanzibar in 1896

There shortest war in history was fought in 1896 between United Kingdom and the sultanate of Zanzibar. It was one of the numerous conflicts provoked by the colonialism of European countries, which in the second half of the nineteenth century occupied almost all of Africa and vast portions of Asia. The United Kingdom, which was one of the main colonizing powers, exercised indirect control over the Zanzibar archipelago (now part of Tanzania), which was formally an independent sultanate. In 1896, when an unwelcome sultan ascended the throne, British ships bombarded the royal palace and forced the sultan to flee. The clash, which lasted 38 minutes, is considered the shortest war in history. The English appointed another sultan, effectively putting end to Zanzibar’s independence. The archipelago only became independent again in 1963.

The colonization of Africa

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Africa was colonized by European powers, who occupied almost the entire territory. Suffice it to say that in 1870 the states of the Old Continent occupied 10% of the African territory; in 1914 the percentage was approximately 90%. Only Liberia and Ethiopia retained their independence (Ethiopia lost it for a few years at the hands of Italian fascism). Among the European powers, United Kingdom and France they were the two countries that acquired the largest territories, but other states – Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain – also participated in the division of the African continent.

The Sultanate of Zanzibar

Among the territories colonized by Europeans was the Zanzibar archipelago, composed of two main islands, Unguja and Pemba, and numerous smaller islands. In the modern age the archipelago had been part of a state on the Arabian peninsula, the Sultanate of Oman, but in 1856 it had become independent. In the capital Stone Townlocated on the island of Unguja, a palace had been built to house the sultan.

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At the end of the nineteenth century the archipelago came into the sights of the European powers, in particular those of the United Kingdom and Germany. In 1890 the two countries reached an agreement, known as Treaty of Heligoland-Zanzibar, according to which Germany, in exchange for some territories, undertook not to interfere in relations between the United Kingdom and the sultanate. While retaining formal independence, Zanzibar thus became a English protectorateto the point that the United Kingdom claimed to approve the appointment of every new sultan.

Zanzibar and East Africa (credits Mike Christie)

The casus belli and the ultimatum

On 25 August 1896 Sultan Hamad bin Thuwayn, who had come to power three years earlier, died and one of his nephews, Khalid bin Bargash, appointed himself sultan without previously seeking British approval. The United Kingdom preferred another member of the royal family, Ḥamud bin Muḥammed and the British consul, Basil Cave, ordered Khalid several times to relinquish power. The sultan decided to ignore the warning and prepared for war by raising a militia. The British gathered four naval ships near the coast of Unguja and on 26 August Admiral Rawson, commander of the fleet, sent a ultimatum to Khalid, requiring him to leave the throne by 9.00 am the following day.

The shortest war in history

The sultan, thinking that the English would not use force, rejected the ultimatum. The United Kingdom, determined to impose its will, decided to attack. The outcome of the war was obvious, given that among the forces in the field there was one very clear disproportion: the English had modern warships and efficient forces; Zanzibar had at its disposal only a militia of about 3,000 men, a couple of old cannons and a yacht, the Glasgow, equipped with some artillery.

At 9.02am on 27 August the English ships began the shelling of the palace of the sultan, which almost immediately caught fire. As soon as the first cannon shots fell, Khalid and his followers fled and sought asylum in the German consulate. At sea, the Glasgow opened fire on the British ships, but was hit by British guns and sank. At 9:40 the shelling ended and with it the war, which had lasted only 38 minutes, also ended (other sources report that the attack ended at 9:45). During the clash, around 500 Zanzibarians were killed or wounded; among the English, however, there were no victims and only one sailor was injured.

The bombing on a newspaper of the time

The consequences of the “war”

After the war, the United Kingdom appointed Hamud sultan, who turned out to be a puppet ready to serve British interests. In fact, Zanzibar’s independence was over. Khalid’s followers were even forced to pay the cost of the bullets fired during the shelling: the English wanted to demonstrate that they were the absolute masters of the territory. However, they failed to capture Khalid, because the German authorities refused to hand him over and deported him to Tanganyika.

Zanzibar would get it back independence only in 1963as part of the decolonization process that affected all of Africa, and the following year it would join the territory of Tanganyika to form the new State of Tanzania.