Anglo-Zanzibar War: Causes and Outcome of One of History’s Shortest Wars

The Anglo-Zanzibar War, fought between the United Kingdom and the Sultanate of Zanzibar on 27th August 1896, holds the record for being the shortest war in history. It lasted between 38 and 45 minutes.

What was the Anglo-Zanzibar War? Image: Palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar after the Anglo-Zanzibar War

Summary

The war had its roots in the conflicting dynamics of the late 19th-century ‘Scramble for Africa,’ where European powers sought to establish their control over African territories. Zanzibar was one such region, particularly valuable for its position as a center for the spice and slave trades.

The British sought to exert their influence in Zanzibar and had a treaty with the Sultanate that allowed them a significant role in determining the succession of the Sultan. When Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini, who was sympathetic to British interests, died on 25th August 1896, his cousin Khalid bin Bargash seized the opportunity to proclaim himself the Sultan without British approval.

The British issued an ultimatum to Khalid to step down and leave the palace. When he refused, the Royal Navy, commanded by Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, was authorized to engage. On the morning of 27th August 1896, the bombardment of the palace began and lasted between 38 and 45 minutes. Khalid’s defenses proved to be ineffectual against the superior firepower of the British naval forces.

The brief conflict resulted in the death of around 500 of Khalid’s defenders, while only one British sailor was injured. Khalid bin Bargash managed to escape but was later captured in German East Africa (now part of Tanzania) and was exiled to Seychelles and later to Saint Helena.

The British installed Hamoud bin Mohammed as the Sultan, who ruled as a British puppet, and British influence in Zanzibar was solidified, continuing until the islands gained independence in 1963.

The Anglo-Zanzibar War exemplified the extent of European imperial power in Africa during this period and the rapid and decisive action taken by the British to protect their interests in the region.

Most importantly, the war serves as a representation not only of an extraordinarily brief conflict but also illustrates the efficacy of formidable power confronting a ruler of a tiny island. It exemplifies the irrationality of deciding to engage in warfare against British Empire, which at the time was the preeminent empire. It showcases the inevitable outcome when disproportionate forces collide, with the overwhelming might of the British Empire swiftly neutralizing the rebellious stance of the Sultanate of Zanzibar.

Strength of both sides

The ultimatum concluded at 09:00 local time on August 27. By this moment, the British had amassed two cruisers, three gunboats, 150 marines and sailors, and 900 Zanzibaris in the harbor vicinity. The Royal Navy units were under the leadership of Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, and Brigadier-General Lloyd Mathews, who was also Zanzibar’s First Minister, commanded the pro-Anglo Zanzibaris.

British naval officer Sir Lloyd Mathews commanded the pro-Anglo Zanzibaris during the Anglo-Zanzibar War

Approximately 2,800 Zanzibaris, consisting of civilians, the sultan’s palace guard, and several hundred servants and slaves, fortified the palace. The defenders possessed several artillery units and machine guns, strategically positioned in front of the palace and aimed at the British ships.

His Highness’ Ship Glasgow was the Sultan of Zanzibar’s royal yacht, modeled after the British frigate HMS Glasgow. Costing £32,735, it included luxury features but was largely unused, anchoring in Zanzibar Town. On August 25, 1896, it was deployed in the Anglo-Zanzibar War but was quickly sunk by British warships. The wreck remained in the harbor until 1912 when it was scrapped. Image: HHS Glasgow

Who were the Commanders and leaders during the Anglo-Zanzibar War?

During the Anglo-Zanzibar War, leadership on both sides played a pivotal role, albeit the conflict was exceedingly brief. Here are the commanders and leaders involved:

British Forces:

British naval officer Harry Rawson commanded the British forces in the Anglo-Zanzibar War on 27 August 1896, a conflict lasting 38 minutes, recognized as the shortest war in history. For his role, he was honored as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath and received the first-class Order of the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar. Image: Portrait of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, Sydney, c. 1902, by Freeman Brothers Studio, from gelatin silver glass negative, State Library of New South Wales

  1. Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson: He was in charge of all British forces during the conflict.
  2. Basil Cave: The British consul to Zanzibar, who played a crucial role in the diplomatic endeavors leading up to the conflict.
  3. Lieutenant Arthur Edward Harington Raikes: He took charge of the British forces in Zanzibar and managed the troops on land during the conflict.

