The shortest war in history lasted less than an hour

How do you define war? Should both sides have a fair chance of winning? Is a coup d’état within a protectorate justified as war? What struggle ends even if the person who reigns in the midst of the desolation and complete destruction of his kingdom survives? And how short do you think the shortest war in history was? A few minutes, maybe about an hour, a day if you don’t mind the mundane details. How long did the Anglo-Zanzibar war last like this? Was it fair to call it war?

Soldiers in the palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar, circa 1880-1920.

St. Thomas Aquinas answered all these questions in his definition of war. According to him, a war must be accompanied by the reason for its beginning as well as the ways in which it is fought. While the justification for the Anglo-Zanzibar feud was swimming in muddy waters, in fact, the sum of its elements made the conflict justified as war.

Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini of Zanzibar died on 25 August 1896. His nephew Khalid bin Bargash seized power almost immediately by force. But the impending war was not between the kin. Zanzibar – a small island off the East African coast that is now part of Tanzania – was an independent country where the British established a protectorate. While the sultan was clearly under his paws, his doubts made him an army of 1,000 men loyal only to the throne. Upon his demise, the familiar Hamud Muhammad was going to be the chosen sultan, but Khalid bin Bargash stole the show, ruling in this military force to his advantage.

A thriving clove industry gave the Anglo a keen interest in the affairs of the state. Naturally, when the royal nephew made it clear that he would not be controlled, they became furious. In addition, they were aware of Khalid’s apparent resistance to the abolition of slavery – a cause his brother had given long ago.

Diplomacy was his first option. At 8 a.m. Chief Diplomat Basil Cave issued a formal warning to Khalid asking him to surrender. Going directly against British orders would mean inviting bombardment of the Sultanate in retaliation. Khalid did not leave the palace – at least not for a while.

That evening, Cave wired the Foreign Office by asking, “Are we authorized to ask the men of war to set fire to the castle in the event that all attempts at a peaceful solution prove in vain?” With a yes in response to a vehement rebellion, British troops flooded their ships to reach the coastal city. Another warning was issued to Khalid on 26 August, but he did not respond until the next morning, saying, “We have no intention of bringing down the flag and we do not believe you will fire at us.”

Anglo-Zanzibar War

Map showing the disposition of naval forces and the exchange of fire at the outbreak of the Anglo-Zanzibar War, 27 August 1896. image credit: PaulVIF/Wikimedia

The Zanzibari armies were ready with their artillery—most of which was a gift from the defenders. Khalid’s rebellious remarks eventually led to a declaration of war. Heavy bombardment began, unmatched in size or force by Zanzibar’s dodge forces. Their modest numbers were not matched by Britain’s heavily populated battleships named HMS Philomel and HMS Rush. Backup ships also joined the conflict. War shells filled the beach and within 30 to 45 minutes the royal yacht sank on the water bed, taking down more than 500 soldiers and civilians. Only one British officer was harmed during this period. The only belfry in the area was shot down, which is why the report was never able to define the exact duration for which the attempt lasted. But it couldn’t have been north of an hour.

Khalid, however, escaped the loss and fled to the nearby German consulate to seek refuge. From there he was exiled from the country. The Germans assured the British that they would not bother with Khalid, and Hamud bin Mohammed was reinstated as the Sultanate’s elected leader. According to Hugh Strachan, a military historian at Oxford University, “One person cannot go to war. It is a group activity.” The survivor of the war had no advantage then. The battle was over within days.

Anglo-Zanzibar War

The castle and other buildings destroyed after the attack in the Anglo-Zanzibar War.

Anglo-Zanzibar War

The sultanate continued to exist under strict compliance rules until the 1960s when it was annexed to Tanzania. Khalid lived for years until he died in British Mombasa in 1927. The next war to come closest to breaking up Anglo-Zanzibar occurred in 1967. It was a six-day war that lasted for almost a week. However, none can be described as swiftly as “they came, they saw, they conquered.”




, atlas obscura

, National Geographic

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