Sir Basil Shillito Cave was the British Consul to Zanzibar from 1 June 1895 – 9 July 1903

Zanzibari Forces:

Khalid bin Barghash’s defiance against British instructions and the subsequent war led to his flight and refuge in the German consulate. Eventually, he was captured during World War I and sent into exile, spending time in various locations before being allowed to return to East Africa, where he died in 1927. Image: Khalid bin Barghash, the sixth sultan of Zanzibar

  1. Sultan Khalid bin Barghash: He had proclaimed himself the Sultan of Zanzibar without British approval, leading to the conflict.
  2. Captain Saleh of the Glasgow: He was in charge of the Sultan’s navy, consisting of the royal yacht HHS Glasgow.

Timeline of the Anglo-Zanzibar War

The conflict, due to its short duration, saw limited active engagement from the commanders, with the British forces swiftly overpowering the rebel Sultan’s forces. Image: The bombing of Stone Town during the Anglo-Zanzibar War

The Anglo-Zanzibar War occurred over a very short time frame, but several events led to this brief conflict. Here’s a succinct timeline detailing the lead-up and the war itself:

August 25, 1896:

  • Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini dies: The event that set the stage for the war, his sudden death raises suspicions, and his nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, is suspected of being involved.
  • Khalid bin Barghash ascends to the throne without British approval, contravening an agreement that required British endorsement for any new sultan.

The Sultan of Zanzibar died on August 25, 1896. Under British protectorate rules, potential successors needed British approval, a step skipped by Khalid bin Barghash. Despite warnings, he barricaded himself in the palace, prompting the British to declare war on Zanzibar. The conflict, known as the Anglo-Zanzibar War, concluded in less than 50 minutes later, marking it as the shortest war in history. Image: Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini: The fifth Sultan of Zanzibar (reign: 5 March 1893 to 25 August 1896)

August 26, 1896:

  • British Naval reinforcements arrive, and Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson takes charge of all the British forces.
  • British consul Basil Cave receives authorization from London to use force if necessary.
  • An ultimatum is issued to Khalid bin Barghash by the British forces to stand down, which is ignored.

August 27, 1896:

  • 09:00 – The Anglo-Zanzibar War commences: After the ignored ultimatum, the British naval forces, along with local allies, open fire on the palace.
  • 09:38 – The War Ends: The sultan’s forces are overpowered, marking the end of the shortest war in recorded history, with Khalid bin Barghash fleeing.

Post-War:

  • Khalid bin Barghash seeks refuge in the German consulate but is later captured during World War I and exiled.
  • Hamoud bin Mohammed becomes the new Sultan of Zanzibar, owing much to British support.

1964:

  • Zanzibar merges with Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, later renamed Tanzania.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Anglo-Zanzibar War

The Anglo-Zanzibar War was exceptionally short, lasting between 38 and 45 minutes on August 27, 1896. Image: British war-ships during the Anglo-Zanzibar War in 1896

The Anglo-Zanzibar War, lasting just 38 to 45 minutes on August 27, 1896, epitomizes imperial conflicts between the United Kingdom and Zanzibar amid Africa’s colonial scramble.

Below are some of the most asked questions about the Anglo-Zanzibar War in 1896:

Why did the Anglo-Zanzibar War happen?

The war occurred due to the succession dispute following the death of Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini of Zanzibar. The British, having significant interests and influence in the region, opposed the succession of Khalid bin Bargash who declared himself Sultan without British approval.

How long did the Anglo-Zanzibar War last?

The war is noted for being the shortest recorded war in history, lasting between 38 and 45 minutes on August 27, 1896.

Anyanwu: The Igbo Sun Deity

What happened during the war?

The conflict is said to have begun just a few minutes past 9: 00 AM. It began with the British firing their gunboats at the Sultan Barghash’s palace. In the ensuing minutes, a barrage of fire rained down on the Sultan, who could not marshal any response apart from a few tamed shots from his yacht, HHS Glasgow, at Britain’s HMS St. George. The British immediately returned fire, sinking the Sultan’s yacht. Sensing an impending doom as his entire navy had been sunk or destroyed, The Sultan had no other option to flee the palace.

HMS St George and HMS Philomel at Zanzibar Town during the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896

It must also be noted that some ground troops were also involved in the war. A skirmish unfolded on land between forces under British command and those maintaining allegiance to the self-proclaimed sultan. The British, advancing to seize the area surrounding the palace, were met with gunfire, which yielded minimal impact.

By 9:41, British had successfully taken down the Sultan’s flag from the palace. And with this came the end of the war.

What were the casualties in the Anglo-Zanzibar War?

The conflict resulted in approximately 500 casualties on the side of Khalid’s defenders, and only one British sailor was injured.

Within the ensuing chaos, fires blazed and looting ensued, but they were eventually subdued.

The prevalent fear was the potential spread of fire to the magazine situated on the island; however, a catastrophe was averted as the fires gradually extinguished.

Who won the Anglo-Zanzibar War?

The British won the war, subsequently installing a Sultan, Hamoud bin Mohammed, who was sympathetic to their interests.

What were the repercussions of the war for Zanzibar?

The war solidified British influence in Zanzibar, and the region remained under British control until gaining independence in 1963.

Was the war part of a larger conflict or imperial strategy?

While the war itself was a brief and localized conflict, it was part of broader imperial strategies and rivalries, notably the ‘Scramble for Africa’, where European powers were seeking to expand their territories and influence in Africa.

Where did Khalid bin Bargash go after the war?

Khalid bin Barghash found sanctuary in the German consulate due to the Anglo-German extradition treaty protecting political refugees. To reach German East Africa without touching Zanzibar soil, he was ferried directly from the consulate’s garden gate to the mainland by a German boat. However, he was later apprehended during World War I in 1916 during Britain’s East Africa Campaign and exiled to Seychelles and St. Helena before his return to East Africa, where he died in 1927.

How were the relations between Zanzibar and the United Kingdom after the war?

Zanzibar became a British protectorate after the war, with the British having significant influence over its internal and external affairs until Zanzibar’s independence in 1963.

What was the international reaction to the war?

The international reaction was generally limited, given the brevity and localized nature of the conflict. However, it did underscore the dynamics of imperial power play in Africa at the time.

Was there any resistance to British rule in Zanzibar following the war?

There was resentment and tensions under the British protectorate, but major resistance or conflicts did not materialize immediately following the war. However, the quest for independence and national identity continued to grow, leading eventually to Zanzibar’s independence in 1963.

Why is the Anglo-Zanzibar War significant?

Despite its brevity, the Anglo-Zanzibar War is significant as it exemplifies the extent and execution of European imperial power in Africa during the late 19th century. The swiftness of British action and the resultant consolidation of power are representative of broader imperial dynamics of the era.

The Anglo-Zanzibar War ended swiftly with a decisive British victory. After a brief bombardment that lasted between 38 and 45 minutes, the forces of Khalid bin Bargash were overwhelmed, and the palace was destroyed. Khalid fled and sought refuge but was later captured. The British installed Hamoud bin Mohammed as the new Sultan of Zanzibar, consolidating their influence in the region. Image: Hamoud bin Mohammed of Zanzibar (reign: 1896 – 1902)

What was the relationship between Zanzibar and the British and other colonial powers like before the war?

In 1698, Zanzibar, initially claimed by the Portuguese in 1499, came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman. Sultan Majid bin Said declared independence from Oman in 1858, which was recognized by the British Empire, with whom Zanzibar maintained friendly relations. In exchange for British protection, Zanzibar, under Sultan Barghash bin Said, received a British ultimatum in 1873 to abandon the slave trade, to which it complied.

Despite those agreements, colonial tensions arose as Britain and Germany vied for control, acquiring trade rights to Kenya and Tanganyika, respectively. The outlawing of the slave trade angered many, and German authorities further incited conflict with the Sultanate of Zanzibar by refusing to show respect to the locals and the island’s leaders. This and many other issues sparked confrontations between the local population and German troops in Tanganyika, highlighting the broader issues of colonial power disputes in the region.

Ali bin Said of Zanzibar was the fourth Sultan of Zanzibar. He reigned from 1890 to 1893

A particularly violent incident involved German troops massacring 150 people in Bagamoyo. Grasping the situation’s gravity, Sultan Khalifah bin Said of Zanzibar (reign: 1888 – 1890) deployed troops to the mainland, successfully restoring order. The British and Germans imposed a naval blockade to curtail the slave trade, halting ships transporting enslaved individuals. This collaborative enforcement aimed to decisively end the transoceanic movement of enslaved people.

Following the death of Sultan Khalifa in 1890, his brother Ali Bin Said (reign: 1890 – 1893) ascended to the throne. The new sultan declared his dominion a British protectorate. Hamad bin Thuwaini (reign: 1893 – 1896), the fifth sultan of Zanzibar, followed in the footsteps of his predecessor and uncle Ali bin Said.

The status remained largely intact until the sudden and mysterious death of Thuwaini on August 25, 1896. There were even rumors that the sultan had been assassinated by his nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, who unofficially assumed the Sultanate of Zanzibar. This action contravened an agreement requiring British approval for any throne candidate, as the British had a preference for a candidate more amenable to their control. The unauthorized ascension sparked tensions, highlighting the intricate politics involving local rulers and colonial powers during that period.

Why did Sultan Khalid bin Barghash stand up to the British?

Ignoring British warnings, Khalid bin Barghash escalated tensions by mobilizing palace guards and positioning his limited artillery against British ships in the harbor. He also seized control of Zanzibar’s entire navy, consisting of just one sloop, the HHS Glasgow. His aggressive actions were a blatant display of defiance and marked a significant deterioration in relations, pushing the situation closer to an impending and unavoidable conflict, amidst the prevailing geopolitical tensions in the region.

The Palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar

How did the British respond to Sultan Khalid bin Barghash’s coronation?

In response to Khalid bin Barghash’s actions, the British, led by Lieutenant Arthur Edward Harington Raikes, mobilized hundreds of Zanzibari troops, reinforced by marines from military vessels in the harbor, including the cruiser HMS Philomel and gunboats HMS Thrush and HMS Sparrow. Despite British entreaties for Barghash to deescalate, he proceeded with his accession after his uncle’s burial, with cannons sounding the announcement, signaling his disregard for British warnings. This defiance underscored the failure of diplomatic efforts and marked the culmination of tensions between Barghash and British authorities in Zanzibar.

As a result of Barghash’s defiance, British consul Sir Basil Cave sought approval for force, with British naval presence subsequently intensified by the arrival of HMS Racoon and HMS St. George, carrying Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson to command British forces.

After receiving London’s authorization, unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with Barghash culminated in an ultimatum: to stand down or face Royal Navy fire at 09:00. Barghash’s silence persisted, enveloping Zanzibar in an unusual, anticipatory quiet instead of its customary nocturnal vibrancy, marking the prelude to impending conflict.

In 1896, HMS Thrush, accompanied by Sparrow, participated in the Anglo-Zanzibar War, which lasted 40 minutes. Additionally, she was actively involved in the Second Boer War from October 1899 to June 1902, under the command of Lieutenant Warren Hastings D’Oyly. Image: HMS Thrush

Why was the war very short?

The Anglo-Zanzibar War was notably short due to the overwhelming military superiority of the British forces compared to the Sultanate of Zanzibar’s defenders. The British had modern naval vessels and experienced troops, enabling them to swiftly and effectively bombard the palace, incapacitating the Sultanate’s resistance in a matter of minutes. The defenders were ill-prepared and significantly outmatched in terms of firepower and strategic positioning, resulting in a resounding victory for the British.

Sultan Khalid bin Bargash fled and sought refuge in German East Africa but was later captured and exiled to Seychelles and subsequently to Saint Helena. Image: British marines during the Anglo-Zanzibar War

Where is Zanzibar located?

Currently, Zanzibar is a part of Tanzania, a union formed in 1964 between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, post Tanganyika’s 1961 independence. Initially named the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, it subsequently became Tanzania. The union provided geographical coherence and offered Zanzibar protection. Historically, Zanzibar was not always categorized as an African entity.

Zanzibar is located in the Indian Ocean, approximately 25–50 kilometers (15–30 miles) off the eastern coast of the African continent. It is part of the United Republic of Tanzania (formerly the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar) and consists of several islands, with Unguja being the main island, often referred to as Zanzibar, and Pemba being the other major island. The capital of Zanzibar, Zanzibar City, is situated on the southwestern coast of Unguja island.

The capital of Zanzibar is Zanzibar City, located on the island of Unguja. Its historic centre, Stone Town, is a World Heritage Site. Image: Panaroma of Stone Town in Zanzibar

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